What type of human beings does our economic system produce? Does the organisation of our economy enhance the better angles of our nature or does it compel us to indulge in the darker dimensions of our humanity? Considering the strenuous demands of our jobs and the ever-increasing cost of living, can we call ourselves free?
The Netflix hit series Squid Game seeks to explore these questions through a thrilling story of 456 debt-ridden South Koreans, who play a series of children’s games for a 45.6-billion won prize (about R500-million). But, unlike the participants of Family Feud or Wipeout, the hopeless contestants of Squid Game are competing in a game of survival — losing means a bullet through the skull or a blade piercing one’s heart.
By the fourth episode the show’s central theme is clear: capitalism, through its commodification of life and cementing of inequality, creates a social climate of perpetual anxiety and artificial scarcity, cultivating egotistical people trapped in fierce, violent struggles for survival. Episode seven, titled “VIPs”, confirms what many viewers already suspect: this disturbing social order is ruled by a small but vastly powerful group of (in)visible elites.
Reviews have described Squid Game as dystopian. Certainly the series has similarities to thoroughly dystopian works like Hunger Games and Black Mirror, but it isn’t a seamless fit with the genre. Squid Game is not a speculative forewarning of the terror that awaits us in the intangible future. Instead, it provides a reflection of the barbarity we witness, endure and embrace in the visceral present. Examining this grim reflection, one sees how the horror presented in Squid Game is not exclusive to South Korea, but a salient component of life in our own society.
Why are the stakes so high? The contestants of Squid Game are connected by their debt and the daunting desperation that shrouds their lives. If Seong Gi-hun, our unemployed protagonist, is unable to pay his debts, he could forever lose his already flailing relationship with his daughter or have his kidney removed by a ruthless loan shark. Ali, a migrant worker from Pakistan, who is exploited and not paid by his boss for months, removed from familial support structures, must partake in the games because not playing could mean the starvation of his wife and new-born baby. Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector, cannot afford housing for her little brother, nor can she pay to retrieve her family from across the border.
Most of the players are not just “down on their luck”. Their “misfortunes” are an outcome of an economy that commodifies the basic necessities of life. Healthcare, food security, education, housing and so on are produced and provided, not on the basis of sustainability and need, but on the basis of what accumulates profit.
The cost of well-being is high and inaccessible to the majority of the population (in both South Korea and South Africa). To cope, credit has become a lifeline for millions of people. According to the South African Reserve Bank, citizens spend 75% of their take-home income on servicing debt.
The mounting cost of living, coupled with generally stagnant wages or long-term mass unemployment and a life shackled to unpaid loans creates a precarious present and a bleak, uncertain future. In Squid Game, some characters, like their counterparts in reality, contemplate and attempt suicide. Others, like Ali, try to make moves to flee the country, as do poor migrants around the world, because of their labour rights not being protected by law and businesses treating them as disposable and easily replaceable.
Freedom lives not only through affirmation, but also in the ability to confidently say no. People whose lives are lived under the duress of desperation are not substantially free. Their choices and actions are not a fair reflection of what they truly desire, but of what they feel intensely pressured to do.
South Africa is crowded by millions of people who toil in conditions that are dangerous, exhausting, existentially unsatisfying or that do not pay fair wages for the work. Uber drivers are not truly free to look for other jobs, because their time is not their own to use as they see fit. Zama Zamas (illegal miners) are not free to pursue an education or upskill their labour, because they lack the means to do so. Many sex workers, often judged for their labour, fall into the industry because of a stark lack of alternatives.
The excessive coercion experienced by Squid Game’s central characters is the state of unfreedom endured by most South Africans across the country.
In the first episode we watch hundreds of contestants seized by fear and panic as players who do not freeze in a bloody game of red light, green light, are struck and killed by snipers. Traumatised, the surviving players are given a choice: stay and stand the chance to win R500-million or go home with nothing; meanwhile, the families of the murdered contestant receive R1-million each as consolation.
The majority of players vote to go home, but they soon realise that a return to their lives is a return to constant financial anguish; possible eviction and homelessness; dependant and distressed families; predatory and murderous loan sharks; starvation and the daily humiliation of poverty in a social order that considers wealth to be a signifier of virtue.
After most of the contestants return, in the ensuing eight episodes, they watch helplessly as others die or actively conspire to kill each other. The action can be gruesome, but we must realise that these games of death unfold around us all the time.
Political assassinations have become a prominent feature of KwaZulu-Natal’s politics. Inequality, and a centuries-long history of corruption in the state and private sector, has transformed post-apartheid politics into a mechanism for wealth accumulation, and deprioritised service to citizens. In- and outside the ANC, the appointment of leadership can be a matter of life and death. For the right price, people can be paid to harass, intimidate and kill political rivals or activists to secure power.
The brutality displayed by Jang Deok-su, a gangster trying to settle his gambling debts, is ever present in South Africa’s criminal underworld — and it pours out into the poorest settlements and townships. The gang violence across Cape Town, particularly in areas like the Cape Flats, which can claim up to 43 lives in a weekend, thrives in part because individuals with low or no employment prospects, broken family structures and a lack of support from the state, see themselves thrust into a competition for survival that must be won — even if the corpses of children decorate their streets.
The cruelty and vicious behaviour displayed by Squid Game’s contestants cannot be reduced to the true inner workings of human nature. Undoubtedly, as humans, we have a capacity for ruthless violence but I think Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk would agree with Karl Marx in arguing that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
The individual is not some abstract entity isolated from or floating above the social world, rather we are immersed within it and it is constantly acting upon us. The conditions of our reality — economic, social, political, historical — mould us into the people we become. These conditions, and the force they exert, pull and push us towards certain tendencies in our nature. Squid Game makes the compelling argument that capitalism nourishes our tendencies to be greedy, envious, morally uncaring and cruel, while suppressing our innate abilities for empathy, kindness and co-operation.
What the contestants of Squid Game cannot see — a realisation suppressed in our own reality — is that their competition is orchestrated by the mega rich. Economic inequality manifests as an uneven distribution of power. This power, now transnational in form, allows the rich to habitually violate the law and avoid justice.
The series’ strongest critique of the super rich is of their moral callousness. Like the global elite recently exposed by the Pandora Papers, the wealthy organisers of the Squid Game have the financial power to settle the debts of their contestants. But in the face of severe human misery, they hoard wealth and decide to do nothing.
Squid Game is a loud and explicit critique of the current mode of capitalism. This lack of subtlety may make some people question why the show requires an explanatory analysis. But far too much popular discourse surrounding the series has overlooked or neglected its sociopolitical messages. I suspect this is a result of how capitalist ideology holds our minds hostage.
We are in the belly of the beast and yet often fail to express or comprehend how the dominant economic system works. Moreover, we often fail to see the threads that connect our personal joblessness or crime in our neighbourhood to an economic system that puts profits over people. This ideological captivity is why many viewers see Squid Game only as a survival drama and not a parable of capitalist torment.