Squid Game Says More About Communism Than Capitalism
Squid Game, the breakout Korean series about players competing to the death for a giant piggy bank full of cash, is Netflix’s biggest series launch, and co-CEO Ted Sarandos says “there’s a very good chance it will be our biggest show ever.”
Critics have argued that the show offers a devastating critique of contemporary capitalism.
In a Jacobin review headlined, “Squid Game Is An Allegory of Capitalist Hell,” the writer asserts that “Korea’s extreme inequality is Squid Game‘s central theme.” New York Times reporter Jin Yu Young wrote that “it has…tapped a sense familiar to people in the United States…that prosperity in nominally rich countries has become increasingly difficult to achieve, as wealth disparities widen and home prices rise past affordable levels.”
The show’s creator Hwang Dong-hyuk told Variety that he “wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life.”
“Is there a theme more unifying in global pop culture than ‘capitalism is bad?'” asks Vulture writer Roxana Hadadi in her recap of one episode before continuing, “It helps that the statement is true, of course…”
But Squid Game has a much richer and more resonant takeaway than “capitalism is bad.”
(Warning: This article and video contain spoilers.)
The series hints at a different message when Front Man, the Darth Vader–esque manager of the dangerous and lucrative series of competitions, chastises an employee who violated the rules. “You’ve ruined the most crucial element of this place: equality,” he says.
Later, players are invited to witness the mass execution of those who violated the “pure ideology” of this insulated world when they participated in an organ harvesting scheme for personal enrichment, with the emphasis on the enrichment as the heart of the crime. Throughout the games, the faceless pink-uniformed workers are all masked with only symbols distinguishing their ranks in the collective’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, the elites sit cloistered together, observing the spectacle from above.
Does this all sound like a reference to capitalism or a different economic system—the one that’s actually haunted the Korean Peninsula?
One participant in the games is North Korean escapee Kang Sae-byeok, who’s accepted the deadly consequences and poor odds in the long-shot hope of winning money to bring the rest of her family across the border after a sleazy smuggler ripped her off.
Are organ brokers and border coyotes examples of capitalism? They’re black markets of the sort that crop up when voluntary trade is prohibited. More than 1,000 people a year risk their lives trying to escape the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the majority of successful escapees settle in the South, according to the charity Connect North Korea.
Another character, Pakistani Ali Abdul, also finds himself in dire straits because of exploitation from a boss leveraging his immigration status against him. In other words, the consequences of a gray labor market emerging in response to state-imposed border control.
What about the main character, Seong Gi-Hun? He’s an unemployed gambling addict in trouble with loan sharks, drawn into the game because he wants to make enough money to prevent his ex-wife from moving his daughter abroad with her new husband. We later learn that his life troubles began after a strike at the car factory where he worked killed a colleague and
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