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Squid Game and the problem with anti-capitalism

This hyper-violent TV series is brilliantly entertaining – just don’t get your politics from it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture Politics

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Contains spoilers.

Capitalism has finally met its match. Forget communist revolution or the middle classes’ feverishly anticipated heat death of the planet following capitalism’s vomiting of so much carbon into the atmosphere. It isn’t either of those epochal upheavals that have finally brought the capitalist order to its knees. No, it’s a TV series from South Korea called Squid Game in which desperate debt-laden citizens play children’s games to the death in an effort to win loadsamoney. According to the excitable self-styled Marxists of the millennial new media, this Netflix uber-hit has galvanised people across the world to bristle against the foul economic order we all labour under. The wild popularity of Squid Game is proof that ‘global class consciousness is growing’, says one Marxist scribe. Let the ruling classes tremble, Netflix subscriptions are rising!

The discussion about Squid Game has become preposterous. Almost as preposterous as the show itself. If you aren’t one of the tens of millions of people who have lapped up this brilliant and hyper-violent parable about modernity, this is it in a nutshell: 456 people, in debt, in need, in dire straits, agree to take part in a life-and-death game. A mysterious man in a suit tempts them to an island where they can win big bucks and fix all their problems. In a pastel-coloured hellhole of winding staircases and outsized children’s playgrounds, they compete in everything from tug-of-war to Red Light, Green Light (which seems to be South Korea’s version of what we in Britain call ‘What’s the time, Mr Wolf?’). If they fluff a game, or fail to complete it in time, they die. A sniper will pick them off or, in the tug-of-war, the most shocking game in the series in my view, they’ll tumble off an elevated platform, plunging hundreds of feet to their deaths. Every time a player is eliminated, the prize fund goes up. The last man or woman standing is promised a tidy sum of 45.6 billion won – that’s £28million to Brits.

Nothing about the show is subtle. The violence is graphic, the blood bright red. Brains are blown out, eyes gouged out, throats slit, bones cracked. The metaphors are laid on almost as thickly as the blood. The whole thing has the feel of a sixth-former socialist’s wet dream. The dog-eat-dog society? Check. Rampant individualism, so bad that individuals will actually kill each other for money? Check. Faceless enforcers of an extremist economic order? Check. Here, they wear red jumpsuits and black masks and use machine guns to enforce the hyper-competitiveness of the cartoonish capitalist system fashioned on this strange, hellish island. And then we discover the whole thing is being performed for the viewing pleasure of VIP billionaires. Decked out in shiny golden animal masks, these ultra-rich bet on players and get a kick from seeing who lives and who doesn’t. Those pesky billionaires! I knew it would be them.

It is almost heroically unoriginal. It has echoes of Hunger Games and Battle Royale. The violence is Tarantinoesque. As for the evil rich people – show me one contemporary pop-culture product in which rich people are not evil and I’ll give you 45.6 billion won. As one writer observes, ‘Is there a theme more unifying in global pop culture than “capitalism is bad”?’ No, there isn’t. This isn’t to say Squid Game is not good. On the contrary, it is very good. Like millions of others – Netflix says 142million households around the world have streamed it, making it Netflix’s most watched show ever – I binge-watched it and loved it. And not just for the tension of the games and the cartoonish violence of each game’s denouement. There’s character development, too. Most notably in Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae), the debt-ridden, gambling-addicted gig-economy worker who lives with his mum, who is infuriating to begin with, but then his backstory emerges. It’s touching stuff.

No, the problem is the discussion around Squid Game. It is increasingly nuts. There is, of course, a moral panic, of the kind that often attends hyper-violent popular culture. The safeguarding team at Bedfordshire Council in England sent out an email warning educators and parents not to allow children to watch the show. It said it has heard reports that ‘children and young people are copying [the show’s] games’. UK kids are building giant robots that can detect when a player is moving instead of staying still and instruct a sniper to shoot said player dead? Sounds legit. Schools in Quebec are likewise warning parents to keep their kids away from this crazed show. A psychologist in Montreal says stopping children from watching isn’t enough – parents also need to explain what the Squid Game phenomenon is and why it’s bad. Yes, that won’t pique kids’ interest at all…

But far more irritating than the moral panic has been the political exhilaration. Squid Game is being held up by numerous commentators as a brutally searing indictment of 21st-century capitalism. The bible of Park Slope socialists, Jacobin, has a piece explaining ‘Why You’re Watching Squid Game’. Because it’s shocking and entertaining? No, it’s because you can ‘relate to [its] portrayal of capitalism’s miseries’. ‘Squid Game’s dystopia is the contemporary world’, says Jacobin. A writer for Vulture says we can all connect with the ‘capitalist traumas that pass for entertainment in Squid Game’. Can we, though? Life under capitalism can be a drag for many people, but I’ve yet to hear of workers being forced to carve certain shapes from honeycomb and being shot in the head if they fail.

Squid Game is an allegory of capitalist hell’, we’re told. It exposes ‘the horrors of modern inequality and exploitation… and shreds the capitalist myth that hard work guarantees prosperity’. A Marxist writer describes Squid Game as ‘the latest production from South Korea that exposes the brutal reality of capitalism – that of extreme competition’. Zoe Williams at the Guardian says the show owes its popularity to ‘the anxieties of modern life’. It isn’t an accident, she says, that ‘10 years after a global financial crash… the entire globe is watching a drama whose core message is, “Can I ever pay back this debt? Would it not be easier to game to the death?”’ I know the contemporary middle-class left is constantly on the prowl for flickers of radicalism – or at least what they understand radicalism to be – but the idea that millions of people eating popcorn and getting a fleeting thrill from watching people die is an expression of disgruntlement with late-stage capitalism strikes me as particularly bizarre.

Even North Korea is getting in on the act. Not wanting to be outdone by the Guardian, Jacobin and every other new leftist lining up to hail Squid Game’s exposure of capitalism’s brutal realities, the hermit kingdom has insisted that this gory show confirms just how morally corrupt South Korea and the broader capitalist world really are. ‘Squid Game is about survival in a capitalist society where you can earn money if you win by any means and you die otherwise’, said the state-run website Arirang Meari. Sounding virtually indistinguishable from pained Western leftists who spy in Squid Game the stirrings of a global disdain for capitalism, the NK site hails Squid Game for ‘bring[ing] fury toward’ this ‘unfair society where people without money are treated like chess pieces moved around by the rich’. Someone give this anonymous North Korean scribbler a column in HuffPost.

It is definitely true that Squid Game explores the themes of inequality, debt and desperation. As I say, it isn’t subtle. This is most clear in the lead character Seong Gi-hun, who, we discover, was a worker in a car factory before he lost his job and had to take up gig-style work as a chauffeur. The strike-cum-riot that he refers to as he recalls how he came to be so cash-strapped is a real thing – it’s a reference to the closure of the Ssangyong factory in 2009 and the subsequent uprising by workers against this impoverishing bosses’ action. Nonetheless, the excitability about Squid Game’s anti-capitalist messaging, and its potential to intensify class consciousness via the medium of Netflix (!), captures just how hollow and problematic contemporary anti-capitalism has become.

The first thing to note is that Squid Game is itself a phenomenon of 21st-century capitalism. It has enriched the new oligarchs of the Netflix set, those cultural overlords of contemporary capitalist society, to an extraordinary degree. Bloomberg assesses that Squid Game has increased the stock market value of Netflix by $19 billion. Netflix itself says the show has provided $900million in ‘impact value’. Every aspect of Squid Game is being monetised. You can buy Squid Game hoodies from Netflix; there is talk of a videogame; Season Two seems like a dead cert – more ‘impact value’ for the new oligarchs. It is a curious breed of anti-capitalism that is produced by, and enriching to, the capitalist elites.

Then there’s the question of what the political glee over Squid Game tells us about anti-capitalism today. Fundamentally, it confirms the extent to which anti-capitalism has become a pastime of the West’s woke elites rather than being a serious endeavour pursued by a revolutionary working class. To the extent that Squid Game is tapping into political sentiment, it is the passive sentiment of moralistic revulsion towards capitalism felt by significant sections of the Western middle classes, rather than anything like the labouring anger expressed in that 2009 revolt in South Korea against car-factory bosses. This was summed up brilliantly in one of Jacobin’s gushing pieces. The great thing about Squid Game, it says, is that it doesn’t only put the boot into the way capitalism is ‘appropriating the surplus value of our labour’ – how tired! No, it also shows that capitalists are ‘sadists enacting a brutality made possible by a totally hegemonic global system’.

There it is. The shift from an anti-capitalism grounded in a revolutionary, historical understanding of social relations to an anti-capitalism fuelled by middle-class moralism, by a haughty disdain for the questionable behaviour and attitudes of individual members of the capitalist class. Who wants to talk about that old Marxist idea that capitalism appropriates the surplus value of our labour when you can dwell on the cruelty and wickedness of the rich instead? This view of capitalists as ‘sadists’ is especially pronounced among millennials who profess to be socialists. You see it everywhere from Novara Media to the Bernie Bros, from angry protests against ‘the 1%’ to all that Hollywood / Netflix fare in which the rich are always corrupt. From the anti-globalisation movement of the late 1990s to every single Guardian editorial on the scourge of neoliberalism – ‘anti-capitalism’ has come to be colonised by the revulsions of the middle classes rather than by the revolutionary sentiments of the working classes.

This is the true political attraction of Squid Game to the moralistic new left – it allows leftists to indulge their fantasy that capitalism is the creation of sadistic individuals rather than being a social order with specific problematic relations. In the perverse violence of Squid Game, enacted for the titillation of gold-masked billionaires, they see their vision of capitalism dramatised. A vision in which a social, economic order comes to be reduced to a relationship of violence between the sadistic rich and the hapless poor. This reflects the anti-intellectual and actually anti-Marxist bent of much of the contemporary left, who have deceived themselves into thinking that their personal abhorrence towards the excesses of capitalism has anything in common with the historical struggle to develop a revolutionary critique of capitalism’s inability to realise humanity’s full potential.

This is why, in fact, it is not contradictory at all that a capitalist entity – Netflix – is responsible for making Squid Game into a global phenomenon. The new anti-capitalism, precisely because its fuel is passive repugnance rather than active revolution, poses no threat whatsoever to the capitalist order. On the contrary, it lends itself, beautifully, to the moral rehabilitation of capitalism. That observation that there is no ‘theme more unifying in global pop culture than “capitalism is bad”’ is very apposite. Anti-capitalism has become the means through which capitalism seeks to restore its moral standing and its relevance to the 21st-century public. Indeed, anti-capitalism is the form capitalism now takes. Whether it’s Netflix promoting a parable of capitalist brutality or Apple taking on ‘white supremacy’ or every leader of the capitalist West meeting at COP next week to bemoan the bourgeoisie’s toxic impact on the planet and the need to rein in economic growth, being down about capitalism is now the essence of capitalism. The capitalist order is maintained today, not through a Thatcherite assault on socialistic opponents, but via the mechanism of capitalist self-loathing – through the replacement of the economic ambition of the old bourgeoise to remake the world in its own image with a moralistic urge to reorder the world according to the self-disgust of the bourgeoise of the 21st century. Netflix’s pumping of a hyper-violent parable of capitalism’s brutality into tens of millions of homes is entirely in keeping with the depleted spirit of contemporary capitalism. As Mark Fisher put it, ‘Far from undermining capitalist realism… gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it’.

The only problem in that Fisher line, from his very clever book Capitalist Realism, is the word ‘gestural’. This view of anti-capitalism as a manipulative gesture made by the capitalist elites themselves, presumably to quell genuine, revolutionary anti-capitalism, risks underestimating how deeply anti-capitalist feeling runs within the capitalist class today. They aren’t performing anti-capitalism; they genuinely feel it. They really do believe, like Greta Thunberg, that the Industrial Revolution was a mistake, and that growth should not be humanity’s ultimate goal, and that Africa cannot possibly become like America. They have lost faith in their own historic project, not for clicks or downloads or Netflix subscriptions, but for real. And that is a problem for those of us so invested in the ideals of growth and progress that we want to push beyond capitalism’s limitations and find a new way to create a world of abundance. The contemporary critique of capitalism is worse than useless for us, because it is based in a belief that capitalism is too cocky and arrogant and big, rather than in the Marxist understanding that capitalism has ‘accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals’ and has ‘conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades’, but that far more can be done once humanity seizes meaningful control of his economic and social destiny.

So, watch Squid Game, by all means. You’ll love it. But if you find yourself cheering its hyper-violent rebuking of 21st-century capitalism, then it’s possible you are more interested in passively observing the alleged immoralism of wealthy individuals than in seriously considering how the world might be transformed in such a radical way that someone like Seong Gi-hun could never exist in the future.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Netflix.

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Topics Culture Politics

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