At the end of July, the total private debt owed in the UK amounted to £1,741.7 billion – an increase of £62.9 billion on the previous year. The average adult had debts of £32,931, and looming cuts to Universal Credit and furlough cliff-edges look set to send that figure soaring further upwards.
Three months later, South Korean drama Squid Game has become Netflix’s most successful series launch ever, amassing more than 111 million views worldwide in its first four weeks. Unlike other popular dystopian fictions, Squid Game’s characters are not residents of an alternative universe, a near future, or another planet. The horror that makes up the show’s conceit isn’t what might be after a catastrophe, or if we were to allow crises to progress further. Squid Game‘s dystopia is the contemporary world.
And while historical, cultural, and economic elements make the plot specific to South Korea – a country whose history has been scarred by establishment coverups of brutality, and whose present sees its households facing one of the highest rates of personal debt in the world – its global success shows that much of that dystopia resonates further afield. Not least, as we’ve established, in Britain.
Squid Game’s first episode sees its protagonist, Gi-hun, struggling to find the money to treat his daughter to a gift on her birthday. Weighed down by debts from years of unemployment and a gambling addiction, he’s reliant on the goodwill of his elderly, ailing mother. Later, we learn that Gi-hun lost his job after a strike and occupation at his factory was violently broken by police, who beat his colleague to death in front of him – a storyline modelled on the Ssangyong Motors strike of 2009. So far, so much social realism.
But things soon take a stranger turn. In an apparent stroke of luck, Gi-hun and 455 others, all in similar debt, are offered the chance to compete in a series of children’s games for a total prize of ₩45.6 billion, or about £28 million. But there is a catch: the losers will be shot.
Horrified after discovering the stakes, the players vote to leave. Once again faced with the reality of life on the outside, however – where they find themselves on the run from the police, struggling with medical bills, or abused by employers who refuse to pay – they soon return. This game, they decide, is no more brutal than the one being played in their day-to-day lives.
Later, we learn that the tournament is being broadcast for the entertainment of a group of English-speaking ‘VIPs’. As the penultimate match looms, these VIPs descend on the remote island to witness the climax in person; they recline on plush settees in smoking jackets, drink Scotch, make sex jokes, and wonder half-interestedly which of their favoured players will survive.
Squid Game has been described as an allegory for capitalism more generally, but these masked VIPs suggest it refers to a particular kind of capitalism at a particular moment. The people the VIPs represent aren’t just capitalists appropriating the surplus value of our labour; they’re sadists enacting a brutality made possible by a totally hegemonic global system – a capitalism so confident, so immune to challenge, that it no longer has to pretend. The game might be a secret, but the equivalent brutality of the outside world is not.
Part of this hegemony is afforded through anonymity. Where, for instance, the comparable brutality in something like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is broadcast to the masses as a control mechanism, Squid Game is played behind closed doors. The implication is that in the real world, there’s little need for control: Squid Game’s players are already resigned to the system from which the VIPs benefit because they see no alternative.
In Squid Game, anonymity acts to reinforce hegemony. Its goal is to maintain the belief that things happen this way not because a few people benefit from it, but because they have to; there is no other way in which the world could operate. When asked what he would like to bet in a final game against the tournament’s organiser, Gi-hun rightly replies, ‘Anything. You can take everything from me if you want anyway.’
This line – a rejection of the mirage of the level playing field – is not representative of the players’ attitudes throughout the show. The tournament’s masked Front Man sells the belief that each game represents a true meritocracy, free from the prejudices that inhibit worthy success in the outside world. The lie, of course, is that the players aren’t playing against one another: they’re playing against a system, and the system has the odds stacked in its favour.
In fact, Squid Game argues that the illusion of success is one of the ruling class’s greatest cruelties. Gi-hun’s experience ahead of the first game is contrasted with his childhood best friend and competitor, Sang-woo. He left the local town to study at Seoul University and, Gi-hun believes, has been jet-setting on business trips ever since. We soon learn that Sang-woo has actually been on the run after committing various financial crimes and running up millions of won in debt – debt that lands him back alongside Gi-hun.
Over the course of several episodes, a ruthlessness emerges on the part of Sang-woo that seems impossible to untie from the particular resentment he feels at finding himself playing for cash alongside others who never had his potential; it takes nothing to divert his anger away from an elite into whose ranks he was denied admission and toward his fellow players. While he kills them, the real elites watch and laugh. We can assume that the prize of £28 million is an irrelevance to them, as it would be to most of today’s truly wealthy.
In part, it’s the creative articulation of these anti-capitalist talking points – capitalist realism, the illusion of meritocracy – that has made Squid Game so popular. But that popularity in turn creates the conditions for an apolitical quality to the show’s reception, which at worst has seen its themes regurgitated in the form of individual ‘life lessons’ offered in the service of the grind.
Here, in many ways, is evidence of Squid Game’s core thesis: the more widespread an issue such as poverty or debt becomes, the more we are told that experiencing it is our fault alone – and the more we fool ourselves that we as individuals have the capacity to fix it. In a society that remains entranced by capitalism’s myths, the line between reality and dystopia becomes increasingly blurred.
This contradiction lies at the heart of the show, represented by the parallels between the brightly-coloured evil of the VIPs’ world and the grey mundanity of life for Gi-hun, his mother, and the millions and millions of others resigned to lives of barely surviving. Why is the violent repression of worker organising, of the effort to liberate ourselves from that misery, any more acceptable than games played to the death on behalf of billionaires?
That begs another question: how quickly could games like these be incorporated into our sense of what’s ‘normal’? Such a thing seems unimaginable – but what seems unimaginable, Squid Game suggests, is not as far away as we might think.