Friday October 07, 2022

Living in dystopia

October 18, 2021

Squid Game is one of the best aesthetic depictions of the essential situation of capitalism: it reveals the destructive social fabric that capitalism generates, especially the profound barbarism that exists in our society behind the thinnest of veneers. It is hardly surprising that the series comes from South Korea, a country that has undergone capitalist development in one of its purest, most savage versions recently.

The ‘updated’ children’s games that appear in the series have much in common with modern team sports, almost all of which – soccer, American football, basketball, and baseball among others – were born in the nineteenth-century epoch of industrial capitalism in the US and the UK. What is remarkable about these games is not play, which even animals do, but rules. The concepts of fair play and an equal playing field both belong to this new world of rule-based interactions, reflecting the novel social situation typical of capitalism in which birth status, station, and caste do not, in principle, affect one’s position in the society. This differs sharply from the feudal, tributary, and slave-based societies that preceded capitalism.

Needless to say, a formally ‘equal playing field’ – both in the series and in sports – does not guarantee a fair outcome. As if to underline the parallels between team sports and capitalism, winning sports teams today, which are billion-dollar industries, are usually those with the most money. The Nation’s sports editor David Zirin has eloquently expressed this contradiction between abstract rules that are fair versus unfair concrete reality by saying: sports are built on the myth of inclusion and the reality of exclusion. Ditto for capitalism.

From Europe, capitalism spread throughout the world, and much of capitalism’s culture, including modern sports, went along with it. South Korea has lived through one of the most accelerated processes of capitalist development in recent times, having gone from a backward country to a world leader in the space of just a half century. A cruel war, instigated by the US, in which more than five million people died, provided a training ground for key principles of capitalist behavior: no one will help you, to lose is to die.

In the series, the rich (the VIP spectators) are depicted as animals, insofar as they wear buffalo, bear, owl, and lion facemasks. More importantly, they are driven by mere appetites and a hunger for blood sport. This is also true of the capitalist situation. Animal instincts are raised to a guiding principle, while rational planning, affection, and care must take the backseat. The rich are neither really free nor fully human – they must, after all, pursue profit or sink and lose their class status.

Excerpted: ‘Squid Game, Capitalist Game’