Mail & Guardian

South Africans are trapped in a ‘Squid Game’

The Netflix series is an explicit critique of the current mode of capitalism. But far too much popular discourse surroundin­g the series overlooks or neglects its sociopolit­ical messages

- Andile Zulu Andile Zulu writes regularly for the Mail & Guardian from Durban

WSquid Game provides a reflection of the barbarity we witness, endure and embrace in the visceral present

hat types of human being does our economic system produce? Does the organisati­on of our economy enhance the better angels of our nature or does it compel us to indulge in darker dimensions? Given the 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 debtridden people, 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 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 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 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, 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 inaccessib­le to the majority of the population (in 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 stagnant wages or mass unemployme­nt and a life shackled to unpaid loans creates a precarious present and an 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.

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. 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 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.

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.

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 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 on 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 frequently fail to discern 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.

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Carlos is on leave, so here’s a classic from our archive

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