In the pastel-colored dormitory, towering bunk beds reach up to the ceiling, accommodating 456 people. These individuals have signed up to participate in a game with an incredibly high prize money. After receiving a mysterious business card from a recruiter, they were picked up in a van, drugged during the journey, and transported to an island off the coast of South Korea. There, they were dressed in numbered, identical sportswear by masked guards in red overalls. Before the first of six rounds, the rules were explained to them. To the tune of Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube," they embarked on the playground. In a childlike setting, they played a game known as "Red Light, Green Light," where they had to cross to the other side of the field within a given time without being seen by an oversized robot resembling a little girl. Those who moved when she turned around or failed to reach the finish line by the end of the time limit would be disqualified. The consequences of disqualification were severe, as losing participants were executed [[SOURCE 1]].
A Teuflish Delight in Unveiling Unexpected Twists
Undoubtedly, the latest Netflix hit, the nine-episode series "Squid Game" from South Korea, takes great pleasure in revealing unexpected twists to the viewers and staging them in a dramatic manner. It turns out that "disqualification" is a euphemism for execution. The first shot is a dam break, followed by multiple salvos from all directions. People fall to the ground in slow motion, blood fountains visible against fluffy clouds, while a delicate female voice sings Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon." Some commentators see this key scene as an unnecessary aestheticization of banal carnage. However, one can also recognize a cynical attitude that is fitting for a parable on the equally cynical reality of life under capitalism [[SOURCE 1]].
The Cynical Display of Social Injustice is Not a Pose
In "Squid Game," the cynical display of social injustice is not a mere pose. The South Korean screenwriter and director Hwang Dong-hyuk conceived the idea for the series during the 2008 financial crisis, and his anger is evident in his work. The criticism of capitalism and its inherent logic of competition is therefore similarly formulaic to George Orwell's "Animal Farm" in its critique of communism. The series presents the belief of the organizers that everyone in the game has a fair chance of success, aligning with the neoliberal conviction that individual responsibility determines one's own happiness. According to this perspective, if someone fails, gets "disqualified," or falls into poverty, it is simply because they did not try hard enough. "Squid Game" not only highlights the prevalence of competitive thinking as a guiding principle in our society but also exposes the contradictions of the meritocratic principle. True fairness, both in the game and in reality, would only exist if everyone started on equal footing. However, just as physical strength or mental abilities make a difference in a tug-of-war or in outsmarting opponents in a marble game, in capitalist society, one's financial, cognitive, and physical resources determined by birth already shape the competitive landscape. "Squid Game" unequivocally demonstrates that the system is not designed for everyone to succeed. Similarly, the astronomical prize money of 45 billion won (approximately 33 million euros), prominently displayed in a giant piggy bank hanging from the ceiling of the dormitory, is ultimately intended for only one survivor, just as our society is not designed to improve through individual effort alone [[SOURCE 1]].
The Illusion of Voluntary Participation and the Burden of Debt
The drama also explores the notion that participation in the tournament, or rather the capitalist competition, is voluntary. If the majority of players vote to end the elimination game, all surviving participants are returned. This actually happens after the first round. However, the economic pressure weighing on the participants, all of whom were selected due to their high levels of debt, soon drives the majority of them back into the arena. The protagonist, Seong Gi-hun, an unemployed chauffeur who fell into gambling addiction after losing his job, not only relies on the prize money to gain custody of his daughter but also to pay for an important operation for his mother. Similarly, many people make the decision every morning to get up and engage in work that ultimately fails to satisfy them. This is capitalism criticism par excellence [[SOURCE 1]].
The Success of "Squid Game" and Its Abrechnung with Neoliberal Logic
The extraordinary success of the series, ranking number one in 90 countries and watched by 111 million households, can be attributed to its multifaceted appeal. Like other series phenomena in recent years, such as "Breaking Bad" and "Game of Thrones," "Squid Game" offers various entry points: its captivating aesthetics, concise storytelling, compelling thought experiment that invites self-reflection, and, yes, the spectacular violence at its core make it interesting for different viewers with diverse preferences. Ideally, "Squid Game" is successful precisely because of, or at least partly due to, its critique of neoliberal logic. However, the fact that the series is offered by a global conglomerate like Netflix raises doubts about whether watching it can be considered a truly anti-capitalist act. As Gil Scott-Heron might say, the revolution will not be streamed on Netflix. This is further evidenced by the fact that even Jeff Bezos himself has nothing but praise for the show [[SOURCE 1]].
In conclusion, "Squid Game" is a series that skillfully combines a cynical game of life and death with a critique of social injustice under capitalism. It exposes the contradictions of the meritocratic principle and the illusion of voluntary participation in a system burdened by debt. While the success of the series can be attributed to its multifaceted appeal, its critique of neoliberal logic is a significant factor. However, it is important to recognize that consuming the series on a streaming platform like Netflix does not inherently lead to revolutionary change. Nevertheless, "Squid Game" has sparked important conversations about the realities of our capitalist society and the need for systemic change [[SOURCE 1]].