Squid Game, the breakout Korean series about players competing to the death for a giant piggy bank full of cash, is Netflix's biggest series launch, and co-CEO Ted Sarandos says "there's a very good chance it will be our biggest show ever."
Critics have argued that the show offers a devastating critique of contemporary capitalism.
In a Jacobin review headlined, "Squid Game Is An Allegory of Capitalist Hell," the writer asserts that "Korea's extreme inequality is Squid Game's central theme." New York Times reporter Jin Yu Young wrote that "it has…tapped a sense familiar to people in the United States…that prosperity in nominally rich countries has become increasingly difficult to achieve, as wealth disparities widen and home prices rise past affordable levels."
The show's creator Hwang Dong-hyuk told Variety that he "wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life."
"Is there a theme more unifying in global pop culture than 'capitalism is bad?'" asks Vulture writer Roxana Hadadi in her recap of one episode before continuing, "It helps that the statement is true, of course…"
But Squid Game has a much richer and more resonant takeaway than "capitalism is bad."
(Warning: This article and video contain spoilers.)
The series hints at a different message when Front Man, the Darth Vader–esque manager of the dangerous and lucrative series of competitions, chastises an employee who violated the rules. "You've ruined the most crucial element of this place: equality," he says.
Later, players are invited to witness the mass execution of those who violated the "pure ideology" of this insulated world when they participated in an organ harvesting scheme for personal enrichment, with the emphasis on the enrichment as the heart of the crime. Throughout the games, the faceless pink-uniformed workers are all masked with only symbols distinguishing their ranks in the collective's hierarchy. Meanwhile, the elites sit cloistered together, observing the spectacle from above.
Does this all sound like a reference to capitalism or a different economic system—the one that's actually haunted the Korean Peninsula?
One participant in the games is North Korean escapee Kang Sae-byeok, who's accepted the deadly consequences and poor odds in the long-shot hope of winning money to bring the rest of her family across the border after a sleazy smuggler ripped her off.
Are organ brokers and border coyotes examples of capitalism? They're black markets of the sort that crop up when voluntary trade is prohibited. More than 1,000 people a year risk their lives trying to escape the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the majority of successful escapees settle in the South, according to the charity Connect North Korea.
Another character, Pakistani Ali Abdul, also finds himself in dire straits because of exploitation from a boss leveraging his immigration status against him. In other words, the consequences of a gray labor market emerging in response to state-imposed border control.
What about the main character, Seong Gi-Hun? He's an unemployed gambling addict in trouble with loan sharks, drawn into the game because he wants to make enough money to prevent his ex-wife from moving his daughter abroad with her new husband. We later learn that his life troubles began after a strike at the car factory where he worked killed a colleague and caused Gi-Hun to miss his daughter's birth.
His story is based on the real-life 2009 Ssangyong Motor strike that ended in a militarized raid by Korean riot police.
This might sound like a critique of modern capitalism, but in the real-life strike, Ssangyong Motor had been taken over by Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation three years earlier—a Chinese state-owned operation, which was responsible for the crackdown on workers.
So was free market capitalism to blame?
A key to understanding Squid Game's deeper meaning is the distinctive wardrobe, and in particular, the green tracksuits that the contestants are required to wear. The show's art director told The New York Times that they're a reference to the green uniforms of the Saemaul Undong, or New Village Movement, a state-led industrialization program. This was government industrial policy—i.e., centralized planning—and, like China's Cultural Revolution under Mao's communist regime, involved stripping communities of their local customs and identities through a program known as misin tapa undong, or "movement to overthrow the worship of gods."
There are some obvious symbols of capitalist excess in the show, like the crass, golden-masked Westerners who watch the proceedings from a luxury box while placing bets on the desperate contestants as if they're the very racehorses our protagonist lost all his money on. Or the arrogant and broke former financial adviser who believes that everyone gets what they deserve.
And, of course, there's that giant piggy bank near the ceiling filling up with bundles of cash every time someone is eliminated from the competition.
South Korea is an unqualified capitalist success story. Unlike its communist neighbor to the north, "the miracle on the river Han" experienced massive economic growth from the 1960s on largely thanks to market reforms, and growth that raised the standard of living for the rich, middle class, and poor at a rate that far exceeded that of its neighbors. Today, the country has the 37th-highest GDP per capita in the world and ranks 26th in the Fraser Institute's Human Freedom Index.
South Korea's approach was far from perfect, and persistent government meddling in the economy accounts for many of the country's problems. Housing prices have skyrocketed as South Korea's idiosyncratic land-use regulatory regime has encouraged rampant real estate speculation. And its loose monetary policy fueled troublingly high levels of personal debt and price inflation—trends that have accelerated in the COVID era.
All of these are serious problems facing South Korea, and many advanced economies worldwide. Its citizens are putting more money into cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, which The New York Times characterizes as emblematic of the "get rich quickly" culture of South Korea but could also be the result of a crisis of confidence in centralized banking and the legacy financial system represented by the main character's bottomed-out hotshot financial adviser friend.
Maybe the reason for Squid Game's global resonance isn't its leftist critique of capitalism—a Hollywood cliché—but that it taps into something more fundamental and universal: a growing unease with systems of centralized surveillance and control. At its core, this is what the game is all about.
A central horror of Squid Game is that participation is voluntary—to a degree. Participants sign away their lives and their rights, which can only be regained with a majority vote. This conceit, too, misunderstands the nature of capitalism and contracts. In a truly free society, you always have the right of exit. Instead, the game's structure is more reminiscent of social contract theory, which is regularly employed to justify gross governmental violations of rights so long as those carrying them out are appointed through an ostensibly democratic process.
Squid Game is not about voluntarism, but force, deception, and coercion. It's not about free markets and choice, but dehumanization and forced assimilation into a collective.
As the show's star, Lee Jung-jae, told The New York Times: "It's about people. I think we pose questions to ourselves as we watch the show: Have I been forgetting anything that I should never lose sight of, as a human being?"
And, in the end, our hero regains his personal agency at the last possible moment and decides not to play any longer, even with victory assured. He leaves battered and traumatized, but with his soul intact.
Squid Game isn't really about capitalism, properly understood. It's about developing strategies for undermining and resisting authoritarian control and retaining your humanity under a system designed to strip it all away.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; graphics by Calvin Tran
Photo credits: Dong-Min Jang/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom; Wang Yiliang / Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Rod Lamkey—CNP/Sipa USA/Newscom