Squid Game’s Scathing Critique of Capitalism

Squid Game's anti-capitalist parable isn't a reflection of our society; it is our society.

The workers go up stairs in Squid Game
Photo: Netflix

This Squid Game article contains MAJOR spoilers.

From the very first game of ddakji out in the real world with Train to Busan actor Gong Yoo, Squid Game poses the question: how far would you go for money? How much of your body, your life, would you trade to keep the wolves at bay and to get to live the life you’ve always dreamed? Once you start, could you stop, even if you wanted to? And in the end, would it even be worth it? While Squid Game depicts an attempt to answer these questions taken to the extreme, they are the same essential questions posed to everyone living under capitalism: What kind of job, what terrible hours, what back-breaking labor, what level of abuse, what work/life imbalance will we tolerate in exchange for what we need or want to live? Unlike many examples of this genre, Squid Game is set in our contemporary reality, which makes its scathing critique of capitalism less of a metaphor for the world we live in and more of a literal depiction of life under capitalism.

Squid Game’s Workers

At the most basic level, the entire competition within Squid Game would not exist without extreme financial distress creating a ready pool of players. It’s no coincidence that Gi-hun’s hard times started when he lost his job, followed by violence against the workers who went on strike. Strike-breakers and physical violence against striking workers may feel like an antiquated idea to an American audience. South Korea, however, has something of an anti-labor reputation, with only 10% of its workers in unions and laws limiting unions to negotiating pay, among other restrictions. In the US, the anti-labor fight is alive and well, though transformed, where it takes the shape of the deceptively named “Right to Work” laws, which benefit corporations and make it harder for unions to operate.

As noted in our review, (most of) the players choose to leave and then willingly return to the arena, which separates Squid Game from other entries in the genre like the Hunger Games series and Escape Room. This element of volition contributes to the series’ primary critical goal. As Mi-nyeo and others brought up early on, they’re getting killed in the real world too, but at least inside they might actually get something for their troubles. 

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As an anti-capitalist parable, the only ways to fight back or upend the game in some small way are through acts of solidarity or by turning down the allure of the cash. The final clause in the game’s consent form states that the game can end if a majority of players agree to do so. After the brutal Red Light, Green Light massacre in the first, they do exactly that. The election might as well be a union vote. It’s shocking that the contract for the game included an escape clause at all, but it seems the host and his ilk enjoy at least allowing the illusion of free will if nothing else. The players who didn’t return after the first vote to leave the game, though unseen in this narrative, are perhaps the wisest of all. 

During tug of war, Gi-hun’s team surprises everyone by winning. Their teamwork, unity of purpose, and superior strategy help them defeat a stronger adversary, which is a basic principle of labor organizing, albeit usually not at the expense of the lives of other workers. Player 1 (Il-nam) and Player 240 (Ji-yeong) each find their own way to beat the game by essentially backing out of the competition during marbles. In exchange for friendship and choosing the circumstances of their own deaths, Ji-yeong and Il-nam each make their own, ethically sound choice under this miserable system. Il-nam gets an asterisk since he was never going to die, but he still found a choice beyond merely “kill” or “be killed” by teaching his Gganbu one “last” lesson and helping him continue on in the game. 

In the end, Gi-hun confounds the VIPs and the Front Man by coming to the precipice of victory and simply walking away. Under capitalism, this group of incredibly rich men simply could not understand how someone could come so close to claiming their prize, and choose not to. But for Gi-hun, human life always had greater value. Gi-hun followed (Player 67) Sae-byeok’s advice and stayed true to himself, refusing to actively take anyone’s life, especially not the life of his friend. 

Squid Game’s Ruling Class

Since the competition only exists because of the worst aspects of capitalism, it’s not surprising that in the end, it is itself a capitalist endeavor. Ultra-wealthy VIPs, who mostly seem to be white, Western men, spectate for a price and bet on the game. In their luxury accommodations, they lounge on silent human “furniture” and mistreat service staff. In one notable example, a VIP threatens to kill a server (who the audience knows to be undercover cop Hwang Jun-ho) if he doesn’t remove his mask, even though the VIP knows it would cost the server his life. 

Perhaps most enraging of all is what Player 1, who turns out to actually be the Host, has to say to Gi-hun a year after the game ends. It all circles back to the game’s existential connection to economics; on the one hand, there is the unshakeable link to a population in which a significant portion of people suffer from dire financial woes. On the other hand, there is the Host and his cronies, the ultra-rich who are so bored from their megarich lives that they decided to bet on deadly human bloodsport for fun just so they could feel something again, as though they were betting on horses. 

In spite of the enormous gulf between the two, the Host attempts to draw comparisons between the ultra-wealthy and the extreme poor, saying both are miserable. His little joke denies the reality of hunger, early death, trauma, and many other ways that being poor is actively harmful, both physically and mentally. It’s the kind of slow death that makes risking a quick one in the arena seem reasonable. He and his buddies were just kind of bored. Moreover, the Host denies the role of economic coercion in players taking part in the game, insisting that everyone was there of their own free will. But what free will can there be for people who owe millions, with families at home to care for and creditors at their back, when someone comes along and offers a solution, even a dangerous one? Anyone who has taken a dodgy job offer to get away from a worse one, or because they’re unemployed and the rent and college loans are due, knows that there is a limit to how truly free our choices can be when we need money, especially if there’s little to no safety net. 

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Throughout the series, it is clear that someone had to be funding Squid Game at a high level. Unlike science fiction or fantasy takes, the show is grounded in our current reality, so the large-scale, high-tech obstacles and the island locale must have cost a pretty penny. Of course for any who see it as unrealistic, consider the example of Jeffrey Epstein, a man who bought an island from the US government and ran a sexual abuse and human trafficking ring not entirely disimilar (though far more pedestrian in its purpose) from this one. 

The Host is able to pay for everything because he works in – you guessed it – banking. It’s a profession where he gained wealth by moving capital around. Given the Korean debt crisis – South Korea has the highest household debt in the world, both in size and growth – his profession makes him a worthy villain, in the same way the Lehman Brothers were after the 2008 crash. The bank executive calls in Gi-hun to offer him investment products and services, because of course someone with 45 billion won can accrue significantly more money passively, and who wouldn’t want that? Gi-hun’s decision to walk away is a callback to his earlier attempt to walk away from Squid Game when millions of dollars was within his grasp.

Throughout the series, the people running the game actively pit the players against one another in much the same way capitalism pits workers against one another. Whether they’re giving the players less food to encourage a fight overnight, the daily influx of cash every time another player dies, or giving them knives for the evening, the mysterious people pulling the strings want the players to fight each other like crabs in a barrel so they can’t work together to figure out what’s going on or take on the guys in red jumpsuits. Though there are notable examples of the players working together to succeed, it is always within the rules of the system. It is never treated as a viable or likely option for the players to team up and take the blood money literally hanging over their heads or to prevent death, merely to redirect it or choose how they will die. No, to win that, they must play the Squid Game’s rules. 

In our society, this kind of worker-vs-worker rhetoric takes the form of employers telling workers their workload is harder or they can’t go on vacation or get a raise because of fellow employees who leave or go on maternity leave.. In reality, these are all normal aspects of managing a business that employers should plan for, and their failure to do so is not the fault of their workers. Much like in Squid Game, it benefits managers and owners if workers are too busy being mad at each other to have time or energy to fight the system and those who make unjust rules in the first place. 

Squid Game’s Managers

The Front Man insists the game is fair, gruesomely hanging the dead bodies of those involved in the organ harvesting scheme because they traded medical knowledge for advanced intel on the game. However, like capitalism, there are many ways that the system is clearly rigged, no matter what the people at the top insist. There’s the obvious corruption in the organ harvesting ring, but even at its “purest” form, the game is not equitable. Sometimes the managers and soldiers in red jumpsuits stand by when unfair things happen, like Deok-su and his cronies stealing food. At other times, the people in charge intervene in player squabbles, like enforcing nonviolence during marbles and elections but encouraging violence at other times. They especially set things up to their own advantage, such as cutting the lights so the players couldn’t see the glass in the penultimate game, or the way they set up the election. Everyone knew how everyone else voted, they shared the total amount of money immediately beforehand, in an attempt to sway votes, calling to mind Amazon’s scare tactics before the recent unionization vote.

Ultimately, much like any manager/employer, the Front Man’s insistence on fairness has nothing to do with the actual value of equality, but rather the capitalist need to ensure betters are happy with the stakes and their chance at a favorable outcome. 

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Even the workers, soldiers and managers in red jumpsuits, who seem to be in charge, are ultimately only in power (and alive) so long as they serve the needs of the system. Like so many low-level managers, many wield their tiny amount of power ruthlessly, shooting players with impunity or running their organ harvesting side gig. It soon becomes clear that they’re as expendable as players, if not moreso, and the Front Man shoots them without hesitating. A player asks (and it’s too bad we never learned) what “they” did to the people in red jumpsuits to get them to run this game, but it’s not too hard to guess. They seem to be very young men, who likely needed money and wouldn’t be missed if they never returned. 

The biggest trick capitalism ever pulled was convincing workers it’s a zero-sum game, that anything we want but don’t have is the fault of someone else who “took it” from us. Within the game, that means every player was a living obstacle to the money, and that Gi-hun should kill his childhood friend to succeed and celebrate when he’s done. But as we see after he “wins,” even without taking Sang-woo’s life himself, the money isn’t worth it. The greater success would have been both men walking out of the arena alive.