As a new Kdrama lover, I feel vindicated seeing that Squid Game was the most-watched show of all time on Netflix. But as a sociologist, I realize that the series touches on themes that resonate with people around the world as we grind under the wheel of global capitalism. There is a lot that is very specific to South Korea, including its quick economic development and transition to democracy. Yet, from Lagos to Jakarta and from Mumbai to Mexico City, people can relate to Korea’s version of the IMF financial crisis that destabilized its economy. Yet whether we live in the Global South or the Global North, there are many threads in the Squid Game that resonate for many of us around the world.
The logic of capitalism is to continually increase profit. In most of the world, we are living in capitalism’s more neoliberal version in which the state takes its hands off the reins from protecting its people from the economic system’s darker sides. This would be different from other versions in which the state refuses a free-market ideology, protects people from working themselves to death, taxing foreign goods to prioritize domestic manufacturing at home, or penalizes companies like Facebook billions of dollars for harming us and our democracy.
Yet in our more neoliberal systems of capitalism, our governments increasingly serve the interests of capitalists and stockholders to always increase their profits rather than serve the people who elected them. They look the other way as capitalists squeeze money from everyday people and create new financial products that help them drastically build wealth.
Enter Squid Game.
Was your government also compelled by foreign capitalists to force local workers to compete with workers in other parts of the world? If so, you could relate to Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae, who describes seeing the dissolution of his well-paying manufacturing job that was his gateway into the middle class.
Many manufacturing positions have become mechanized, needing fewer workers. However, shipping those jobs overseas, where wages are lower and there is often less regulation in the workplace, has helped turn millionaires into billionaires in the last several decades.
What we see of Ali’s story is one that is very common to migrant laborers around the world. Even when manufacturing jobs stay in industrialized nations, they rely increasingly on migrants from the Global South.
This way, if foreign workers like Ali, the Pakistani migrant played by Indian actor Anupam Tripathi, complain to supervisors about unpaid wages, work in dangerous conditions, or experience physical or sexual abuse, the state helps the capitalist class by just deporting them. By not creating paths to citizenship for unauthorized workers, our governments help companies who turn around and hire newbies who “won’t cause trouble.”
Government deregulation of financial systems, as mentioned in the show, likely made it easier for someone like Cho Sang-woo, Gi-hyun’s childhood friend (played by Park Hae Soo), to defraud Koreans out of millions of won as a bank executive.
At the same time, deregulation seems to open economic opportunities for loan sharks to harm everyday Koreans by charging exorbitant interest rates, as mentioned on a news show in one of the episodes. We see how they chase down the main character, Gi-hun, in an effort to collect on his debt. All around the world, many people do not have access to banks and safe credit streams. While their lending practices are dangerous and costly, loan sharks fill this very real economic need for a stopgap when wages are not enough. The gangster Jang Deok-Su, portrayed by Heo Sung-tae, is exactly the type of debt collector who people fear. Unfortunately, too many involved in this underworld also fall prey to being indebted to their own bosses as well as other gangsters.
On my side of the planet, loan sharks have already had their heyday, yet remain common in some immigrant communities.For most Americans, payday loans and subprime lending, which both target the working poor, including communities of color, would be a better analogy. At the same time, too many middle class Americans are swimming in credit card debt that is exacerbated by high interest rates.
But people cannot live on bread alone. We need roses too!
Unfortunately, hobbies like gambling can become dangerous for those of us living hand to mouth and it easily becomes an unreliable source of income. Gambling is very stigmatized in South Korea. While Korean dramas would seem to suggest South Koreans have a major gambling problem when it comes to problematic gambling, it is actually below average, coming after the United States, Belgium, Canada, and Australia as well as several of its counterparts in Asia. This likely gives the Squid Games’ VIP gamblers a veneer of “realness”—they were mainly White and spoke English fluently—since they likely come from places where problematic gambling is more common.
These elements of neoliberal capitalism make Squid Games relatable to billions of humans around the world. Unfortunately, Squid Games is only really attuned to how it affects men. We know that the two older women, the mothers of two protagonists, slave away all day to eke out a living for themselves. Both are engaged in the feminized sphere of service work, which involves smaller repetitive actions that are more difficult to turn into action sequences.
While the North Korean defector, Kang Sae-byeok (played by supermodel Jung Ho-yeon), and her need for money was explained, it was not for the mother who used her sexuality to survive, or the other wife who died in the marble scene. Although the male writer-director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has done films featuring women, Korean dramas are predominantly written by women.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that women’s direct relationship to debt and finances was un- or underexplained without women’s input at top levels. Instead, with Sang-woo’s mother whose business was put up as collateral and the people who cheated Sae-byeok, all we see is how men’s bad actions led to women’s financial precarity. While this is likely a reality, women’s debt was not given the place it deserved.
As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the things that I love about Korean dramas is that they do not pretend that capitalism does not exist. Since sociologists are trained to think and write about structure, we can see beyond a good storyline to glimpse why our interactions with real-life institutions like the state, the family, or corporations may influence what we find appealing, whether we realize it or not. As inequality in the world grows by leaps and bounds and our governments become subservient to the other military and capitalist leaders of The Power Elite, Squid Game resonates with all of us as one human family.