Even if you haven’t seen Squid Game, you’ve almost certainly heard about it. The South Korean drama has smashed Netflix’s records to become the most popular series ever streamed by the platform, attracting 111 million viewers in the first 28 days of its release.
The basic premise of Squid Game is recognisable enough – the protagonist Seung Gi-hun is crippled by debt, and upon approach by a recruiting agent for a mysterious game promising the opportunity to win big, he requires little persuading. However, success in the ‘game’ requires players to abandon their morals, loyalties, and friendships, locking them into a ruthless struggle for survival and stripping away their humanity in the process.
Its tropes are hardly unfamiliar; the survivalist struggle set within a game-show context has echoes of Black Mirror and the Hunger Games. How then, to explain Squid Game’s astonishing success?
Despite its dystopian premise, Squid Game is firmly situated within a real-world context – its characters are compelled to join the game by debt and poverty. The show thus invites us to consider the extent to which its characters exercise genuine agency in their decisions – alluding to the larger rhetoric of individual choice and freedom at the core of capitalist justification. The game itself is a creation of the bored super-rich, who exploit the poor and manipulate them into behaving cruelly and selfishly.
The criticism of 21st century capitalism is hard to miss, placing Squid Game in the Netflix library next to Money Heist, which exhibits similar anti-capitalist messaging. Another one of Netflix’s biggest hits (its latest season released earlier this year attracted an audience of 65 million households in its first four weeks), Money Heist centres on one group’s elaborate plan to break into the Spanish Mint and print 1 billion euros to distribute amongst working people. The ‘Professor’, the architect behind the plot, lays out his motives in no uncertain terms; for him the bailing out of banks and corporations by the European Central Bank following the 2007 financial crisis whilst working people suffered under austerity policies epitomised the failings and inequalities perpetuated by the capitalist system.
It’s ironic that the platform profiting from the indulgence of this anti-capitalist sentiment arguably represents the nexus of the system under critique. This aside, some interesting conclusions are still within reach.
Netflix’s most loyal demographic by far is its 18-34 age-group, amongst whom (in the US) 75% have a subscription within their household. Although Netflix does not release the demographic breakdown of viewing figures, the ascendancy of anti-capitalist media on its platform aligns with evidence of disillusionment with the status quo amongst the young. Numerous blows have been dealt out by the current capitalist system to young people’s prospects in the last two decades, including the 2007 financial crash, the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. It’s unsurprising, then, that a 2021 Institute of Economic Affairs survey found that 67% of young people in the UK would rather live under a Socialist government. Interestingly, 80% were also reported saying that a socialist government would be better equipped to deal with the climate crisis. Politically, young people have been key drivers of the growing dominance of the radical left within the Labour party in the UK and the US Democrats.
The domination of capitalism is not seriously under any threat – that Netflix’s role financing and promoting these shows to a global audience is an irony lost on most is evidence enough of this. However, the popularity of storylines with an integrated capitalist critique forms part of a larger body of evidence signalling the shifting parameters of public debate; one which increasingly encompasses a challenge to the hegemony of capitalist ideas.
Image via Pixabay