I’m assuming you’ve heard of Squid Game, but have you also heard that Squid Game is the most watched television show in Netflix history, inspiring 1.65 billion hours of viewing in its first month? This week we learned that Squid Game was the most Tweeted about TV show of 2021 and the most searched for on Google.
And since it’s getting close to Christmas, you should know that there is still time to get your Squid Game holiday greeting cards, your Squid Game children’s game pack, your Squid Game ornaments, and, because, why not, your Squid Game ugly Christmas sweater.
Critics have suggested many reasons for Squid Game’s global popularity. Some say that because American Millennials and Gen Z have grown up on the stateless internet, they are more receptive to “K-dramas” (Korean dramas). Others point out that Squid Game capitalizes on the current popularity of games in all forms, including competitive reality shows, board games, escape rooms, and, of course, video games.
For a show on one of capitalism’s most successful streaming platforms, Netflix, Squid Game has also produced a surprising amount of public discussion about capitalism. Some have argued the Squid Game is pretty harsh on capitalism. As the show’s writer and director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has said, “I do believe that the overall global economic order is unequal and that around 90% of the people believe that it’s unfair. During the pandemic, poorer countries can’t get their people vaccinated. They’re contracting viruses on the streets and even dying. So I did try to convey a message about modern capitalism.”
Weirdly, another camp has claimed that, by putting everyone in uniforms and by creating a game that has some similarities to a totalitarian state, Squid Game is actually an attack on communism.
Squid Game is certainly critical of capitalism, but it’s even more interesting for how it depicts violent class conflict in real life workplaces. Squid Game’s main protagonist, Seong Gi-Hun, is an auto worker who has been out of work for more than a decade. In the series’ fifth episode he has a flashback to a scene of police beating men with billy clubs in clouds of tear gas. During Gi-Hun’s vision, a friend who has been struck on the head calls out Gi-Hun’s name, desperate for help.
Gi-Hun’s flashback is based on a police raid of striking workers during a South Korean automotive strike of 2009, in the city of Pyeongtaek. In the events leading up to this strike, the auto company Ssangyong was sold to a Chinese auto company, and its most popular SUV was pirated for the Chinese auto industry. Headed for receivership, Ssangyong announced it would lay-off more than 40% of its workforce. In response, the South Korean auto workers union, the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU), occupied the Ssangyong factory for 77 days.
After this long occupation, police were called in, resulting in violent clashes between the police and the workers. As The New York Times reported, “police commandos rappelled from helicopters as workers hurled firebombs. Hundreds were injured. By Wednesday, the police had overrun most of the facility and cornered 500 workers in a paint shop filled with flammable liquids.”
Finally, the workers surrendered. Although they didn’t win many of their demands, they did keep the factory open. They were greeted as heroes with “banners and…labor songs as they stepped off the buses” after leaving the factory.
In another flashback, we learn of the pre-Squid Game troubles faced by Ali Abdul, a Pakastani immigrant who used to work in a sheet metal factory. We see him march into the metal shop and demand months of back pay owed to him. When Ali confronts his boss, he tells him that the work has ruined his fingers and that he has no medical insurance.
The boss, who is surfing the web when Ali confronts him, whines and complains that he doesn’t have the money to pay Ali. Ali looks down and sees an envelope stuffed with cash on the desk. Ali and his boss begin to struggle over the money. The struggle takes them to the shop floor, at which point Ali pushes his boss into one of the rolling machines, and his boss’s fingers are crushed in a graphic scene. Ali runs away with the money.
These two flashbacks in Squid Game suggest that for the global precariat the world outside the game is as dangerous as the world inside of it. The flashback to the auto strike shows the violent force of the police who can be called in on behalf of the factory owners. The scene with Ali shows that owners can get away with wage theft without consequence and how repetitive work damages workers’ bodies. Ironically, perhaps, in Ali’s story, it is the boss whose fingers are crushed in the roller. But a quick scan of recent work accidents shows that across the globe it is ordinary workers who get their hands caught in rollers every year.
Ali’s flashback also points to real problems with immigrant labor and inequality in South Korea. About a third of South Korea’s more than three-quarters of a million foreign workers have temporary (E-9) visas, making them more vulnerable to workplace abuse. And, according to The Korea Herald, over the last year, “migrant workers have reported more than $128.5 million in unpaid wages.”
While Squid Game may have earned its massive global audience with its stylized sets, haunting music, thrilling plot twists, and choreographed violence, in a move unexpected for such a popular series, Squid Game also explicitly calls out the owner-sponsored violence that continually endangers the global working class. The violence within the world of Squid Game is fictional, but the workplace violence experienced by Gi-Hun and Ali is perfectly real.
Squid Game has become wildly popular against the backdrop of a surging labor movement in US—and a corresponding backlash from employers. Last week baristas at a Starbucks in Buffalo became the first workers in that company to vote for a union, but only after Starbuck’s appeal to stop the vote count was denied. Columbia university grad students are currently on strike, and have been threatened with being replaced. Striking Kellogg workers are being replaced, though a young pro-union hacker has tried to disrupt that process by creating a bot that sends fake resumes to the Kellogg site 24 hours a day. None of these conflicts has erupted in violence—yet—but the threat of employer-sponsored violence is always there.
Squid Game is a vivid reminder that the life for the global working class can be brutal indeed. We can enjoy the Squid Game Christmas swag, and, believe me, I do. But when it comes to its depictions of the global precariat, Squid Game is not playing around.
Kathy M. Newman, Carnegie Mellon University