Squid Game as a globalization episode, and vice versa
Metin Koca, ERC PRIME Youth Project Post-Doc Researcher, European Institute, Istanbul Bilgi University
October 27, 2021
A South Korean survival drama, Squid Game, has produced many new images that float around us. They include proposals about the EU summits, arguments in Turkish party politics, a civil service competition in Indonesia, and a pop-up store in France. It is a case of globalization not just due to its mass circulation but also due to what it tells. The show fascinatingly depicts a political order based on economic disparities, indebtedness, obstacles against upward social mobility, and the lack of means other than risking one’s life to climb up. Accordingly, a bunch of (so far) invisible hands and masked faces lead the market sustained by this political order. Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s message resembles the populist narrative about the global elite turning hopeless lower classes against each other. What is more debatable is the kind of populism it promotes and the kind of globalization it bashes. I see this controversy as an opportunity to explore several intersection points between clashing ideologies on the “left” and the “right.”
“Globalization” makes sense in discussions over the circulation of living and nonliving beings and, as we recently remembered, viruses somewhere in between. More as a metaphor than a concept, it serves as a buzzword that indicates pretty much everything good or bad about daily life. Conceptually, however, those who define it as a source of poverty, inequality, and cultural domination contest others who describe it as a source of abundance, diversity, and a “flat world.”[i] Contrary to its misleading implication of a totally new world, it hardly indicates anything unprecedented to human history but the increased velocity of circulation.[ii] That said, the globalization of the 2020s marks an unprecedented era characterized by the dominance of finance, and hence, volatile capital flows and unstable markets.
Connectedly, globalization is about the encounters between arguably exclusive cultural entities, nation-states, and multinationals. As such, it also relates to the facilitation and securitization of human movement simultaneously—e.g., the spread of passenger flights, refugee boats, and digital communication networks. In sum, any compression of time-space that standardizes and diversifies social agents has something to do with globalization.[iii] In the case of Squid Game, diversity is in the de-Americanization of the global movie sector, as well as Hwang's hyphenated identity, a consequence of several US-Korean encounters. Contrarily, standardization is in the rules and customs of Netflix.
Hwang declared that the series is an allegory for capitalism, but artists cannot control how others take their works. One positive remark on Squid Game actually strengthens the globalists’ hands. According to columnist Max Boot, Squid Game indicates that the non-US 96% of the world’s population takes its share in the global entertainment market. Boot argues that the show’s worldwide success is ironic, given its emphasis on unbridled free-market capitalism.[iv] Accordingly, the enthusiasm about the show, regardless of cultural and political boundaries, suggests that de-industrialization and free trade are not outright dangers.
As Boot rightly acknowledges, not only Trump but also Biden refrains from embracing globalization. Despite disagreeing on migration and cultural encounters, the left and the right seem to have converged on the point that globalization has exacerbated wealth inequality. This is an argument often shared by our interviewees in the PRIME Youth project, including those who support movements labeled as Radical Right and those who self-identify as Muslims and have a migration background. Among them, a member of right-wing ideologue Alain Soral’s Equality and Reconciliation movement argues: “[Globalists tell that] we will all become buddies, but in fact, we will all become slaves.”[v] Our interviewee from JUMA, an association run by German Muslims interested in politics, distinguished between globalization and internationalism: the former as “power in the hands of the few,” and the latter as a negotiated distribution of resources.[vi]
Given that the place of equality in Squid Game—i.e., the games themselves—is where the players are getting killed by the guards, some argued that the show could not have been intended to praise the communist aspirations for central planning. YouTuber Tim Pool, who supported Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential elections, interpreted the show as criticizing communism instead of capitalism. From this perspective, what the creators charge as capitalism is actually “corruption” or “corporatism.”
On the other hand, the egalitarian but deadly game appears in the show as a byproduct of the capitalist system. Though it is debatable whether the Rothschild-type party animals are inherent in capitalism, the game requires these billionaires’ money and contempt to keep running. According to many, the story is a realistic statement of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. Moreover, as Dani Di Placido underlines, “being anti-capitalist does not necessarily equate to being pro-communist.”[vii] This point is also one that we see shared by many otherwise clashing interviewees of the PRIME Youth. Our interviewees criticize capitalism without embracing communism, at least in terms of our preconceptions about the latter. Paradoxically, the globalization they dislike also provides them with vast inventories to remake while turning against the system.
Conclusion: Anti-Globalization or Alter-Globalization
Although contestation on meanings is a polarizing aspect of globalization,[viii] it also binds the clashing parties. With the controversy it aroused, Squid Game opened a new field of engagement between the anti-globalization, alter-globalization, and pro-globalization arguments. Without eradicating globalization, this engagement may soon turn into a shared call that draws attention to wealth inequality.
[i] Thomas L. Friedman, “It’s a Flat World, after All,” The New York Times 3 (2005): 33–37.
[ii] James H. Mittelman, “Globalization: An Ascendant Paradigm?,” International Studies Perspectives 3, no. 1 (February 1, 2002): 1–14, https://doi.org/10.1111/1528-3577.00075.
[iii] David Harvey, “Time—Space Compression and the Postmodern,” Modernity: After Modernity 4 (1999): 98–118.
[iv] Max Boot, “Opinion | The Success of ‘Squid Game’ Illustrates the Benefits of Globalization and Free Trade,” Washington Post, accessed October 23, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/05/world-tv-boom-shows-benefits-of-globalization/.
[v] PRIME Youth Interview, 4 October 2020.
[vi] PRIME Youth Interview, 27 July 2020.
[vii] Dani Di Placido, “The Meaning Of Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Is Being Misinterpreted,” Forbes, accessed October 25, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2021/10/21/the-meaning-of-netflixs-squid-game-is-being-misinterpreted/.
[viii] see Moghaddam’s arguments on radicalization and globalization: “How Internet ‘echo Chambers’ Lead to Faster Radicalization,” WHYY (blog), accessed October 26, 2021, https://whyy.org/articles/how-internet-echo-chambers-lead-to-faster-radicalization/.