The world watches the squid game as Grimes reads Marx – Slog
“Wake up, it’s time to die.” Netflix, squid game
We need to relate two recent developments in the mainstream culture. One is the current and very unexpected popularity of Netflix’s Korean-language TV series. Squid game; the other is the social media storm that Canadian singer Grimes caused with her reading performance (or “leaf through the pages“from) Karl Marx’s first major work, The Communist Manifesto, in the streets of Los Angeles.
What do these developments have in common? Or, in other words (and better), what are they telling us? A Korean horror show about people in debt competing for a huge cash prize at the end of a series of hyper-violent children’s games designed to entertain the ultra-rich; a pop star using what many consider to be the most radical text of the British moment of capitalism (also known as the long 19th century) to show on social media how she is dealing with her split with a man whose current worth of $ 200 billion is unimaginable. We kind of have to make sense of it all.
One might think that the link is the class struggle. This old war between the haves and have-nots. And indeed, this is the opening (and unfortunate) sentence of the Manifesto: “The history of the whole of society existing up to now is the history of class struggles” (Marx wrote this “startling” absurdity in his youth). But we can expect that Grimes, if she manages to skip the prefaces of the different editions of the book, come up and finish this sentence, can, with her baby daddy who just happens to be the richest man in the world. (or at least he was on the day she read the book), found what she was looking for (or wanted to be seen looking for) in the very short revolutionary pamphlet. What more can we say on the subject than that?
As for Squid game, a TV series directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, we have a group of deeply in debt people who surrender their humanity to the darkest forces in an effort to earn billions of won (South Korean currency). There is even talk in some circles who see in this series the expression of the real living conditions of contemporary South Korean capitalism.
American households have an average debt of about 8.6% of their income. The latest for Korea has the average debt per household at around 192% of their income. https://t.co/dveXtQZCXf
– Eric Hu (@_EricHu) October 3, 2021
And there is something in this interpretation. Squid game Moreover, is not the only Korean book to examine debt in such a horrific way. There is also the masterpiece of Kim Ki-duk Pietà, a 2012 film about a loan shark who only lends money to factory workers with insurance policies for fatal industrial accidents. If the worker doesn’t pay him back, guess what he’s forcing him to do to get his money back. (Squid game also shows a hand crushed by an industrial machine.)
But back to The Communist Manifesto. As with most of Karl Marx’s work, he doesn’t have much to say, systematically, about the class struggle. It does, however, provide vivid descriptions of the bourgeois revolution and how it transformed the world of its time and established a whole new society that put all old civilizational achievements “in the shadows.” Marx was both a Victorian (he believed in progress, the religion of his day) and a theorist of capitalist political economy.
You will find even less of the class struggle in the mature work of Karl Marx (especially Capital: Volume 1: A critique of political economy). During this period, he was concerned with what he identified as the determining aspect of the capitalist totality, which is the intangible organization of “social relations”. The key to the success of this cultural system is its impersonality. As a culture, it functions as a force of nature, like rain, snow, or a hurricane. Capitalism imposes itself as an object without a subject, in the sense that a storm is not someone or has no will of its own. This cultural force, capital, presses “on the backs of the producers of goods”. And this is where we have something that makes sense of the plight of the unhappy characters in Squid game.
From the mature work of Marx Grundrisse:
The very need to first transform individual products or activities … into money, so that they obtain and demonstrate their social power in this objective form, proves two things: (1) that individuals no longer produce except for society and in society; (2) that production is not directly social, is not “the product of association”, which distributes labor within. Individuals are subsumed under social production; [and] social production exists outside of them like their destiny …
There is no exterior to capitalism for them. He dominates and completely rules their life. The chances of beat the gun (by small business ownership, by violent crime, by high finance) are slim. The core of Squid game, then, is not even the class struggle, which is undoubtedly the engine of social progress. The show even pokes fun at one of the greatest achievements of the class struggle, democracy. Participants in the Deadly Game are actually allowed to vote for an release in the first episode, “Red Light, Green Light”. But from the second episode, “Hell”, many realize that the heart of social democracy (the right to vote) is worth nothing in the total and fateful capitalist order, and come back to what is for them the only game in town.
How can we best describe the kind of society that made the horrors of Squid game imaginable? Marx put it like that: In capitalist society, “the individual carries in his pocket his social power, as well as his link with society”.