Squid Game is a Netflix Korean television series about a perverse organisation that runs deadly versions of kids games. The participants are financially struggling Koreans who sign their rights away to the organisation in the faint hope of winning the competition. The players are drugged, ferried to remote island, allotted numbers, housed in a common dormitory space and subjected to strict regimes and constant surveillance. They are entirely cut off from the outside world in a huge artificial space that is part prison, part brightly coloured maze, part grim factory, part crematorium and part sunny children’s playground. Masked workers supervise the ‘play’, dispatch ‘eliminated contestants’, dispose of their remains and follow their own dehumanising protocols. A mysterious ‘Leader’ coordinates events, watches every aspect of the game and dispenses justice as required. The players alternate between attitudes of fear, resignation, craven survival and glimmers of humanity. Overall, the work is a tragic-comic reflection on global capitalism and the social conditions of democracy. More than this, its bold dystopian vision has a transcendental clarity, addressing the basis of political community.
At one point, for instance, in the fourth episode, the Leader confronts a worker who has been secretly advising a player on what game will be played the next day. Prior to executing the worker, the Leader explains that he has breached the most important principle of the game – equality. All players must compete equally. This despite the fact that the game is a massive expression of inequality and the organisation itself is thoroughly hierarchical. Despite the fact also that equality depends precisely upon the loss of identity (positioning players as numbers who have ceded all their rights to the organisation, and the members of the organisation themselves as faceless masks). Equality here then is an entirely empty quality, bound by many layers of contradiction. From a Marxist standpoint, a key contradiction is that the players willingly acquiesce to this model because it accords with their lived experience – they have interiorised the market conditions of society and regard themselves in terms of the arithmetic of exchange value. They are struggling for their share of the global sum – struggling towards a financial measurable equality.
All of this inevitably reminds me of French philosopher Jacques Ranciere’s notion that equality is not a goal to struggle towards, but rather an axiomatic presupposition. Drawing upon the model of Ancient Greece, and more specifically Solon’s injunction that no Greek citizen shall be a slave, Ranciere argues that equality involves allocating an abstractly conceived part of the demos to those who have no part. It has its basis then in inequality. The aim of radical politics is to insist upon an equality that is both empty and actual. Many layers of paradox are evident in Ranciere’s conception, just as many layers of contradiction shape the Leader’s allegiance to equality. While the Leader’s conception involves no thinking of resistance, while it adheres to the overall conditions of inequality, he nonetheless shares Ranciere’s formal, axiomatic focus. The basis of human society is conceived in terms of the abstraction of equality. Here, there is a need to insist otherwise. There is and can be no adequate measure of equality. Equality is not the point. What matters more is a commonality that hinges on ties of necessity, sociality and care. Equal rights, equal before the law, equity at the level of opportunity, wealth, education, etc. – all of this, yes, but not an abstract equality that conceives, at least notionally, the possibility of some adequate measure of human worth; as though this measure and its implementation provides the basis for social being when it does nothing of the sort.