We must connect two recent developments in mainstream culture. One is the present and very unexpected popularity of Netflix's Korean-language TV series Squid Game; the other is the social media storm the Canadian singer Grimes caused with her performance of reading (or "flipping through the pages" of) Karl Marx's first major work, The Communist Manifesto, on the streets of Los Angeles.
What do these developments have in common? Or, put another (and better) way, what are they telling us? A Korean horror show about indebted people 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 the most radical text of the British moment of capitalism (also known as the long 19th century) to show social media how she is processing her split from a man whose present worth is an unimaginable $200 billion. We must somehow make sense of all this.
One might think the connection is class struggle. That old war between the haves and have nots. And indeed, this is the opening (and unfortunate) sentence of the Manifesto: "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (Marx wrote this "gripping" nonsense as a young man). But we can expect that Grimes, if she managed to skip the prefaces to various editions of the book, got to and completed this sentence, may, with her baby's daddy happening to be the richest man in the world (or at least he was on the day she was reading the book), have found what she was looking (or wanted to be seen looking) for in the very short revolutionary pamphlet. What more is there to say about the matter than that?
As for Squid Game, a TV series directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, we have a group of deeply indebted people surrendering their humanity to the darkest of forces for the long shot of winning billions of won (South Korean currency). There is even talk in certain circles that sees this series as an expression of the real living conditions of contemporary South Korean capitalism.
American households on average have a debt of about 8.6% of their income. The latest for Korea has the average debt per household at about 192% of their income. https://t.co/dveXtQZCXf
— Eric Hu (@_EricHu) October 3, 2021
And there is something to this interpretation. Squid Game is not, by the way, the only Korean work to examine indebtedness in such a horrific way. There's also Kim Ki-duk's masterpiece Pietà, a 2012 film about a loan shark who only lends money to factory workers with insurance policies for limb/life-destroying industrial accidents. If the worker does not pay him back, guess what he forces them to do to get his money back. (Squid Game also shows a hand crushed by an industrial machine.)
But let's return to The Communist Manifesto. As with much of Karl Marx's work, it has not much to say, systematically, about class struggle. It does, however, provide vivid descriptions of the bourgeois revolution and how it transformed the world of his times and established a whole new society that put all former civilizational achievements "in the shade." Marx was at once a Victorian (he believed in progress, the religion of his age) and a theorist of capitalist political economy.
You will even find less about class struggle in Karl Marx's mature work (particularly Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy). During this period, he was preoccupied with what he identified as the defining aspect of the capitalist totality, which is the immaterial organization of "social relations." The key to this cultural system's success is its impersonality. As a culture, it operates as a force of nature—like rain or snow or a hurricane. Capitalism impresses itself as an object without a subject, in the sense that a thunderstorm is not somebody or has no will of its own. This cultural force, capital, presses on "the backs of the producers of commodities." And it is here we have something that makes sense of the situation of the unfortunate characters in Squid Game.
From Marx's mature work Grundrisse:
The very necessity of first transforming 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 now produce only for society and in society; (2) that production is not directly social, is not ' the offspring of association', which distributes labour internally. Individuals are subsumed under social production; [and] social production exists outside them as their fate...
There is no outside to capitalism for them. It dominates and directs their lives completely. The chances of beating the gun (by the ownership of a small business, by violent crime, by high finance) are slim. The core of Squid Game, then, is not even class struggle, which is, for sure, the motor of social progress. The show even mocks one of the greatest achievements of class struggle, democracy. The participants of the deadly game are actually allowed to vote for an exit in the first episode, "Red Light, Green Light." But by the second episode, "Hell," many realize that the heart of social democracy (the right to vote) is worthless in the total and fateful capitalist order, and return 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 this way: In capitalist society, the "individual carries his social power, as well as his bond with society, in his pocket."