There was a pile of cash on a brown rug in the middle of an ice rink in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Around the money, donated by CU Mortgage Direct, stood ten teachers. When the go was given, the teachers fell on their knees and began stuffing the cash (5000 one-dollar bills) into their shirts. The carpet was cold. This was half-time entertainment for a minor league hockey game. The audience cheered as the teachers scrambled for money they could use in their underfunded classes.
The people at CU Mortgage Direct very quickly realized that using teachers for their first-ever "Dash for Cash" event was far from a good idea. The Twitter storm on Sunday, December 12 was furious by Monday, December 13. It's common knowledge that America's primary and secondary public education system is notoriously hard on cash. In fact, Adopt A Classroom recently reported that American teachers "spent an average of $750 on school supplies out of pocket during the 2020-2021 school year. The highest amount ever." Also a part of our common knowledge is that the US military, which hasn't won a war in a very long time, is obscenely over-funded. This is why the cash game had the appearance for many of American decline and growing spiritual emptiness.
The Washington Post imagined what it would look like if "other professions" did the "Dash for Cash." Cops? Soldiers? Federal agents? And to top it all off, "South Dakotan teachers earned an average of $49,000 in 2020, according to South Dakota News Watch. The state ranks 49th in teacher salary in the United States."
But the most important impression on many Americans horrified by what they saw in the viral video was how the anti-capitalist Korean TV hit Squid Game was transferred from the realm of the imagination to that of the all too real.
Squid Game was a critique on capitalism. It wasn't supposed to be a manual. https://t.co/5VqZM6mFVc
— bread and circuses (@phortuenti) December 12, 2021
One could say that increased funding is the solution to what happened on the cold-cash carpet in the Sioux Falls ice rink. And how could you disagree with this? Indeed, CU Mortgage Direct, in an effort at damage control, donated, according to the Argus, "additional money to area teachers" after issuing an apology for what they thought would "provide a positive and fun experience for teachers."
But to reason in this way is to entirely miss the key meaning of the Squid Game and how it exposed the rotten core of a family-friendly event, "Dash for Dollars."
The question we need to ask at this point, which contains no spoilers, concerns the substance of Squid Game. What is the core of this show? Clearly it's a critique of a form of social experience that's determined by the exchange of commodities. We call this experience capitalism. But what exactly makes this kind of experience possible? And it’s here Squid Game comes into play. The show knows that the South Korean experience, as with that in the US and any other countries caught in the global network of ever-expanding value extraction, creation, and circulation, is determined by abstractions that are indeed real but, at the same time, external to the mind. With capitalism, the abstract informs the mind, rather than the other way around. Grasp this, and you'll have Squid Game by its tail.
What Squid Game, the most openly Marxist hit TV show of this century, exposed to the public was not so much the popular addiction to competitive sports. No, it was how capitalist reality (how we work, buy, eat, sleep) is all-around abstract. The experience of commodity culture is not directly natural, but it is nevertheless real. It is "in the world" and, as such, is often a matter of life and death for many people. Are you cold tonight? Are you sleeping outside tonight? Are you hungry tonight? How one answers these questions depends on the extent of their participation in the objective abstractions of capital.
To understand this better, place a job in your mind. We imagine that what a person is paid for their labor has to be less than the value (which, if all goes as planned, is transformed into a price in the defining moment in the accumulation process—realization) they contribute to an enterprise—otherwise, where would the profit come from? This seems very basic, but it's not when we meet the question: Can a person live on their wages?
If so, how is this liveability determined? Can, say, a person in Germany live on the same wages as a person in Zimbabwe? Not at all. Is the stomach of the Zimbabwean smaller? Not at all. Is the Zimbabwean tougher? Not at all. A standard Zimbabwean wage-earner would starve to death in high-income Germany. So, what does it take to live in a given capitalist society? How is this measured? The answer for a school of Marxism that's close to the first volume of Capital and the Grundrisse is "socially necessary labor time." Meaning, what is socially necessary for self-maintenance and social reproduction in Zimbabwe is not the same as what it is in Germany.
Capitalist work, it must be understood, is measured not by effort, not by the amount time and energy expended. It is instead determined culturally—that is to say, it's an abstraction. It isn't in your body, or even your head, but very much outside of you. The rules and rewards of all work in capitalist reality are socially (that is, culturally) fabricated and mediated. This is why the labor theory of value is worthless. This kind of value refers to only concrete labor (the physical expenditure of muscles, bones, brains, and so on), but what determines your place in the job market, and therefore in capitalist society, which is not defined by relations between people but exchangeable things, is abstract labor. You cannot touch or see this abstraction. There is not an atom in it. But it is out there and has material effects. This is why thinkers following the Frankfurt School (Sohn-Rethel, Postone, Lotz) call it "real abstraction."
Here, the Kantian categories for the possibility of human experience (time, space, causality) are uprooted from the transhistorical schema in your head (and therefore in the heads of all humans before you and after you) and replanted in a historically specific and fabricated outside.
Now we see Squid Game, and also the light the show vividly threw on the teachers in the ice rink. It looks like a game, it's clearly culturally constructed, but it's as real as a heart attack.
According to Sioux Falls Argus Leader, this is how much teachers in the "Dash for Cash" grabbed:
Melissa Cole- Centerville Public School: $409
Tasha Davis- Dell Rapids Public: $378
Patrick Heyen- Memorial Middle School: $478
Barry Longden- Harrisburg High School: $616
Jill Kratovil- Madison Central: $569
Alexandria Kuyper- Discovery Elementary School: $592
Sawyer Schmitz- Webster Elementary School: $513
Stephanie Sparks- Brandon Valley Middle School: $574
Amy Staples- Oscar Howe Elementary School: $473
Leah Van Tol- LifeScape Specialty School: $379
Real abstractions are a matter of life and death, or a good education and a bad one, which can also be a matter of life and death.