‘Squid Game’ Speaks to the Crisis of Being in Debt
Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for Squid Game.
Now the most viewed show in Netflix history, Squid Game — a South Korean series that’s reached No. 1 across 90 countries — shows the plight of 456 players who participate in a unique and dangerous contest. Forced to play half a dozen rounds of household children’s games such as marbles and tug-of-war, the winner will be awarded billions of dollars in cash; the 455 losers face instant death.
The acting and imagery in Squid Game are phenomenal, but the characters’ relatable financial circumstances also help explain why the show has struck a nerve. Personal debt is a grave problem in South Korea, and the narrative also resonates profoundly in the United States, where nearly 75% of Americans die with an average $62,000 in debt.
The players in Squid Game come from many walks of life, but they are all desperate to pay back their creditors and elude the moral shame of indebtedness. When the players initially ask why they were chosen, a guard explains that they’re all “living on the brink of financial ruin,” getting “chased by [their] creditor” because of debts they can’t afford to pay off.
The parallels between Squid Game and the hypercapitalistic, debt-powered economy of countries like South Korea and the U.S. couldn’t be more glaring. The Korean-language horror-drama is quite explicit in its symbolic imagery, including white billionaire “VIPs” with financially and morally gross incentives and masked, police-adjacent foot soldiers who work to keep the creditors’ own crimes confidential. To an American audience whose public goods, such as health care, housing, and education, are all individually debt-financed, privatized commodities, a rigged game in which debtors compete for financial freedom hits close to home.
Today’s American household debt totals nearly $15 trillion — and that’s just what we can count. Many forms of working-poor debt, like payday loans, carceral debt, and utilities, aren’t even counted by the Federal Reserve. Paying back college loans has become America’s own Squid Game, with usurious interest rates designed to ensure virtually every player loses — and that the poorest are the most harshly punished. Defaulting can mean a warrant for arrest, losing your driver’s license, or having Social Security checks garnished. The same story can be told for payday loans, medical, criminal legal, and credit card debt. Even municipal debt has a choke hold on our cities, which are burdened by more than $160 billion just in annual interest payments to wealthy Wall Street investors.
Economic woes may draw the players to the game, but predatory recruitment tactics shouldn’t be ignored. The Squid Game recruiter who persuades protagonist Seong Gi-hun to join the games is akin to the for-profit colleges who prey on veterans or single Black mothers to enroll in scam programs, or the peddlers of subprime mortgages who helped eviscerate Black family wealth in the 2008 crash.
In the show, it’s not until the debtors play the first game — Red Light, Green Light — that they discover what’s really at stake. When over half the players are shockingly eliminated and gruesomely murdered, a consequence no one saw coming, the remaining players join together and collectively demand an abrupt end to the games, allowing everyone to return home alive. Essentially, they unionize, leveraging their collective power to disrupt incentives for the game to go on.
As an organizer with the Debt Collective, the nation’s first debtors’ union, this brief moment in the show exemplifies how our union can show strength. Just as labor unions collectively bargain for improved wages or working conditions, the Debt Collective believes unionized debtors can win broad-scale debt cancellation and change how we finance public goods.
We put our theory to the test, in 2015, when we organized the first student loan strike in history, the Corinthian 15, followed by the Biden Jubilee 100 earlier this year. To date, we’ve won billions in student loan cancellation for people who were scammed by for-profit colleges and put the demand for mass student debt elimination on the political map. Like the Squid Game participants, we went on debt strike and refused to p(l)ay.
When the Squid Game contestants later return to play the game, their power to collectively bargain as debtors remains. The Debt Collective wants to inspire the kind of leverage we should be threatening today — what we call economic disobedience.
Take student loans, for instance: Forty-five million debtors are saddled with nearly $2 trillion in student debt, spending years paying back the government only to find their balance inevitably soars past the original principal as time passes and interest piles up. This coming February, two years after a moratorium paused payments and interest on all federal student loans, President Biden is slated to turn monthly payments back on, despite widespread economic precarity that has been worsened by the pandemic.
Imagine if a majority of us decided not to pay? Would a combination of strategic default, $0 monthly payments, and a collective demand to cancel all student debt help us win full cancellation? It’s a question worth asking. After all, if the pandemic has revealed anything, it’s that the federal government can function just fine without our student loan payments. Those payments have been paused since March 2020 and the sky hasn’t fallen.
But the Debt Collective demand is greater than the abolition of all student debt, because the same crisis would begin again a semester later; as a start, we believe all universities should be tuition-free. As Debt Collective cofounder Hannah Appel wrote, “The potential of debtors’ unions…is not merely to refuse and renegotiate illegitimate debts” but also to “force open questions that the era of finance seems to have foreclosed.” In other words, a call to discharge student debt must coincide with a demand to radically reshape our economy and create true reparative public goods, like tuition-free college and Medicare for All.
That’s also one of the takeaways of Squid Game. As the series ends, Seong shows that he understands this concept and races to prevent another victim from the Squid Game’s predatory recruiter. He understands that winning the Squid Game isn’t everything if the game continues to be played — a sentiment of solidarity that resonates with Debt Collective members fighting for the cancellation of other’s debts after their own may have been abolished.
Sometimes we need fiction to help us see reality in all its absurdity, terror — and possibility. What real life games are we forced to play? Putting medical bills on a credit card or going into debt to pay back pandemic-era rent? In our version, the losers really can die. But a growing debtors’ union can begin to answer these questions, and flex an untapped source of power too. For a moment, the debtors in Squid Game unionized and embraced the collective power of their financial obligations. We must do the same.
Braxton Brewington is a community organizer and spokesperson for the Debt Collective.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.