The social exclusion project of Guedes and Bolsonaro

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South Korea depicted in Round 6 and Brazilian capitalism

Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang, Professor of Political Economics of Development at the University of Cambridge, has written a thought-provoking book entitled 23 things we weren't told about capitalism. Professor Chang has shown in his works a very critical perspective in relation to the functioning of the capitalist system, leading us to relativize some clichés of liberal Economist that very little dialogue with real life in capitalist societies.

The fact that he is Korean is relevant. South Korea and the so-called Asian Tigers were, from the 1980s onwards, the main propaganda piece for the supposed triumph of a model of capitalism as an alternative to the already worn-out Western model. More than that, it seems to us that the Korean cultural industry is really being assimilated by the western world. Anime aesthetics are a hit among teenagers all over the world. Since the Oscar given to Parasite making it the first foreign language film to win the American Film Academy's Best Picture Award and the success of K-pop and its mix of genres, which Koreans have gained in popularity. The worldwide success of the series Round 6 it's just a logical consequence of a film industry that has become one of the most original and vigorous in the world.

What do we have to learn from Asians? Would they be owners of a superior strategic intelligence, results of their respective millennial cultures? In Brazil, South Korea became the main reference of triumphant capitalism and vigorously conquered the hearts and minds of Brazilian liberals. The Brazilian bourgeoisie found in Korean industrial development an example of a poor cousin (Brazil and South Korea are peripheries of the Capitalist World System), which managed to triumph by betting on more capitalism. Even in this case, our bourgeoisie has shown itself to be mediocre and dishonest. It was not concerned with making the analysis of the Korean “triumph” more sophisticated, nor did it seek to incorporate the developmental actions of the Korean bourgeoisie. Florestan Fernandes has already reminded us that our bourgeoisie is atavistically counterrevolutionary. I add that she is “pathologically” self-indulgent, insensitive and usurious. Much is said that the Lula government took advantage of the good winds coming from the foreign market, but, however, we did not take advantage enough to create a Samsung or a Hyundai.

On the other hand, if a few decades ago we already had a better economy than the Korean one, part of the “success” of Korean capitalism is explained by economist Uallace Moreira as follows: “(...) it is undeniable that the cohesion between the State guided by a developmentalist elite and private oligopolies that accepted – and to some extent influenced – the supply of subsidies and the state's strategic orientation maximized the external opportunity.”[I]

This is the basic difference between Brazil and South Korea, we never had an elite that we could call developmentalist. However, it matters little that the Korean elite is more concerned with national development than the Brazilian one, after all (and this will be explained in Round 6) the people will always be a number as long as we are subject to the rules and ethics (or lack thereof) of a wild and excluding capitalism, whether Korean or Brazilian.

Furthermore, for the average Brazilian, a supporter of the vulgar thesis that a country only becomes rich if it invests in education, South Korea has become the best expression of this thesis, on this the aforementioned Professor Chang, to the disappointment of many, wrote: “What really matters in determining national prosperity is not the level of education of the people but the ability of the nation to organize people into high-productivity enterprises.”[ii]

          Brazilian liberals, like federal deputy Kim Kataguiri, always very jealous of their subservience to international capital, make a point of covering up the fact that we are running in circles when we insist on the argument that education will make Brazil a richer and more developed country . With the degree of mechanization and the increasingly indiscriminate use of high technology in the means of production, a good part of the workforce, whether in rich or peripheral countries, will be increasingly “replacing goods on supermarket shelves, frying hamburgers in restaurants fast food and cleaning offices”.[iii] The Brazilian “liberal” remains obtuse and repeats economic mantras that have already been overcome even among liberals in the center of world capitalism.

Even in the face of all the negative evidence of neoliberal economic policies, which create the poor and miserable, Brazilian ultraliberals (represented by minister Paulo Guedes' group) prefer to embrace a development strategy that insists on reproducing the old logic of the worn-out Washington Consensus, and put themselves in defense of a range of neoliberal clichés such as the minimal State, which includes completely deconstructing any type of social security, a labor reform that hits labor relations to death, precariousing the social protection of the working class and the strong investment in a economic system that concentrates income and generates social exclusion.

However, our hardened liberals, eternal fans of the “Korean triumph”, did not count that a work of fiction would cause an impact, at least embarrassing to their economic theses. The South Korean series titled in Brazil Round 6 (the original name is Jogo da Lula or Squid Game) gained viewers all over the world and, when seen in 90 countries, it broke all the audience records of the famous streaming platform Netflix.

I don't know how far I'll go spoilers, but the series revolves around a deadly game played by individuals in conditions of social vulnerability who see in the billionaire prize offered by the game the solution to their personal problems. At first, we could argue that the series becomes interesting due to the fact that the elements that make up its central structure configure the best expression of the conflict of generations that was imposed in the 70st century with the consolidation of the internet and social networks. It is very common for parents raised in the 80s and XNUMXs to insist, when arguing with their connected children, on the worn-out discourse of “in my time we played tops and marbles”.

We are definitely in the era of the digital generation. This is a generation that, as a result of stratospheric technological development, was forced to re-signify the very concept of fun. The series appeals to a colorful look with scenarios that refer to the first video games. The retro aesthetic is still a strategy to provoke a certain nostalgia in the audience, even though it remains in the universe of ever-updated technological fun. The choice, as a challenge to the participants, of games that refer to a remote childhood, is certainly deliberate due to their ability to have an easy-to-understand language and their universality. This is better characterized when the screenwriter chooses to explain the rules of the “Squid Game” in the opening of the series, perhaps because it is a game restricted to the mental universe of a Korean child. After that, what we have is the old tug of war and the marble. The series can even be accused of appealing to exaggerated violence, but Western pop culture has already been duly “softened” by the lysergic aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino's films.

After enthralling the “audience” with the strategic use of visual communication, Round 6 penetrates our critical consciousness by putting the audience in touch with an explicitly political/social discourse about South Korea in the XNUMXst century.

The story narrated by South Korean screenwriter and director Hwang Dong-hyuk is based on small critical essays referring to the functioning of Korean capitalism. Its main characters (or players) are responsible for bringing together a decadent life experience in each of them. We have a striking worker who lost his job in a process of “administrative reengineering” of the company, a refugee from communist North Korea trying to survive amidst the misery of the “individualistic collectivity” of the capitalist South, a poor student who dared to enter the prestigious universe of “meritocratic” Korean higher education, a Pakistani living the hardships of an exploited emigrant in a foreign land and a decadent mafia bandit.

They are subjects that populate the much admired (mainly by Brazilian liberals) South Korean capitalism. 2021 is also the context of the Coronavirus and all its disastrous impact on countries traditionally with low density in terms of the welfare state. South Korea is one such country. Deprived of a public system of universal social security, the Korean is as much a victim of savage capitalism as a Brazilian, a Bolivian or an Angolan. Two elderly characters in the series portray well how a country of elderly people did not bother to offer a social security system that would ensure them a safer and healthier end of life. One of the reasons that led one of the characters to submit to the cruelty of the game's rules is precisely the need to pay for medical treatment for his mother.

The character Cho Sang-Woo is symbolic to demonstrate how exclusionary and elitist the higher education system in South Korea is. Born and raised in a peripheral neighborhood, he became a kind of “local hero” just because he was the only one in the community to have managed to enter the University of Seoul and consequently pierce the bubble of the Korean corporate elite. It is interesting how the ministers of education in the Bolsonaro government want to reproduce this exclusionary and elitist logic in Brazil. But Cho Sang-Woo also serves another discourse in the series, that of the individual who came from the bottom of the social pyramid and who, by “receiving” the privilege of social ascension, did not manage to become immune to the excessive ambition present in the corporate world, disappointing the family and the very community from which he came. This, by the way, was the great ethical/social dilemma that led Cho Sang-Woo to the deadly game.

South Korea depicted in Round 6 it is literally a debt society. Individuals move alone and helpless in the midst of a cruel and insensitive system well suited to the exacerbated individualism preached by the capitalist liberal logic. They are free to choose between hell or hell.

Round 6 is quite direct in his political speech. The scathing criticism of Korean capitalism can be summed up, among other moments, with the following sentence present in the script: “there are two hells, and the worst is reality”. Mirroring a model that the current government led by Mr. Paulo Offshore Guedes seeks to implement in Brazil (and with the support of a surreal middle class) the Korean series portrays the fall in income levels and the increase in poverty, amplified as a result of an inhumane neoliberal labor reform, initiated in the 90s by the government of Kim Young-Sam, who promised more jobs and delivered more misery and an increase in precarious informal work.[iv]

Although it is also good fun, for us Brazilians Round 6 it is primarily a future warning and a life lesson. The reality of Korean society portrayed in the series is an Asian outline of what Brazil has become in recent years. But make no mistake, we haven't hit rock bottom yet. With the deepening of the reforms, mainly the administrative one that will hit the civil service in full, and the privatist rage of Guedes and Jair, the savage Brazilian capitalism still has a lot of firewood to burn. In fact, in a burst of “sincericide” Bolsonaro himself said: “Nothing is so bad that it can’t get worse”. Go see Brazil.

But despite the open unmasking of Korean capitalism provoked by the series, a “distinguished” representative of Brazilian ultraliberalism, Federal Deputy Kim Kataguiri, still found space to exercise his profound intellectual and ideological dishonesty by comparing, through a meme, the story portrayed in Round 6 with socialism. The Herculean effort made by the “noble” parliamentarian in making the infamous comparison, and even having the audacity to publish it on his social network, only makes explicit the low intellectual and ethical level of this bunch of right-wingers who emerged from the darkness in the post-2013 and by naturalizing a civilizational setbacks laid the foundations that enabled the rise of a guy like Jair Bolsonaro and all his burlesque representativeness completely devoid of human empathy. In Round 6, definitely, art imitates life and shows its cruelest face.

*Eduardo Borges Professor of History at the State University of Bahia.


[I]Lima, Uallace Moreira. The debate on South Korea's economic development process: an alternative line of interpretation. Economy and Society, Campinas, v. 26, no. 3 (61), p. 585-631, Dec. 2017, p. 586.

[ii] CHANG, Ha-Joon. 23 Things We're Not Told About Capitalism. São Paulo: Cultrix, 2013, p. 247

[iii]CHANG. op. cit., p. 254.

[iv]Moreira, Uallace. Round 6, K-pop and Korean Cinema.


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