Pedro Pascal as DEA agent Javier Peña (Netflix)

Game Theory and Marx: ‘Narcos’ as a Capitalist Parable

Narcos depicts the narcotics industry as a form of capitalism run amok, an unending game motivating its central criminals.

The second season of Narcos culminates with the rooftop murder of Pablo Escobar by Drug Enforcement Administration agents. While taking down the drug kingpin was a huge victory for the agency, it was also short-lived. As the organization would discover, the death of the world’s wealthiest drug lord only escalated the War on Drugs in Colombia. Like the mythical Hydra of Lerna, cutting off the Medellín Cartel’s head only caused the four heads of the Cali Cartel to grow in its place.

Narcos expounds on the idea that the War on Drugs is a bleak quagmire, less about decisive triumphs and more about a slow, eternal slog. Even with the elimination of key criminal figures, victories are often bittersweet, accompanied by civilian casualties or political entanglements. The show depicts the narcotics industry as a form of capitalism run amok, an unending game motivating its central criminals.

The War on Drugs can be framed by game theory, as author Simon Sinek expressed in a recent TED talk. Sinek describes two types of games: finite games and infinite games. Finite games have known players, fixed rules, and agreed-upon objectives. They are stable systems. Monopoly and baseball are finite games, as is, if you will, America’s Revolutionary War, since the British agreed to recognize the independence of the United States when it lost.

On the other hand, infinite games consist of known and unknown players, changeable rules, with the objectives being to perpetuate the games. These can also be stable. The pursuit of technological progress and the Cold War (again, indulging the game analogy to war) are examples of infinite “games”. “In an infinite game, there are no winners and losers,” Sinek says, “and so we work to keep the game in play … the only thing a player can do is drop out when they either run out of the resources or the will to play.”

Games can also be unstable. In the Vietnam War, the United States fought the finite game to “win”, whereas the Viet Cong would have fought forever if they needed to, in an infinite game of survival. The War on Drugs — still being waged today — is another case of an unstable, infinite game. The DEA’s aim to bring cartel leaders to justice by any means necessary is a finite goal since the drug business transcends the figureheads of Escobar or the four Cali godfathers. The DEA’s opponent is essentially one or more corporations engaged in business, which is another perpetual, infinite game.

The final scene of Narcos‘ third season, in which a group of drug smugglers ferry boxes filled with contraband via motorboat across the Mexico-United States border, nicely sums up the theme. Agent Peña and his father watch the smugglers glide by, just out of reach, while they rebuild a fence in their yard. The smuggler’s blatant visibility undercuts the DEA’s efforts throughout the season. Peña’s father reinforces the scene’s futility, nonchalantly stating, “Stand here for an hour, and you’ll count 20 of them going by.”

After a season spent battling the Cali Cartel, the hopelessness of the situation is not lost on Peña, who diverts the conversation to the fence. “Do you have to fix the fence every time a storm hits?” His father responds, “Someone has to do it. That’s how life works.” The seemingly menial activity is an allegory for the drug war itself, as fences (and maybe soon, walls) delineate borders, demarcating who is — and more importantly, is not — allowed to cross. The human construction of the fence, and the fact that it needs constant maintenance ensures that Peña’s job will almost certainly never cease.

The scene is also a hero’s call to action, but Peña tells his father that he’s finished. “I’ve done enough,” he says. “I’m through.” Peña always acts with austere conviction, but in this scene, he truly looks exhausted. However, his longing squint as he watches the traffickers speed away betrays his true intentions. As he and his father get back to work on the fence, Peña is lost in thought. He’ll fix the fence, but he’s far from finished with the game, which he intends to win. The tragedy is that he doesn’t realize that’s not possible.

Game theory only gets us so far in explaining the drug trade. Karl Marx’s critiques of capitalism provide another lens. As he writes in Das Kapital, capitalists often make money without interest in specific tangible goods. “The expansion of value … becomes [the capitalist’s] subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist.” For Marx, the specific use of a commodity isn’t the capitalist’s aim. It is the relentless pursuit of profits merely in the interest of further profit.

Narcos‘ drug dealers are capitalists on overdrive. Both the Medellín and Cali Cartel were booming businesses with huge profit margins. Escobar, the wealthiest drug dealer who ever lived, was the seventh richest man in the world in 1989. His operation reportedly spent $2,500 a month just for rubber bands to wrap bundles of cash.

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, it costs between $585 and $780 in coca leaves to produce one kilogram of cocaine base. This can then be sold for between $24k and $27k in the United States, $53k to $55kin Europe, and a whopping $200k in Australia — a demand met repeatedly by a ravenous market. Such vast profit potential ensures there’s little stopping the Hydra, regardless of consequences.

In season three, the Cali Cartel is given six months to turn themselves in and negotiate a deal, but viewers know the dealers are too tied up in the game to consider this a viable option. They can’t just close up shop; after all, they’re supporting a business chain of suppliers and vendors, each of whom is looking out for his own prosperity.

The Cali godfathers could surely buy themselves out of the scenario they’ve found themselves in, whether by cooperating with agents and flipping information, or creating a new identity elsewhere in the world. But Escobar’s eventual execution by DEA agents, and the similarly bleak end for the Cali Cartel members, suggest that drug dealers are caught in a hedonic treadmill of generating capital for its own sake. This infinite game only ends — for its players — with death or life imprisonment.

Viewing Narcos through the lenses of game theory and capitalism helps to elucidate our own lives. Most of us know the daily struggle of working within the capitalist structure. We make money in our own infinite games, but dream of the day when complete financial independence will rescue us from the rat race. Until that day, we run on our own hedonic treadmills, where money brings temporary happiness before acclimation sets in. While our situations are probably not as dire as the criminals on Narcos, the show presents a sobering look at the relentless pursuit of money at its utter extreme within the microcosm of illegal drug trafficking.

Narcos‘ upcoming fourth season focuses on Mexico, a country whose level of police corruption is notorious. Mexico also hosts more cartel competition than Colombia, ensuring no shortage of material for the show’s creators to mine. No doubt, DEA personnel will again need to adapt to completely different terrain as agents try to bring peace to the beleaguered country. Season four could be an opportunity to explore what would happen if a drug lord does decide to squeeze through the cracks of the system and leave the game for good. But more than likely, the allure of immense riches will lead to the same fate that Narcos‘ criminals, sooner or later, have all succumbed.