3. 9. 2022

GameStop Consciousness

M. Mikhail

In January 2021, as the reality of a second pandemic year began to sink in, news of an unexpected movement “from below” started to spread, as, so the story goes, an army of Reddit users, mostly congregating on the r/WallStreetBets thread, mobilized to undercut the handful of hedge funds who were betting against the success of a publicly traded brick-and-mortar video game store: GameStop. In the weeks to follow, hundreds of thousands of individual, non-institutional Millennial and Gen Z traders (retail traders) across the globe flooded online brokerage companies like Robinhood or Wealthsimple to collectively buy as many GameStop ($GME) shares as possible, causing the trading price of $GME to shoot up by 1500% at its peak. In the frenzy, a handful of people became millionaires; many more saw their savings bleed out in a matter of weeks or days; afterwards, nothing much about the order of things, strictly speaking, had changed. Yes, smaller hedge funds closed up shop altogether, and Melvin Capital and Citron Capital, the hedge funds with the biggest bullseyes trained on them by the retail-trading masses, did suffer major losses, but they had enough assets to recoup and keep operating. Others bet correctly and emerged from the event several hundred million dollars richer. 

More than a year after those events, I am still trying to weigh their significance. White Square Capital, a London-based investment firm that bet incorrectly against GameStop and folded shortly after the stock’s rally, boasted a business model dedicated to “identifying and capitalizing on human behavioural biases.” Clearly, given the chaos of the digital age’s first global pandemic, betting on human behaviour turned out to be difficult. The Sardinian thinker Antonio Gramsci, writing at the height of the Russian Revolution, suggested that “in a proletarian revolution, the unknown variable ‘humanity’ is more mysterious than in any other event.” Granted, the GameStop phenomenon was certainly not anything resembling a proletarian revolution. But as it was happening, there did indeed seem to be something of a patchy class consciousness permeating the Internet forums where its participants hung out. Friends of mine even believed it to be a true expression of class struggle.

I just couldn’t see it. Here was a mass of working people, struggling through a global pandemic to pay medical bills, rent, mortgages, and so on, who had expressed that enough was enough; they were going to take matters into their own hands. Yet the way they wanted to do this was, apparently, by getting rich. This wasn’t about seizing the means of production in any manner that would involve a seizure of machinery or other real property. Instead, it seemed, this was a desperate attempt to secure some means of survival. As one particularly nihilistic financial reporter put it, “We aren’t witnessing a popular uprising against the tyranny of finance capital. We’re just trying to mine a little more dopamine from pixels while the Earth slowly dies.”

But I’m not so sure about that, either. Socialists and other leftists might feel compelled to write off the $GME masses like that financial reporter did, dismiss them as duped by the promise that financial freedom equates to substantive freedom. The notion that the GameStop phenomenon was any sort of class struggle, such critics might say, is nothing more than an ideological alibi for the capitalist dream at the heart of so many workers, the dream that wealth can set one free from the violence of a class society. But while people have been sharing opinions and advice about their investments with each other in salons and cafes for centuries – the subreddit r/WallStreetBets is less than novel in this respect – we had never seen a collective attempt to pump up a stock that was quite so politicized, so underpinned by a “stick it to the man” rhetoric. 

Writing off tens of millions of people in the US alone as duped, deciding that the greater part of them were acting in bad faith or with a not-yet-raised consciousness of their real interests, misses an opportunity to historicize this phenomenon, where a heterogeneous mass of workers mobilized their rage at the greed of financiers and were able to upend economic activity. Rather than disregard the frenzy as merely ideological, or a one-off attempt to relieve boredom or scratch a gambler’s itch, we might understand it as the expression of a historical contradiction of our current conjuncture – where for millions, pushed to the limits of precarity by the capitalist class, it makes more sense to try one’s hand at turning a profit via compound interest or market speculation than to try to undermine the system of wage labour and extraction of surplus value that causes all of that desperation in the first place.


The market is fake and real and everywhere

Though online brokerage apps and sites saw their memberships spike during the pandemic, the conditions to welcome a new generation of small-time investors had already been ripening. According to Randy Martin’s study The Financialization of Daily Life, a whopping 50 percent of the American population were involved in some form of stock market investment as of 2002, and the numbers are similar in Canada as of 2020. These dynamics have coincided with the financial sector’s increasing tendency to turn the fundamentals of our daily lives, like housing, into investment instruments. Though these processes, often called “financialization,” have been in motion since at least the 1920s – developed through collusion between banks, legal apparatuses, and governments – they’ve become ubiquitous in the period between the 1970s and the early 2000s, permeating our everyday lives more completely, especially thanks to the digital technologies that now mediate them.

Since the financial crisis of 2007-2009, now periodized as the Great Recession, we have also seen the logic of calculation and risk that defines financialization circumscribe individuals’ lives with a new intensity, as capital sweeps into the gaps left by the erosion of the post-war welfare state’s social programs, and as finance and platform capital join forces to gamify everyday life with mobile apps and social media platforms that have invented then privatized a layer of the Internet. Fast forward to 2022, and the market for financial products accessible to everyday consumers has exploded: exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and other market index funds offer small-time investors a way to tie their money to the general rise and fall of the market; robo-advisors and a bevy of online brokerage platforms make trading attractively simple by eliminating the need to hire a (human) financial advisor or broker. Today, finance journalists report in earnest on the influence that social media platforms like TikTok (just search #StockTok) and Discord can have on the performance of stocks. 

But financialization doesn’t take only the form of a privileged access to gamified markets afforded to the middle class. It has a planetary grasp, touching all social locations within the working class as well. The financialization of daily life includes the abstraction of the home, health records, and all kinds of debt into items that can be traded on markets for profit. In this way, capital follows us into the most private corners of our lives, capturing value from what we thought to be the most inviolable aspects of our existences. Cannibalistic, it invents commodities out of its own self-generated abstractions and puts them into circulation.

These intimate encounters with market forces can and do instill in us the belief that there is simply no alternative to capitalism. But an important hallmark of socialist thinking and action is the idea that it is only through an entrenchment in, and struggle against, the structures of capitalism that the path to socialism emerges. The GameStop phenomenon was a flashpoint within those structures. While not revolutionary, it did reveal to a wider public the social, human-made nature of financial markets, a fact that economists and market-makers need to mystify if they’re to continue legitimizing the role of markets in organizing our lives. This was especially the case when popular brokerage platforms Robinhood and Wealthsimple began to halt trading activity as the $GME stock price continued to soar, leading many to believe these companies were engaging in market manipulation, behaviour undermining the myth of a free and rational market. 

While I don’t want to overstate GameStop’s political significance, it is clear that hyper-financialization in the digital age is producing new forms of subjection to capital. How might these new social relations become differently politicized? Is the GameStop phenomenon a case study in the sort of social cooperation required to challenge finance capital directly, on its home terrain?


New tools for crypto times

Today, venture capitalist “angel” investors are swooping in to seize control of countless projects cropping up using the new protocols of so-called Web 3.0, which include an emphasis on machine-learning (artificial intelligence) technologies and new mediums of exchange like cryptocurrencies. In this space, voices from the right dominate, lauding scarcity, competition, and the fabricated rationalities of the market, while completely disregarding the outrageous amounts of CO2 emitted by Bitcoin’s method of recording transactions (its so-called proof-of-work model). 

Others, though, are experimenting with ways to use some of those technologies, so often transforming our lives for the worse, as digital public goods instead: as mechanisms for cooperatively managing labour, eliminating bosses, securing fair wages, and solving issues that can arise around voting and governance participation in organizations. One project, for example, called Disco.COOP, is explicitly grounded in principles of feminist economics; it provides resources for groups to work together in cooperative ways, while also accounting and paying members for the care work they do to keep their communities going. The project works by giving interested groups access to a stack of digital tools that can facilitate work-tracking, payment, voting, and governance in whichever way the group deems appropriate to meet their own needs – whether that project be self-managing an urban farming collective or running a mixed-media arts cooperative. Each group (“Disco”) in the larger Disco.COOP ecosystem contributes to replenishing the Disco.COOP commons pool from which all participating groups are paid for their work in cryptocurrency. The project explicitly articulates a political-economic stance that opposes capitalist principles of profit, accumulation, and alienated labour.

Such hopeful Web 3.0 projects can seem too good to be true, and maybe they are. After all, central banks and states have already begun to push for the regulation of cryptocurrency for their own benefit. But if I learned anything from the GameStop phenomenon, it’s that millions of people can self-organize quickly to confront the market forces that order our lives. What if the tools we need to sustain transformative levels of global cooperation, the tactics we need to struggle effectively against financialized global capitalism, are already emerging? What if they’re already here?

M. is a graduate student working and living in Toronto whose interests include urban political economy, financialization, and anarcho-marxism.