At times I’ve seen people on the left and the right hand-wringing over who is more anti-establishment than the other, and I suppose the question they all attempt to work out is what is the establishment more afraid of? Are they afraid of anti-racist protestors and rioters, social democratic political candidates, nationalists, revolutionaries, insurrectionists, etc.? Perhaps a simpler version of this dilemma is which is more effective at striking fear into the establishment: playing within the system or militantly posturing outside of it. This week, however, that question was finally given a definitive answer, when a motley crew of Reddit users on r/WallStreetBets decided en masse to buy up shares of the struggling firm GameStop.
For a bit of context, GameStop has been struggling for quite some time due to increasing competition from digital distribution services and online retail, a situation which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home orders. Wall Street hedge funds were all too aware of the company’s situation and betted on GameStop failing and eventually closing by short-selling its shares, which means they stand to make money if the price went down and lose money if the price went up. The people at WallStreetBets noticed what they were up to, and took it upon themselves to try and beat Wall Street at their own crooked game by buying shares of GameStop stock. This had the effect of massively raising GameShop’s share price to such stratospheric heights that although these hedge funds now have to buy shares, the expense of this purchase could be enough to bankrupt them.
While I normally consider playing the stock markets to be a type of gambling that harms society at large, in this case I’m willing to make an exception in saying that it is worthwhile for two reasons. Firstly, the Redditors are making it a point to not sell their shares, which shows you that they aren’t just in it for the money. Secondly, what they’ve done is highlight the exact same malicious trading practices that hedge funds have been guilty of for decades, and which caused the 2008 global financial crash. The only reason this is seen as a bad thing now is because wall street hedge funds are losing.
The reaction of the establishment has been swift, blunt and very revealing. Article after article form the establishment press has come out defending the hedge funds from what they’re spinning as an assault from “4chan trolls” (that they seemingly can’t tell the difference between 4chan and Reddit is very telling by the way). Wall Street themselves have come out to condemn the WallStreetBets traders for their supposedly unfair practices without any sense of irony or self-awareness, and among the cohort of hypocritical vultures is, I shit you not, a man dressed like a cow.
In terms of actions taken, they are sparing no effort in trying to stop themselves from losing billions of dollars. In an attempt to force a plunge in GameStop’s share price, the Robinhood app, which Redditors were using to buy GameStop shares, briefly banned users from trading in GameStop shares. They ultimately reversed their decision after a massive backlash, which as also led to a class action lawsuit from users and bipartisan calls from lawmakers to investigate the app. The app has also been selling GameStop shares held by users without their consent, because Wall Street knows that the WallStreetBets traders won’t sell the shares voluntarily because that would cause GameStop’s stock value to plummet. Fearing that they will get screwed by the same practices they have used to screw countless average Americans for decades, they are now calling for exactly the kind of regulation they fought to prevent in order to stop people from playing the market like a casino the same way they did.
So why am I talking about this, and how does it relate to the original question I posed? Well simply put, it shows you what the establishment is actually afraid of. They weren’t afraid of Occupy Wall Street because they could simply co-opt it and distract its followers by redirecting their anger towards racial issues. They aren’t afraid of Black Lives Matter or Antifa because they have no class programme and can simply be used to ratchet up culture war tensions and to enforce liberal hegemony. They aren’t afraid of communist revolutionaries because they can use the might of the state to squish them like bugs and nobody really supports them anyway, and similarly they aren’t afraid of far-right insurrectionists either because nearly everybody hates them and they are so incompetent that they end up undermining their own movement. What actually scares them is when ordinary people realise that they’re actually capable of fighting back not through revolutionary violence, but through the same means that they themselves use to screw you over.
Think about it for a moment. As painful as it is to admit it, there is not a single chance that your average Marxist book club or Facebook group is even remotely capable of hurting the bottom line of the ruling class, and that’s because the online left at large (whether Marxist or not) is a joke. All they can do is watch in horror as their policies are co-opted by conservatives and reactionaries who go on to popularise them much more successfully than the left was capable of, and as a handful of Reddit nerds actually fight the billionaires on their turf and win. Whilst r/WallStreetBets has actually managed to force Melvin Capital (a major hedge fund group worth $13 billion) to close its position after losing billions of dollars, your average online far-leftist who fancies themselves a revolutionary is probably busy whining about how people r/WallStreetBets are a bunch of rich white frat boys (and they would know too) who pass around slurs, thus they will remain useful idiots for the time being.
As painful as it must be for the hard right to admit, Donald Trump was also not a threat to the establishment. In fact, he was the best thing to happen for them. His outrageous persona revived the fortunes of failing cable news outlets, and provided the perfect smokescreen for a reactionary bourgeois economic agenda. They encouraged Trump’s antics because he was giving them tax cuts, deregulation, and right-wing judges who will preserve corporate power, and for one final humiliating act in service of the ruling class, Trump rewarded his faithful supporters by tricking them into becoming wanted criminals whose actions are the perfect excuse for the inauguration of a domestic war on terror.
The irony is that Wall Street hedge funds are having their bottom line attacked not by larping revolutionary leftists or right-wing nationalists, but by a bunch of libertarians on Reddit who figured out how to play the market and who, for all intents and purposes, are believers in the efficacy of free-market capitalism, and this must be the final humiliation for those of us on the left: that a bunch of libertarians/ancaps are beating us on praxis. What that tells is that the secret to actually being able to defeat the establishment is not in having the correct ideology, but in knowing the weaknesses of the establishment and the prevailing socio-economic order and exploiting them, and this approach is successful enough that it is actually inspiring calls for reform. The amount of energy being spent by the establishment to stop these people is indicative that this is what they’re actually afraid of, not a bunch of larping insurrectionists on the far-left or the far-right.
“But Sev”, the typical Marxist-Leninist will say, “working within the system isn’t going to bring down capitalism let alone do anything good, and will only end in you being blocked out by the bourgeoisie”. I agree that this isn’t going to lead to the fall of capitalism, and indeed that isn’t the intent of WallStreetBets, but the idea that working within the system, as they would put it, is completely ineffectual is simply false. If there was absolutely no effect to it then they wouldn’t be going out of their way to make the process as difficult as possible. They wouldn’t be arraying every conceivable force against those who try to gain power from within the system if they were not convinced that there was a remote chance of success. The same is true with WallStreetBets, they’re being targeted by Wall Street and big tech precisely because they have successfully played the system.
Although we may lament that the most successful means by which to thwart the system from within is through what is basically gambling, what we are seeing is proof positive that not only is it possible to affect positive change from within the system if you know how, but it can achieve real results in taking on the ruling class. We might not like it but the people playing the markets have done more damage to the profits of the ruling class than we have ever done since the end of the Cold War. There are very real lessons that can and should be learned from this historic moment, and if we choose to take these lessons to heart, we have the opportunity to fundamentally change the game for the better. The old rules which we have followed no matter where they lead us are crumbling before our eyes. We can either adapt or fall into irrelevance. The choice is ours.