Corruption for all!

Image: Clara Figueiredo, quarantine records series, for rent, São Paulo, 2020


The socialist moment is lurking, waiting to be seized, as the core of capitalism is beginning to crumble.

When Croatian filmmaker Dario Jurican ran in the 2019 presidential election, his campaign slogan, “Corruption for All,” promised ordinary people a slice of the profits from clientelism. The reaction was enthusiastic, even though people knew it was a joke. A similar dynamic is present on the subreddit wallstreetbets, which subverts the financial system by excessively identifying with it, or rather, by universalizing it and thereby revealing its own absurdity.

The story is already well known, but let's recap anyway. Wall Street Bets is an online group where millions of participants discuss the stock and options market. He is notable for his profane nature and his promotion of aggressive trading strategies. Most of its members are young amateurs who are ignorant of fundamental investment practices and risk management techniques. For this reason, they are considered gamblers. Its members encouraged and made massive investments in the shares of GameStop (a company that had been losing value in the market). This raised the price of these shares and generated panic and oscillations in the market.

The decision to invest in GameStop was motivated less by what was happening with the company than to temporarily increase the value of its stock and then play with its swings. What this means is that there is a kind of self-reflexivity that characterizes the wallstreetbets: the situation of the companies in whose shares its members invest is of secondary importance. Participants rely on the effects of their own activity in the market (massive buying or selling of shares in a company).

Critics see this attitude as a sign of nihilism, a reduction of trading on the stock exchange to mere gambling – as one WSB participant puts it: 'I went from being a rational investor to some sickly irrational gambler'. This nihilism is very well exemplified by the term 'yolo' (You only live once), used by the community to characterize people who risk their entire portfolio on a single stock or business option.

But it is not just nihilism that motivates its participants: it indicates an indifference to the end result – or, as Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University, puts it: “It is not the ends that matter, but the means. It is in the fact that you are making this bet that the value of it all is found. True, you can make money, or go broke, but you played the game, and insanely so.”

In his psychoanalytic theory, Jacques Lacan distinguishes between direct pleasure (getting pleasure with the desired object) and surplus enjoyment. For example, many people find more pleasure in the activity of shopping than in the products they actually buy. The members of wallstreetbets made explicit this more-enjoyment with betting on the stock exchange.

The popular appeal of wallstreetbets it means that millions of normal people participate in it. A new front on class struggle in America was open – as Robert Reich tweeted: 'Let me get this straight: reddit members running en masse with GameStop is market manipulation, but billionaire hedge funds selling short is just an investment strategy?' Who would have expected this – a class struggle transposed into a conflict between investors and stock traders themselves?

It's 'kill all normies' again, to repeat the title of Angela Nagle's book. In this case, the 'normies' are the so-called rational investors and hedge fund managers. But this time the 'normies' must indeed be 'killed' (eliminated). We are in a situation where Wall Street, the model of corrupt speculation and insider trading, which has always and by definition resisted state intervention and regulation, now opposes unfair competition and demands action from the state. In a nutshell, the wallstreetbets it is openly doing what Wall Street has been doing in secret for decades.

The utopia of populist capitalism – the ideal of millions who are ordinary workers or students by day and investment gamble by night – is clearly impossible. It can only end in self-destructive chaos. But isn't it in the very nature of capitalism to go through periodic crises – the Great Crash of 1928 and the financial meltdown of 2008, bringing only the two best known cases – and come out of them even stronger?

In all previous cases, however, it was impossible to restore equilibrium with market mechanisms alone. The cost is enormous, and massive external (state) intervention is required. Would the State be able to control the game once more and restore normalcy ruined by the wallstreetbets?

What, then, is the solution? the excesses of wallstreetbets exposed the latent irrationality of the stock market itself. This is not a rebellion against Wall Street, but something potentially far more dangerous: subverting the system by over-identifying with it, like the Croatian candidate in his campaign.

Yes, what members of wallstreetbets are doing is nihilistic. But this is the nihilism immanent in the stock market itself, a nihilism that already operated on Wall Street. To overcome it, we need to get out of the stock trading game. The socialist moment is lurking, waiting to be seized, as the core of capitalism is beginning to crumble.

Will it happen? Almost certainly not, but what should worry us is that this most recent crisis is yet another unexpected threat to a system that is already the victim of multiple attacks (pandemic, global warming, protests…). Furthermore, this threat emerges from the core of the system, not from the outside. An explosive mixture is being prepared, and the longer the explosion is delayed, the more devastating it can be.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the website The Spectator.


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