Robinhood and the Bears of Wall Street

July 7, 2021 / Andrea Mauri

Trading is attractive in an absurdist future.

In a week of madness foretold by folklore of yore, plebs went to the moon. The GameStop stock rocket took these bands of merry men to a once-in-a-lifetime share price and a happily-ever-after payout. Hedge funds loomed ever closer to bankruptcy as ecstasy spread to every stock and stable of the internet. To not invest quickly became the most idiotic position to hold. For a blissful moment in the online kingdom, all internet infighting subsided, traded in for a collective effervescence known only to those who maintained “diamond hands,” or the bold refusal to sell. ‘‘Screw you, hedgies,’’ pledged the unyielding users of the now nine million-strong /r/WallStreetBets.

In an increasingly online marketplace, GameStop had become the de facto sick man of the stock exchange, absolutely obsolete. Worth just four dollars a share, the stock was even given away for free as late as last year by investing apps to encourage new users. So how was their eventual victory possible? For Reddit — a site that has users who reminisce about their childhood “chicken tendies” and is self-aware of its external perception as a community for nerds and geeks alike — discovered the sacred, adolescent portal of escapism GameStop to be one of the most heavily shorted stocks, meaning big money traders were making big reliable money betting against the price of this stock. In a collective show of solidarity and utter boredom, Redditors plotted to squeeze these short positions, instead betting in favor of a rise in the market price. Enough rabble-rousers joined in on the front lines that the price rose to unforeseeable heights while those bearish enough to fight back began to bleed gold from every orifice.

Very shortly after the stock hit $500, the trading platform Robinhood — along with many other platforms — banned the buying of GameStop shares. Until that moment, Robinhood had been the retail investor’s casual trading platform of choice due to its simple, commission-free trading. This monumental move predictably tanked the price of the stock. Family jewels were purged: Legacy financial institutions seized the opportunity to buy back the stock they had shorted and cover their losses, while retail investors sold their shares in fear of bankruptcy. The stock, considered to be dead, continued to have weak heart palpitations, but the mood was incurable. Stories of suicide and the losses of entire life savings slowly surfaced in the rubble of this broken dream. The bubble of hope had fully popped and been replaced by the constant, dull cynicism of our era.

What people found so enchanting about this tale could only be explained by the quite ironic comparison to the story of the fictional Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. In fact, this narrative alone was able to do a 180 on public opinion of the stock market and frame what happened with GameStop as a form of retributive justice against the one percent. Leftists on Twitter framed the people on Reddit chanting about free money machines as activists fighting for a cause. For the record, it is rather a stretch to liken self-proclaimed Jordan Belfort wannabes to any sort of Occupy Wall Street nostalgia. After all, even if some invested to get one over on the hedge funds, it is no great compromise to admit their innate soul stirring at the prospect of getting rich quickly.

To be sure, major expositions of corruption on Wall Street, as well as the complete disdain big money traders have for retail investors, were certainly uncovered. And as these truths unraveled, the community of /r/WallStreetBets grew and grew. Most surprisingly, these retail investors have almost created a hedge fund amongst themselves, using their trust in each other, shared hatred for a system that won’t believe in them, and their individual financing to revive a stock from the dead and breathe into it life anew. This has not gone unrecognized either, as popular finance news channels have now started to report on the subreddit. But while communities play an important role in creating class solidarity, they don’t necessarily awaken class consciousness.

Author Mark Fisher of Capitalist Realism fame discusses the dissemination of anti-capitalism in a capitalist world. He argues that critics of capitalism often justify their own participation in the exchange by assuming an ironic stance towards engaging in capitalism. According to philosopher Slavoj Žižek, this is because ideological truths are no longer believed in to their ends, replaced instead by the prevailing ideology of our generation: cynicism. Capitalism is so successful because there is no ideology to it, only capital. Participating in the stock market to kill the stock market only shows a populace cooperating with a capitalist system, not a protest. Take note that it did not take a second thought on the part of many trading platforms to end the buying of a stock that would cost them money they didn't have.

Wealth at this point in time has become entirely ancestral. A friend of mine who lives in the U.K. once shared with me a story about his own family’s wealth. In the 18th century, his bloodline belonged to that of a wealthy cousin of Richard the Lionheart, even having a place in line for the throne. In one generation, he gambled the entire family’s net worth and lost everything. My friend lamented at the fact that his ancestor had encountered such great loss, for if he hadn’t, that monetary prowess would have snowballed into his lap with no labor required. This is understood as being the way the world works, unimaginable any other way, as if money itself had become an epigenetic trait. So why do we think we can proverbially dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools when monetary alliances have already been cemented in blood?

As I signed up for TD Ameritrade’s trading platform, ThinkorSwim, I couldn’t help but feel gnawing pangs of guilt. Upon voicing my concerns to a friend who had been mentoring me in how to use the platform, I was met with a simple, dry reply: “It’s free money, suit yourself.” As for myself, I’d simply be lying if I described any sort of reluctance in raking in cash by pressing a few buttons on my computer in the middle of a class at Zoom University. I coped ⁠— After all, even Marx traded. (That’s true!) Other male friends and family members of mine shared toothy grins at the news of my trading venture, followed by half an hour of an unprompted advisory monologue.

The sad truth is that the future for many young people has become such that retreating into doomer (read: cynical Zoomer) helplessness feels inevitable. Climate change, new wave fascism, and an increasingly competitive job market where degrees seem to be of little consequence have fostered a generation completely unsure of what the adult world will actually look like. Moreover, America has been a loveless parent to the avant-garde, as art and the humanities sink from the realm of the respectable to that of the unworthy. Life goals beyond making as much money as inhumanely possible and going viral are unthinkable and rare. This is what makes trading so attractive in an absurdist future: the notion of insane untapped wealth followed by the unfathomable life of youth, leisure, and love. “What do you do after the closing bell?” I asked my mentor. “I make music, I paint, I read,” he responded. All at once, I understood why Marx traded. ■

by: Andrea Mauri

layout: Grace Davila

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