“There’s a catharsis to actually making money off their pain a little bit,” Justin Speak, a 27-year-old evangelical pastor from California, told The New York Times in reference to his part in the great GameStop caper that saw small-time investors, coordinated on Reddit and other platforms, sabotage a series of Wall Street hedge funds by “revenge buying” the ailing video game retailer’s stock.
Speak himself made a cool $1,700 thanks to the way he and others used online stock-trading platforms like Robinhood to pump up demand for (and therefore the value of) the shares of GameStop, the movie theatre chain AMC, and other well-known brands that have a soft spot in consumers’ hearts but that have been hard-hit by the pandemic. While this “movement” began in online stock advice forums that purport to share tips about how to find “undervalued” companies whose shares can be bought cheap now to be sold dear later (“going long,” as it is called in the industry), it soon found a more political orientation.
By January 28, it had reached such a frenzy that Robinhood began to severely limit users’ powers to prevent what represented a kind of reverse run on the bank. In typical financial panics, spooked consumers seek to withdraw their investments for fear of collapse, triggering banks to slam their literal or metaphorical doors for fear of bankruptcy. In this case, Robinhood and other platforms were pressured by financial and government forces to take measures to discourage consumers from investing because it threatened to upset the financial order.
The enthusiasm of small investors swarming, seemingly out of nowhere, toward otherwise undesirable shares created havoc for several big Wall Street hedge funds. These funds’ strategy had been to “short” these underperformers — to bet against their future rise in value. Hedge funds are essentially pools of very rich people’s money that borrow even more money to make risky bets on the market based on careful research into market niches. They were among the major culprits behind the frenzy of predatory lending that led to the 2008 financial meltdown. Hedge funds bet on both sides of that crisis and many came out ahead. In that calamity’s wake, hedge funds used their connections and acumen to benefit from the bailouts. And during the pandemic, when millions have been thrown out of work and suffer economic precarity and hardship, hedge funds have been enjoying record profit.
So, when it turned out that a rag-tag swarm of investor-trolls with seemingly little coordination could bring one or two financial giants down by weaponizing what former Federal Reserve chair and neoliberal eminence Alan Greenspan once called “irrational exuberance,” it was, for many, sweet revenge. “Eat the rich,” Speak’s wife chimed in, echoing her husband with what has become the slogan of the GameStop “movement.”
But while such revenge can indeed be sweet, those who hunger for social and economic justice should think again. This incident will largely be remembered as a momentary, comical blip on the financial sector’s otherwise untroubled ascent to power and wealth. Moreover, this form of resistance is a reflection of, rather than an opposition to, the financialization of society and the imagination. And it resonates with a growing tendency toward revenge politics that all too often substitute symbolic victories for meaningful social change and the kinds of organization of the oppressed it would take to achieve it. The silver lining here is that, in this mass act of financial disobedience, tens of thousands of people have come to, for a moment, exercise their collective power. What comes next is the question.
While the GameStop caper represents a victory in the battle against the hubris of Wall Street, it actually represents a step backward in the war against the power of capitalism’s financial sector. Over the past three decades, financialization has advanced in lockstep with the ideology of neoliberalism, which holds that the best and fairest way to organize society is around the needs of markets. Accordingly, public services have been cut, industries (including finance) have been deregulated, and taxes on the rich and on corporations have been slashed, with the ultimate effect being a world where the rich are getting richer and the poor even poorer as the fabled “trickle-down” principle fails to manifest its bounty for most people. The effects have been highly racialized, with graver impacts on Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Over this same period, the financial sector has grown in wealth, power and influence, and used its position to further drive forward both financialization and neoliberalism. The fact that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that it caused, the sector escaped any real repercussions, punishment or loss, made it clear that finance, rather than governments, is ultimately in charge of policy. This fact has been rammed home by the fact that, around the world, in both liberal and conservative governments, the finance minister or their senior staff are almost always alumni of large investment banks — which, as we also know, are very generous benefactors of political candidates and parties the world over.
But this economic and political power is also matched by a social and cultural power. As most of us have become poorer and more precarious, and as shared government services (housing, health care, old age and disability insurance and the like) have been slashed, we have been sold the lie that we have been liberated from government paternalism and empowered to embrace our potential as a miniature financier. From education to housing to hobbies to personal relationships, we have been encouraged to reimagine nearly every aspect of our lives as assets to be leveraged in an unforgiving, competitive world. This is financialization: the way the ideas, ideologies and methods of finance begin to seep into every aspect of our lives.
On the one hand, the GameStop caper saw thousands of small-time individual market actors swarm together in a way that, for a brief moment, caught the dominant financial powers off-guard and off-balance. A few hedge funds lost a lot of money. But it relied on individuals that have already adopted the disposition and the tools of the miniature financier: precisely the endgame of financialization.
Indeed, the most intelligent and (for all I disagree with them) freedom-oriented of neoliberal philosophers predicted such things should happen: For them, the unseating of power corporations by upstarts is an essential part of the triumphant progress of markets. For these thinkers, the usurpation and “disruption” of “business as usual” by uninvited guests is evidence that free markets are working, not failing, because it allows for (disruptive) innovation and the ruthless creative destruction of market inefficiencies and abnormalities.
Political Revenge Fantasies
So, while the GameStop caper can feel like revenge, it is not really. In my recent book on the politics of revenge in our moment, I explore how small revenge fantasies can become transformative avenging imaginaries capable of transforming power at its root.
Revenge fantasies are, in our own individual lives, incredibly common: As ugly as they may be, we all have them, especially in a world where so many of us suffer systemic oppression, inequality and exploitation, or where these manifest on the level of everyday life in forms of interpersonal cruelty or violence. In fact, revenge fantasies can be quite important and healthy: They’re often based on and help us remember that what we suffer or have suffered is not our fault, and that we have value and are owed something for harms we have endured. Revenge fantasies can, of course, become dangerous infatuations. But they are often most dangerous not because they lead us to take revenge, but because we satisfy ourselves by endlessly nursing a grudge, neither forgiving and forgetting nor finding the courage to claim the debt. The fantasy becomes our home.
On a collective, political level, revenge fantasies can be opportunities for solidarity when we recognize that we share a common source of pain, that we are owed a collective debt. Sometimes we don’t know how to change the system that caused the injury or pain or oppression, and so the only grounds for our protest and passion is refusal and a common dream of getting back at those who have harmed us. But these sentiments can be easily manipulated, and often by precisely those people who caused the harm in the first place. On one level, U.S. society in the grips of financialization endlessly dreams of revenge in the form of television and film: “Game of Thrones,” the works of Quentin Tarantino, and other popular spectacles offer a kind of cathartic expression for the unnamed vengefulness that many of us feel as we ensure and are made to participate in a financialized society.
But it gets more dangerous still. Financialized capitalism, which transforms us each into a competitive risk-taker in a world of unmanageable risks, necessarily produces profound alienation, a sense of being cheated, a rage at being unable to live as we imagine we ought to be able to live, and these can find horrific political expressions. Throughout the history of the United States, the ruling classes, many of them enriched by finance, have stoked and harnessed the vengefulness of non-elite whites to foment racial violence, lynchings, extrajudicial murder and racial terrorism, of which Donald Trump and his armed legions of reactionaries are only the latest incarnation.
I am not arguing these are the woeful “left behinds” with “legitimate grievances” as some do; they are heinous expressions of the very worst. But their significant popularity draws its energy from the way they embody a revenge fantasy that flourishes in white supremacist financialized society where the sources of social pain and discord are willfully misidentified as migrants, feminists and queer folk, “unruly” Black people and intellectuals, rather than the system of capitalism.
The GameStop caper is a kind of vivified revenge fantasy, a dream of getting back at the powerful come to life, if only for a moment. Such revenge fantasies can be important for the struggle for social and economic justice, but are also very dangerous. On the one hand, the momentary realization of the fantasy can be mistaken for a substantial change in reality, but we would be foolish to presume that the momentary upsetting of financial business-as-usual will result in any real change. And in some ways, this kind of “activism” is what finance has always intended: the recoding of our dreams such that even rebellion takes a financialized form.
On the other hand, this revenge fantasy can easily be harnessed by reactionary forces, and in many ways already has reactionary characteristics. Famously, the Nazis made a central plank of their rise to power the promise to bring to heel the speculative financiers who were, according to their ideology, ruining things for the good, faithful, earnest and honest German workers and small business owners. Then as now, the line between antagonism towards finance and antisemitism is far from sharp, and critiques of parasitical financiers often slides easily into conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds or George Soros. No less dangerously, when “Main Street” is nostalgically presented as the hapless victim of Wall Street’s predation, we neatly forget that Main Street was also the site of many lynchings, race riots and other acts of racist cruelty.
For these reasons, we must be wary of the way challenging finance can serve to perpetuate its power or to elevate reactionary politics. This easily happens when an analysis of finance and financialization is detached from an equally critical approach to the way it works in tandem with capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and other systems of power, and when we mistakenly imagine that all that it will take to achieve social and economic justice is “improving access” to markets.
What would it mean for the GameStop caper to move from a revenge fantasy to an avenging imaginary?
Revenge fantasies are brewed by individuals and collectives in a moment of powerlessness, hurt and anger and, as a result, often bear the hallmarks of a kind of poetic justice: The same cruelty that was once used against you becomes the form of retribution against your tormentor. After years of being the abject loser, one is now the winner and one exacts on the enemy the same injustice. How does it feel, Wall Street, to have your own tools used against you; to be, for a moment, the victim of the same unfair, manipulative and destructive instruments that you arrogantly wielded for so long? Revenge is sweet.
But what distinguishes an avenging imaginary is an abolitionist and feminist worldview: it does not seek to claim the power of the oppressor for its own, but to annihilate that power so that it can no longer harm anyone. An avenging imaginary is a way of coming together around a dream where revenge means the destruction and replacement of the systems that cause pain, oppression and injustice in the first place.
In the case of the GameStop caper, an avenging imaginary would dream not simply of tweaking the nose of Wall Street, but of abolishing the financial sector as we know it. Maybe that would look like nationalizing the banking sector so it could be used to support investment in a Green New Deal. Maybe that would mean a minimum and a maximum income to redistribute the financial sector’s misbegotten wealth. Maybe it would mean reappropriating that wealth to fund excellent and universal health and social care. Maybe it would mean abolishing household and student debt. Maybe it would mean the much broader goal of abolishing the system of capitalist exploitation as a whole.
An avenging imaginary is a collective leap of the radical imagination that opens new horizons of how we might live and work together beyond the neoliberal, financialized, capitalist model where we each compete with one another until the Earth is destroyed.
The glimmer of possibility in this GameStop caper is that, in a flash, some new “we” came to recognize that “we” indeed have power when we act together. The same neoliberal financialized capitalist system that oppresses, exploits and seduces us has bestowed us with powerful digital tools to coordinate and communicate. How could we use these to rebel, not only as individual investors or for the fun of it, but in the name of collective liberation?
The GameStop caper offered a potentially important moment of shared vindictive laughter as the powerful, for a moment, appeared weak. But if, as has been often said, the best revenge is the laughter of our children, how will we make the most of this moment to create a post-capitalist world where they can enjoy the wealth of human potential and ecological justice?