Ryan S. Jeffery–What Are Your Moves Tomorrow

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This text is published as part of the b2o review‘s “Finance and Fiction” dossier. It can be read as an accompaniment to Ryan S. Jeffery’s ENTER_FACE (8 min. video, 2023).

What Are Your Moves Tomorrow

Ryan S. Jeffery

How to make your way in a world of declining growth?

One way to understand history is as a struggle between capital and labor. In January 2021 that struggle was eclipsed by a struggle between two types of capital – financial capital and so-called human capital – in the by now infamous GameStop short squeeze. This was the arrival of the meme stock, confidentially, but defiantly, held by Diamond Hands.

A battle cry in the parlance of emojis, Diamond Hands is internet slang that came to prominence on the subreddit forum r/WallStreetBets. More specifically, it arrived during the global economic shut-down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, when droves of individual, non-professional, so-called “retail” investors banded together to bid up the stock price of the floundering video game retailer GameStop – as well as the movie theater chain AMC. In less than a month GameStop’s stock price went form $17.25 a share to a closing price of $86.88, at a point reaching an all-time high of $500. The result was extraordinary profits for the lucky ones that got in and out early, which simultaneously caused huge losses for so-called institutional investors, i.e. hedge funds who had shorted against the stock.[1]

It’s this secondary effect that afforded Diamond Hands the ability to see their actions as some form of righteous justice, sticking it to the citadels of Wall Street while finally getting in on some of the action of casino capitalism. This was certainly how the story was broadly told. (Consider, for example, how it’s most recently been depicted in the tepid Hollywood version Dumb Money, a pseudo Big Short part II minus any of Michael Lewis’s trademark smartest people in the room). This populist take pits a David and Goliath scenario in which unruly plebs flew in the face of supposed market fundamentals.[2] In the end, a couple of hedge funds did loose massively – most famously, Melvin Capital shuttered its doors – but other Wall Street players cashed in right behind the wake of chaos created by Diamond Hands. Despite some hand-wringing by financial journalists, the seductive read of a populist revolt was thus short lived: Wall Street’s power remained firmly intact.

The Diamond Hands short squeeze did succeed, however, in pulling back the curtain, if only for a moment, to reveal just how unwieldy the allocation of value really is within financial capitalism. Unwieldy, if not corrupt: the momentary shutdown of the Robin Hood trading App, which made the short squeeze play possible for traders on the subreddit community, only seemed to confirm just how rigged the game really is. Put simply, it might just come down to the word “bets” in r/WallStreetBets that’s really the greatest provocation to Wall Street insiders who spin narratives of “fundamentals” and “market logics.” Commentator Doug Henwood was even more pointed, noting that despite the fact that these inexperienced traders were using Reddit and the free App Robin Hood, they were really just behaving like any other professional trader: passing information, talking up some stocks and others down. As Henwood argued, what it boiled down to was that simply “the wrong type of people” pulled off such a highly sophisticated Wall Street play.[3]

Indeed, it didn’t go unnoticed that the aggressive adolescent masculinity found on the r/WallStreetBets message board differs little from the toxic bravado of the rank-and-file on Wall Street. What does separate the professional behind a Bloomberg terminal from the amateur on Robinhood tends to be wealth and power, in other words access to capital, or “liquidity” in the parlance of finance. Short on liquidity, Diamond Hands found their power by organizing and coordinating their numbers through discipline and a perverse sense of solidarity. One retail investor’s paltry position has essentially no effect on market dynamics; if they all pour into a single body, however, then they can become a sizable market actor that other institutional players must contend with. Diamond Hands must act in numbers and they must be committed. In order to act like one: they have to count each other, and also count on each other.

Described “like 4chan found a Bloomberg terminal,” the entire discourse on r/WallStreetBets is like most anywhere else on the internet, a mix of shit-posting and clever memes but also a genuine exchange of information and a form of community with its own unique vernacular and coded language.[4] The result is an uncanny culture jamming of dominant and overturning media forms that puts the likes of Thanos from the Avengers, Gordon Gekko and Jim Cramer all in one universe. This is the arena in which Diamond Hands emerges. At first appearance, Diamond Hands passes for just another cryptic juvenile insider joke intended just for the lulz, and yet the sophistication of the psychology and utility behind the meme is profound. The challenge is straightforward: the short squeeze play by the r/WallStreetBets traders works only as long as no one sells. So when the stock price begins to move upwards after enough people have bought in, if just a few cash out early, it could spark a wave of selling that would make the whole play collapse. The task is therefore to create an ideology of self-discipline. Diamond Hands relies on the promise—the sacred pact–that you will not sell no matter what, no matter the instability, the incoherence of it all. Your hands are made of diamonds; they will not move no matter which way the price moves. It’s your commitment to holding that’s making the price go up. Once you sell that, everything vanishes. You might not have the cash but you are spiritually rich and linked in this community so long as you keep holding out.

This is a discipline of equal parts valor and shame, the anti-social sociability of a more perverse Protestant work ethic. But it also reveals how the community of Diamond Hands implicitly understands that they are all atomized and isolated–together. It’s the logic of human capital taken to its conclusion, what Michel Feher has called “investee politics”, a historical shift in the site of capitalist struggle by which individuals no longer look at their labor power as a commodity to sell, but instead view the self as a type of asset that appreciates with particular skills, connections and crucially reputations–all of which either facilitates or bars one’s access to credit-worthiness.[5] It’s a collective vision but without a collective horizon. The struggle is to change their world, not the world. In this light, the GameStop short squeeze play can be understood as Diamond Hands’s recognition that this is likely their only means to reach beyond the precarity of the wage-relation and join the class of capital. In the face of the seemingly immeasurable power of high finance, most will go bankrupt but some might make it through. A nihilistic kamikaze run at the barricades, not necessarily to destroy them but to somehow scale over them. To borrow a phrase: get rich or hold trying.

In the current configuration of platform capitalism, the original libertarian dream of an emancipatory internet seems naïve, if not delusional. Yet Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou provocatively takes up a more ambivalent position towards both the forms of communication in online spaces as well as the financialized logic that undergirds it. In the face of rapidly accelerating social and political uncertainties, Athanasiou argues that even more radical speculation could act as a pharmakon for the seemingly intractable state of social and political life, wrought by decades of neoliberal reason and digital financialized capitalism. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and the origins of nationalism, Athanasiou describes a new societal formation made up of what he calls speculative communities. Where Anderson looked to the role of print media in the 19th century in the formation of nationalism, Athanasiou sees the current story as one also shaped by media. In this schematic, the “commodified digital infrastructures” of the internet produce speculative technologies be it social media, dating apps, or gig work apps–all built on a high-octane venture capital and so-called creative destruction. The result is the all too familiar experience of modern life reduced to a routine of anxious endless swiping and scrolling in a constant state of competition, precarity, and indebtedness. But counterintuitively, Athanasiou identifies how this increasingly shared experience contains a potential for new forms of collectivity, and in particular collective actions which he calls counter-speculations. Strikingly, these are not moves against the drivers of speculative logic away from uncertainty, but rather its embrace. An accelerationist doubling down of sorts, that only leans harder into uncertainty.

As he describes it, this is “a speculative politics that does not simply resist the all-encompassing specter of finance but wields it against oppressing structures in all realms of social, political, and even intimate life”.[6] Citing movements as wide-ranging as France’s Gilets Jaunes, the Tea Party, and BLM, along with tactics like divestment campaigns, hashtag-highjacking and Ticktoker pranksterism, Athanasiou claims that what unites them all, is less a concern in resolving the chaos of radical uncertainty. Rather, they are united by an implicit acceptance that this is the precondition for anything different to emerge. In this argument, speculation becomes the means to take action and grasp some form of agency in the face of all-encompassing drowning uncertainty. It’s a logic of fighting fire with fire: speculation got us here, but speculation in the right hands can somehow get us out? Here, r/WallStreetBets’ Diamond Hands falls into sharper relief. From the vantage point of Athanasiou’s speculative communities, the wry cynicism, or even all-out nihilistic juvenility of Diamond Hands, begins to look less like a spectacle in itself, but rather like the spastic response to the already existing spectacles at hand.

Writing at the time of the GME short squeeze, Max Haiven shrewdly observed how the collective financial play by r/WSB could be understood as a warped version of such explicitly anti-capitalist aims like the Debt Collective, an activist debtor’s union that has collectively organized on behalf of millions of indebted households across the US.[7] Despite r/WSB’s run towards capital as opposed to the Debt Collective’s aim to abolish it, Haiven’s provocative juxtaposition is instructive precisely because of the two groups shared reliance on organizing vast numbers and leveraging structural weak points and contradictions within financial capitalism. This relies on a firm distinction between means and ends. For Haiven, with no unified vision, the “happy accident” of the GME short squeeze urges the question: “What would it mean to leverage the power it revealed towards other ends?”[8]

On its own, the accomplishment of the GME short squeeze by traders on Reddit offers only a dialectical riddle narrowly within the field of media and culture: is this the financialization of the social or the socialization of finance? But if we widen the lens on this acute moment during the global pandemic to include the split-screen of soaring stock evaluations juxtaposed with precarious worker unrest over who and what is “essential”, deeper questions of politics and agency emerge. Whether an act of action or reaction, the collective market intervention organized on the r/WSB thread reveals innate tensions within networked communications technologies and finance capital, longstanding debates between the so-called real and financial economy, and the very nature of capitalism.

By January 2024, three years after the GME short squeeze, the share price of the stock was hovering just south of $15, far from the glory of its near $90 high at the height of the short squeeze. Still, it was, and to this day, remains higher than its doomed dollar value just before the Reddit traders of r/WSB intervened in January 2021. Snatched from the predatory jaws of hedge funds, the brick-and-mortar video game retailer can still be found in scattered malls across the world. r/WSB continues on as well, the subreddit currently has fifteen million members, two half million more since the GME short squeeze. Scroll the feed right now and you are less likely to spot the murmurings of such an audacious play than before. What you will find on the thread reads much like a satirical rag about the financial news on any given day. It’s the Financial Times meets the Onion: cleverly decoding and trolling the ideologies spouted by the financial media that are cloaked in the language of objective market signals.

Perhaps the whole GME affair could simply be chalked up as the freakish byproduct from the reign of Zero-Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP). (The r/WSB short squeeze was of course not the only financial spectacle during the pandemic lockdowns and resulting US monetary interventions, which also saw an accelerated cryptocraze, the rise and fall of NFTs, and continues to roll on in the current speculative wave of so-called generative machine learning technologies.) Michel Feher’s “investee politics” is helpful here in understanding the dynamics between politics and technology, and how they animated the GME affair. For Feher, “the Reddit insurgency” served as evidence that the platform might be supplanting the market as prime mover. He writes: “As coordinators of supply and demand, markets enable profit”, where platforms on the other hand, “play an increasingly important role in the allocation of credit–financial but also moral credit”.[9] The speculative gambit, however seemingly naïve, is to ask how the latter might be leveraged over the former–and crucially towards whose and what moral vision?

Folding the market into the platform has also long been the vision behind such fintech ventures, going back to the origins of Paypal, Facebook’s failed Libra, and Elon Musk’s current ambitions for X. Silicon Valley is paved with the broken dreams of an “everything app”. But for now, each day the user account u/OPINION_IS_UNPOPULAR pins a version of the same post on top of the r/WSB’s thread: “What Are Your Moves Tomorrow”. Whether the speculative community of r/WSB is a lumpen stratum that can really be mobilized towards a different vision, or the vanguard for a more ruthlessly anarchic market society, remains open.

Ryan S. Jeffery is a filmmaker and moving image artist. His work focuses on the relation between technology, media and economics.

[1] See, Davies, Rob. 2021. “GameStop: how Reddit Amateurs took aim at Wall Street short-sellers” The Guardian, January 28. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/28/gamestop-how-reddits-amateurs-tripped-wall-streets-short-sellers. See, Stewart, Emily 2021. “The GameStop stock frenzy, explained” Vox, January 29. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22249458/gamestop-stock-wallstreetbets-reddit-citron.

[2] See, Winck, Ben. 2021. “GameStop short-sellers lost $1.6 billion in a single day as Reddit traders rebelled against them” Business Insider, January 25. https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/gamestop-stock-short-seller-squeeze-losses-reddit-traders-citron-gme-2021-1-1030000080. See, Kim, Heejin. 2021. “Michael Burry Calls GameStop Rally ‘Unnatural, Insane’” Bloomberg, January 26. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-27/michael-burry-calls-gamestop-gain-unnatural-insane-dangerous?sref=apOkUyd1.

[3] Henwood, Doug. 2021. “The GameStop Bubble is a Lesson in the Absurdity and Uselessness of the Stock Market” Jacobin Magazine, January 27. https://jacobin.com/2021/01/gamestop-stock-market-reddit.

[4] See, r/WallStreetBets  https://www.reddit.com/r/wallstreetbets/.

[5] See Feher, Michel. 2018. Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age. New York: Zone Books.

[6] Komporozos-Athanasiou, Aris. 2022. Speculative Communities: Living with Uncertainty in a Financialized World. Chicago: Chicago University Press. pg. 11.

[7] See the Debt Collective https://debtcollective.org.

[8] Haiven, Max. 2021. “The power, potential and peril of the GameStop affair” Roar Magazine, February 3. https://maxhaiven.com/power-potential-peril/.

[9] Feher, Michel. 2021. “Another Speculation is Possible: The Political Lesson of r/WallStreetBets” PPE, February 5. https://www.ppesydney.net/another-speculation-is-possible-the-political-lesson-of-r-wallstreetbets/.

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