Slavoj Žižek

The capitalist nihilism of WallStreetBets

When Croatian movie director Dario Jurican ran in the country’s presidential election in 2019, his campaign slogan, ‘corruption for everybody’, promised that normal people would also be able to profit from cronyism. The people reacted with enthusiasm although they knew it was a joke. A similar dynamic is present on the WallStreetBets subreddit, which subverts the financial system by over-identifying with it or, rather, by universalizing it and thereby revealing its in-built absurdity.

The story is well-known already, but let’s briefly recap. Wallstreetbets is an online group in which millions of participants discuss stock and options trading. It is notable for its profane nature and promotion of aggressive trading strategies. Most of its members are young amateurs who ignore fundamental investment practices and risk management techniques, so their activity is considered gambling. Its members recently made (and encouraged others to make) massive investments in the stock of GameStop (a company that had been losing value on the market) which drove the GameStop price up and caused further panic and oscillations on the market.

The decision to invest in GameStop was less motivated by what was going on with the company and more just to raise temporarily the value of its stocks and then play with its oscillations. What this means is that there is a kind of self-reflexivity which characterizes WallStreetBets: what goes on in the companies in whose stocks the participants invest is of secondary importance. The participants primarily count on the effects of their own activity (of massively buying or selling the stocks of a company) on the market.

‘It’s not even the ends that matter. It’s the means. It’s the fact that you’re placing this bet’

Critics see in such a stance a clear sign of nihilism, of reducing stock-trade to gambling — as one of the WSB participants put it: ‘I went from a rational investor to some sick irrational desperate gambler.’

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