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No, We Are Not Going to Beat Capitalism on the Stock Market

Has some new kind of activism beaten the hedge funds? Hardly.

Nathaniel Flakin

February 1, 2021
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Illustration: iStock; John Moore/Getty; Skye Gould/Business Insider

Given the news over the past week, you would be forgiven for thinking that Occupy Wall Street had come back with a vengeance. Back in 2011, activists occupied a small park in front of a Lower Manhattan bank — now they seem to be “occupying the stock market” itself. Ten years ago, the bankers and brokers could just get their cops to arrest the pesky occupiers — but now, with the loss of billions of dollars at stake, armed thugs in blue are not going to do the trick.

The stock surge for GameStop has rattled financial markets. A motley horde of Internet users have been giving hedge fund managers a run for their money. Those who bet that shares of the retail chain GameStop would lose value (short sellers) have been thrashed as the stock price surged higher and higher, thanks to the targeted actions of thousands of small investors.

The bankers, who for more than a generation have been praising deregulation and the “invisible hand of the market,” are now calling on the government to protect them from losses. So have “little guys” taken over the stock market? Will the revolution be organized on Reddit?

Of course not. This was never going to take down the hedge fund system. At best, its greatest “hope” was to do some short-term mischief and maybe kill one small fund. Melvin Capital Investment is losing billions and might collapse — but Reuters has reported that Blackrock, the biggest asset management in the world, stands to earn $2.4 billion from the rising stock price. As Derek Thompson has explained in The Atlantic, Melvin Capital Investment was betting on GameStop’s stock to fall — and that was always a risky bet:

[GameStop’s] stock had already fallen from $56 a share in 2013 to about $5 in 2019. GameStop’s short sellers were essentially betting that a company publicly valued as “horrendous” should really be valued at a level commensurate with the notion of “truly horrendous.” They risked billions of dollars on the financial equivalent of a qualifying adverb. It’s really risky to aggressively short a company whose stock, having fallen 95 percent, is floating around $5; there just aren’t a lot of numbers under five.

A Rigged System

The discussion around GameStop has shown that the system is hopelessly rigged: even when small investors manage to exploit the rules to their advantage, those rules are simply changed to prop up the big capitalists.

But that’s only the beginning of how it is rigged. Virtually all stocks are controlled by a tiny minority of capitalists. How are all the working people in the world, even if they invested all their savings into the stock market, supposed to compete with the gargantuan sums owned by the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their wealthy corporate cronies?

The rumblings have led Democratic Party “progressives” such as Elizabeth Warren to call for new regulations. She wants action to “ensure that markets reflect real value, rather than the highly leveraged bets of wealthy traders or those who seek to inflict financial damage on those traders.” Those “highly leveraged” traders,” by the way, are the hedge funds. Warren is worried about someone inflicting damage on them

How Capitalism Works

The entire episode is making lots of people wonder: Is this any way to organize an economic system? After all, as the back-and-forth trading has unfolded through these rather absurd machinations, who has been thinking about the effect on the livelihoods of tens of thousands of GameStop employees?

But this casino is how all decisions are made in the capitalist system. Where is housing built, and who gets to live in it? Which medical breakthroughs get funding? Which wars are waged? The same rules deciding the future of GameStop decide all these questions as well.

The stock market and its fictitious capital which condenses all the absurdities of the capitalist system into one small space. So much of the market is about “fictitious capital” — money lacking any material basis in actual commodities or productive activity. As the Marxist economist Rudolf Hilferding explained:

On the stock exchange, capitalist property appears in its pure form, as a title to the yield, and the relation of exploitation, the appropriation of surplus labour, upon which it rests, becomes conceptually lost. Property ceases to express any specific relation of production and becomes a claim to the yield, apparently unconnected with any particular activity. Property is divorced from any connection with production, with use value. The value of any property seems to be determined by its yield, a purely quantitative relationship. Number is everything; the thing itself is nothing! The number alone is real, and since what is real is not a number, the relationship is more mystical than the doctrine of the Pythagoreans.

A Way Forward

Within this absurd system, thousands of working-class people, investing their stimulus checks, might be able to steal a little something back from Wall Street — with the help of an app cynically named Robinhood. 

Yes, the ruling class is pissed that normal people are disrupting their casino. But the market remains their casino. The experience of this kind of “activism” will lead people to draw the wrong conclusions. We’re already seeing calls for more “democratic” and “fair” rules for the stock market, rather than for toppling the stock market itself.

And what happens if small investors are successful? Then some of them might become big investors. So, this kind of activism may create some new capitalists — but it’s no way to beat the capitalist class. In a fight over stocks, the rulers will always have an advantage.

But you’re in luck: Marxism is a 150-year-old science of how to eliminate the bourgeoisie and its exploitation and oppression. If we pool our money, we shouldn’t invest it in stocks; — we should use it to build up organizations that will fight for our interests —, not by trading stocks, but by organizing our strength in terms of material force.

A Problematic Ally

If you’re not convinced, consider one troubling figure who has been cheering on the small investors against the short sellers: pandemic profiteer and Internet troll Elon Musk. He understands the giant casino that passes for a global economy. After all, he has leveraged a small, almost completely unprofitable car company into a personal fortune of $180 billion. Musk is obviously not trying to bring down the system that is rewarding him with such vast wealth, nor does he have some personal vendetta against short sellers. Instead, Musk understands that this is capitalism at work.

Musk might have several hundreds of billions of dollars, but he’s a small part of the global capitalist system. We don’t need to buy him out, or beat his ilk at the stock market game. We can use our strength to take power and expropriate them. A workers’ government can put all those riches at the service of all humanity. Now that’s a project worth “investing” in.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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