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The first two months of 2021 have been marked with a kind of financial turmoil unique to modern history. This is not to say that financial turmoil is something new to the modern era. We have been on shaky ground since the global financial crisis of 2008, and arguably since even before then with the dot-com bubble and subsequent fallout. As unique and significant as those events were, they could and still can be placed inside familiar paradigms of market analysis, markets’ ebb and flow, and periods of great growth leading to overextensions that in turn cause downturns.
But where are we now? Economic privations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have been felt around the world, and yet markets over the last six-plus months have been almost frighteningly ebullient. Fortunes have piled up at a dizzying rate on Wall Street, while Main Street has had the rug pulled out from underneath it.
What’s more, particularly in the past few months, financial developments have taken upon a positively strange character. Nowhere can this be felt more than in the WallStreetBets and GameStop saga. There seems to be a new force in finance, one that is commonly accounted for as being a consequence of the influx of retail traders made possible by a variety of reasons tied to the pandemic.
While there is certainly truth in the identification of the circumstances produced by the pandemic as having an authorial hand in events that are currently taking place, there seems to be much more to the picture. We have seen a similar careening off of the charted course in politics and other spheres that, while certainly accelerated and exacerbated by the unique conditions of the global pandemic, started well before the Covid-19 outbreak.
And these movements share a number of key propertiesamong them a bubbling up of populism, but not a traditional form of populism rather a self-conscious, almost ironic form of populism in which performance may be just as, or even more so, important as principle, not only to those who are taking part but also to those observing.
The GameStop show trials
This was on full display during the congressional GameStop hearings, which played out like a new incarnation of the political show trial. Only this time, the ordeal was not a theatrical pretext for a foregone and impending political denouement. The hearings themselves were a sort of denouement in which it was revealed that all sides involved don’t seem to understand, or have a desire to understand, each other.
The foregone conclusion was that, despite the sound and fury, things will go on as they have, either because that is most beneficial to those who have the power to change things orand this may be more likely because the speed at which life is changing is too fast and the systems we have in place are too thoroughly ingrained into the frameworks that encompass our lives for us to affect much meaningful change.
Although those who testified from the hedge funds and from Robinhood showed calculated efforts to play four corners during their testimonies and avoid the unequivocal utterance at all costs, their explanations were largely reasonable. What happened during the GameStop squeeze was something that had never happened on that scale before.
The RoaringKitty testimony
Where the hearings were most interesting was in the testimony of Keith Gill, otherwise known as RoaringKitty or DFV. Gill has been one of the most prominent figures in the WallStreetBets Reddit community throughout the entire GameStop story. Two things were remarkable about his testimony. The first was that he seemed to be the only one questioned who was willing to give straightforward answers to the questions asked. The second was that his testimony was funny in the kind of self-deprecating, ironically sincere style that has blossomed in internet communities like WSB.
In his testimony, Keith Gill was quick to point out that he was “not a cat,” alluding to both his ridiculous Twitter handle and the much-memed plight of the Texas lawyer who was unable to change his Zoom background during a remote trial. Gill also made sure when explaining his reasoning behind purchasing GME shares to state that he “like(d) the stock,” which is a rallying cry that has become a meme in its own right on WSB.
WallStreetBets is a curious place. On one hand, users on there refer to themselves as “gorillas” and “retards,” and on the other hand, they have been able to coordinate together to perform complex and possibly market-shifting financial operations. The community it seems to be most closely related to is that of cryptocurrency traders, which is present in different forms on Reddit, Twitter, 4chan and other media platforms. In crypto trading communities there is also a prevalence of self-deprecating, meme-driven humor.
The crypto parallel
While it should be seen as no coincidence that cryptocurrencies are currently drawing more interest than ever before, there is one whose sudden thrust into the spotlight is indicative of the moment we are currently living in. Dogecoin, a currency inspired by the Doge meme and originally intended as something of a joke, has over the past three months become one of the most popular cryptocurrencies on the market. With interest in Doge peaking at the same time as all the GameStop drama was playing out, the coin has achieved what only a select few other digital assets have managed in crossing over into the cultural mainstream.
Part of the reason Doge has gained such a high profile is due to its endorsement from celebrity figures like Elon Musk. Musk has repeatedly taken to Twitter to post memes in support of Doge and other cryptocurrencies in the same ironically sincere vein you find in content generated by the WSB and crypto communities. One of the more interesting of Musk’s Twitter interactions came when he tweeted out that the Freewallet app, a relatively low profile crypto wallet platform, “sucks.” After a series of back and forth tweets between the platform and Musk, it was revealed that Musk, then the richest man in the world, was actually a user of the application and became frustrated when he had been temporarily locked out of his account. Once the application unfroze Musk’s account, he thanked them and seemingly went on to continue using their service.
That Musk would single out Freewallet (the only crypto platform he is on the record as using), a relatively obscure service, to use for his crypto transactions seems comical until you realize that it fits into the meme culture inextricably tied to the financial developments we have been looking at. What better platform than Freewallet, with its risibly basic name, for the richest man in the world to choose as his meme coin vehicle? The fact that the platform froze his account (perhaps because they were as shocked as everyone else to find out that Elon Musk was using their service) is even more apropos.
Beyond the memes
But while humor is a huge factor in all of this, and Musk has repeated on Twitter and elsewhere that “the most entertaining outcome is the most likely,” there is more to it than just humor and entertainment. Real money, and lots of it, is at stake here. If you think Musk’s foray into DogeCoin is a joke, what about Tesla’s $1.5 billion dollar investment in Bitcoin? While the Reddit retail crowd would be the first to tell you that they aren’t the most logical bunch, the amount of money they are investing in what some see as a lark is serious andall jokes aside what they do have is sincere belief in something, however opaque that something may seem at times.
This ironic-yet-sincere approach is something new and something defining the financial moment we find ourselves in. There is a sense that with all the advanced tools we have at our disposal today, never before have we been given such a piercing portrait of how flawed and ineffectual we all are. In another era, the previous postmodern era, the consciousness of our own inadequacies gave rise to a smothering irony, a cynical attitude towards big endeavors and our capabilities of understanding ourselves and the world we live in.
The metamodern moment
That postmodern fog seems to be lifting for better or worse and giving way to something that seems akin to what has been loosely classified as “metamodern.” Metamodernism is probably best understood as the penumbra between and yet beyond modernism and postmodernism, wherein both approaches, modernism with its naive faith in human capabilities, and postmodernism, with its cynical rejection of meaning, come together to alternatively cancel each other out and infuse with one another in a new viewpoint.
In trying to place this viewpoint, I am drawn to the story of Parsifal, the poor fool of a knight whose lack of understanding of yet intuitive yearning for the grace he has only had accidental glimpses of is key to his ultimate attainment of that which he seeks. The modern person is torn between the Scylla and Charybdis of their own self-conception as both a monster and a fool. To alter Beckett a bit, we cannot go on, but we do go on, and it is precisely in that going on, that persevering, that new horizons with new hopes may open up.
What are the retail and crypto investors after? In his testimony, Keith Gill explained how he initially got involved in the stock market. He graduated college in 2009the same year the first Bitcoin was mined in what he described as “not a good time to be looking for a job.” He would hardly be alone in that assessment. Outside of the David versus Goliath, little guy sticking it to the infallible hedge funds narrative, might we be missing a less divisive yet more applicable one? Namely, that a lost generation has pounced upon what it feels is an opportunity to finally come into its own?
Out of the darkness that the last year has been, new horizons have opened up along with new dangers. As disorienting as it may seem, it would be a mistake to dismiss what is happening in finance as a chimerical aberration or a joke that has gone too far. Something else is afoot, something that has been making its presence known throughout the various spheres of our lives for some time now. The factors behind these movements, bound as they are to internet culture, show no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. Understanding what they are and adapting, when it is called for, may be key to ensuring that these factors help to improve upon the systems we have in place and prevent more destructive outcomes.
Bryan Conover is an American writer and translator based in Saint Petersburg, Russia.