Wall Street Bets, Cancel Culture, and the Death of Solidarity
Is "Speculative Activism" replacing the labor movement?
I’ve hesitated to write anything about the Gamestop affair because I don’t fully understand the mechanism of finance and I didn’t want to add to the sea of bad takes, but the event did make think of an interesting book I read and reviewed a little while ago: Michel Feher’s Rated Agency: Investee Politics in a Speculative Age.
Feher thinks that financial capitalism is so hegemonic that activists should work within its structures: if they want to change something, they should adapt to the logic of the capital market and attempt to manipulate or “price” the creditworthiness or value of institutions and individuals. Here’s a summary of his argument:
Instead of proposing a rollback to the heady days of social democratic consensus, which Feher seems to think is neither possible nor desirable, he believes that activists should accept financialization and work to create new institutions within it to fight for the interests of the indebted and economically precarious. He calls this “investee activism,” since, in his view, the subjects of late capitalism are the targets of potential investment—and not merely wage earners. He believes that since the system is driven by speculation on the price of assets, which is in turn driven by the moods and beliefs of the speculators about their future value, that investee activists should “counterspeculate,” or seek ways to discredit the institutions and individuals that harm their interests. The institutional paradigm he wants activists to adopt, his replacement for the labor union if you will, is the rating agency. Imagine, if you will, a cooperative, proletarian Moody’s.
Or, maybe an insurgent, activist anti-hedge fund. Feher’s model is both normative and descriptive, and it has to be admitted that it does approximate what’s going on with certain forms of contemporary activism. Sometimes this is very literally the case: a group of activists targeting private prisons even used a Bloomberg terminal to track capital markets while putting pressure on bank executives.
While he doesn’t valorize the Gamestoppers, it’s not surprising Feher wrote recently about the phenomenon as proving out his thesis of “counter-speculation:”
Activists who wish to challenge Wall Street’s corner on valuation can wait for elected officials, judges, regulators or a general strike to act as the agents of immanent justice. But in case their patience wears thin, they can also follow the lead of r/WallStreetBets and give financial capitalists a taste of their own medicine. And some of them already do, even if they would probably be loath to see themselves as speculators...
What is politically meaningful in the GameStop frenzy is neither the populist story of the little guys beating the fat cats at their own game – fun as it is – nor the reminder that Wall Street is out of whack – as if we did not already know. The important message conveyed by the Redditors is that, thanks to the ascent of the sharing and rating platforms that gave us r/WallStreetBets, another speculation is possible.
In the piece Feher also talks about the DAPL protests and aspects of Black Lives Matter, particularly “Defund the Police,” as being further examples of financially-targeted activism.
In addition to attacks on creditworthiness, equity prices, or cashflows, Feher talks about “moral creditworthiness” being a potential target of activists: they would put pressure on the management and ownership classes by attacking their public reputations. We’ve also seen examples of this, like during #MeToo, which partly began because of a spreadsheet, a tool of accounting. During the height of that moment, I couldn’t help thinking about the financial crisis, when all these industry titans kept on being revealed as bankrupt, except now it was individuals whose moral bankruptcy was being revealed.
This brings me to think about what’s called “cancel culture” in the terms Feher sets up, especially in the wake of the recent resignations at the New York Times. It’s certainly a kind of discrediting activity that fits in Feher’s framework and it can be used to bring down abusers and bad bosses. There are times when it feels like a modern day replacement for or complement to the strike. It’s not for nothing that Feher imagines his form of activism as a replacement for the labor union. But, of course, the “other side” also has a claim to some of the legacy of the labor movement, as well: if at-will employment didn’t exist, people’s jobs wouldn’t be so vulnerable to this kind of attack, and critics of cancel culture often want to defend people from becoming blackballed and unemployable. The opponents of cancel culture are also beginning to organize themselves in a kind of solidaristic way, understanding themselves as victims of unfair obstacles to jobs and professional rewards.
This leads me to the problem I had with Feher’s book: the type of politics he proposes doesn’t really lead to the building of broad-based class consciousness or solidarity: it just creates replacements for them with many, tiny fragmented organizations and associations that can oppose each other. Speculative activists can potentially work at cross-purposes: one group discrediting a company for its environmental record might successfully affect its valuation but then that results in mass lay offs. How do we mediate between competing claims? Can we at all or do we just have to resign ourselves to the constant churn of market valuation? One day your stock is up, and the next it’s down. I prefer to think in terms of “Freedom from the Market” to borrow from the title of Mike Konczal’s new book.
This is all at least partly a result of the atomization of modern society: we are no longer talking about the paradigm of industrial workers encountering each other on the shop floor and in the union hall. It’s not to say speculative activism can’t make some good things happen, but it’s just hard to see what potential for structural change it has when it divides forces into so many little platoons. It’s easy to see what we can break down (usually temporarily), but what are we building? Again, this is all not Feher’s theory’s fault maybe so much as the structural constraints of the modern economy. Feher’s slogan is “another speculation is possible!” I wonder if another form of solidarity possible.