Comrade Motopu watched "Dumb Money" with some friends and feels the need to share his thoughts about the movie's insufficient materialist critique of capitalism.
“I have, which will surprise you not a little, been speculating … especially in English stocks, which are springing up like mushrooms this year … [and] forced up to a quite unreasonable level and then, for the most part, collapse. In this way, I have made over 400 and now that the complexity of the political situation affords greater scope, I shall begin all over again. It’s a type of operation that makes small demands on one’s time, and it’s worth while running some risk in order to relieve the enemy of his money.”
--Karl Marx to Lion Philips 1864
Our Saturday night zoom group recently watched a fun movie about the GameStop stock saga called "Dumb Money." It’s an enjoyable David Vs. Goliath story but in the after-discussion we questioned what seemed to be the implied message: that democratizing the stock market could offer the working class access to the kinds of pay outs that only elite institutional traders can hope for.
The Players and The Game
The film pits an assemblage of individual investors (also called “retail investors”) against professionals and large hedge funds. The individual investors are essentially led by a low level financial analyst and twitch streamer, Keith Gill, who also watches stocks as a hobby and posts to the subreddit r/wallstreetbets. He is a fan of GameStop stock and convinces viewers to follow his investment. The hedge fund giants have bet on GameStop price going down so they can profit off of it. This is known as “short selling” and can often be instrumental in the demise of companies targeted by this strategy.
Here is a definition of short selling at Charles Schwab online: “You borrow 100 shares and sell them for $5,000. The price suddenly declines to $25 a share, at which point you purchase 100 shares to replace those you borrowed, netting $2,500.”
Gill’s foil in the financial establishment is Melvin Capital Management CEO Gabe Plotkin (played with sweaty desperation by Seth Rogen). Plotkin has overplayed his hand with a short-sell on GameStop. Once the individual investors are able to collectively jump start GameStop’s shorted stock pumping up the value (known as a “short squeeze”), Plotkin’s hedge fund losses reach the billions of dollars. He turns to even bigger Wall Street titans to bail him out. The National Securities Clearing Corporation (NSCC) also steps in and freezes trading on GameStop. The intervention could be seen as simple regulation of a dangerously volatile market situation with the potential to harm many investors, or as cheating in favor of the established big dog traders and against the little guy.
It's fun as hell to see a bunch of common (or at least non-millionaire) folk make a brilliant pirate run against the Wall Street elites who were dismantling a beloved video game franchise. While the film offers an exhilarating contest between the underdogs and the institutional douche bags destroying something just because they can, it doesn’t go into the broader exploitation underpinning this whole game. Even if working class people had a level playing field to risk their hard earned savings on the casino investment of the stock market, why should they have to take such incredible risks just to be financially and socially secure? So when we see a real life financial news anchor talking about this being a “French Revolution” in the stock market, it helps to remember the sans-culottes demanded the overturning of the existing social order, a social revolution, not just a piece of the pie in the system as it existed. Not that any of you readers would take the news anchor’s irony tinged statement literally! Still, it shows how terms get degraded and stripped of meaning.
We can go one step further in this basic critique of the stock market as a potential source of economic justice for the masses, or that portion of the masses with the gumption to “seize the day.” Stock wealth is based on owning shares of companies that only succeed _because_ they efficiently exploit/rip off their workers and or destroy competitor businesses.
The very process of producing goods or services under capitalism can't happen without funneling the lion's share up to "the 1%." Wage labor means workers create more value than they are paid for, and this unpaid labor is a large part of where profit comes from. Value is created as a result of providing services (running cash registers, stocking and ordering, arranging displays, book keeping, customer service, things you would do at GameStop,) or manual labor (the mining of minerals for silicon chips in gaming systems, building the consoles, etc), the coding and design of gaming systems, transporting and warehousing, or any other imaginable form of labor in those production and supply chains. The companies involved, including GameStop have an interest in keeping wages as low as possible so as to provide investors with more profit.
Dumb Money identifies the threat of short selling for retail businesses, but it can’t show the implied “revolutionary” aspect of a small investor run against a hedge fund. It can’t because the small investors profits would come from the same process as the large investors: exploiting workers. It may be a “redistribution” to a different set of investors, and there’s no denying it feels good to see some working class people get a share, but in the end it’s not an earth shattering event.
It is true that stock wealth permeates pension funds which makes up part of a social safety net in the US. Some people hold this up as proof that the US is “stock owner society.” This idea falls totally flat when you realize that as of 2021, 10% of Americans own 89% of all stock wealth. The stock market has never been and will never be a great equalizer. This doesn’t even address the insanity of placing social safety nets on a foundation as volatile as the stock market.
Enter the Douchebags
Dumb Money’s story is of an army of “little guys” toppling the institutional Goliath. The less satisfying reality of the GameStop winners list is that it included large hedge fund players like Senvest Management LLC, which made $700 million on the stock surge.
In one scene, we hear an actual interview between a concerned Elon Musk and one of the founders of “Robinhood” which is a trading platform where many of the small investors were active in the GameStop saga. At a certain point in the surge, the Robinhood platform is ordered by the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC) to pony up a deposit of $3 billion to clear all of the trades moving through their platform, which they can’t do. The DTCC agreed to lower that amount to $700 million if Robinhood halts the sale of GameStop stock.
For Libertarian Elon, it was suspicious that the government stepped in to regulate Robinhood’s lax risk management and he clearly implies there was deliberate sabotage of GameStop’s stock value and the traders led by Gill. “What everyone wants to know is like, did something maybe shady go down here. Like, it seems weird that you’d get a sudden ten billion dollar demand...sorry how much? Ok, three billion around, you know, just suddenly out of nowhere...”
I got the feeling Elon was being held up as a hero of the underdog disruptors, a kindred spirit. Let’s face it, this is how Elon would love to be seen rather than the bumbling entitled emerald mine heir who treats working class people like garbage and wants to seed the universe with his progeny as future rulers of a sprawling galactic civilization. [See Tech Won’t Save Us four part podcast on Elon Musk.]
Ironically, in the real world, Elon tweeted out “GameStonk!” with a link to wallstreetbets. That tweet led to a huge influx of individual investors and the collapse of the pyramid scheme like situation. When Senvest Management analysts (the ones who cleared $700 million on the GameStop surge) saw Elon’s tweet they knew the run was over: “ ‘His piling on with that tweet for us was … we all looked at each other, and thought how do you top that?’ Richard Mashaal, Senvest Management’s founder, CEO and co-CIO, said in an interview. ‘And so for that, for us, that signified peak momentum and we proceeded to exit the rest of our position.’ ” They were right and the next day the GameStop stock peaked and then began its decline.
Regarding Dumb Money’s tainted pedigree as a story told to honor the proletarian masses, a good indicator of the nature of this beast arrives with the end credits. As they flashed, we noticed two names listed as Executive Producers: Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss. My first thought, which I’m not sure is very accurate, was "those are the guys who Mark Zuckerberg stole facebook from" but then we started to remember that these guys are themselves privileged douchebags who live by running financial con games.
These names in the end credits were a shock
Which brings me to this news story. The Winklevoss twins are currently being sued by Letitia James (you know her from the New York Trump fraud trial) for defrauding their investors out of a billion dollars! Ha ha. Oh, and the Winklevoss loan arm part of the scam they’re being sued for was deeply involved in the Sam Bankman Fried FTC collapse!
Letitia James is going after the Winklevoss twins for billion dollar fraud
Sideshow: Covid as Government Regulation in Dumb Money
After watching the film we we were impressed with the way Covid-19 is central as a social reality with people masked up in most public scenes. They were even masked out doors though they did sometimes come off when characters were in more familiar settings. Among the large cast of characters are many essential workers, including a GameStop worker and a hospital nurse. Both were always masked in their work scenes. The writers use Covid as a factor that simmers, underlying various characters’ feeling of helplessness. That feeling is temporarily broken when they buy into the GameStop stock surge. They gain a sense of community, refusing to sell just for individual gain, and hope, watching the stock value climb.
There is a touching scene where the Gill family visits the grave of Keith’s sister, Sara Gill. Sara died of Covid in real life at the age of 43 in 2020. They don’t mention Covid in connection to this scene, but it can be sensed just by the presence of so many masks throughout the film.
Unfortunately, the writers also seem to want to appeal to rebellious techbro Covid contrarianism. In one scene, a GameStop employee (played by Anthony Ramos) is talking to his pasty, always masked and condescending boss, who ceaselessly refers him to the corporate rule book, literally a binder. He also repeatedly tells him to be sure his mask is on correctly. The employee finally claps back. He lowers his mask to clarify his unwillingness to comply with stupid rules, and it’s heavily implied that wearing a mask is one of those stupid and baseless rules that the Man forces upon normal working folks.
Masking as subservience to elites in Dumb Money
In a later scene, a hospital nurse (America Ferrera) has made impressive gains on her GameStop stock holdings and is flying first class when she discovers they have become almost valueless. The small fortune that would have paid her mortgage is gone. She looks sadly up to the stewardess, accepts the complimentary champagne, and then lowers her mask to tell her about losing her fortune. The stewardess also “gets real” by pulling down her mask and leaning right into the nurse’s face and says “I’m gonna get you something stronger.” The genuineness of this act of sisterhood and compassion is signaled by totally disregarding the presumably useless and fake mask ritual and letting the airborne freedom particles fly.
Masks come off when people get real in Dumb Money
Despite its Hollywood politics with all the usual limitations, there is something the film captures that I think is still emotionally powerful. The way that portion of individual investors were determined not to sell off their stock, not to give up their position, thereby guaranteeing the stock value would continue to rise for the whole group was somewhat inspiring. They labeled this “diamond hands” meaning they refused to break their line as they held onto each other. They could sell their shares as individuals to realize their own profits at any time but didn’t. Even after wallstreetbets went dark and share values fell, it rallied back.
This is not the same type of solidarity story as the recent UAW, SAG-AFTRA, and WGA strikes in which strong demands, tough negotiating, and perseverance along with public support resulted in important gains for union workers. Nonetheless, that the little guys stuck together against big dog short sellers is impressive and indicative of a hopeful human solidarity.
In a charitable reading, “Dumb Money” turns the term of derision and mockery away from these individual investors and back on the hubris and pride of the professional investor class, with their obscene unearned wealth, inadequate risk management, and unwillingness to lose when playing by their own rules doesn’t work out.
I’m not willing to be that charitable though. The delusions of the script are very apparent. There is Elon making an intervention on behalf of the common person, which his brand of fascist populist would only do for the optics at best. There is the metaphor of Covid regulations as meaningless, constricting, regulatory, “big government” social control.
Even the likable protagonist, Keith Gill is an avatar for the bourgeois fable “work hard and you can make it if you’re a good person.” Gill had $53,000 to invest in GameStop to start with, which puts his game outside the reach of most proletarians. In the end credits we are informed that Gill ended up making $34 million despite having held his shares (though we’re not told if he eventually sold or not because that is apparently not known and he has disappeared from the public eye).
Suffice to say the movie is a mixed bag. It ain’t the Young Karl Marx, but it’s a fun ride and you might have some laughs.