The GameStop Reckoning Was a Long Time Coming

Wall Street was among the last powerful institutions to be overrun by online populists, in part because it had a higher barrier to entry. Anyone with an internet connection and a Twitter account can start a hashtag campaign, but because trading stocks costs money — and required some level of expertise and time commitment — it was mostly left to professionals.

Smartphone-based trading apps like Robinhood changed that, by introducing commission-free trades and an interface that made executing a gamma squeeze as straightforward as ordering a burrito from Uber Eats. Suddenly, millions of amateurs could organize themselves, generate their own market research and investment theses, drum up excitement in Reddit threads and TikTok videos, and enter the casino with the big boys. (Whether storming the high-roller tables has helped them financially is another question entirely.)

Plenty of reporting on the GameStop saga has captured the jokey, profane enthusiasm of the traders, and the stunned disbelief of their Wall Street antagonists. But there’s an economic justice angle that is easy to miss. On r/WallStreetBets, you’ll find impassioned essays from traders who say betting on GameStop has made them feel newly empowered in a financial system that has only taken advantage of them and their families for years.

“Greed is absolutely out of control at the top, and this funny little news story is tangible proof of that,” wrote one user in a popular post on Wednesday. “Do not let them gaslight you into thinking that it’s wrong for you to get a slightly larger sliver of the pie.”

If you can get past the all-caps lunacy and strange inside jargon, the Redditors make some good points. Big banks and hedge funds really do play by different rules than retail investors. Wall Street banks really did get bailed out after the 2008 financial crisis while Main Street homeowners suffered. M.B.A.s in fancy suits are probably no more likely to give you good investing advice than guys on YouTube with names like “RoaringKitty.”

While watching the GameStop drama, I’ve been reflecting on what the author Martin Gurri calls “the revolt of the public.” Mr. Gurri writes that the internet has empowered ordinary citizens by giving them new information and tools, which they then use to discover the flaws in the systems and institutions that govern their lives. Once they’ve discovered these shortcomings, he writes, these citizens often rebel, tearing down elites and dominant institutions out of anger at having been lied to and withheld from.

The result, Mr. Gurri writes, is a kind of vengeful nihilism, an urge to burn down the establishment without a clear sense of what’s supposed to replace it.

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