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Dispatches from the present

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Cash Mob

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The events of our age are carried out not by individuals or factions, but by crowds. Though constituted by a plurality of minds and interests, at the level of the whole a crowd is pure mindlessness and direction, drifting about according to its own logic. From different perspectives, the crowd appears to be two entirely different creatures: what is heterogenous at ground level becomes homogeneous from overhead. Elias Canetti, in his definitive book on the subject, captured the nature of the crowd better than anyone: after gathering, “most of them do not know what has happened and, if questioned, have no answer; but they hurry to be there where most other people are.” Crowds cluster and grow—they don’t think.

The Reddit users who raided the stock market last week not only understood this, but celebrated it. Calling themselves “retards,” “autists” and “apes,” they flooded onto trading apps to buy shares of the beleaguered video game retailer GameStop, in direct contradiction of the reigning financial opinion on the company and its valuation. Early adopters may have been persuaded by reason, on behalf of a Reddit user who argued against the pessimism of professional analysts. But the value began to rise, and the crowd grew larger. At some point the money became secondary, passion took over, and the crowd stormed Wall Street not on account of superior logic but because they wanted to be a part of something. Where the energy goes, the crowd follows.

Only the most leaden-hearted could fail to be moved by the participants’ earnestness and mirth. Scrolling through their Reddit page at the peak of the frenzy, between images of graphs and all-caps screeds declaring their undying commitment to the cause of GameStop stock, one found countless heartbreaking tales of loss originating in the recession of 2008. Houses repossessed by banks, laid-off fathers and brothers, an entire life’s savings disappearing overnight—all while the architects of the crisis got bailed out by the supposed representatives of the people. To those on the Reddit boards, the 2008 disaster blasted a hole through the ruling class’s deliberately obfuscatory account of the “free market,” allowing—if only for a moment—a crystal-clear vision of how our political economy truly functions. Socialism for the rich, free markets for the poor.

Among the raiders, many have detected the same Spartan come-and-get-us solidarity that motivated the Occupy Wall Street uprising, a sense of waging a noble but likely hopeless battle against a well-armed, nigh-omnipotent enemy. In 2011, tens of thousands of people pitched tents in public squares across America to rage against “the one percent” who gamed the system to their own benefit and the detriment of everyone else. It turned out, however, that Wall Street financiers, corporate lobbyists and suit-wearing agents of the administrative state don’t really care what happens in public parks. But now, the wide availability of zero-commission trading apps meant that Wall Street, so untouchable for so long, had finally come into reach of those who had the audacity of remembering the crimes they’d committed. They can ignore the parks, but they can’t ignore what happens to their money.

On this same breeze, one can discern a whisper of a familiar but forgotten optimism about the liberatory potential of the internet. One story that can be told of the last decade is the rise and fall of internet utopianism, birthed with the Arab Spring’s “Twitter Revolution” and Obama’s Facebook-based reelection campaign, eventually destroyed in the fire of Trump’s 2016 victory and the subsequent four-year-long panic about the possibility of Russian interference. The GameStop raiders seemed to genuinely believe that the internet, like the market, should be just as free for the little guy as it is for corporations. In other words, they believe it to be a commons.

Here, as with the economy, they’re likely to be disappointed. The internet—unlike grasslands of early medieval England or the night sky—has always been enclosed, its ownership traceable to governments, universities, the military, banks. Its ability to connect users in a “digital public square” has always depended upon specialized technology and the ability of telecom companies to extract a profit. But perhaps more importantly, a commons is somewhere that admits of silence, the ability to stand somewhere for no particular purpose other than to take in the richness and magnificence of being. To expect this from the internet would be absurd. The internet is more Zuccotti Park than Welsh heath: the property of distant, largely absent landlords, ones who generally don’t care what you do there until they suddenly do.

A wise man once said: “When the People occupy the square, walk in the park. When the People occupy the park, walk in the square.” The internet has proven just as fertile for the formation of crowds and crowd-think as, say, the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building. Some of those crowds may be intriguing, sympathetic, even beautiful in their own way. But as Canetti knew, the most important thing to do when you find yourself in a crowd is to find your way out with your selfhood intact.