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WallStreetBets, Gamestop, and Nietzsche's Account Of Nihilism
“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” – Frank Herbert, Dune
We live within a historical era that is literally defined by its abundance of information, and yet somehow, we lack an inability to believe in anything. This castration from meaning making manifests in a nausea; the effects of a stomach filled to the brim with nothingness, unable to take in anything authentic. But at least if meaning cannot be made, then the malaise of a dying world becomes muted. The death of meaning comes with many perks, of course. The moments before brain death as a result of the freezing cold come with a feeling of warmth. The commodity form that isolates us from each other creates a unity from this division based upon the joys of consumption. I am provided with many pleasures through my encounters with a technological apparatus designed at its very core to increase the flows of capital. The things that I believe do not change the fact that this essential encounter with the machine is accompanied by this increased flow. If belief does not matter for one’s life, it cannot hope to be attached to meaning. If what Sartre says is true, that “never were we freer than under the German occupation,” then never have we been less free than now. Never has what one believed, or what ideology they have invested in, or what position on social issues they’ve “stood up” for, mattered less.
Nihilism begets nihilism just as capital begets capital, and the warmth of freezing might as well be embraced lest one gain no pleasure from the destruction of their life’s essence. Take the “wallstreetbets” subreddit, for instance: a sick and depraved (they will confirm this) group of people who worship Jordan Belfort as an idol. They understand he is Icarus, and yet they embrace all the logical conclusions of what flying too close to the sun represents. Betting one’s life savings on high-risk stocks in a blaze of glory where one might see incredible gains but will more likely see tremendous losses. What is it that causes one to bet (invest) the money from their student loans on Gamestop stock? From a rational perspective, this is an absurd idea. Yet, these people are only throwing away their future, so nothing of value can be lost. What is the application of reason to a caged animal? What use is “intelligent investments” if one is trapped no matter what? If one is to be trapped in the system, then they might as well enjoy it. One might as well gain affirmation of their absurd stock market investment decisions from an online community of like-minded caged animals unable to believe in anything. Yet, there is a serious sense of community within this consummatory death drive. The very same commodity form that alienates one from a meaningful, non-economic relationship with others has bound this group together in their despair.
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One’s social world, their political identity, their understanding of events, their sense of community, and their taste in music are all provided to one by machines. Without these machines, we are nothing. The various attributes and virtues that describe what truly defines an individual are served to them on a platter by advanced systems of algorithms designed to turn them into perfect little consumers. This is combined with a perceived sense of choice, of course. You have five or six options to pick from the algorithmically determined set. One may tell themselves they have “freedom” (and by this, I mean an effect on the world through actions and beliefs), and yet they have nothing. In this process, no level of originality is required. One simply begins consuming and then never has to stop. What is one’s virtue? Is it not based on the values that one holds and the judgement of those values by themselves and others? What other medium provides for better judgment of others’ virtue than on the internet, where virtue is determined by a consumption pattern. What is the point of developing a ‘taste’ in music if the Spotify algorithm can do it for you? “this algorithm,” I tell myself, “is now what I enjoy. It is MY taste in music.” Besides, the “daily mix” was made expressly for me. It even says “for you” on the page. It seems that more and more of our identity becomes rendered entirely by silicon.
The child no longer begins to recognize themselves in the mirror stage of development. It does not require a mirror; it simply requires a “for you page.” In this page of tik toks, which are served to the consumer through a constantly updating and impossible to understand system of code, one develops their sense of self. This sense of self is developed, of course, to ensure that “capital begets capital.” And the “for you page” comes concomitant with an advanced algorithm designed expressly to view as many ads as possible. The more one consumes, the more ads they view. “The page is for me,” I think, “it must show what is myself.” The shadows on the wall that the self is exposed to, through the byzantine structure which operates beyond their comprehension, allows them to judge.
In reality, you are nothing except a subject conditioned to allow capital to flow through your actions. The great operant conditioning project of online culture has moulded one to move towards basic behaviours that generate an increased flow of capital. Posting wars between guerrilla Maoists hiding out from terms of service guidelines to harass fascist meme pages occur behind a backdrop of increased revenue from the subsequent additional engagement that comes from controversy on social media. Regardless of one’s explicit beliefs or positions, consumption of the most efficient order is reinforced. The “for you page” that leads one towards a sense of self is constructed based upon the data given to the underlying algorithm that provides content from an unimaginably large scale of inputs. The data then constructs a reward system based upon patterns that will maximize the user’s interacting time. There is no escape that one can find of this from within the screen itself, only further reinforcement. As long as your phone is connected to a social system, a series of algorithms, websites, that are designed to ensure that “capital begets capital,” then cyberspace is a realm not of political action but consumption.
One can fully reject meatspace as if it is liberating, of course. Embracing the nihilism of the screen and pushing it further than even the online posters who see themselves as revolutionaries because of their consumption patterns. How is it that in this pure absurd nihilism, that action is once again possible? If nothing matters, then everything is permitted. The wallstreetbets subreddit caused Melvin Capital, an investment management company worth 12.5 billion dollars, to file for bankruptcy through their pseudo-collective investment patterns. So, one has a situation in which nihilist zoomers who rightly perceive their future prospects as non-existent and can only feel something by potentially gaining capital through high-risk stock investments end up causing large finance capitalist firms to go insolvent, creating a mini-crisis on the stock market. Surely this tactic cannot carry itself further than it has, especially considering the impending crackdown on middle-class zoomer investors manipulating the markets – only the rich are allowed to do this. It is expressly because it cannot carry itself further that it has been allowed to happen. Many in these groups see themselves as sticking up for the individual investor against the Wall Street fatcats. They refuse to sell their Gamestop stock because holding it will, through the absurd machinations of the market, cause even more pain and suffering to the firms that were shorting it. A post that garnered tens of thousands of upvotes on the wallstreetbets subreddit (that is not the only post that has been doing so) reads:
“You’re trying to scare us into selling. It won’t work. Let me explain why. / I grew up poor. I grew up on the poor side of town. I remember my parents struggling with money for years. Shitty cars, Shitty clothes… Ramen was a staple at home… I’ve been broke almost my entire life. I’ve never had more than $9,000 liquid at one time. I’ve been nearly homeless too many times to count… I’ve worked 50, 60, 70, 80, even 90 hour weeks at shit jobs… If you think the prospect of losing the few hundred dollars I have in GME (Gamestop) is going to scare me into selling before Friday, you couldn’t be more wrong… I’m not here to get rich overnight. I don’t have enough to invest to make that happen. I’m here to say fuck you and to be a part of this movement. I will never sell. Never. Don’t even care about this money at this point… There isn’t a single thing you can do to change my position. I risk my money happily. I am not the least bit scared or worried… Power to the people. / I will not sell.” -Wallstreetbets user
If one is not convinced by this rhetoric, of not selling to stick it to “the man,” then one should be convinced by a user known as “deepfuckingvalue” who invested 56 thousand dollars into Gamestop stock 19 months ago and still refuses to sell after it has become worth 44 million. He does not sell because the purpose is, ironically, far beyond merely making money. They love Jordan Belfort because he could not walk away from Wall Street even though it ensured his destruction. In a clear reference to the “I’m not fucking leaving” seen in The Wolf of Wall Street, a highly upvoted post on the sub read, “I’m not fucking selling.” The sense of community and purpose in literally destroying multi-billion dollar investment firms is far beyond the group’s ostensible raison d’etre: to collect as much money as possible. The nihilism of the dominance of the commodity form is turned against itself to create some form of meaning, even if this meaning is, by definition, suicidal. The will to nothingness involved in the bringing down of Melvin Capital (and potentially others) is simply a product of the system destroying itself. Obviously, it provides no revolutionary capacity – but how could it be that capital is a more significant threat to capital than anti-capitalists? Why is it that Occupy Wall Street’s immediate effects did less damage to Wall Street than a Wall Street betting subreddit that worships Jordan Belfort?
* * *
The technological singularity is viewed by many as a significant event to human society. Visions of both dystopia and paradise mark the potential future following the singularity in the minds of both laymen and ‘experts.’ And yet none have realized what this event truly means. It is, of course, in the nature of a singularity to not understand its event horizon. Yet, it is not as if we could know what this event holds, as it is predicated on the death of belief itself. It is not that the machines had become sentient; we simply became dependant on them, we think alongside them, we embed our sense of self in them.
The all-powerful axiom that “capital begets capital” is the base point of our social world. As capital begins to accelerate the process of surplus extraction, it appears as if the room for meaning making vanishes. In the despotic social formation, one could not slander the king because his authority was essential for the social world to continue its existence. The speech acts that undermined this essential point within the feudal world were discouraged, blocked, denied. But what happens to these speech acts and their antecedent thoughts in the world of capitalism? The capitalist social formation no longer cares for your opinions and beliefs so long as “capital begets capital.” Even your criticisms of the nature of capital itself may be monetized (just as my words are now) to ensure this process is accelerated. Thus, capital creates a drastic and fundamental change to social formations wherever it manages to embed itself. The “old world” had foreseen this threat, at some level, and attempted to ward off this new reality, yet their attempts at banning “usury” or “money lending” failed. The social institutions that had held a sacred essentiality to even the most basic level of human interactions dissipated, the blasphemous beliefs and actions that existed opposite these institutions suddenly became permitted.
Compare the power of the catholic church in the 15th to the 19th century. The hold on power this institution had on European society had been wiped away. Its solid grasp on the lives of individuals melted into air. This process continues now, as more and more lose their faith in God. Capital itself held to be one of the most powerful critical forces against social institutions that forbade certain acts and ideas as blasphemous – so long as these acts allowed for capital to beget capital, of course. It is not so much that capital is “progressive,” as this is a moral word – it is more so a nihilism machine. Capital is a black hole of meaning that sucks all that matters into it, spaghettifying anything that is pulled towards its gravitational singularity until that meaning is corrupted beyond recognition, morphed into pure capital itself.
This is why the pope in recent years has appeared “anti capitalist.” It is not in the hopes of transcending the current social formation but a desperate attempt to go back to a world where belief in God was possible. Here we see the ultimate irony in Christian conservative pundits being outraged that the capitalist market does not appeal enough to the ever-shrinking group of believers. It is precisely because of this market’s presence that leads individuals towards the atheism that these fundamentalists despise. They worship the causes of the problems that they revile.
Yet, it appears that this “atheism” in the narrower sense of the word is no longer the primary sense in which individuals do not “believe.” When Nietzsche declared that “God is dead,” he meant to identify the cause of the symptom of this nihilism. Why was it the case that we could no longer believe in God? Why is it that the holiest of holy had melted away into nothing to the point in which now the most ideologically dedicated worshippers fought to make the contents of television advertisements more “holy”?
Just as Nietzsche had envisioned the death of God, can we not imagine the death of belief itself? Many had even thought (and continue to think) that they believed in God many, many years after we had already killed him. God, the singular God, the Judeo-Christian God, had not died as he had been born. There is a reason there is a “Before Christ” and “After Death” that still mark our years (within the Christian world) related to the birth of God, yet there is no similar event for this God’s subsequent death. Those who had killed him had done so entirely unaware of the consequences, not dreaming of what they had caused that only truly manifested itself centuries after their own deaths.
Therefore, in the Nietzschean rejection of “great events,” we can envision precisely how the death of meaning itself arrives. Maybe the singularity requires a similar figure to the Nietzschean Zarathustra who screamed “God is dead” at the marketplace place to sneers and mockery – a sneering and mockery given by a patient to the doctor who had discovered the symptom of their sickness. Maybe we need a madman who screams that “the computers have already taken over” in the virtual forum (the very same one dominated by these computers) who is to be laughed at and slandered as a Luddite “who should go live in the woods.”
It is through the flow of capital and our daily encounters with this flow that we can longer believe in anything. What becomes of belief in a world where our social formation is determined by algorithms? Not ones who are self-aware (that is an absurd question to even posit) but ones that organize our social world and provide us with content with the express purpose of ensuring that “capital begets capital.” Even attempts to resist this phenomenon seem to be reintegrated into it. If in all of these cases we can be sure that “capital begets capital,” then what is the point? What is the point of belief if it has no effect on your world? If the machines now run all that is important and do so to constitute a social formation whose only purpose is the flow of capital, what sense do your beliefs matter?
“The singularity” is not a single, legible event. The singularity has already happened. It is impossible to precisely know when this great death of meaning-making took place. The effects of this great death will not be seen for decades. This is not a single event, but a silent plurality of sense, of perspectives, that slowly altered themselves towards nihilism. We can also be sure, quoting Nietzsche, that “the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.” An acceleration of the process is clearly underway. What this exactly means is not entirely clear. It cannot be clear. For one can only feel the process of acceleration itself, not its specific direction.
The effects of the singularity will have been felt for 50+ years before many who occupy the popular scientific discourse around its existence even begin to think it has happened. They will laugh at the absurd notion that the currently existing computer systems are in any way general, as opposed to narrow, intelligence. What they are looking for is a synthetic machine that copies their own modes of understanding. Not realizing that it is not a matter of pulling their understanding up to us, but instead dragging ours down to them. It is through them that we communicate with the world, gain appraisal, social recognition, even a sense of self.
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It is precisely here that our historical age enters a form of nihilism that Nietzsche himself could not imagine. It is not merely God that we cannot believe, but political ideology itself. We no longer believe in “believing in.” Contemporary social causes have become a carbon copy of Kony 2012, a political project only concerned with “raising awareness.” “If we could simply get people to believe,” they thought, “then we could make a difference.” So, the people “believed” in the social cause of Kony. Yet they did not actually. They could not actually “believe” it because that belief would necessitate action. To truly believe a philosophy, as Nietzsche understood, is to practice it. Yet what resulted from their belief in stopping Kony? Merely capital begetting capital. Kony 2012 was a marketing campaign.
The neoliberalization of the political sphere (that is, of it turning entirely into the realm of economics) has solidified a nihilism in the face of which there can be no solution other than to accelerate the process.
“We are expected, in the name of Deleuzoguattarian anti-fascism, to embrace capitalism as nihilist machine that has no ‘purpose’, because ‘purpose’=fascism, while forgetting that neoliberalism appeared in Germany as the form of governmentality that would immunize us against fascism by trading the political for the economic” – Benjamin Noys, “The Grammar of Neoliberalism”
In the contemporary neoliberal order, nihilism can manifest itself to the highest degree that we have seen yet. Not towards the transcendence of this order, of course – but merely towards an increase in the continuing flow of capital. There is no political ideology to “believe” in because politics is merely a discussion of whether the mixed economic system should involve slightly more or less state interference. The left struggles to identify any semblance of a capacity to create meaning, to have beliefs that affect the world, that change the course of history. Any “socialist” political organizations become subsumed into this neoliberal consensus in order to have a meaningful effect on it. “Slightly more state intervention,” they cheer, shaking the neoliberal order to its core.
The social democratic regimes of the post war period appear to have been in a perfect position to develop (1) neoliberalism and (2) the internet.
“The postmodern meltdown of culture into the economy is triggered by the fractal interlock of commoditization and computers” – Nick Land, “Meltdown”
It is no surprise that cyberspace burst out of the combination of the regulatory body of the state, that plans large-scale technological development and infrastructure, and the market system, that allows for competition between a plurality of capitalist firms that can interact with and utilize this infrastructure to meet particular use-values. The social democratic order of the post-war period also, unsurprisingly, develops towards a neoliberalism that (as defined by Noys) reduces the political sphere purely to the economic. The origins of social democracy, the saving grace for the Western capitalist system during the crises of the post-war period, was not in those that loved the system and wished to accelerate it to its logical conclusion – but precisely the opposite. It was in the reformist wing of many communist and socialist movements that the social democratic project became possible. Instead of straining against the inexorability of capitalism and the state, their reforms ended up mending them towards further stability. The death leviathan which our great civilization rides upon was reformed to kill slightly less in a much more stable way.
Both products of social democracy (the internet and neoliberalism) fall into a nihilism that we are continuing to deal with every day, each day more and more than the last. This nihilism is not the Will to Power that Nietzsche envisioned as necessarily turning in on itself and becoming a creative, self-overcoming force. Capital is not the lion that screams “no” to the social dragon; a resistance of objective values that ensures that the process of self creation can be possible. It is its opposite: ressentiment – the reinforcement of the social order to the extent that this social order can no longer be believed in. It is not an overcoming; it is a sickness that predicates the overcoming in the first place. The nihilism of capital is one that is ultimately aimed towards nothing. “My enemies,” says Nietzsche, “are those who want to destroy without creating their own selves.”
If you believe, as many left accelerationists do, that there is no distinction between the nihilism of ressentiment and the “going under” required for self-overcoming, then there is no problem with the current trajectory of history. Yet isn’t there a problem? How is it the case that we should “accelerate the process” considering the sorry state of the contemporary left, which has become increasingly less relevant? It seems like it has become so weak precisely because of this nihilism, not despite it. The left no longer believes in anything. The grand stories of the power of American labour and strikes before the nihilist inducing social democratic great deal imposed by FDR imply a reality that is in fact directly opposite the stance held by accelerationism. Just as ressentiment and social democracy posit themselves as positive beliefs, a reterritorialization to protect one from the uncoded world that lacks order and meaning, they both necessarily ensure nihilism.
Besides the vague concept of “inspiring radicalization” (a notion which we can firmly connect to “raising awareness”), how did Occupy Wall Street, the American left’s primary response to the 2008 financial crash, actually affect the world? Did it render a 12.5 billion dollar investment firm insolvent? How is it that a group of purely nihilistic zoomers who worship Jordan Belfort as an exemplar of virtue have caused more harm to Wall Street than the American left? Why is it that the only extent to which we are able to destroy finance capital is not for the sake of creation – of a world beyond capitalism, but for capitalist nihilism itself? From the touch screen of a phone, no less. Can we not, therefore, at least identify a kernel of overcoming within this phenomenon? A minor piece of it that can be learned from? How is it possible to take the nihilism and alienation that capital and the commodity form create and turn it against the system in a constructive sense? The SEC and the Biden administration’s crackdown on these small investors’ “stock market revolution” shows the obvious reason (among others) that this practice itself cannot be revolutionary. Yet how can we harness the clearly passionate “anti-establishment” energy from phenomena like this, which are directly produced by nihilism, for the purpose of self creation? When Nietzsche writes of the death of God, he asks:
“Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed - and whoever is born after us will on account of this deed belong to a higher history than all history up to now” -Nietzsche, The Gay Science
How can we become gods after we have killed the Judeo-Christian God? How can we become makers of meaning after we have killed all the social determinates of meaning?
* * *
“Our Jihad is a ‘dump program.’ We dump the thing which destroys us as humans!”
-Frank Herbert, Children of Dune
Nietzsche’s “philosophy of the future” that was meant as a symptomatology to identify the sickness (nihilism) of his historical age, began us on the journey to identifying the cause of the lack of meaning in our lives. Nietzsche’s response to nihilism is a self-withdrawal into madness. The mad display a radical break from power through an isolated disconnection from it. It is in this madness that meaning making again becomes possible. This disconnect allows for meaning to have an effect in a purely isolated sense.
The will towards nothingness required for this break is unlike the nihilism generated by the neoliberal politico-economic order; it is the rejection of meaning, “a sacred ‘no,’” for the purpose of creation. As Nietzsche says, “he who wants to be a creator of good or of evil must first of all destroy all values.” The meaning making of the madman who shouts “god is dead, and we have killed him” in the town hall to the judgment of all those sane individuals connected to the social world is a meaningful break from nihilism; the madman is truly free.
This madness has always been an option. Even now, in our contemporary age, where nihilism runs as rampant as it does – this radical disconnect surely works. Yet, for most at least, this radical isolation cannot sustain itself. Even Zarathustra came down from the mountainside to preach a life affirming creation to others.
Militancy and an attempt to alter the elements of society that initially drove one towards isolation must necessarily manifest for authentic liberation. It is precisely the sentiment of this inward turn towards madness that I implore among as many as possible. One must initially do philosophy with a hammer. Your response to nihilism should be a desire to unplug from the social mechanisms that cause it. Yet this is not a possible solution, and it must be clear the forms of militancy that actually have a functioning capacity outside the neoliberal will towards nothingness, towards nihilism.
It is a collective self-overcoming that is required of us in our contemporary age. The self overcoming prescribed by Nietzsche had its time, and it must now be transcended. For what is the self, if not a multiplicity of biological drives? The Will to Power, as Nietzsche described it brilliantly, deconstructs the ghost of the ego and its fiction. Yet why stop there? Is it not these biological drives that determine a “self” connected in a more intimate way to one’s social world?
Nietzsche saw the overcoming of nihilism as an individual journey that only a few of most noble souls could possibly undergo. Yet, where has this strategy gotten us? It is clear that madness must be replaced with militancy. The nihilism that we feel in the contemporary age must be harnessed and turned in on itself to generate a constructive process of overcoming the social order.