Play to Lose

NFTs and meme stocks are contributing to the financialization of the self

Full-text audio version of this essay.

With its cadres of investment bankers, institutional investors, massive international flows of cash and commodities and its wealth of arcane instruments, measures, and strategies, the world of finance may appear as practically impossible for an ordinary person to comprehend. Yet this impenetrability is often framed as an opportunity: Personal financial apps (i.e. Robinhood), novel investment vehicles (i.e. cryptocurrencies), and emergent investment strategies (i.e. meme stocks pumped on Reddit) are often framed in terms of the unique and exciting possibilities they offer for outsiders to become insiders.

Often these innovations are framed as giving those who previously could not play in speculative markets — because they lacked access, capital, or training — a new way in, in the name of equality and freedom. The potential for an increasing number of “retail traders” to participate in the stock market is presented as intrinsically good: No longer are the potential boons of investing limited to the already rich! One need only look at how GameStop’s volatility was touted as a “rebellion” or an “insurgency.” Or consider how NFTs have been championed as both a way for disenfranchised artists to get their just due and a means for crypto speculators to diversify the holdings in their wallets. While the NFT market seems to be undergoing a “silent crash,” the hype remains loud.

Minting NFTs is depicted as beneficial for the individuals included, with the established financial institutions supposedly being dragged along for the ride

But retail investing is not exactly new, and digital artists have come up with ways to monetize their work for decades. Why has minting NFTs taken hold in the public consciousness as some hyper-lucrative paradigm shift? Like Reddit stock boards and trading apps and crypto coins, NFTs have been depicted as though they were instruments of financial inclusion, a term often used to described the process of “serving the unbanked and underbanked” by enabling them to open accounts. It has also been more broadly applied to everything from microlenders in developing countries to financial education courses to the zero-free stock trading now offered at many brokerages. Such initiatives are touted as freeing up the intelligence and motivation of individuals that the prejudices and exclusions of conventional finance (much like the art market with respect to creativity) has kept blocked. That is, it is depicted as beneficial for the individuals being included and for society in general, with the established financial institutions supposedly being dragged along for the ride.

Financial inclusion may seem like a way of teaching more people how to successfully participate in speculative markets for their own benefit, but this narrative masks the often predatory terms of the inclusion for the benefit of the existing systems. Just as philanthropically framed microloans allow the global financial centers to open a thousand tiny cuts of interest collection in previously inaccessible areas, the new tech platforms and gimmicks reshape our lives and selves to more effectively serve as resources to be extracted and exploited. As Rob Aitkin argues in “A Machine for Living: The Cultural Economy of Financial Subjectivity,” “the process of financialization … entails the configuration not only of new assets in financial markets but also ever-widening kinds of populations that could understand themselves as risk-bearing, investing or indebted subjects capable of navigating those markets.” Financialization enters our daily lives not just through macroeconomic fallout — unemployment rates and global capital flows — but through the attitudes and behaviors it encourages or forces us to internalize, often in the guise of “opportunities.”

These practices create inroads to extract new forms of value from individuals: as data to inform the speculative investments of larger hedge funds, as users on platforms, and as debtors under the thumb of financial surveillance and discipline. They work to fill our minds with the language of debts and returns on investment, in much the same way as widespread student and medical debt do. In Revenge Capitalism, sociologist Max Haiven argues that these structurally imposed debts are construed as individualized “responsibilities” around which one is obliged to manage one’s life and future.

In other words, the sort of “financial inclusion” promised by pseudo-democratized investment entails a risky incursion of neoliberal market logic at the level of individual practice. In an environment of deregulation, risk, and desperation, people are urged (or compelled) to take on an entrepreneurial subjectivity. Randy Martin, in his book The Financialization of Daily Life, describes the new obligations and incentives placed on individuals in this context:

With the new model of financial self-management, making money does not stop with wages garnered from employment … daily life embraces an aspiration to make money as well. These are opportunities that quickly have obligations to invest wisely, speculate sagely, and deploy resources strategically … To play at life one must win over the economy.

Choices in life become “gambles,” as one scrambles to find bits of work or the big payout that would allow one to escape the condition of alienated work altogether, and our knowledge and skills become like assets that we must plan to increase the value of and deploy for high returns as performance in this arena is individualized. The terms of inclusion, which prompt us to see ourselves as smart, hard-working self-investors, can seem flattering, encouraging us to keep playing along. And while there’s always the vanishingly small possibility of becoming a runaway success in investments or stardom, most of the time we have no choice but to play to lose.

Financial-inclusion projects offer a feeling of revenge to help compensate for the otherwise helpless feeling of being financialized against one’s will

Making oneself legible — presenting oneself to these systems as a savvy artist riding the revolutionary new wave or as a canny day trader (and promoting those systems in the process) — is naturalized as always having been sensible and turned into evidence of one’s personal responsibility. Can’t make ends meet or put aside savings? Bet on stocks in your spare time — a perfect use for your stimulus check! Frustrated with your work being devalued as an artist? You only have yourself to blame for not minting. Can’t pay off student loans? Maybe you should have gotten a degree in a lucrative field instead of whimsically following your interests. (And maybe those underfunded humanities departments should be abolished altogether.) This attitude toward the self is being ingrained earlier and earlier. Many are welcomed into adulthood by taking on enormous amounts of debt for higher education, and some are indoctrinated even earlier. Concepts like “school lunch debt” are now being used to discipline and shame primary school students.

It’s evident that the endpoint of capitalism is to suck up every natural resource and leave the planet uninhabitable. The debts become unpayable, the destruction of the environment makes human activity senseless, and it begins to feel like capitalism has moved beyond any logic, even that of cruel economic practicality. It may seem that the only recourse, in the face of such remorselessness, is vengeance — revenge against a “system” that seems aligned against individuals in broad, unaccountable ways. But this pursuit of revenge plays out not as the disruption of capitalism but as a support for it, a condition Haiven labels “revenge capitalism”:

Everywhere, it seems, whole polities pivot toward agendas that promise to do little to alleviate their social suffering but, rather, offer a vehicle for antipathy. These revenge politics are not only the province of the far-right. My argument is that vengefulness can be observed in some form across the sorry ruins of the political spectrum: a certain cynical, nihilistic vindictiveness that emerges part and parcel of an equally cynical, nihilistic, and vindictive form of capitalism.

The financial-inclusion projects mentioned above can be understood in this light: They do not include people in practices that could be understood as the foundation of a sustainable and equitable society; they include them in schemes that offer the satisfaction of getting over on other people, undermining institutions, and inflicting suffering in kind as retribution for what they have experienced. They offer a feeling of revenge to help compensate for the otherwise helpless feeling of being financialized against one’s will.

The destruction of the environment makes human activity senseless, and it begins to feel like capitalism has moved beyond any logic, even that of cruel economic practicality

For instance, this tendency toward vengeance is woven into NFT markets, which represent a victory of an ideology that sees creating scarcity, using up resources for the hell of it, and fetishizing abstract computational “work” as sources of objective value, even as the environmental consequences become more grave. NFT markets are the apotheosis of a blindly vengeful form of capitalism that knows only how to consume and grow. Though participants within them may feel as though they are somehow beating the system, finally “winning” against all the ways capitalism exploits or works to extinguish human creativity (as well as winning over other artists already competing for dwindling cultural resources), in reality, NFTs have yielded the same outcomes of the already highly stratified conventional art market. Its implicit rules are reasserted in the steep transaction fees to “mint” one’s work, the connections required for access to the more exclusive and reputable marketplaces, and the social networks that assure lucrative sales. NFTs don’t deliver  more fulfilling and sustaining relationships to creative work, yet the rhetoric draws more people into a destructive technological fantasy.

Similarly, the Reddit-coordinated rally on GameStop was theorized not as a sound investment opportunity but a way of striking back at the financial apparatus that wanted your favorite childhood mall stores to fail along with you yourself. While the influx of “dumb money” from nonprofessional investors did catch a few hedge funds off-guard, the fund behind the Robinhood app ultimately helped bail out the one that took the most damage. Ultimately apps like Robinhood are a slickly packaged way for hedge funds to gather granular data about retail trader behavior and trends. A few compelling symbolic wins or disruptions serve only to encourage broader participation, increasing the incumbents’ own power over the marketplace. Most of the newcomers won’t make money, but they will get to enjoy the revenge narrative and the idea that they are somehow lashing back at the system by essentially reinforcing it.

NFTs don’t deliver more fulfilling and sustaining relationships to creative work, yet the rhetoric draws more people into a destructive technological fantasy

The desire to win at these games requires people to put their own cash, work, and reputation on the line, as well as the planetary ecosystem as a whole. These models of “inclusion” (pitched as disruption or equal opportunity) encourage people hoping to escape an exploitative wage labor system to enter into speculative marketplaces, where the bigger players are at an overwhelming advantage. That a few individuals occasionally win motivates a far greater number to continue wagering ourselves and to succumb to self-blame for failing to make it.

Haiven concludes Revenge Capitalism by urging us to respond to the vengefulness of contemporary capitalism with our own “avenging imaginary.” This would draw on our collective revenge fantasies born in the “reckless determination that what you love has value in a world where it is rendered worthless.” But what he advocates is not simply getting back at capitalism on its own terms, continuing the destruction in the name of a temporary or individual “win.” Instead, this imaginary would work toward “the future of peace, care, abundance, connection, and thriving that we are owed but that revenge capitalism denies us.” This would mean embracing alternative forms of value and ways of thinking not driven by the voracious and cruel demands of capital or financial logic.

Feminist perspectives on care work and recent activism for fairer practices in the arts alike have drawn attention to how kinds of work that are often devalued or performed for free actually create enormous value. This happens both in terms of financial value that can eventually be extracted but also in terms of social cohesion, maintenance, and the broad forms of creativity and connection that make life interesting. A meaningful alternative to the vengeful extension of capitalist logic into all parts of life would require massive redistribution of both actual resources and our perception of value into these more distributed and sustainable practices, rather than evaluating them as untapped financial instruments or setting up new ways to act as wannabe entrepreneurs in these fields.

But crypto, NFTs, and stock apps play within a system of hierarchy and domination that is meant to curtail our imagination, as if their vindictive horizons of “winners” and “losers” were as far as our fantasies can go. The devotees of the new tools of financial inclusion seem to have a unified message for critics: “Have fun staying poor.”

Emilie Reed is a writer, curator and researcher currently based in Glasgow, with a focus on amateur, expressive and experimental use of technology. Her website is emreed.net