As the stock market began to soar during the pandemic depths of 2020, fueled by stimulus money, an entire generation of Americans began day trading, convinced that the rising tide would lift them into a new boat. After a jarring market drop this week, it was calculated that all of those day traders have now given back all of the collective gains they made in that dreamy two-year window of unreality. The meme stocks have fallen back to Earth. Crypto prices are plummeting, as the existence of real risks like inflation and war have begun to make people rethink the wisdom of pouring their savings into assets that do not, strictly speaking, exist. Ah, well — there’s always newly legalized sports gambling.
This is not an essay meant to gloat over the pricking of various bubbles. Prices fluctuate; foolish hope springs eternal; today’s mogul is tomorrow’s sucker, and the cycle continues. There is something more fundamental happening here than bad investments completing the downward slope of their mortar-like arc. We are living through something sad: the squandering of an opportunity. That this was all inevitable does not make it any easier to swallow.
The pandemic is not over. But the period of the pandemic in which a meaningful change in the American psyche was possible is. Think back, if you can, to the early days, the spring of 2020, when panic and uncertainty gripped society, and the demand for government action grew so intense that it was impossible to ignore. Just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are no free market fundamentalists in a lockdown. Trillions of dollars poured forth from Congress, including the historically healthy $600 per week increase in unemployment benefits that were not just a temporary lifeline for millions of Americans forced out of work, but also the first taste that many people had ever had of financial stability. With each of three successive rounds of government stimulus in 2020 and 2021, America’s household checking and savings accounts shot up. Millions more people, who were able to work from home, saw their incomes stay steady while the shutdowns of businesses made their spending drop. Across the board, in the midst of this global crisis, was a temporary, uneven, but very real moment of economic opportunity.
For those prone to optimism about the human spirit, the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic seemed to offer a chance for a bit of an evolution — a case of nature hammering home the point that we are all in this together, and we must take care of one another. This sounds a little idealistic, yes, but that is how big shifts in consciousness actually happen. Wars, pandemics and other natural and manmade disasters are often the only things powerful enough to break through the typical socioeconomic barriers that keep us apart and forge some sort of rough consensus on the need for progress. Humans are selfish bastards, but we come together when we have no other choice.
But American capitalism, the gangster version, is not overcome by something so simple as a once-in-a-century pandemic that causes a million deaths. The result of all of the money that washed through American bank accounts over the past two years was not a new era of widespread equality, but rather, a boom in get-rich-quick schemes: Meme stocks, cryptocurrency and legalized gambling all have this in common. And on an even grander scale, corporations carried on their own hyper-charged version of a “me first” crisis approach: A Brookings Institute report covering 22 major American companies found that their shareholders raked in $1.5 trillion in value during the pandemic, while workers saw gains of only 2% of that value in added pay.
Not to indulge in pop psychology, but it turns out that the pandemic really brought out the soul of America. We did not come together. Rather, we divided very starkly along the lines of winners vs. losers, capital vs. labor. The relief money we pumped into the economy fueled an enormous series of casinoesque bubbles: in the stock market, in housing prices, in sports gambling, in fully Ponzified cryptocurrencies, which represent in its purest form the will to become rich for no underlying reason — a sort of Black Mirror-meets-Horatio Alger story of plucky Americans working hard to produce the most selfish possible outcome, using what amounts to faith-based financial magic. That it has not worked is not surprising. That the sharps on the other sides of these trades, and corporate America in general, have raked all of these faith-driven bets directly into their own pockets is even less surprising. The only surprising thing, as we watch all of these bad bets painfully begin to unwind themselves, is not that this time isn’t different, but that some of us thought that it could be.
Yes, the pandemic and its attendant workplace inequality have spurred a new wave of labor organizing and activism that most certainly exists in our national spirit, even if it hasn’t quite shown up in the union density numbers yet. That is something good. But it is not as good as what we all could have had all been able to envision the pandemic as something that we were all in together. Alas, the logic of capitalism does not allow any of the players at the top of the game to see great crises as moments of unity; it demands that they all see crises only as moments of opportunity to advance themselves.
So our collective will to demand things during the time of peril did not translate into steps toward socialism’s shared economy, with safety nets, free public health care, or housing for all. The ripoff economy that has flourished also places demands on the government, in the mirror image of what might benefit everyone: It demands corporate bailouts and lax labor laws to keep stock prices high; it demands exclusionary restrictions on building housing in order to keep home prices high; it demands deregulation of dangerous products like gambling and crypto, in order to allow the predators free reign to gobble up the money of hapless suckers; and, in an ongoing sense, it demands a political system in which money is allowed to purchase influence, so that no crisis great or small can be allowed to interrupt the march towards profits.
All of the regular people who desperately want to believe that crypto is the tool that will allow them to finally realize the mythical American dream constantly tell one another not to sell — to hold on through the crashes, to hold fast to the faith. It is the language not just of those on the wrong end of a pump-and-dump scheme, but also of a religion. Faith is not a bad thing. It’s just that we, all of us, need to harness that faith to try to change our nation to benefit everyone. The faith of capitalism, which says that you can be the winner while everyone else loses, is the same misplaced faith that every losing gambler in history has had.
Sell your NFTs, and go join a union. I know which one will last longer.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.