Stealing from the rich and giving to the poor: How GameStop activists took on the stock market

In January 2021, stories about an American chain called GameStop started appearing in the news. GameStop is a bit like a GAME equivalent – it sells games and consoles, but is otherwise unremarkable, so the fact that it was making international news and trending on social media was a surprise. Even more surprising was that the stories were about how amateur investors in this small chain were taking down Wall Street. 

To put this story into context, we need to start in an unlikely place: September 17th, 2011, with the birth of Occupy Wall Street. Hundreds of occupiers took over Wall Street in anger of what the world had become since the 2008 financial crisis, and in protest of the growing economic inequality. Their slogan, “we are the 99%” demonstrated how the system only served the one percent and that the economic and political crisis could not be blamed outside force. 

Image: Occupy Wall Street, November 2011 (taken by David Shankbone)

Vladimir Tenev and Baiju Bhatt, who were both working in finance at the time, were inspired to come up with a way to ‘fix the rigged financial system’ and open up access to the stock market to the 99 percent. They created Robinhood, a commission-free trading platform app. The name ‘Robinhood’ conjures up this idea of almost a vigilante redistribution of wealth, and in some way this was their intention. Their slogan is “we’re on a mission to democratize finance for all”.  

By the end of 2020 there were around 13 million Robinhood users, suggesting that the app really was opening up the market for ordinary people. But by the end of January 2021, the limits to this democratising mission were laid bare. In Ours to Hack and to Own, Nathan Schneider writes “when a new app is said to be democratizing something… it means allowings more people to access something. Just access, along with a big fat terms of service. Gone are those old associations of town meetings and voting booths; gone are co-ownership, co-governance and accountability.”  In the case of Robinhood, this is remarkably on the nose. 

The protagonists in this story are a group of amateur investors in a Reddit forum called /wallstreetbets. This is an anonymous forum where people share (usually high risk) trading tips, and many members use Robinhood as their trading platform. 

From late 2020 to early January, 2021, members saw that GameStop was being undervalued, and that ‘short sellers’ were buying up stock. Short-selling (or shorting) means that an investor bets that a company will fail by borrowing stocks and immediately selling them. If stock prices fall as predicted, they can then buy them back at a lower price, making a profit. The problem with shorting, is that if the share prices actually rise, then investors have to buy back stocks at a higher price and lose money – and the losses are unlimited because there is no limit to just how high a stock price can rise

The Redditors saw that this was happening, and were angry at stockbrokers profiting from the failure of GameStop. They began to buy up stocks, driving up the share price in what’s known as a ‘short squeeze’. For the Redditors, this meant that their shares were worth increasing amounts, with their value increasing by  1500 percent. This was more than a chance to make a quick buck, many saw it as an opportunity to reclaim the wealth stolen during the 2008 financial crisis. The activists began buying up billboards, including in Times Square, which mocked the hedge funds and invited others to join them in the short squeeze. For the hedge funds, it was a disaster. By 26th January, it was reported that short sellers had lost $6 billion.

On the 28th January, Robinhood, halted the sale of GameStop stocks, along with several other companies that were targeted by /wallstreetbets. Users were still able to sell their stocks, but buying was prohibited, causing the share price to plummet.  Robinhood claimed that this was due to their lack of collateral to pay the clearinghouse deposit (Robinhood has to pay a deposit from their own money at a clearinghouse to cover trading risks), but others argued that it was simply market manipulation that served the interests of the hedge fund managers. 

This is a perfect example of Scheider’s argument that by only opening up access, “democratising” platforms are not democratising at all. Democracy, as Erik Olin Wright puts it, is about having the power to change the rules of the game, not just being invited to play. Robinhood did allow more people to participate in the stock market, but it didn’t give them any ownership over it.

In this case, the /wallstreetbets traders were following the rules, playing the same game as stockbrokers have for years. In an interview with the Intelligencer, former stockbroker turned photographer and writer Chris Arnade explained, “That’s applauded behavior on Wall Street. You’re outsmarting the room, and you’re telling people that you’re outsmarting the room. In many ways, that’s what happened on Reddit over the course of the last six months. But it wasn’t done by one firm; it was done by 2.3 million self-described degenerates.” As the balance of power shifted, the game was under threat. By closing down the market to ‘small investors’ trading GameStop shares, it was painfully clear: this is our game. 

Even before it halted trading, Robinhood has never been about wealth redistribution. Although it is commission free for users, the platform makes money through payment for order flow (PFOF). This means that when you make a trade through Robinhood, they pass on that trade to a hedge fund (Citadel) for a commission, who then complete the transaction on your behalf. Robinhood makes money, and the hedge fund makes money. Yes, individual users may make money through investing, but this is not redistributive. The more users the app has and the more trades taking place, the more money flows upwards. 

It’s also worth remembering that finance can never truly be open to all: it is only free to those that have the ability to take on risk. This isn’t just true in the stock market, but in all forms of saving and investing. Furthermore, managing that risk is seen an expertise. It is like a science that only certain people are qualified to participate in – meaning that only some people are allowed to play the game. After closing the market was no longer an option, Redditors were reminded that despite many people making large amounts of money, there was a chance that they could lose all of it at any moment. Just one example of this was when William Gavin, the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth said, “many have gotten into day-trading and really have no idea exactly what they’re doing … I think small-time investors like that, unsophisticated investors, are going to be hurt by this”.

Since the short squeeze, there have been widespread calls for greater regulation to avoid market manipulation and to reduce volatility, but to me this doesn’t seem like the answer. Yes, it is important to stop the super wealthy from treating “the stock market like their own personal casino” (as Elizabeth Warren puts it). But wouldn’t it be more valuable to find other ways to create money and invest in business? We need to completely reposition finance in society. As Kate Raworth writes in Doughnut Economics, “It’s time to turn this upside-down scenario the right way up and redesign finance so that it flows in service of the economy and society”.  

The GameStop short squeeze did shake the foundations of the stock market, but it also showed that unless you take down the whole system, it will always regenerate itself. As Alexis Goldstein pointed out, “maybe you’re sticking it to one hedge fund. But Citadel went and then bought the hedge fund that the Redditors think that they caused to go under.” The game is always rigged.

What can Nottingham’s Banksy tell us about property, care and the commons?

As a city, Nottingham isn’t known for much. Neither North or South, it is a middling sort of place – but one thing that residents are fiercely proud of is Raleigh bikes. Raleigh was founded in the city in the 1800s, and the company had a huge impact on the Lenton area of Nottingham. The factory occupied 60 acres of land in Lenton between Triumph Road and Faraday Road, land which was later sold to the University of Nottingham and is now home to the University’s Jubilee Campus. Raleigh closed down their UK production in 2002 and  gradually Lenton’s factory workers were replaced by students. 

Lenton is often the site of arguments about who Nottingham really belongs to. Sandwiched between the Park Estate (a wealthy gated community) and inner-city Radford, Lenton is home to both permanent residents and a large student population. It is not an easy co-existence. Students are regularly in the local press for being too noisy, messy, or just too abundant. But in October 2020, a slightly different battle played out in Lenton, less than 300 metres from the old Raleigh headquarters, that sparked new discussions about ownership. 
With some of the highest rates of new Covid-19 cases in the country, and students making national news for their lockdown house parties, the city desperately needed a lift. So when residents woke one morning to see a mural stenciled on a wall on Rothesay Street, the response was joyful. It was the image of a girl hula hooping with a bike tyre, spray painted next to a bike chained to a post. . The monotony of lockdown walking was briefly brightened by the excitement that Banksy might have visited – a sort of badge of honour usually reserved for more glamorous cities. Even those that took a disliking to the piece seemed to revel in the novelty of it. At last, there was something new to talk about!

Photo of a large brick plaque with carvings of bike wheels
Photo of the Raleigh plaque on the University of Nottingham Jubilee Campus (taken by John Sutton)

It wasn’t long until residents had their first test as stewards of their new artwork. As well as drawing crowds, the mural also began to attract graffiti. Knowing that previous Banksys had been destroyed, locals called on the council to act. The council decided to cover the mural with a sheet of clear plastic to protect it both from the elements, and any attempts to damage the artwork. Then the bike mysteriously disappeared. No one was really sure what happened to it – had the building owners taken it away for ‘safe-keeping’ as some claimed or was it stolen? Either way, people weren’t happy. Local delivery driver Kyle Myatt was quick to step in and spent £20 on a replacement bike. He said to the Nottingham Post,  “I just did it to see people happier”. 

Early one morning, residents woke to loud banging. Workmen were using circular saws to cut the section of the red-brick wall with the mural away, and the hula-hooping girl was bundled into a van. Left in its place was a large piece of chipboard. 

Once again there was confusion, which quickly turned to anger when the building owners explained that the mural had been sold to the Brandler Gallery in Brentwood, some 140 miles from Nottingham. People were quick to point out that the mural wouldn’t make sense anywhere else – street art is meant to be in a certain place. It wasn’t right that it would now be sat in a gallery where residents would have to travel and pay to see it. There was a strong sense that something that was ours had been stolen, even if the wall it had been painted on had belonged to someone, and that someone had the right to sell it.  

The gallery owner John Brandler’s response seemed like the verbal equivalent of a shrug. Speaking to the Nottingham Post, Brandler said “I didn’t turn up in the middle of Nottingham with a chainsaw and steal it. Anybody in Nottingham could have done the same thing. Everybody’s got 2020 hindsight.” He then argued that the perspex glass that had been erected to protect it would encourage mould to grow.

Sketch of spray painted girl hula hooping a bike tyre, next to a lamp post with a bike chained to it.
Sketch of the Banksy mural (drawn by Austin Hubbard)

There are lots of interesting things that we can take from this story, not least the controversy of high profile street artists bringing unsolicited costs and attention to cash-strapped councils at a time when their own arts programmes are facing cuts. But Brandler’s statements are worth unpacking because they reveal so much about how we understand property.  

I’ll take each of his statements in turn. Brandler argued that anyone could have bought the mural, he was just the entrepreneurial minded person that thought to ask. To him, this was a simple exchange between two rational parties: the building owner and the gallery. When they found a price that was mutually agreeable, the sale could be completed and ownership transferred. No one else had a claim. 

Yet the fact that there was outrage over this shows that there was a simultaneous property claim. Residents understood the mural as being theirs, something that had been gifted to them for their collective enjoyment, not to a private building owner. They saw it as a commons, something that is collectively owned and managed. And in fact, the mural does in fact meet many criteria of a commons[1]:

  • Access was open to all 
  • It was not generating private benefit, but collective benefit. It was collectively cared for – local residents repaired damage and replaced the missing parts
  • It was residents that bore the brunt of the negative impacts, such as the crowds of people that turned up making social distancing challenging. 

In many ways then, it felt like a commons, even if there was no property regime that named it as such. And commons rarely are defined by common property regimes. They can be established on private property or public property, or legally defined as common pool resources. Sometimes by just the simple virtue of a group of people using something for a period of time (like a playground or park) they gain a form of common claim over it. In fact, historically, most commons have not needed legal recognition to exist.

What Brandler’s statement shows then, is that in a capitalist market society, this kind of collective property is invisible. Common property is equal to no property. Ownership only exists when something has been divided up and allocated to someone. 

Now let’s turn to his second rationalisation – that the mural wasn’t being properly cared for by the residents and the council. This is interesting because it somewhat contradicts his first argument in two important ways. Firstly, rather than an objective exchange in a free market, there was a moral justification – there is a property way that things should be cared for, and that ownership comes with the responsibility to do this proper care.

This reveals a sort of Lockean understanding of property – that by mixing your labour with the land and “improving” it, it becomes yours. This logic been used to establish claims over land and also as a means of seizing property that is considered to be underutilised or improperly cared for[2]. Of course, “improvement” is in the eye of the beholder, and in a capitalist (and colonial) system this means making it profitable, and usually in line with a particular aesthetic of productivity

Notice how the residents’ labour that was mixing with the mural doesn’t seem to count for Brandler. This is the second contradiction. By acknowledging that the community were attempting to care for the mural, he rejected their claim to ownership by the same logic that he justified his own. This is achieved by subverting it into a tragedy of the commons narrative: when a property is collectively managed, it will inevitably lead to ruin. It is only when ownership is individualised that a resource can be cared for effectively. This narrative has been used time and time again to justify the privatisation of collective resources.

Sketch showing street art of a sad mask, with the words 'we want our Banksy back' beneath
Sketch of the new street art (drawn by Austin Hubbard)

This story shows us that property is more complicated than a name on a deed. It is a set of claims and practices that have to be constantly (re)performed, contested and negotiated, and that are embedded in power relations. It also shows that those that own something are not necessarily some predefined group with shared values and interests. In Lenton, residents were often in opposition to each other, and some to the presence of the mural in the first place – it is a surprise that they could be seen as a collective at all. The commonality was born through the shared claim of ownership.  

That isn’t to say that this experience has created a harmonious relationship in which everyone in Lenton recognises and respects each others’ right to be there – although that would be a nice ending. The same arguments rattle on. Walking past the site now, there is little sign that anything happened here. The bricks are brighter and newer – a scar that hasn’t fully healed. And now a new piece of art – a small mask sprayed on to the wall. It looks like one half of the theatrical comedy and tragedy masks, with big sad eyes and a tight frown. Beneath the paint, barely visible, are the chalked on words “We want our Banksy back”.


[1]  See the commons identikit from Take Back the Economy

[2]  For example,‘fortress conservation’ is based on the argument “local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation”, justifying the seizure of land for the Homesteading Acts in the US which allowed settlers to seize land from Native Americans


Hello there, and welcome to my blog. This is a space where I share ideas that I come across when writing my PhD. As my first entry, I’d like to introduce myself and what you can expect from this blog. I’d love to hear who you are, so feel free to introduce yourself in the comments section. 

Who am I?

I’m Ella, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. My research interests are alternative economic practices, democratic politics, commons and commoning, co-operatives and prefigurative politics. I’m funded by the ESRC and Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. Alongside my PhD, I’m a trustee at Sheffield Students’ Union and a student rep at the White Rose DTP. 

How did I get here?

During my undergraduate degree I got involved in Coexist CIC, an organisation that aims to provide space for the community for collaboration and to be together in an increasingly expensive city. At the time, they were based in Hamilton House, a vast five storey building in Stokes Croft, Bristol. I volunteered on the front desk and saw how questions of who gets to decide how the space was used, and how they could operate in a way that wasn’t gentrifying, playing out each day. I was struck by the way that Coexist CIC existed alongside the profit-driven spaces of the city, yet organised by their own principles of collective coexistence. This inspired my PhD project, which asks how alternative economic practices can transform the economy in a democratic way. 

After taking a bit of time out of education and working in charities and student unions, I applied for a PhD at the University of Sheffield and received ESRC funding for my project Democratic Politics for Community Economies.  

Photo from Hamilton House reception, 2015 (Author’s own).

What am I going to talk about?

In this blog, I am going to write about ideas that I come across while writing my PhD. It will be a mix of discussions on different theoretical approaches and writing about the projects and organisations that are engaging with alternative economic practices on the ground. I want to take these ideas out of universities and journals and into spaces where we can talk about them together, so please get involved in the comments with your thoughts and ideas and feedback. 

Thanks for joining me!