The GameStop Squeeze and the Fable of the Bees

Or, The Metaphysics and Politics of the Swarm

1.

I have a vague but enduring memory of a particularly high-corn Wu-Tang video from the late 1990s, at the peak of the Clan’s visual and narrative maximalism. The heads of RZA, GZA, et al., as well as several other more distant affiliates, have been comically transplanted onto the bodies of “Killa Beez”, and they are flying together in what is clearly some sort of martial formation — off to kill someone, presumably, if only rhetorically with their stinging bars.

This is the same image of the Anthophila that animates such classic video games as Galaga — likely the last I played with any assiduity, circa 1984, daring to put my quarter up on the console in order to hold my place among the teenagers, of whom I was not yet one, with their trace moustaches, their hair helmets, their unironic Def Leppard and Journey t-shirts. In the game the bee-like aliens advance against presumably human-piloted spaceships in a rigorously ordered pattern, under the command, we must also presume, of a formidable bee-leader.

Correcting for some small differences of style, this is also the model of the bee that informs the section of Book IV of Virgil’s Georgics devoted to the proper keeping of an apiary:

Next I’ll speak about the celestial gift of honey from the air.
Maecenas, give this section too your regard.
I’ll tell you in proper sequence about the greatest spectacle
Of the slightest things, and of brave generals,
And a whole nation’s customs and efforts, tribes and battles.

Do bees have generals? Do they constitute a nation? A tribe? Perhaps a clan?

2.

How we answer these questions may reveal something about our implicit convictions regarding what might be called “the metaphysics and politics of the swarm”. What is it exactly that forms when several individual entities, human or animal or something different still, come together after the manner of the bees, and act as one? And what are the political potentials and hazards of human individuals in particular coming together in this way?

Answering these questions in turn may help us to make some sense of the political promise of such frenzies as we have seen over the past few days, when a concerted effort on the part of the lads from Reddit drove up the price of GameStop stock, squeezing the hedge-fund managers who had hoped to short it, costing Wall Street billions of dollars, and sending the market into chaos. My own stock in Blackberry, yet another target of r/wallstreetbets, lost 42% of its value on January 28, after the Robinhood platform froze buying on this company’s shares along with those of GameStop and AMC movie theaters, thus blatantly manipulating the market and making the invisible hand that supposedly runs it radiantly visible in a flash.

I will not summarize the events here — this has already been done thousands of times in other places freely accessible on the internet. What interests me rather is the political significance of internet-facilitated collective action on the part of retail investors. Public figures as diverse as Ted Cruz, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Donald Trump Jr. have declared their support for the GameStop swarmers (as we shall call them). Many commentators have noticed the power this action has had to unify the populist left and the populist right, libertarians and socialists — anyone, really, concerned about the worsening scandal of income inequality in the United States and about the far too comfortable relationship between establishment politicians and high-finance insiders.

As someone wrote on Twitter (as usual, I’ve already forgotten who), the GameStop squeeze is “both twice as stupid and twice as effective as Occupy Wall Street”. Whether this is accurate or not, there is no question but that the squeeze has brought together sundry political currents that had been spiralling away from one another since the end of Occupy and throughout the entire Trump era. There is no question, either, that the swarm did more than standing in a park and holding a sign or shouting some cringey “Hey hey ho ho” chant ever could: it got inside the system, and started messing with the money.

Occupy, as I recall, or at least those corners of it that enjoyed a bit of “theory” alongside all the “praxis”, drew some inspiration from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s 2004 book, Multitude, which translated and singularized the name of a Negri-friendly Parisian periodical, Multitudes, and which followed their co-authored Empire of four years earlier, according to the inevitable logic under capitalism by which hits are followed by sequels, even when the hits in question are anti-capitalist manifestoes.

Multitude, Multitudes, and Empire all align themselves with a certain marxisant interpretation, extending back to Louis Althusser, of the political philosophy of Spinoza, according to which the Dutch lens-grinder “provided the tools for developing a critique… of ideology… and the transformations of belief and desire that constitute subjectivity,” as Jason Read writes. Along these same lines, on Étienne Balibar’s influential reading, Spinoza is the most important philosopher of mass politics prior to Marx, since he shows how individual mental clarity —and thus the overcoming of bad ideology— is dependent on the well-ordering of the individual body, which is in turn dependent on the well-ordering of the body politic.

My own view, which I have also heard expressed in some fashion by Pierre-François Moreau, is that there is nothing that is intrinsically any more “left” than “right” in Spinoza, and I would also add that he no more anticipates Marx than he offers a faint but unmistakable after-echo of certain strains of medieval Jewish theology. But perhaps this un-pin-downability only makes him all the more appropriate a patron philosopher of Occupy, which again, like the recent Reddit swarm, attracted all kinds, or rather all kinds except Wall Street’s kind.

In truth, though, there has never been a “philosophy of the masses” in a political sense without a parallel, and overlapping, philosophy of mass, as a problem of physics and metaphysics, along with the related problems of quantity, composition, and unity. What is the nature of a composite entity? Whence does it derive its unity? What gives it its weight? Are there any true composite individuals?

Often in the history of such reflections, groupings of social animals, especially insects, being relatively more cohesive than human societies, are invoked by way of comparison to suggest that what counts as an individual entity may be a matter of more or less rather than all or nothing, may be a matter of degree rather than any formal essence or internal metaphysical principle. Thus in an 1837 investigation of Leibniz’s theory of monads, Ludwig Feuerbach (an important sounding board for Marx’s development of his own “philosophy of the masses”) writes that “every individual bee may be seen as just one member of the organism [of the hive], having only a partial life [Theilleben], a particular function, like an organ in my body. At the same time, though, every bee is an individual in itself, a particular being that stands on its own legs.”

And still today, colony organisms continue to trouble our lingering attachment to the liberal ideal of the free-standing individual man, even as they appear to some to offer a sort of radical hope for the harmonious self-organization of human societies in the image of what already exists in nature. Siphonophores show us the way for rudimentary planktonic zooids to come together into a complex being with differentiated organic functions. Termites for their part are able to reproduce the respiratory function of individual lungs in the construction of their mounds, as if the home they construct through their collective and cooperative labor were itself some great golem termite — or would be, if termites themselves had lungs rather than abdominal tracheae. In short, colonies formed by “lower” animals seem to us to show the way to spontaneous collectivity, to the sort of non-kyriarchical self-organization of which so many utopians have dreamed, even as they also, as in the image of the beehive, invite us to imagine the most severe expressions of autarchy.

In many of the references to mounds, hives, and swarms in the history of political thought, then, there is a peculiar ambiguity in the way all of these seem perpetually to straddle a conceptual boundary between Kropotkinite mutual aid and leaderless spontaneity on the one hand, and on the other a formation organized under the firm leadership of a general, a sovereign, a tyrant. In Feuerbach’s own relativization of the individuality of the organic body, indeed, he hastens to add that although bees are a sort of collective unity, what makes them into a unity rather than a mere herd-like aggregate is, precisely, the presence of a “queen or mother bee”, in virtue of whose “domination” all the bees together “constitute one whole”.

3.

It is in light of this general duality of entomological analogies in the history of political thought that my recent and much belated reading of Bernard Mandeville’s 1714 Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits has left me unusually enthused. For Mandeville, it seems, manages to bridge the divide between government and anarchy in bee politics. For him there is most certainly a sovereign in the beehive, and there is most certainly rule of law, but these are constantly undermined by corruption. In effect, corruption is the principle that for Mandeville dissolves the apparent duality of unified entity and spontaneous multitude: anarchy within the state, lawlessness under the law.

The 1714 Fable includes an earlier doggerel poem of 1705 entitled The Grumbling Hive: Or, Knaves Turned Honest, along with a Pale Fire-like commentary on its meaning. In the first stanza Mandeville sets up his imagined world in miniature:

A Spacious Hive well stock’d with Bees,
That lived in Luxury and Ease;
And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms,
As yielding large and early Swarms;
Was counted the great Nursery
Of sciences and Industry.
No Bees had better Government,
More Fickleness, or less Content.
They were not Slaves to Tyranny,
Nor ruled by wild Democracy;
But Kings, that could not wrong, because
Their Power was circumscrib’d by Laws.

What, indeed, could go wrong? All would have proceeded smoothly, were it not for the individual propensity to “knavery” within the hive, whereby “Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, / Pick-Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, Sooth-Sayers” endeavor to defraud one another. But it is not just the dishonorably professions that produce dishonesty, for “All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, / No Calling was without Deceit”. Over time this innate disposition of character leads to significant income inequality: “Some with vast Stocks, and little Pains, / Jump’d into Business of great Gains”, while at the same time others “were damn’d to Sythes and Spades, / And all those hard laborious Trades”.

In the eighth and perhaps most remarkable stanza, after having surveyed in the fourth through the seventh the various knaveries of lawyers, physicians, priests, and soldiers respectively, the poet turns to government ministers, whom we might “update” in our imaginations to include both establishment politicians and those close enough to them to, say, call for a trading freeze on a company’s stock in order to reverse the losses of a multibillion-dollar hedge fund:

Their Kings were serv’d; but Knavishly
Cheated by their own Ministry;
Many, that for their Welfare slaved,
Robbing the very Crown they saved:
Pensions were small, and they lived high,
Yet boasted of their Honesty.
Calling, whene’er they strain’d their Right,
The slipp’ry Trick a Perquisite;
And, when Folks understood their Can,
They chang’d that for Emolument;
Unwilling to be short, or plain,
In any thing concerning Gain:
For there was not a Bee, but would,
Get more, I won’t say, than he should;
But than he dared to let them know,
That pay’d for’t; as your Gamesters do,
That, tho’ at fair Play, ne’er will own
Before the Losers what they’ve won.

Now of course the GameStop “Gamesters” of today are hardly poker-faced in the way Mandeville imagines such people to be: they have been positively boasting about what they’ve accomplished all over social media, proclaiming their follow-up plans to head to the moon with Elon Musk and so on. It is nonetheless jolting to see the Gamesters/gamers mentioned here, along with other anticipations of our present moment in both terminology (e.g., “Emolument”!), as well as to see the continued salience of the basic analysis of society’s greatest asymmetry: that the “Ministers” are up to exactly the same louche and self-serving machinations as the gamers are, but only the ministers, in their tight orbit around the law, are able consistently to get away with it.

4.

A Mandeville-inspired analysis of the recent entry of “gamers” into the center stage of politics might suggest that we could stand to think a bit harder than has been done so far about the “philosophy of the masses”, and in a way that does not presuppose any a priori commitment to the legacy of Marx, Spinoza, or anyone else.

It has been well noted (again, I won’t survey the sources here, as they are ubiquitous) that the GameStop squeeze is an extension to the world of finance of strategies that have already radically transformed culture and, more importantly, politics over the past decade. From the cancellation of countless celebrities and non-celebrities for their perceived transgression against currently prevalent, though constantly shifting, social norms; to the propulsion of a crude internet troll, for nothing more than the lulz, into the office of president of the United States; to innumerable genocides, attempted genocides, and insurrections throughout the world: our social landscape, and our idea of what is possible and of what is desirable, has been fundamentally transformed by the possibility of collective action through the vehicle of social media. There was some delay before this new power began to swallow up the financial sector, since at least in principle unlike entertainment (i.e., “culture”) and politics the possession of money is an absolute precondition for entry. But the rise of self-styled “populist” trading sites like Robinhood marked, in some sense, the inevitable Twitterization of the market.

None of what I have just said is news. But I do think the past few days have revealed something important about what I have been calling the metaphysics and politics of the swarm. I will not hide the fact that I have been made very uneasy by what the swarmers pulled off this week, unlike AOC, Cruz, Trump Jr., and nearly everyone I know who follows such things, and not because I lost 42% of the value of one of my stocks (I’ll get it back). That I have been made uneasy follows from the much more general fact that I am made uneasy by all such instances of swarming. Unlike nearly everyone I know in academia, who continue shamelessly to deny that there even is such a thing as cancel culture, I see the regular Yezhov-ing of honest and decent people, some of whom are my friends, to be among the most troubling social phenomena I have ever witnessed (I honestly think many of my colleagues are scared, and have determined that the best strategy is to keep their heads down). Unlike 75 million or so of my fellow Americans (if not my fellow American academics), I am also horrified by the demonstration in 2016 of the internet’s power to meme a joke-president into existence. It only makes sense, in this light, that I should also be horrified by the new phenomenon of “meme stocks”.

I think the lads on Reddit are simply foolish to claim that value stocks are a thing of the past, and that from now on there will be nothing but hype and chatter driving up the valuation of companies whose actual products are irrelevant in the internet era — thus an economy sustained by a great black hole at its center. There were plenty of speculative bubbles in the past, without social media, and they all eventually burst and drove stock prices back to a position closer to the company’s true value. The difference now is that the bubbles are occurring not due to error, but, at least in part, due to the power of lulz, and the metastasis of gaming to include virtually the entirety of our social life. And this is dangerous no matter what domain of society we are considering — culture, politics, or economics.

I absolutely do not think Robinhood should have been legally able to block trading once “the wrong kind of people” began manipulating the market, unlike its regular manipulators who are never blocked. I certainly don’t fault the Redditors. I don’t fault the Pepe memers for delivering us Trump either, and come to think of it I don’t even fault the students who seek to get their professors fired for, say, uttering a Chinese word that bears a certain coincidental quasi-homonymy with an English-language slur, or for just having been alive long enough to be stuck with a different manner of thinking and speaking than the youth would wish to hear. Of all these three groups of swarmers, in fact —the GameStop squeezers, the Pepe memers, and the cancel mobs—, I have by far the most sympathy with the squeezers. But I remain uneasy about the technological conditions that have paved the way for them.

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5.

The delay with which the financial squeezers have followed the cultural cancellers is an instance of a sequence we see in numerous other places, where transformations in the economic sphere lag behind those of arts and letters. Back when cryptocurrencies still had the air of myth about them, Wikipedia had already fully displaced Encyclopaedia Brittanica and other comparable resources as the world’s preeminent reference work. A decentralized, open-source, collaborative encyclopedia thus anticipated by some years the comparable innovation in finance, and as with Robinhood’s lag behind Twitter, we may assume that this is because there are more barriers of entry to finance than to news, politics, and culture. But major institutions that we inherited from the Renaissance and early modern period —encylopedias, banks— are indeed crumbling or have already crumbled, and the new institutions that are replacing them have much the same internal logic and functionality as one another even across the boundaries of their widely different domains.

I am enthusiastic about both Wikipedia and cryptocurrencies. “Leibniz would have loved them both”, is the shorthand explanation I often give as to why. But a more self-contained explanation, for those who don’t care what Leibniz would have thought, is that even though these developments are destroying old institutions, too, they are not the result of swarming, but rather of a crystallization or regular and orderly growth of a new potential out of the totality of small efforts of individuals. Or perhaps better, Wikipedia and blockchain are like the regular repetition of natural form in the comb, which the honest workers construct in their own interest and to the detriment of none.

I am a greater fan of building than of swarming. If old institutions are going to be destroyed, I want them to be replaced with something both solid and elegant. Both building and swarming, anyhow, as Mandeville’s poem suggests —and here I am limiting myself only to the text of The Grumbling Hive, which as a poem is infinitely interpretable, rather than considering the commentary that Mandeville himself imposes on it— are compatible with the continued smooth functioning of an assertively governed state.

Unlike so many other authors’ reflections on the metaphysics and politics of the swarm, Mandeville does not see it as modeling either the spontaneity of human assemblies in the absence of leadership, or by contrast the power of leaders or sovereigns to command a swarm into formation. I think this gets things right, at least as far as human politics is concerned: swarms form online in support of the regime in power, and they form against the regime in power, and they form with all possible gradations of indeterminacy between. They form in opposition to people who cross racial boundaries in a prohibited direction; they form in order to “stop the steal”; and they form in order to drive up the price of GameStop stock. Social media are like smoke driving us out of the hive, out of our honest work, into a swarm in search of something, anything, to attack.

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6.

The Grumbling Hive is a fairly good picture of human society then. But what about bees? Unlike Virgil, Feuerbach, and many other authors throughout the centuries (I would have liked to treat Pliny as well), Mandeville’s entomological interest seems fairly non-existent. Much as with the Wu-Tang Clan, one comes away from his fable enlightened as to some things, but more perplexed than before about others. “It’s bees you want then, is it?” one would like to ask him. “You want to put our faces on bees? Is this for comic effect, or to make a serious point?”

None of us has any real idea of what it is like to be a bee. We may at least say with confidence that our political analogies that implicate them are pure projections (among other things, smoke does not in fact drive bees out of the hive — in fact it pacifies them and keeps them there). As one Moses Quinby, practical bee-keeper of Coxsackie, New York, wrote in his commendable 1867 work, The Mysteries of Bee-Keeping, Explained, “the idea that the queen governs the colony, and directs all their operations, is probably totally erroneous.” The worker bees do “manifest a certain regard for her,” but when they are destitute of a queen they will “continue their labors with as much system and regularity, as when one is present.”

Nor will most readers know the manner by which the queen is chosen and elevated — which in truth resembles more the election of a pope or a Dalai Lama than the succession of a monarch. Among the most remarkable examples of epigenetic effects in nature, the larva of a future queen is chosen by inscrutable considerations from among other genetically identical larvae. She is placed in a specially constructed “queen cell”, and is bathed therein with copious amounts of royal jelly, whose royalactin triggers a modification in her DNA and a consequent massive growth of her ovaries.

When the queen can no longer reproduce, she is replaced in a process known as “supersedure”, which begins when the workers surround her and put her to death by “balling”, driving up her body temperature until she dies of heat-stroke. Is this a “revolt”? Do the workers experience a shift in allegiance? Did they ever feel allegiance to her in the first place? Is this all, as Quinby suspected, just so much projection? Probably. But we’re human beings, and have nowhere else to look to make sense of ourselves but to nature.