When Paramount Pictures released The Wolf of Wall Street in December 2013, they knew they had a winner on their hands. And sure enough, the three-hour movie loosely chronicling the sordid misadventures of infamous stock market fraudster Jordan Belfort hit box offices hard. Quickly becoming director Martin Scorsese’s highest-grossing film ever, it earned approximately $117 million in North America and $257 million globally.
But this all begs one simple question: Why should anyone care about a corrupt, wealthy businessman with a reputation for scamming innocent people out of their money? Or, perhaps more to the point: What is the American fascination with the stock market? It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer, especially because — despite our long-time national obsession with Wall Street, evident in everything from our mainstream news media to our entertainment — the stock market remains an inherently elitist system most often deployed as a weapon of class warfare against a burgeoning middle class.
The United States of America has long operated on certain assumed ideals and values, seductively beckoning immigrants to its shores with soft-whispered promises of freedom and wealth. Of these promises, the most insidious is the one often referred to as “the American dream”; the notion that anyone can improve their economic or social standing simply through hard work or intelligence. It is an encouraging thought — but consider the implicit inverse assumption also at play here. If you turn this ideal on its head, you end up with a decidedly more depressing principle: If you fail in life, it is because you either are not working hard enough or are not intelligent. And that neglects to acknowledge any number of other institutional or societal structures (e.g., racism) that operate to oppress and suppress large swaths of our national population.
It is this flawed principle that the stock market operationalizes and takes advantage of to justify its own existence. But just because this is the story told to the American public — that with an industrious attitude, anyone can succeed anywhere, at any time — does not make it true.
Look at the facts. In 2021, the top 10 percent of Americans held 89 percent of stocks. The top one percent held over 30 percent of that. This means that not only are the vast majority of Americans not even participating in the stock market (let alone profiting from it), but that even the ones who can afford to are still losing out to their uber-wealthy competition. This should come as no surprise to anyone; we all know that it is undeniably easier to take more aggressive risks when we have at least a minimally disposable income. If you work 40 hours every week just to clothe, feed, and sustain yourself or your family, you probably do not have that kind of money to play with — but if you wake up every day to breakfast prepared by a personal chef, you might be able to sink more resources into what essentially amounts to cooperative ownership of a business.
If you need more than numbers to convince you, consider a more recent narrative created by the oh-so-memorable events of January 2021. After learning that certain hedge fund managers were shorting stocks to forcefully extract money out of investors, a Reddit community organized thousands of new individual investors to artificially inflate these stock prices — wreaking havoc for the Wall Street establishment simply by using their own tactics against them. But when GameStop stock specifically increased 1,700 percent, those in power decided to shut the perfectly (and technically) legal operation down, restricting purchasing amounts and options to once again give every advantage back to the hedge fund tycoons originally responsible for swindling their clients out of their savings.
I have several acquaintances and friends that I know will take umbrage at this article, as they have almost entirely bought into the system of lies that Wall Street continues to sell to impressionable youth. But the fact remains: The American stock market is a tool of the wealthy. It exists to consolidate power and resources among an entrenched well-to-do upper class, and actively excludes anyone without the financial resources to take the relevant risks required for upward mobility. Our national obsession with Wall Street — as our collective understanding of the American Dream — is a travesty, and it needs to end if we ever want to approach real equity for the overwhelming majority of citizens living, playing, and working in our country.