This is one of those columns that includes personal vignettes but is not really about the author. It is not really about a market crash or a volcano or a plane flight. It is also not about C. L. R. James, the great Trinidadian scholar of cricket and revolution who wrote, “The rich are only defeated when running for their lives.” But it is about more running please.
In the fall of 1997 I was living in the Berkeley Hills in a converted garage I rented from the pleasant family upstairs, pleasant and wealthy like most people in the Berkeley Hills, with well-adjusted children and a well-adjusted Volvo station wagon. Their main charm was that they were not the people across the street, who had an iron fence and a car from somewhere south of Sweden with the CA license plate BOALT, which was the name of the UC Berkeley law school, and I spent a lot of time thinking about who you had to be to be the person with the original BOALT license plate, it was like having a license plate that said HARVARD or IBM. It meant you weren’t just a fan, you were probably bloodline. The original Boalt was the driving force behind the Chinese Exclusion Act.
On October 27, the Dow Jones fell more than 554 points, which only counts as a “mini-crash” but it was at the time the third-largest drop in total points, and wiped out more than 7 percent of the market value. I went for a walk at dusk, a reliably lovely fall evening in northern California, past the mansions near the ridgeline, some of them disguising their mansionness behind modernist angles, containing any number of old and new Boalts, and I could smell the fear emanating from the great houses. It was all imagination; I have allergies and can rarely smell anything. But I imagined I could smell the fear. Who could say for sure that the market would not drop further on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and that the wealth of these families would not be more or less wiped out?
I grant you that it was not the Women’s March on Versailles, much less the arrival of Dessalines. One of the great sorrows of our age and nation is that storming the castle just doesn’t happen that much, and that capitalism is structured such that castle-storming doesn’t make much sense. There is no real monarch to cast down. The people can want the fall of the regime but money-power stays money-power. Market panics, I thought, might be as close to a March on Versailles as I would ever experience. But it’s something. In the face of endless misery cruelly imposed both domestically and globally by the bourgeoisie, their ambient terror even when gulped from the sidewalks is like a fine nectar.
A little more than a dozen years later I found myself working in an English-language bookstore in France, long story. It was during that season when an Icelandic volcano was fucking up plane flights across the hemisphere, and marooned anglophone families kept coming in, their French vacations prolonged due to atmospheric ash, looking for books to amuse themselves and their kids who were clearly not going to one more god-damned museum. CNN called up my mother, this is a true fact, to get the proper pronunciation of the volcano because she is among other things an Icelandic expert. I sold books until it was time for me to go home myself. Now here I should mention that at that time, social conditions were catastrophic in Greece, as they continue to be, with massive marches on the parliament, an extraordinary and surging public unrest led by those who, already poor, had been thrown into desperation by the nation’s economic collapse and drastic austerity policies dictated from abroad but imposed ruthlessly by the state.
My trip home involved switching flights and when I boarded the plane at Heathrow I did so with a large group, the majority of the coach cabin really and all of first class, all of whom more or less knew each other. Their other shared characteristic was that they seemed pretty drunk. It was noon. I slowly figured out that they had all transferred together from a flight out of Athens, some fragment of Greece’s rentier class fleeing the revolt, day-drinking in their jewelry and expensive watches, their luggage presumably stuffed with euros or chunks prised from the Parthenon, whatever was exchangeable, all of them sweating fear into high-end fabrics. It was a kind of running.
I recalled these moments when I read that a government building in Sacramento, the capital of California, had installed a mysterious button in the elevator panels that, lacking a number, simply reads RIOT. According to the state Department of General Services, a name of such bureaucratic blankness as to be vaguely threatening, the buttons respond to the potential “need to have the elevator not reach the first floor.” Awkward. The phrasing, I mean. The idea is clear enough: when it’s going down, the elevator will not. The first floor, which is the ground floor in the United States, will not be the place to be.
The story, or rather the buttons, appeared around the time that the district attorney decided not to charge the two officers who murdered a young man named Stephon Clark, an extrajudicial killing that had already sparked a series of tense public confrontations centered by Black Lives Matter Sacramento. These events—the killing of a person of color by the police or their proxies, and the impunity of the killers—are by now all too well known as the most familiar inciting instances of riots, and surely one was expected. However, it is hard to suppose that the elevator banks were modified for a single event; why not just close the building for the night or the week of the verdict?
Rather it is a recognition that the waters are rising. That is the most available metaphor these days, in part because it is not a metaphor. From the position of the wealthy there are two inundations already in progress: sea level and the rabble. It is all too easy to imagine that we are moving toward a dystopia wherein all the tall buildings have apparatuses, mechanisms, private security to protect the rich and their attachés from their own ground floors, available for that moment when it all goes wrong. Hit the riot button!
But there is no good reason to consider things from that position. For many, it should go without saying, dystopia is already here. The riot button is a version of Trump’s wall, a technologized expression of the terror that someone might be coming for your shit. Its worldview localizes something like the “Great Replacement” thesis favored by the Christchurch killer and white nationalists everywhere. Indeed, we could probably just say without reaching too far that the election of Trump in the US, or the authoritarian lurch in Europe, are ways for national bourgeoisie to hit the riot button.
But we do not require reactionary fantasies about borders to understand the riot button. We have reactionary reality much nearer to hand. Consider the six-figure GoFundMe that wealthy San Franciscans raised to block the building of a homeless shelter. Surely the city’s unhoused, meditating on this, are not obliged to consider the world from the perspective of those who guarantee their immiseration? Surely, in truth, the only reasonable course is to seize the apartment towers down by the Embarcadero now, tonight, tomorrow? Whichever tech bro on his way to the building’s dedicated juice bar is the first to hit the panic button will have named it a riot on behalf of the residents: the neutral view of the rich in their boltholes, as if simply responding to events downstairs, taking reasonable precautions.
But of course they will be the source of those events, even if they never figure that out. They will be the source of the riot they so diligently plan against, just as the misery of those on the ground floor is the source of their wealth. The high rise and the riot form a perfect antagonism but also a perfect unity. They come together in a moment of justice, and we are obligated as those who believe in that justice to take the side of the immiserated, to be with those on the ground floor. Hitting the riot button won’t put an end to this drama; it is just an intermediate step before someone is running for their lives.