Neoliberalism and Notre-Dame

When the logic of austerity makes preservation look like a luxury, cultural objects go up in flames…

Last year, the Brazilian National Museum caught fire. 90 percent of its collection of 20 million artifacts was incinerated, with precious and irreplaceable treasures lost forever, including audio recordings of indigenous languages that nobody speaks anymore and multi-thousand-year-old relics of pre-Columbian Indo-American cultures. Within minutes, history was reduced to ash.

Strictly speaking, the museum fire was an “accident.” But it was also a completely avoidable accident. In 2019, there is no reason why a fire in a museum should destroy the entirety of its contents. The Brazilian National Museum burned because its maintenance budget had been cut repeatedly over the years, and it lacked the most basic fire safety protections. Before the fire, it was reported that the institution was being completely neglected, and that “many of the walls are peeling, there are exposed electrical wires, and widespread poor conservation.” The museum begged for funding from the state, but received barely enough to keep its doors open.

Accidents happen, but they often happen for quite clear reasons. Tragedies are political. When the Grenfell Tower caught fire, causing dozens of working-class Londoners to be burned alive in their apartments, it was an accident. But it was also the result of austerity and inequality. The residents had begged the council to improve the fire safety protections, had warned that unless something was done, many people would die. They were not listened to. Grenfell Tower was an island of poor people in wealthy Kensington, and to the city council they were simply a nuisance not worth spending money on.

In our time, fires can tell you a lot about social priorities, because we should be better than ever at preventing them. The Brazilian National Museum and Grenfell Tower fires were demonstrations of the consequences of neoliberal logic. Archeological artifacts and the lives of the poor do not have clear market value. They are not an “efficient” use of funds. They cannot justify themselves economically, and anything that cannot justify itself economically is worthless.

Notre-Dame is a slightly different story, but with the same lessons. It seems that the fire was an accident. But it was apparently also an accident “waiting to happen.” The Wall Street Journal reports today that the cathedral had suffered “decades of neglect” and had been deteriorating and rotting. A senior adviser to the Friends of Notre-Dame commented: “For sure if the cathedral had been maintained regularly, with a higher level of funding, we would have avoided this… The more you wait, the more risks you have.” What happened, then? Notre-Dame is beloved, so much so that a billion dollars instantly poured in to fund its repairs. With the public valuing Notre-Dame so highly, why was it deteriorating and lacking in funds?

The French state owns the cathedral, and the government was unwilling to spend money on it. According to the Journal report, state officials were pushing the church to start charging admission, which the archdiocese was unwilling to do. A 2017 report said that “to the government, the cathedral is just one of many old buildings in need of care,” and “Notre Dame is not necessarily the most pressing case” with one official quoted as saying “France has thousands of monuments…It will not fall down.” Famous last words.

You can see why the government didn’t want to massively increase its spending on maintaining historic buildings, though. It would have caused an uproar, at a time when the French people are already furious about economic inequality. Emmanuel Macron’s government has cut taxes on the rich and “the traditionally generous social welfare system is increasingly neglecting key slices of the populace, especially young people.”

It’s impossible to separate Notre-Dame’s neglect from austerity and inequality. Have a look at this report from the Washington Post:

“‘We know that, the public finance situation being quite challenging, there are a few historical buildings, monuments that probably have not been maintained as they used to be maintained when our public finance was better,’ [said French diplomat Quentin Lopinot]. According to a Ministry of Culture survey from the 1980s, there are about 32,000 churches, 6,000 chapels and 87 cathedrals in France. All those built before 1905 are publicly owned… There’s also the question of how enthusiastic the public is for the government to spend massive amounts of money on a cathedral… ‘The real check would be public opinion — in principle, in such cases, the sum of money spent on repairs depends to a large extent on the government’s own willingness to act,’ Arthur Ghins, a doctoral candidate focused on French liberalism and the Enlightenment at the University of Cambridge, wrote in an email. ‘And the government’s own willingness to provide funds will inevitably depend on public opinion, i.e. public pressure/public desire for repairs.’”

“The public finance situation being quite challenging.” This is neoliberalism: We are always being told that we cannot afford certain things, that even though more and more billionaires keep popping up, the government is strapped for cash and cannot possibly raise enough revenue to fund the basics.

Of course, it’s correct that historic preservation money will only be provided if public opinion demands it, and that public opinion probably isn’t too passionate about it. But why is public opinion lukewarm on historic preservation funds? Because the public has a lot more to worry about. If you’re cutting social welfare spending, then of course the public aren’t going to want you to increase funding for maintaining cathedrals. If, on the other hand, you have a functional and fair welfare state, people won’t feel that there is a trade-off between funding the cathedrals and funding benefits.

When there are so many poor people, it can actually seem like a moral outrage to prioritize museums and churches, so it’s not surprising that governments would be stingy about funding them. But we all deserve museums and churches. The same applies to space programs. It seems grotesque, as Gil-Scott Heron memorably pointed out in “Whitey’s On The Moon,” to spend billions trying to explore the final frontier when Flint doesn’t have clean water. “Austerity logic” demands that you make choices, though: Do you want public employees to have pensions, or do you want the state to invest in culture and science? No, we can’t raise taxes on the wealthy, that would Destroy The Economy. You have to decide: archeology or food stamps.

There will be plenty of money for Notre-Dame’s rebuilding, as we know. The global super-rich immediately started writing $100 million checks. People have quite rightly seen something obscene in this. What a rotten set of values—the wealthy are so quick to save a Gothic church but so completely indifferent to the economic situations of their fellow human beings. We are constantly being told that “we can’t afford” some basic thing, or asked “where will you get the money from?” And yet when a thing rich people like is under threat, the money seems to start magically flowing in from all over.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board chided those who were repelled by the spectacle of a billion dollars going to Notre-Dame when nearly 9 million French people live below the poverty line. The editors were puzzled:

What is wrong with these people? These critics love hating the rich more than they love France’s—and mankind’s—rich spiritual, cultural and artistic heritage. If humans had always felt this way, marvels such as Notre Dame wouldn’t exist. The cathedral’s first laborers in the 12th century inhabited a world of disease, warfare, immense inequality and desperate poverty, yet they fixed their eyes on greater aspirations. They bequeathed today’s Parisians a building of stunning Gothic beauty that some now seem to want to keep as a burned-out husk in service of statist social-welfare materialism. This isn’t to prioritize a building over the needs of suffering human beings, but rather to say that with modern capitalism we can satisfy both. The market system that has rewarded Notre Dame’s donors has lifted billions of human beings out of poverty around the world and left entrepreneurs with the resources to preserve the world’s cultural heritage.

One wonders if the editors of the Wall Street Journal have even looked out the window. What do they think the gilets jaunes are mad about? What about all the poor people? Do they not exist? If capitalism is “satisfying both” then why are young people so completely pissed off with elites? (The “Steven Pinker” theory is that people are literally delusional in being unsatisfied, that they are not noticing how great their own lives actually are, that capitalism has really made them happy even though they are not, in fact, happy.) Of course, we could have both satisfaction of human needs and preservation of great cathedrals. But we won’t as long as wealth is being concentrated in the hands of those who couldn’t give a flying fuck about human needs.  

The burning of Notre-Dame may seem like an apolitical accident, but it is actually an important parable about our times. It is the consequence of neoliberal logic: Inequality worsens, making the public angry, the government cuts services and benefits, making people even angrier, then you can’t fund building preservation because it’s about #100 on the list of things we should care about. Such things cannot just be free, well-maintained public goods: The only alternatives are (1) charge admission, (2) corporate/billionaire sponsorship, or (3) let it burn. Our expectations are lowered to the point where maintaining a beloved historic building looks like a wasteful indulgence and the frittering away of Taxpayer Money, which it shouldn’t be. As it was in Brazil, so it is in France.

Then, of course, there’s what happened afterwards: the billionaires stepping in to save the day. This, too, is so typical of the 21st century: A public good will be fine, if you can get rich people to pay for it. You will have art museums, so long as the Sackler family can build them as a way of purchasing indulgences for mass murder. You will have a space program, if Elon Musk decides he feels like giving you one. You will have a brand new hideous modernist spire for your cathedral, if it helps billionaires feel good.

This entire way of allocating funds needs to be scrapped, of course. Billionaires are horrible people, and most of them are completely indifferent to the lives of the least well-off. Under a free-market, “small government” system, they might fund art, but Grenfell Tower still won’t get a sprinkler system. Austerity kills, and we have to demand governments that are generous in their provision for public goods. Not just basic healthcare, but good healthcare. Not just utilitarian public housing projects with sprinklers, but magnificent public housing with luxurious gardens. Not just bread, but roses too.

If we do not change course rapidly, a lot more things are going to go up in flames. There’s no reason for that to happen in the 21st century, but it will, because things that are beautiful but economically useless, or things that are valued only by those who have no money, will necessarily be eaten alive by the brutal logic of the market. Sometimes this is just sad, as when your favorite diners and dives are demolished to build empty luxury condo towers. Other times, it is downright enraging and barbaric, as when children die in infernos because the government can’t “afford” to care about poor people. None of it is necessary, though. The flames can be extinguished. Neoliberalism should not be permitted to burn our wonderful world to the ground.

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