Zero Sum Socialism; Notre Dame =/= Amazon Rain Forest
A certain discomfort fell over me when Notre Dame was severely damaged by fire earlier this year. It was the hot topic of my left-leaning friends on social media, and dominated conversations at parties all chanting various forms of whataboutism—billionaires pay for this they could solve world hunger! Nobody cares about the refugee crisis! And perhaps my favorite, uttered by an acquaintance, "we should tear it down and build a school, or a homeless shelter!" This ironically came from an artist, who surely at some level believes art, and by extension architecture, is a worthy pursuit. But putting aside whether downtown Paris needs a school or a homeless shelter—I'm not sure—I found threads of this mindset unsettling; do architectures really come at the expense of other things? Can't we have both?
I should preface the next things I'm about to say by sharing my feelings about the disgusting nature of income inequality. No one person should have the means to throw billions of dollars at a problem because they decide its worthy. As Žižek points out elsewhere, philanthropy is something rich people do to justify their status and position. It's all about public image, baby. And on the Catholic church, I'm an ex catholic and live in Quebec, a province that's completely turned on Catholicism. I've seen people dispossessed by the church, and understand the direct and indirect role the church has had on numerous groups of individuals. But the church has also been critical in the history of art and architecture to the extent that you can't avoid it talking about the history of either in the west. We can hold these complicated histories together.
Fast forward to present day, and we're watching tragedy unfold in the Amazon rainforest. Fires have ravaged the lands at unprecedented rates, with critics blaming climate change and inaction by the openly fascist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has said in the past he would like to assimilate indigenous peoples who inhabit the Amazon and clear rainforests for industry. This could have catastrophic implications in a plurality of ways, which have been written about extensively by more qualified writers than myself.
The left has rightly criticized the media for a lack of response to the fires, and my first exposure to the issue came in the form of a meme which decried this latent coverage. But this was followed in the next few days by more memes, more resentment, and outcries on social media that 'this could be the end for real.' I have no idea if this is a tipping point or not, but climate change has been a slowly burning cultural issue in which we will surely see more Amazon fires and extreme weather events. People are right to ring the alarm bell.
But inevitably, the social media activism has targeted the media response to Notre Dame as a point of criticism; "WHERE IS THE OUTCRY NOW?" "BUILD RAINFORESTS, NOT CHURCHES."
We SHOULD be focusing massive efforts on the environment. Bernie Sander's recent 16 Trillion dollar proposal for the Green New Deal, decried as radical and unrealistic by some, doesn't go far enough. Recycling your coke cans isn't enough. The Paris Accord isn't enough. The climate is in crisis and a global effort to avert catastrophe needs to be undertaken.
But fuck the idea that Notre Dame and the Amazon have anything to do with each other, and fuck the austerity mindset that the left has wholeheartedly adopted when it's convenient and moralizing. If the climate could be saved by tearing down Notre Dame, I'd be first in line with a sledgehammer to take it out by the foundation brick by brick. If tearing it down meant that income inequality would be eliminated and every mouth could be fed, I'd stay for as long as it took to make sure the church was reduced to complete rubble. But that would be stupid, wouldn't it?
Owen Hatherley takes on this question in his article In Praise of White Elephants, published in Jacobin in 2014. (Link Below) The article contends with the question of spectacular and rather useless architectures that cost more than their purely functional counterparts. He discusses how the left and fiscal hawks decry these architectures, like those built in Greece shortly before the financial crisis, as demonstrations of wasteful spending. This, he rightly points out, is an "austerity argument... against public space and public good." Dramatic architectures, he argues, should be available to all and not merely reserved for the wealthy.
And ultimately, we live in a time where there is enough wealth to tackle all human crises, from the climate crisis to world hunger, from building public housing to building Notre Dame. Neoliberalism and austerity is all anyone born after 1982 has known, and even though global wealth has undoubtedly risen since then, we have internalized the idea resources are scarce. Resources aren't scarce, but they're held out of reach in the hands of very few, and this is by design. They go to building mansions on the coast of Tuscany, not to renewable energy. They go to tax cuts for the wealthy, not to education and universal daycare. They go to baseball stadiums, which receive billions of dollars in public subsidy each year, not public housing.
We need to fundamentally shift the way we think about resources, and to stop making false dichotomies; we can, and should, preserve the biodiversity of the Amazon and fight the climate crisis. We can, and should, preserve grandiose architectures, and make them accessible for the many, not the few. Socialism doesn't have to be zero sum, because god knows unfettered capitalism isn't.
Owen Hatherly, In Praise of White Elephants.