The fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in April of 2019 was symbolic of what has gone wrong with the world since the end of the Cold War. The likelihood that the event was an accident, rather than terrorism, say, only reinforces my interpretation, given that from what is known so far, the ignition was due to faulty wiring or to cigarettes being smoked around the inflammable roof timbers, and given the ineptitude of the security staff when the alarm sounded. The people who are supposed to be in charge of keeping our social systems going are bumbling around, and their supervisors are mostly concerned with cutting costs so as to avoid having to ask the well-to-do to pay a little more in taxes. And our traditional institutions are collapsing — because of neglect, of attacks on their structures, and of their lost relevance.
The cathedral is a representation of many things, of course. Two primary symbolic meanings are the achievement of the medieval period and the national identity of the French people. It also stands for a religion that has a long history of violating human rights and for the power of the oligarchy to compel the labor of the working class. As such, at the time of the fire, I saw a number of my fellow leftists on social media saying that spending money on restoration efforts would be a waste of funds that could be used to aid the poor.
This argument is reminiscent of the one that appears in the gospels when Jesus’s feet are anointed with expensive perfume by a woman, identified in John as Mary Magdalene. The objection in that text is made by Judas and is said to come out of his desire to steal the money that could have been raised from the sale of the perfume.
And despite the book’s contrary position, Judas does have a point. We throw a large part of government budgets at questionable projects, most of them for the benefit of weapons makers and bankers, while every penny spent on the disadvantaged is given out grudgingly, with the feeling among right wingers that we are merely sustaining dependency. If we are forced to make a choice of what to do with meager resources, feeding people or treating their illnesses would take priority over repairing a big church — and over maintaining the hardware used in threatening other nations, let us not forget.
But contrary to what Republicans, Tories, and other conservatives tell us whenever Democrats, Labour, or similar currently centrist parties are in power, the developed world is not poor, is not on the verge of financial collapse that can only be avoided with austerity. We have allowed the right wing to define the debate, preserving an older view of resources, particularly money, as a small pie that is only diminished by dividing. The truth is that when we invest in the people through healthcare and education in an economy that doesn’t allow disparities in wealth, we create and grow resources that had not been imagined by grasping conservatives.
Is there a leftist argument for restoring Notre Dame? It certainly is an example of what collective effort can achieve, much like the Pyramids or the Apollo program. Big achievements act as inspiration for their societies, and they can have a wide variety of economic effects. Going to the Moon, for example, or building canals to connect oceans were expensive programs, but they employed lots of workers in the process and led to developments that go beyond a mere declaration of what a ruler or a nation can do. The tourist money that an attraction like Notre Dame brings in must also be included in our calculations.
There is, however, a broader point. Both socialism and capitalism too often treat human beings as if we are only economic entities, as if we are something that can be summed up on a balance sheet, whether the total comes out to the advantage of the working or the owning classes. From the reductionist perspective of economics, this makes sense. We do not ask a rocket how it feels about gravity, and in the same way, trying to work out the movement of value around a system requires a few simplifications on the first attempts at understanding. But in politics, we have to deal with more than economic calculations. Politicians and people generally must address not only what pays the bills but also what makes living to the next billing cycle worth the trouble. A stained glass window, a climbing spire, or a picture of Pluto shows that we can do a lot more than perform our routine duties on the assembly line of society.
The problem is not the resources expended on monumental works. Especially in modern economies, we have enough to do both great and mundane things. Where we go astray is in using those monuments to celebrate only the few among us and then to distribute the abundant remaining wealth to the same few. We on the socialist or progressive left need to secure the physical necessities of life for everyone, but we must also pay attention to human aesthetic fulfillment.
Fear that art and bread are mutually exclusive belongs to the right wing. As a democratic socialist, I say that our discussions to be more inclusive, to understand that we are not only particles in a statistical system. Instead, we need costly works like grand cathedrals — works that must be open to the public — to call us to more.