Austerity: A Hammer Against The Commons

By Luke Pretz


A mural by Diego Rivera in the Detroit Institute of Art

As you may know, the city of Detroit Michigan is struggling with bankruptcy. As is often the case in the current economic structure, the burden of the consequences of policy that favors big business and the owning class is put upon the workers and inhabitants of the city. In the case of Detroit, we see the long suffering inhabitants of the city subject to austerity policies, exemplified by cuts to social services, that are now favored by the wealthy elite who are often in the position to set policy. The impacts of lost pensions for city workers, the one-sided enforcement of back utility bills and the roll back of city services are clear: the working class inhabitants of the city suffer because of these cuts. Beyond the economic sacrifices demanded by the elites there has been clamoring for the sale of the Detroit Institute for Art’s collection to pay the city’s debt, a policy which has been pushed for by the city government, bond holders, auction houses, and creditors despite the wishes of those living in Detroit.


The argument in favor of the sale is very straight forward: Detroit owes money and so it’s publicly owned assets should be liquidated to pay off their debts, estimated to be in excess of $18 billion. Experts from Christie’s auction house have been called in to assess the value of the collection and have estimated the value of the collection between $454 and $857 million. On its own this is a substantial sum of money, however, placing it in the context of Detroit’s debt, $454 million is a drop in the bucket in the relief of Detroit’s economic crisis. Consider this thought experiment. Suppose that the sale went very well and the government received $1 billion after fees from the sale, so that 20% of Detroit’s debt would be eliminated. However, on the other hand, the sale of art only works once.  There would be no longer any art to sell.  And the sale of art does not resolve the fundamental issues: the mismanagement of the city, the lack of industrial policy, and Detroit’s abandonment by multinational auto manufacturers whose thirst for profits outweighs the well-being of their workers or their community. Furthermore, the loss of the Detroit Institute of Art would mean the destruction of a central hub for the Detroit arts community, culture, and educational system.


If the real impact of selling the DIA collection is just on Detroit’s financial issues, why are we hearing some much about this? To answer this question we do not have to look very far from the holders of Detroit’s public debt and the auction houses. Much like the debt vultures that are currently holding Argentina hostage are demanding that they be paid at all costs, the holders of Detroits bonds are demanding the liquidation of the city’s assets, including the art housed in the DIA, to satisfy their desire for profits. In addition to the bondholders, the art auction houses have also been clamoring for the sale of the works which would result in the collection of significant fees from the sale of those works.


Luckily the people of Detroit have organized (Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, Defend the DIA, along with several other organizations) to stand up against the emergency manager Kevyn Orr, the bondholders, banks and financiers and demanded an end to austerity policies that harm those living and working in Detroit. On the issue of the Detroit Institute for Art, Detroiters have publicly protested and forced the hand of Orr, who has recently came out against the sale of the museum’s collection.


The costs of selling the art are quite clear, but the benefits are not.  Selling the art to the highest bidder would have a minimal impact on the city’s debt and no impact on the root causes of that debt. Detroit would give up a cultural gem that belongs to the citizens of Detroit. This situation highlights very clearly the central goal of austerity: the looting of society and public trust by the wealthy, big businesses, and the politicians that represent those interests. Austerity is not about solving the financial crisis or mending the city’s budget.  It is a means of looting the public and transforming public goods and amenities into private goods and tools for generating profits for private interests. The lesson from the attempts to privatize Detroit’s art collection is quite clear: austerity is a tool used against the working class to claw back the public goods and transform them to serve the private interests of the owning class.