Captive minds

Call me naïve, but when I learned this week that the ushers working in a concert hall are on zero-hours contracts, I was shocked. I’ve rarely worked with big cultural institutions, and I hadn’t realised how much they too have bought into the neoliberal economic model which enforces insecurity on most so that some may be unduly comfortable. The person I was speaking to also told me that when they raised it with management, the answer was that ‘the workers like the flexibility’ – to which the only answer is that if working in the gig economy is so desirable, why do not the CEOs and personnel managers choose zero hours contracts for themselves? Why must pleasant jobs be incentivised with extravagant salaries, pensions and bonuses while unpleasant ones are deemed to need no such compensation?

In The Collaborators, a long article in The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum examines the motivations and reasoning of those who have stifled their previous principles to serve Donald Trump (I almost wrote ‘in the administration of Donald Trump’ but like all autocrats and narcissists, the president sees service as exclusively personal). Applebaum is a historian of the Soviet Union and makes telling parallels with how power secured collaboration in that system, drawing especially on Czesław Miłosz’s important book, The Captive Mind. Her article is long, but repays attention, not only for its insights into current politics but for the deeper questions it asks each of us about the compromises we are willing to make with power. She identifies arguments used by people to rationalise the dissonance between their own beliefs and those expressed by the power they serve, including:

  • We can use this moment to achieve great things.
  • We can protect the country from the president
  • I, personally, will benefit.
  • I must remain close to power.
  • LOL nothing matters.
  • My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse.  
  • I am afraid to speak out.

Through such rationalisations, Applebaum argues, do people become collaborators.  

The cultural sector is defined by its values, frequently articulated in a public discourse that is rooted in a liberal, democratic humanism. In European countries, where the arts expanded within post-war welfare states, an idea of public service is still resonant. So how did cultural leaders come to reconcile these ideals with outsourcing the poorest and weakest parts of their workforce? How did the arts sector come to persuade itself that the poor want to be on zero-hours contracts? Or, ask the question another way: in the context of the present crisis, who in the art world is relying on Universal Credit or self-employment support grants, and who is still in post? 

This matters in itself, and as an expression of the unfair distribution of risk and reward imposed by the current social contract. It matters also as cultural institutions face up to the realisation that their whole business model, from ushers to CEOs, is built on the sands of an unsustainable economy. The leaders of those institutions are beginning to imagine the steps they need to take to rescue their flooded ships. They’ve thrown overboard everyone they can, and the water is still coming in. What now? 

The captive mind struggles to reach beyond the limits it has come to accept. Applebaum’s rationalisations – so powerful precisely because few of us can admit to using them – make it even harder to think beyond the current model. Is there a CEO who is thinking that the way to rescue their institution is to put their casual staff on normal employment contracts? Even suggesting it sounds absurd. But three months ago, the idea of shutting up shop and sending everyone home for an unknown period would have seemed not absurd but impossible – literally impossible. Well, we’ve certainly learned to rethink that word. 

So here’s the point. Everyone involved knows how precarious the art and culture sector is right now. I have sympathy for those on the bridge of these listing ships, though not as much as I have for those already in the water. I don’t know better than anyone else how to save arts organisations and cultural institutions. But I do not believe that turning to the old ideas will help. The economic model that has dominated since the 1980s holds that businesses in trouble should cut costs by shedding jobs and outsourcing services. It gave us the hollowed-out, top-heavy, over-complicated, unaccountable, ungovernable, sinking businesses we have today: trees without roots cannot stand. So the first, the critical task, is to free our imaginations to think afresh. That shouldn’t be so hard for a sector that prides itself on its creative thinking: this is the time to make good on that rhetoric. I don’t know what kind of cultural sector will emerge from this catastrophe. Smaller, I imagine, flatter, I hope, with more power and recognition distributed to community organisations. But whatever it is, the place to look is not in the past: it’s in the liberal, democratic humanist values we profess but too often fail to live up to. It is in organisations that embody fairness, equality, respect in every aspect of their everyday work, especially when it becomes difficult and demanding. It is in leaders who are prepared to enact those values, even if that means keeping a distance from power, because they see further than their immediate interest and never cease from defending their minds from capture.  It is not in more casualisation and zero-hours contracts.


  1. When I worked at Tate (and to my knowledge this practice continues) staff employed under Tate Enterprises (including cleaning, security and catering) were on zero hours contracts. In 2013 the Unions protested and the same reasoning was given, of flexibility. Staff employed under Tate Gallery were not on zero hour contracts,with all the benefits that brings. This two tier structure to Tate meant many things, including meetings I’ll never forget when discussing ‘the diversity issue’ being told that we couldn’t consider or include the profiles of those employed by Tate Enterprises, even though, of course, the vast majority where BAME.

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