The end of cheap

By Christophe Callewaert Rachida Aziz

What’s the situation today, in society and in the arts? This essay talks about all the problems that we see nowadays as the final breakdown of the colonialist and capitalist ‘megamachine’. This ‘megamachine’ has been functioning by cheap extraction for centuries. From the climate catastrophe to the trial on Jan Fabre, we can see ‘the end of cheap’. Conservative powers, elite, as well as art institutions, can’t cope with this breakdown. They try to save their privileges. What should we do? We must “save as many people as possible from the flying debris” and build alternatives in the scarce space available.

Corona crisis, energy crisis, healthcare crisis, water crisis, climate crisis, refugee crisis, reception crisis, housing crisis, financial crisis, debt crisis, food crisis, burnout crisis, crisis in the nurseries. Crisis everywhere. In 2021, in the twilight of the pandemic, Flemish Prime Minister Jan Jambon promised us the roaring twenties: a repeat of the roaring twenties that followed the First World War and the Spanish flu. Jambon, better known in the culture sector as the Minister of Culture, was proven wrong – and many with him. In the recent structural subsidy round for the arts in 2022, Jambon was applauded for conjuring an additional 25 million out of his pocket, but these resources have since slipped through the poorly insulated walls and windows of cultural houses. The crisis feeling within the arts is undeniable.

To see successive crises as bumps in one long and winding road towards prosperity and happiness, you must already be quite privileged. Crisis – with all possible prefixes – is the default setting for the majority of the world’s population. Now that the crisis is being democratised, you hear more and more calls for solidarity. Even the Federation of Enterprises in Belgium is begging for solidarity. “Distribute the costs of this crisis among this country’s three major economic players: government, employers and employees”, it said recently.

If all those crises are not isolated accidents, what is it that binds them? One word: cheap. Or rather one phrase: the end of cheap. Cheap in the double sense, like the English cheap: not only low in price, but also of little value. Five hundred years ago, a world system was created that was based on seven cheap things: cheap labour, cheap lives, cheap energy, cheap food, cheap concern for others, cheap money and cheap nature. This system was first tested in the mid-15th century on Madeira, where Columbus found his wife. In 1420, the first Portuguese settlers who set foot on this uninhabited island were still overwhelmed by its natural beauty. “Not a metre of the island that is not covered with grandiose trees,” one of them wrote. A century later, in 1530, only barren sandy tracts remained and sugar cultivation finally collapsed. It was the end of the very first capitalist experiment, but the beginning of the global expansion of the system.

If all those crises are not isolated accidents, what binds them? One word: cheap. Or rather one phrase: the end of cheap.

The microcosm of Madeira foreshadowed what would later happen to the entire planet. Sugar was the cheap food grown there, with the enslaved peoples of North and West Africa providing cheap lives and cheap labour. The trees provided the cheap energy for the ever-hungry sugar mills and were at the same time cheap nature. The cheap money came from the coffers of Flemish and Italian bankers. As for cheap concern for others, the results of the witch-hunt that erupted at that time were not slow in coming. Many thousands of independently-minded women (and men) were burned at the stake. Thus, more and more parts of this planet and everything living on it were reduced to cheap. Five hundred years of capitalism left large expanses of parched, withered land everywhere – both literally and symbolically.


What we are experiencing now is what happened to Madeira in 1530. We are experiencing the end of cheap, because the cheap subjects are either in revolt or completely exhausted – another form of resistance. #Metoo was the beginning of the end of cheap; Black Lives Matter is the clenched fist of cheap lives. Hurricane Ian and all other natural disasters are the sign of a nature treated as cheap. Cultural institutions, too, are experiencing what it means when the rubber band of cheap breaks. A Flemish newspaper writes: “Five out of eleven people working as light technicians at De Munt opera house have left in recent years. Of the remaining six, three are out of action due to long-term illness or burnout.”

Faced with the structural resistance of what was once relegated to cheap, the guardians of this system seek safety for themselves by pressing others ahead. We observe, for example, a loud, roaring backlash against everything that actively resists: a war against BLM and #Metoo disguised as ‘woke debate’. Privileged voices, reminded of the responsibility of their words and actions, immediately start stamping their feet in aggravation and shouting on every possible platform that they are being cancelled. Another reaction, when facing the abyss, is to press the accelerator down even harder: recommissioning coal-fired power stations or depriving people struggling with burnout of their social security benefits. Look at the profits of the energy multinationals or the wars unleashed to eliminate geopolitical opponents. Even fascism is back, but in the modern version of building barbed wire fences around existing privileges. These reactions cannot stop the collapse of the system. They even speed up the process, but meanwhile cause untold suffering.

The mechanisms that made the centuries of exploitation possible are failing. The mega machine is falling silent

Nor is the cultural world spared from that backlash. Reactionary flare-ups were inevitable there too. Even after Jan Fabre was convicted of harassment, abuse of power and sexual harassment, 175 people from the theatre world stood solidly behind him. One of them, a well-known white 55-year-old writer, unashamedly defended himself in De Standaard: “I never noticed anything myself.” Is that not more an admission of complicity than an excuse for the perpetrator? Or take the latest edition of Theater aan Zee. While five years ago, an opinion piece there still caused a ripple on the ‘sea of white people’, it was now time for the big rehabilitation. The programme booklet contained a diatribe against what the invited author calls the ‘woke movement’. His piece begins with an approving quote from Douglas Murray, one of the British frontmen of the far right, who stated in a book a few years ago that “Europe committed suicide by allowing Muslims onto its territory”.

If it weren’t so pathetic, you could call this an attempt at restoration – just like when the royal houses in Europe tried to restore their crumbled power after the French Revolution. In was in vain then and it is in vain today. The fact that the aforementioned incidents have occasioned so little fuss could serve as encouragement to present-day monarchs yearning to recover their crowns. We ourselves suspect that the deafening silence of the victims of this violence is rather an expression of fatigue (and indifference). If, after all the debates and riots of recent years this is the level, then shouting again is of little use. Then you can say no more than: “We tried to warn you”, as climate scientists have to say as global warming disrupts all weather systems. With this shameful restoration, institutions immediately prove that they cannot be changed from within. They would rather go down together.


The crisis, the end of cheap, is therefore at the same time a crisis of all the institutions that have propped up the system. The mechanisms that have made the centuries of exploitation possible are failing. The mega machine is falling silent. Not suddenly and softly in the way that a car which has run out of petrol runs on silently for a while, but deafeningly loud and creaking in all joints. The cultural world is also made up of institutions. Culture magazine Rekto:verso contained a long piece a merciless analysis of this, deeply concealed as if by accident. It told of an artist who, after years of easily finding her way to all kinds of subsidies, had run into a dry patch of several years. “How is that possible?”, the author wondered.

To start with the most depressing conjecture: the art world is an in-crowd. The Gap Group said it in its open letter: “The [art field] functions through informal networks based on unconscious privilege”. Those who are good at networking and selling themselves will reap the benefits. Those who are less adept at this during their starting years will pay for that lack of ‘profiling power’ later on. In addition, the sector looks not only at the qualities of the work itself, but also at its saleability (buy-out fees, logistics cost), at the marketing possibilities (see the label ‘new and young’), at its accessibility for a certain type of audience (an older and well-heeled public versus intended target groups such as young people), at the prevailing discourse in the sector (being up-to-date: decolonisation, climate change, gender identity) and last but not least: at the items of attention that are important to the subsidiser.

These few sentences are not only a hard and dry dissection of how elites in the cultural world protect their privileges; they also show how the cultural sector is the capitalist world system in miniature. The mega machine has colonised all parts of society and imposed its laws and mechanisms everywhere. That system – including the institutions that constitute it – is now collapsing before our very eyes. Yes, but it also bandies the words ‘decolonisation, climate change, gender identity’, right? Aren’t those precisely the battles that seal the end of cheap? Yes, indeed. Except that those battles are immediately encapsulated again. Themes that move in this direction become temporary, ‘the discourse of the moment’, good for embellishing subsidy files and as side animation. In this way, they confirm the existing hierarchy instead of challenging it.

We don’t want ladders that are pushed down, we want a social system without floors.

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò recently spoke of “elite capture”: “the ways elite have co-opted radical critiques of racial capitalism to serve their own ends”. If emancipation struggles are held hostage by elite, at best something may change in the composition of those elite. The structural violence against ‘cheap’ just keeps going. Some ladders may be pushed down, but the gatekeepers at the end of those ladders remain equally relentless. We don’t want ladders, we want a social system without floors.

Anyone who is near a giant machine that is collapsing can do one of two things: save as many people as possible from the flying debris or build alternatives in the scarce space available. Whether something more liveable, honest and just will come after the end of the mega machine depends on that effort.