Holland versus the un-Enlightened hordes
Guy Rundle reports from the Netherlands on how this small state has become bound up in a post-9/11 morality tale.
‘Wilders? Why does everyone ask about Wilders?’
Wim, the editor of a Dutch commentary weekly, looked at me askance across the table of his local. I’d already offended Dutch propriety by suggesting a beer (‘it’s four in the afternoon, I’m still working’) and now he was going to get questions about Geert Wilders, the peroxided provocateur MP who has become the image of the Netherlands abroad. ‘Look’, he said, spreading a sheaf of the daily newspapers across the table. ‘There’s nothing about Wilders! Forget about Wilders! This election is about mortgages!’
It was hard to disagree. The papers were full of the three star-contenders to be prime minister in the election, which takes place today: the incumbent Jan Balkendende, a dull-looking bespectacled man who had nevertheless managed to be photographed wearing a black t-shirt with the legend ‘fuck drugs’ on it; former Labour mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen; and leader of the free-market Democrats, Mark Rutte. The election debate has focused principally on deficit reduction, and what manner of coalition could be built. The general assumption seems to be that Rutte’s DVV party will take a brace of seats from the Christian Democrats, and hold about 45 in the new 150-seat parliament, thus giving Rutte first crack at forming a government.
This mild and consensual scenario wasn’t what was being talked about three months ago. Then, opinion polling found that the party most likely to gain in the wake of the collapse of the fourth Balkenende government (a Christian Democrat/Labour coalition, with others) was Wilders’ nativist PVV, a party advocating an end to immigration from Muslim countries, the closure of Muslim schools, banning both the burqa and the Koran, and various other measures. Currently holding nine seats, polling suggested Wilders’ party would gain from disenchantment with the Christian Democrats and leapfrog to 30 seats, creating what Wim called ‘the nightmare scenario’ of the PVV being the lead party in government. Though they’ve been coalition partners before (they were dispensed with after some members brought guns to a Holocaust commemoration service, ostensibly to ‘protect the Jews’), the prospect of this erratic group being the lynchpin of government was being held up as a warning by all sides of politics, as much outside the Netherlands as within.
For many on the right, especially the US neo-conservative right, Wilders’ success was a product of the failure of mainstream right parties to acknowledge the social crises of immigration and multiculturalism. For the social democratic left and liberals, the PVV ‘s success was fed by pandering to the debate that has been running in the Netherlands over much of the past decade, as to whether the country’s open-ended liberalism can survive a continued influx of Muslim immigrants who retain a commitment to an exclusivist idea of religion and culture.
For decades the Netherlands has been a talisman for those advocating liberalism in social matters and a fairly tight social democracy in economic matters. In recent years, in works such as Mark Steyn’s America Alone or Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the Netherlands was looked upon as a slum of licentious sex and porn, coming up against a fecund Muslim population who had neither assimilated nor surrendered their primary ethnic loyalties. It was in this context that Wilders rose to fame. So why, two days before the election, was he on track to gain no seats at all?
‘Because he had power and stuffed it up’, Wim says. ‘The PVV gained big votes in the city elections in The Hague and Almere, and they couldn’t be bothered to govern. The one thing people won’t tolerate is walking away from responsibility.’ The party’s behaviour in Almere, a regional city of around 200,000, appears to have done them considerable damage. Winning 21 per cent of the vote, the onus fell on them to do that most Dutch of things: negotiate a coalition agreement with other parties. Yet the PVV could neither effectively do this, nor maintain a principled oppositionality around their own programme. Having tried to persuade other groups to support their programme of supplementing the police with local street ‘commandos’, and other grandstanding proposals, they announced their failure to form a city government in early March, after which their numbers took a serious slide.
Should the PVV fail to make any gains in today’s election, it will mark the end of a distinct cycle in Dutch political life over the past decade – one that began in the aftermath of 9/11, with the rise to national fame of the mercurial figure of Pim Fortuyn, later assassinated, followed by the emergence of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as a national and then global figure, the making of her film Submission by the self-proclaimed ‘national village idiot’ Theo Van Gogh, and his subsequent murder by a young Islamist extremist, followed by the rise of Wilders in the aftermath.
This period was one in which, from both inside and outside the country, it appeared that a major and decisive shift in the postwar Dutch social contract was taking place. Had the country, as the critics of its distinctive social approach argued, spent decades sleepwalking into a disaster? Was it now faced with a population that could not be unified – equal parts provincial smalltown Dutch, extreme inner-city cosmopolitans and Islamist-dominated Muslims living in what Ian Buruma called ‘dish city’ ghettoes wired to the Islamic world by global TV?
These questions certainly occupied the Dutch people in the 2000s – but they did so separate from the global discussion of the Netherlands as a fetish object for the success/failure/disaster of a certain type of modernity. For the Dutch, the ethnic and demographic questions came as the second part of a wider process that had begun with the election of Wim Kok’s Labour government in the 1990s, one that embarked on a winding back of the welfare state and of many of its more optimistic assumptions.
It was Fortuyn, an academic sociologist, who broke the mould of nativist conservatism versus a ‘whole package’ progressivism – the notion, rooted in support for the Labour party and groups further left, that support for gay rights, euthanasia and so on went hand-in-hand with support for a hands-off multiculturalism. For Fortuyn, flamboyantly gay, provocative and teasing, a critical approach to immigration, and how a national intake might be composed, was part of defending the gains of the Dutch liberal revolution. Having emerged from Dutch Calvinism and Catholicism, he remarked, he was not about to have to fight for it all over again.
Fortuyn was not the only one to summon up the country’s history in a debate about the present. Indeed, as Buruma and others have noted, the Second World War is continually dragged into things, in part because the Netherlands did not cover itself in glory during that period, Dutch pro-Nazis being plentiful, the resistance movement small, and the Jewish population annihilated more effectively than anywhere else (save Poland). It is this last factor that has often been cited by Labour figures in the 1990s as a reason not to have an open discussion about immigration and national identity, a silence that made the later debate all the louder.
Indeed, Fortuyn’s assassin, who gunned him down in 2002, appears to have been channelling history as well. Volker van der Graaf wasn’t a Muslim but instead – it being the Netherlands – an armed vegan who appears to have acted on the old philosophical conundrum as to whether it would be moral to kill Hitler before he had done anything evil. Van der Graaf said he had acted against Fortuyn to ‘protect the weaker elements in society’.
Fortuyn’s assassination seems to mark the point at which the emerging Dutch debate went global. American neo-conservatives were happy to screen out the specificity of Fortuyn’s political programme – that controlling immigration and assimilation was vital to the continuation of a libertarian society – and enrol him as a ‘values conservative’, gleefully quoting his forthright comments about Muslim countries (‘they’re all ghastly’, he had said).
When American neo-conservatives embraced Theo Van Gogh, it was necessary to exclude most of his previous life altogether. Van Gogh, a rich kid from The Hague, revelled in the carnivalesque aspect of the Dutch public sphere, a hangover from the 1960s and the distinctive ‘Provo’ (Provocateur) anarchist movement which existed side-by-side with sober and technocratic management of a consensus social democracy. In newspaper columns, books, movies and his own TV chat show, Van Gogh had trained his guns on the regime of personal control – smoking bans, health and safety, etc – being developed by succeeding governments.
Van Gogh began to promulgate an attack on the ‘Holocaust industry’, and then developed a juvenile anti-Semitism combining both tongue-in-cheek denunciations of Jewish control with jokes designed to wound (‘Auschwitz smelt of caramel the day they burnt diabetic Jews’). The anti-Semitism was a prelude to his anti-Islam tirades, which were in the same spirit, and which began after Fortuyn’s murder. It was only after he made Hirsi Ali’s short film Submission, featuring words of the Koran projected on to a naked woman’s back, and his subsequent murder by a young Muslim man, that Van Gogh became canonised as a warrior in the service of Western values.
Wilders, however, has been more embarrassing for Western right-wingers. If Fortuyn represented the birth of a political movement with a genuine theoretical account of itself, and Van Gogh represented its more freewheeling entrepreneurial side, Wilders represents its descent back into the politics of resentment and paranoia characteristic of the old hard right. One crucial difference was in relation to the Koran. Where Fortuyn was a libertarian, Wilders wants the ‘dangerous’ Koran banned. His grimmer, more put-upon air has found him support (if not agreement) from the ‘political correctness gone mad’ right over here and in the US, yet he has not enjoyed the same support as Fortuyn, Van Gogh or Hirsi Ali.
Yet by the time Wilders’ star was ascending a little in the West, it was eclipsing at home, partly as a result of right-wing infighting over setting up coalition governments. Celebrated in the West as representatives of Enlightenment values, in the Netherlands these various political figures have struggled to get into, hold on to, or do anything effective with power. ‘Here a coalition is formed based on an agreement about what won’t be done’, Wim told me, wryly. Yet should Wilders confound the experts and significantly increase his numbers today, we will know a little more about the challenges Europe faces in the coming years. Even if he doesn’t, it is highly likely that interested parties will continue to co-opt the complex and specific politics of one country into an ongoing post-9/11 morality tale.
Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) publications editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)
Previously on spiked
Brendan O’Neill said Europe is neither in the grips of ‘Islamofascism’, as Geert Wilders claims, nor of ‘Islamophobia’, which is exaggerated. Josie Appleton argued that attempts to ban the burqa were little more than pseudo-libertarian grandstanding. Frank Furedi deemed the radical nationalist Jobbik movement to represent an extreme form of identity politics. Guy Rundle reported from Rome on how the disarray of the left has benefitted Berlusconi. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.