Dutch Culture Wars

Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ notorious right-wing extremist who is currently standing trial in an Amsterdam court accused of inciting racial hatred — has emerged as the main power broker in an unsteady coalition that has finally been put together, after months of negotiations, between the Christian Democrat and Liberal-Conservative parties. Wilders’ party, the Freedom Party, will provide parliamentary support for the coalition.

Wilders is also is the subject of a best-selling new book by the Dutch academic Meindert Fennema, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”

As Fennema puts it, the Netherlands will very soon have two foreign ministers: an official one, sitting in the cabinet and following the establishment line of Euro-Atlantic moderation; and an unofficial one, Wilders, who says that there can be no moderate Islam and that any belief to the contrary will likely imperil Western civilization.

But Wilders is not solely a Dutch phenomenon. His words chime with a wider set of concerns that pervade contemporary European politics: the problem of integrating Europe’s large minority of Muslim citizens, the fears of workers who see their wages undercut by inflows of cheap labor, and concern that Western values are giving way to self-loathing and ethical relativism.

Fennema has laid out his analysis of the situation in the Netherlands. The great mistake of the Dutch political class, he says, has been to declare Wilders an Islamophobic racist and to dismiss his views as abhorrent and outside the confines of acceptable political discourse.

In attempting to silence Wilders, first politically and now through the courts, the Dutch liberal elite has evaded the thorny question of how to respond to these concerns.

Fennema portrays Wilders as really no more than a republican with a bee in his bonnet about Islam. He thinks liberal leftists are terrified of him because, in the name of multiculturalism, they have repudiated their own sense of national identity.

As Fennema put it, they have no answer to Rousseau’s famous criticism of those “supposed cosmopolitans” who “boast of loving everyone so that they might have the right to love no one.”

As an antidote to the hysterical reaction of many liberal-minded Europeans, Fennema’s insights into the origins of the Wilders phenomenon are valuable.

In an interview for this article, Fennema argued that what we are seeing today is no less than the collapse of social democracy as it was established in the Netherlands after the World War II.

In the corporatist bargain between business and labor, the old business elite maintained control of the economy but in exchange gave up control of the cultural establishment (schools, universities, etc.).

This deal was in keeping with the social democratic hope that society could be changed through culture, and through education in particular.

In the aftermath of 1968, the New Left overtook the Dutch labor movement. Beginning with the social revolution of the 1960s, and given a political voice through the events of 1968 and the movement against the Vietnam War, the New Left espoused a relativistic, cosmopolitan world view of which multiculturalism is perhaps the most concrete manifestation.

Fennema himself left the Dutch Labor Party in the 1970s in reaction to what he saw as the ethereal elitism of the New Left, and joined the Communist Party, a more “down to earth” option at the time. He left the Communist party in the 1980s, publicly recanting his left-wing past in a manner that endeared him to much of the Dutch political right — including Wilders’ mentor, Frits Bolkestein.

In Fennema’s analysis, the answer to the Wilders riddle lies in the collapse of the corporatist bargain. The old business establishment no longer holds the reins of a de-industrialized neoliberal economy. Power now lies in services and in finance rather than in old-fashioned manufacturing.

Those now in control of the economy, a younger generation of newly rich entrepreneurs and financiers, no longer respect the social pact of past decades and chafe at the values so cherished by the 1968 New Left.

As in other countries, from France to the United States, the political legacy of the ’68-ers is under attack.

What is most curious is that these culture wars should dominate political debate at a time when jobs, wages and state welfare are all under threat in the new “age of austerity.”

As budget cuts are being pushed through European parliaments, people fatalistically accept the need for painful belt-tightening. Even in France and Spain, where acceptance is not won and street protests are largest, the move toward fiscal austerity proceeds apace.

And as political parties coalesce over the need to cut public spending, debate still rages over whether or not to ban the headscarf or the burqa. Just when you would expect the battle to be fought in the economic field, culture wars are raging across Europe.

Is the popular outburst of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment the complement to the new fatalism over the economy? If so, the current Dutch coalition maps perfectly onto this new kind of populist technocracy.

Mark Rutte, the prime minister in the current coalition and leader of the Liberal-Conservatives, is the embodiment of the technocratic leader. Wilders, his coalition partner, is the populist. Far from being the exception, this curious Dutch coalition perhaps reveals a deeper truth about the contemporary state of European politics.

Chris J. Bickerton, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.