The Dutch disease

Coming ahead of the French presidential elections in April and the German national election in September, last Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands (won handily by the center-right VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte) was seen as a test of populist right-wing sentiment in Europe. More importantly, it was also a referendum about left politics in the Netherlands; how we talk about race and class.

In the end, Geert Wilders’ far-right PVV, only won 20 out of a possible 150 seats, leaving the VVD with 31 seats, to form a new coalition government. More significantly, the traditional left Labour Party (PvdA) lost over 29 seats, suggesting that many voters who may have supported leftist parties before, switched allegiance to the right.

International media celebrations aside, Rutte’s win does not signal a victory over the populist, right-wing Islamophobia represented by the odious Wilders. Far from it, the fact that Wilders — against earlier predictions — did not become the largest party is directly related to Rutte adopting similar rhetoric as the PVV.

The election was animated by three linked “problems”: Islam, immigration and the economy. They are not new, however, and each have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis. Take the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when the Netherlands is understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost, categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past?

The reality is that citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of the structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. Take the Dutch categories of allochtoon and autochtoon which rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not, by designating who is “ethnic Dutch” and who are immigrants. This basically breaks down as white Dutch versus its brown and black citizens. Similarly, so are debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies. The violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived, is conveniently forgotten.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, we notice that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe in the late 1960s, much of the discourse surrounding “problems” with the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men.

The identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others” — thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman.

When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As sociologist Melissa Weiner, who has written extensively about Dutch racism, points out:

Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.

As Weiner shows, this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

The emergence of the Dutch welfare state is key to contextualizing this project. In an excellent post, the cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. The welfare state was envisioned as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities and instead discipline the working class through biopolitics, absorbing and neutralizing any threat it posed. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different.

What is new, however, is today’s material context: the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. These cuts to the welfare state have led to economic inequalities that have resulted in antagonism towards anyone seen as a “foreigner.” This is not, however, a natural response to economic crisis. It is a concrete result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the Dutch state and Dutch nationalism.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire, and the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010 and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance.

Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, points to “a central paradox of Dutch culture”: “the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.” This includes how black people are portrayed in Dutch media, deliberate ignorance about race in universities, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians embracing anti-immigrant rhetoric) and blackface.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself.

This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding a wilful silence about Dutch history and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.

* This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Salem’s blog, Postcolonialism and its Discontents.

Sara Salem

Sara Salem, a Dutch-Egyptian writer, teaches International Political Economy at the University of Warwick.

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