Can Europe Make It?

Dutch elections: little to celebrate

It is the normalisation of racist liberalism that is the key to what is happening. While many have argued that Wilders is a break from Dutch liberalism, Wilders is actually a continuation by other means.

Marijn Nieuwenhuis Sara Salem
18 March 2017

March 18, 2017. Anti-Racism day in Amsterdam.NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.Should the outcome of the Dutch elections be celebrated as a victory over right-wing forces that contagiously spread throughout the western world? Many seem to believe that Mark Rutte’s victory marks a decisive turning point that will allow for the safe homecoming of centrist liberal politics. We would like to disagree with such self-congratulating sentiment and, instead, warn for the dangerous trend towards an already existent and increasingly violent normalisation of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, as well as the continuing dismantling of the welfare state through neoliberal restructuring.

While Wilders’ ‘loss’ may seem important in preventing the far-right from winning in other European countries, the fact remains that the VVD’s win should arguably be seen as a win for right-wing populists rather than a success for progressive forces.

The Dutch elections cannot be separated from national history and international context. This campaign was marked by questions over Dutch identity in a similar way as the American elections. They both echoed Samuel Huntington’s conservative and polemic text, Who Are We? It is true that any critical mind would normally welcome an invitation to challenge the power embedded in our identities. This, however, is not what has happened in either the American or Dutch elections. The run-up to and results of the Dutch elections must instead be seen as attempts to defend, securitise and consolidate a specific vision or image of who is and who is not Dutch. This has a much longer history, to be sure, dating back to the emergence of the Netherlands as a colonial power, and the ways in which race has played a role in Dutch nation-building.

Simons holds up a mirror

Media vilification of the founder of Article 1, Sylvana Simons, a political party fighting against race, gender and other forms of discrimination, is illustrative of a broader social and cultural milieu of exclusionary politics targeted against those who are seen and said not to belong.

The mirror put up to the Dutch by Simons, originally a television presenter with Surinamese roots, is exactly what caused the sometimes thinly concealed but oftentimes explicit racist response she received from the Dutch media and general public.

Indeed what Simons did is precisely to destroy the myth of “white innocence” as Gloria Wekker has put it, by bringing questions of everyday Dutch racism to the centre of debate. This certainly is commendable in such an impoverished intellectual climate of normalised racism, one in which the Netherlands’ “most important public intellectual”, a label Thierry Baudet as appropriated for himself, is hailed as the new hero of the alt-right.

The neo-liberal ‘winners’ of the Dutch elections, despite having lost 20 per cent of their seats (!), should not be considered innocent in the framing of Dutch identity politics. Erdogan’s unexpected intervention in the Netherlands and Rutte’s reaction sharpened rather than weakened the longstanding dichotomous divisions between Us and them in Dutch society. The VVD has a record of accommodating Wilders’ explicit xenophobia and has done little, if anything, to challenge it. Instead it has benefited from his desolate and perplexing racist slander by depicting and presenting itself as the reasonable, moderate and socially acceptable xenophobic alternative. The neoliberal party’s electoral win is not a progressive move but, rather, is another sign of the normalisation of the now dominant discourse of liberal racism.

Indeed, this has been the important lesson of this election: that there has been an acceptance and mainstreaming of overtly racist and particularly Islamophobic discourse. We argue that while Wilders may have ‘lost’ in some ways, he has won in others. His presence on the Dutch political scene has normalised political expressions that are clearly racist. The PVV in general has shifted the entire spectrum to the right, which has led to almost all political parties adopting anti-immigration and Islamophobic rhetoric to win votes. This is not new in any sense, as the Netherlands has always been a racialised nation, but its intensity has increased over the past decade.

What of the Left?

Where does this leave the ‘Left’, and/ or what is left of it? The Dutch Labour party, the PvdA, suffered an unprecedented but not unexpected loss. Anyone could have predicted (and many have) that a coalition with the VVD would seriously undermine the credibility of the party’s ideological foundations. The Blairite move to transform the party into a partner of capital was doomed to fail. Its electoral punishment was so Spartan that the party did not even manage to retain its control over the northeast of the country, among the last of the historical strongholds of Dutch leftism.


March 18, 2017. Anti-Racism demo in Amsterdam against racism and discrimination. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.In Rotterdam, a traditional working class city with a Labour mayor, the party is now smaller than Denk, a conservative splinter party that explicitly targets the left out Other. A vote for Denk is considered by a large section of especially the Turkish-Dutch population to be the only way to counter Wilder’s rhetoric. One Denk-voter observes: “Other [politicians] talk often about ‘our country’, but what do they mean by our and us?”. Labour has lost the confidence and votes of people of colour, which is now split across different parties.

Most of the traditional labour vote seemed to have been transferred to the Greens (Groen Links) and the centrist liberal party (D66) who both won an impressive number of seats. In Amsterdam, the liberal bubble of the Netherlands, their combined vote constituted almost 40 per cent of the total. Do these parties offer a viable alternative to the moral bankruptcy and rapid demise of Labour? The problem is that their electoral base largely consists of educated and middleclass voters. They have little to no appeal to the low to middle-educated segment of the population, which traditionally votes for Wilders or the Dutch Socialist Party (SP).

The socialists seem strangely reluctant or, at least, ineffective in confronting the PVV or overturning the normalisation of racist liberalism. It is largely failing in addressing the intersectional workings of Dutch neoliberal nationalism, and increasingly betrays its foundational commitment to an internationalist politics. “Our workers [should] come first! That is not Trump, that is not Wilders, that is [what] the SP [says]", according to one ‘socialist’ MP.

Others have repeatedly argued for the closing of borders. The SP seems to want to rival the PVV in its socialist nationalism, demonstrating once again the ineffectiveness of left-wing parties that focus on the white working class male as the model worker. As Alex de Jong argues: “The SP has never been very interested in anti-racist campaigns. It sees racism as a secondary effect, produced by social-economic misery and competition between workers: improve people’s social-economic prospects, and racism will quasi-automatically disappear. To talk about racism is to be diverted from supposedly real issues. This means the SP’s election programme barely mentions ’racism’ while the issue is everywhere. Polls show a considerable part of the new PVV-voters come from previous SP-voters.”

It is precisely this normalisation of racist liberalism that is the key to what is happening. While many have argued that Wilders is a break from Dutch liberalism, we instead suggest that liberalism as it has functioned in the Netherlands has always served to exclude some groups, and has always had nationalist roots. In effect what is being called for is a return to Dutch liberalism where racism is practiced but not explicitly spoken of or called for.

These conditions call for a leftist movement that is explicitly anti-racist and anti-capitalist. This is perhaps the best counter to both the fragmentation of votes over divergent political trends, as well as to the increasing presence of racist nationalism in the discourse and practices of most political parties. The high number of votes Groen Links received can be seen as an indication of support for an alternative to what other major parties are calling for. The joining of different struggles is where the most potential lies, and in particular the struggles against racism and Islamophobia as well as against the dismantling of the Dutch welfare state. 

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