Multiculturalism and Dutch political culture

In the case of the seventeenth century Dutch Republic, there was no single, dominant religion. There was also no absolute majority religion. Instead, each province and each town had its own religious cultural groups.
Ger Mennens
22 August 2011

Since 2010, the Netherlands have been governed by a right-wing coalition, that, under pressure of the populist Freedom Party, is in the process of breaking with a century-long tradition of tolerance. Dutch tolerance was a product of the seventeenth-century Golden Age which has sent multiculturalism flowing through our culture ever since. Nowadays, multiculturalism is seen as an evil by the ruling Dutch right-wing coalition. Moreover, Dutch minister of Homeland affairs, Piet-Hein Donner, says, “Netherlands’ society is not multicultural at all.” This is clearly not a descriptive statement. What he means is, “Holland ought not to be multicultural.” This statement marks a dramatic breach with a century-long historic Dutch tradition, a breach with Dutch political culture. It is not “typically Dutch” at all. If we examine why and in what way tolerance and multiculturalism form the essence of Dutch cultural identity, we will soon see that these virtues brought prosperity to the Netherlands. In the light of these findings, it is highly doubtful that discarding multiculturalism is likely, as claimed, to lead to a better society.

The Harbour of Delft by Daniel Vosmaer 

All this did not apply in the case of the Dutch Republic. There was no single, dominant religion. There was also not an absolute majority religion. Instead, each province and each town had its own religious cultural groups. In the Republic everyone had individual freedom of conscience and no one could be prosecuted for his or her religious views. The Republic was therefore unique in Europe. It was a state in which diversity was the essence of its culture.

The reason for this was that from the Golden Age onwards, decentralisation was institutionalized. Dutch people disliked centralisation. Every city and every province was sovereign, so each unit was under its own jurisdiction. There was no support for a central, unifying religion. The provinces -  ‘Gewesten’ - only co-operated one with the other in the event that this was necessary for reasons of warfare or the furtherance of trade. Trade concerns were actually the main driver for this political system. State organisation can be seen as having been subordinated to the interests of efficient trade and in pursuit of economic interests that made the Republic the wealthiest pre-modern country in the world.

In organising the Republic so that co-operation led to economic growth, the main negotiating parties – the Gewesten – showed a great deal of tolerance and respect for the actors’ differing religious and cultural identities. Participation, consensus and respect for one’s cultural-religious identity went hand in hand in the Republic. Tolerance was not so much a virtue, as a pragmatic necessity. Tolerance was all about making money. The seventeenth-century Republic first began to thrive by recognizing that a culture of tolerance attracted traders from all over the world. Many people in Europe escaped to the Republic when they found themselves prosecuted for their religious views in their respective homelands. People from different cultures, with their different backgrounds and forms of expertise helped to enrich the Republic. Knowledge and experience coinciding from plural backgrounds ensured a more innovative and modernizing economy, altogether fitter for competition.

Multiculturalism was therefore a precondition for economic growth. Meanwhile, even though towns and provinces were officially tolerant, small minority cultures and religions still had to pay the relative majority culture (those were the Protestants) money in order to be allowed to express their culture and religion. Again, pragmatism and moneymaking was at the heart of tolerance. In the colonies, for instance, Muslims were allowed to build their mosques because these Muslims were wealthy businessmen and therefore influential business-partners. In due course it became apparent that respecting each other’s culture and religion minimized conflicts. It brought internal peace and peace of course secured a climate beneficial to trade. Business, moneymaking and trade gave birth to tolerance as a  practise, and ensured in turn that multiculturalism became a part of Dutch political culture, because it brought prosperity with it.

These values of diversity and the right to have your own individual cultural identity remained an important part of Dutch culture in subsequent centuries. Different beliefs and identities were further institutionalized in the so-called ‘Pillarized society’ of the twentieth century. Each religious and political group had its own institutions whereby the elites of each ‘pillar’ co-operated, negotiated and sought consensus exactly as the ‘Gewesten’ had done in the seventeenth century. Diversity and the right to conserve one’s specific cultural or religious identity went hand in hand with mutual respect and peace. Religious-cultural or political conflicts were resolved through consensus politics between the tops of the ‘pillars’. This climate of peace made it possible to focus fully on trade and economic growth.

Moreover, this culture of respecting and recognising different cultural and religious identities had a positive impact on the emancipation of various cultural groups. They became more self-conscious and therefore members were able to express themselves confidently, providing a good basis for their social mobility. Their participation in society had a further beneficial effect on social cohesion. This political culture is still visible nowadays in the so-called ‘Polder Model’, an institutional network of all sorts of societal actors that strive to reach consensus in social, economical and political matters. There has been little polarisation to speak of. Until today, that is.

Unifying the nation

Nowadays, the right-wing government of the Netherlands stands for unifying the nation. People with unique cultural backgrounds have to be assimilated to our Leitkultur. However, there is no such thing as ‘typical’ Dutch culture, since our culture has essentially always been multicultural. This populist fashion to call for assimilation only leads to ‘Us-Them’ thinking. Minority cultures, especially Muslim culture, is seen as different from Dutch culture and thus as deviant. This sort of thinking soon undermines social cohesion and cultural reconciliation and removes the basis for consensus.

The fact remains, that diversity has always led to economic prosperity on the macro-level. Will Kymlicka rightly points out that multicultural nations belong to the most prosperous in the world. On a micro-level, in companies for instance, diversity ensures creative thinking and this complements the virtues of competition. All these positive aspects of multiculturalism are in danger of being destroyed, as long as right-wing populism remains in power in the Netherlands.

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