It is rather striking, at first sight, to note how much the Dutch politician Geert Wilders and the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo have in common. Both threaten the political and ideological status quo of their countries; both have been legally prosecuted by their nation states for their public pronouncements; both speak in the name of democracy; both have received significant ideological and economic support from abroad; both have had their personal lives severely disrupted as a result of their public statements; and both are seen widely as martyrs for free speech. These similarities mark them out as men who at this moment have caught the pulse of the planetary transformations taking place in the practice of liberal democracy as a form of politics, social mobilisation and ambition.
Yet despite these important similarities, these two men could not be more different in the actual politics they represent: the one – Liu Xiaobo – a politics of dialogue and the other – Geert Wilders – a politics of fear. In this, they show us the two potential futures of liberal democracy in its broadest sense: as a comprehensive politics of possibility and as an excluding politics of domination. This difference reveals a crucial irony. At the same time as Liu Xiaobo seeks to enact democratic practices within China that have been a feature of western Europe for the last fifty years, Wilders makes use of Dutch democracy to promote an authoritarian style of leadership and social order remarkably similar to those promoted not so long ago under the banner of “Asian values.”
Like Singapore´s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia´s Mahathir Mohamad, Wilders embodies a form of authoritarianism that offers to strictly regulate ethnic and religious diversity, along with the social order more generally, through a stringent regime of law and order over which he would like to preside. In the process, he is willing to transform both the law and tradition in the name of honouring and protecting indigenous culture, as well as his own interests. In this sense, European politicians like Wilders are following in the footsteps of their Asian counterparts, who already in the 1990s were experimenting with effective ways of linking economic liberalism to authoritarianism, regional nationalism and civilizational self-assertion.
What is even more crucial to recognize, however, is that Liu Xiaobo seeks to realise in China just that kind of egalitarian (human rights-based) democracy that populists across Europe today repudiate as an unmitigated disaster. They argue that it is Europe´s commitment to giving equal rights to all citizens, cultures and religions, that has been responsible for the threatening disintegration of European social order, national identities, and economic success. So where Liu, true to the principles of egalitarian inclusivity, seeks to include more in the political process, extending the rule of law equally to all spheres and all citizens, Wilders asserts the inequality of different cultures and seeks to legalise the exclusion, erasure and eviction of those European citizens he deems less culturally and morally developed. Where Liu expands the possibilities for democracy and seeks to constrain those of the state, Wilders narrows the possibilities for democracy and expands those of the state.
Their relation to the state is where the most critical distinction between Liu and Wilder lies. Liu speaks as a citizen challenging his state and demanding the recognition and protection of his and others´ democratic rights. Wilders speaks as a representative of the state (as well as of “the people”) striving to deprive other citizens of state recognition, protection, and residency. At the same time, Wilders would like to increase the amount of policing, surveillance and physical force that is brought to bear on them. His response to a riot some years ago was to say that the rioters should be shot through their knee-caps. The rioters in this case were thought to be Moroccan-Dutch, but Wilders was quite general in his desire to use violence on all rioters. Liu, by contrast, is himself the object of surveillance, policing and force, while seeking to restrict his state´s violence against its citizens. When Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, he dedicated it to those who died at Tiananmen Square.
Free speech on trial
There are many who feel compelled, in the name of liberal principles, to defend what they describe as Wilders´ endangered right to free speech. This is of course particularly attention-grabbing when those defending Wilders are not only media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal but also include (ex-)Muslims such as Huffington Post´s Melody Muezzi or Salman Rushdie. What these critics miss is the fact that when we speak of protecting free speech, the historical necessity has been to protect the free speech of those people and groups that either the state or the majority would suppress. Wilders, however, represents both the state and the majority and seeks to suppress the free speech of minorities. In this sense, to suggest that Wilders´ right to free speech is endangered is an absurdity. Moreover, it is to argue, by extension, that a government has every right both to entertain prejudices against its citizens and to act on them.
The obvious point is that political words are linked to action: their intent is to enable, limit and transform policies that further the interests of some at the expense of others. It is precisely because the Chinese state understands this, that it seeks to repress the words of Liu. The demands of Charter 08 (that Liu co-authored) are that the Chinese state and Communist Party must submit to a political process (democracy) that they will not be able to control, and must acknowledge the Chinese constitution as a higher authority. In the event that Liu´s demands come to fruition, this would necessitate a drastic rearrangement of current power relations in the Chinese polity and society.
Like Liu, Wilders also seeks to rearrange power relations in the Dutch polity and society: not towards greater equality, however, but towards greater inequality. He has explicitly stated his desire to abolish the first article of the Constitution, guaranteeing the equality of all races, sexes, political convictions and religions, and to register the ethnicity of all Dutch citizens. He expresses this intent, however, not simply as an individual like any other but as the head of a highly influential political movement with growing international influence, as a representative of the Dutch people, and as a member of the Dutch governing coalition. What Wilders thinks and says shapes what the government does. To support Wilders’ free speech, as so many do in the name of liberal principles, is to support not just an individual but a state that would discriminate in a highly illiberal fashion between its citizens on the basis of their ethnicity, culture and religion.
Still, some would point to the recent trial of Geert Wilders and ask if this does not prove that Wilders´ right to free speech is threatened by the Dutch state? In fact, the opposite is true. Though Wilders is ostensibly the subject of this trial, this trial is hardly about Wilders. Much more it is about deep divides in the Dutch state and society. We see here a society putting itself on trial, without it being clear who is the accused and who the judge.
For years the Dutch attorney general´s office refused to prosecute Wilders for ‘hate speech’ despite having received countless formal requests by citizen-plaintiffs. The attorney general argued that this would constitute an unjustified interference in public debate. Eventually the high court became involved and demanded that the attorney general formally prosecute Wilders. The result has been the utterly bizarre situation in which the attorney general complied with the high court and then, during the actual trial, requested that all charges brought by itself against Wilders should be dropped. Meanwhile, over the same period, the chief justice made his aversion to Wilders so clear that the trial has now been declared a mistrial and suspended. Critically, almost all the players involved in this trial – the court, the attorney general and Geert Wilders himself – all represent the Dutch state. This is not a matter of a state bearing down on a lone citizen, as in the case of Liu, but of a state deeply conflicted in itself.
The “very Muslim” and the public domain
Most fundamentally, the issue at hand here is not Geert Wilders´ right to free speech as such but rather his right to change the rules of free speech. As in every society, free speech in the Netherlands is not absolute, but governed by a constellation of formal and informal rules. One of the most important of these is the distinction between speech in Parliament – which is completely free and completely protected – and speech in the public domain. Speech in the Dutch public domain is held to a higher standard than that in Parliament. It must not violate the principles and imperatives of the Constitution, including the equal rights of all citizens to freedom from discrimination. Public speech which discriminates constitutes discrimination in the public domain, much as exclusion from housing, work, and education does in the social domain. At the same time, public speech in the Netherlands has also been subject to informal but equally forceful rules of decorum, quasi-ritualized dialogue and compromise. These emphasize the responsibility of those who would intervene publicly to take into account the effect of their words on others. The fundamental assumption here is that first and foremost, in the public domain, we speak not only as individuals but also as members of a larger social and moral collective which we all bear the responsibility of maintaining.
Wilders utterly violates both the formal and informal rules. Rather than being punished by the larger society for this, he has met with great success. Fifteen years ago, before the liberalization of the Dutch media and the spread of the internet and new media, this success would have been impossible. Wilders´ favourite means of communicating publicly is through text messages to journalists and through twitter sniper-shots out into the world, denigrating other politicians or otherwise conveying his views. These, by definition, are impossible to answer. His finesse with new media allows him to avoid virtually all debate and dialogue. At the same time, when a Dutch Muslim television channel offered to broadcast his film Fitna after all other Dutch channels had refused him, Wilders rejected the offer. In this way, Wilders skirts around all settings that might challenge him, even as he radically challenges and disrupts the establishment. This is not the strategy of a liberal lover of free and open rhetorical exchange, but of a guerilla insurgent climbing the ladder of power.
Had Wilders tried this strategy in China, his fate could easily have been that of Liu Xiaobo or even Gao Zhisheng. The fact that instead he is free to be elected, to travel and to speak as he likes, is because the rights embedded in the Dutch Constitution protecting those who dissent – which Wilders so despises in the case of Muslims – are precisely those rights which also create the very space and freedom for Wilders to radically disrupt Dutch conventions. That is, Wilders generates the very disruption of Dutch traditions, social relations and laws – their decorum, their pragmatism, their humanity – which he ascribes to Islam. Wilders is himself the very “Muslim” about whom he would warn us.
The raised middle finger
Some in the Netherlands have cheered this on, though not in these terms. Crucially, these have not been the classic (economic and political) liberals but rather those historically most alienated from the Dutch political and cultural establishment: those from the formerly Catholic coal-mining regions of the south, from the formerly Communist agrarian regions of the northeast, and from the socio-economically declining neighbourhoods of the Hague, North Amsterdam and Rotterdam. That is, Wilders gets much of his support – like the Socialist Party – largely from areas with relatively few immigrants and with low economic, educational, political, cultural (and religious) capital. Wilders is the raised middle finger of those least served by the country´s establishment.
That establishment, meanwhile, is more interested in keeping power by carefully incorporating Wilders, than it is in truly addressing either the interests of immigrants or those least served by economic liberalization and a cosmopolitanism-of-privilege that looks down on provincial accents and cultures. Quite predictably, one of the first announcements by the new governing coalition were draconian, highly vindictive cuts in government subsidies for the arts. This is a particularly damning policy for cultural life in the large cities that overwhelmingly voted for Labour and whose elite feel more at home with cosmopolitan cultures across the world than with those of their provinces.
The implications are two-fold. First, while Cas Mudde was quite right to point out recently how liberal arguments are being used in the interests of illiberal attacks on Muslims, in the Dutch case this reflects anything but a progressive national consensus. Quite the opposite: it reflects the deep social and ideological divisions disrupting both the Dutch state and Dutch society and the desperate search, at this moment, for ways to manage these. The trial of Wilders graphically enacts this rupture, just as the trial´s failure blatantly exposes the lack of a coherent answer to the challenges Wilders offers to Dutch conventions and Dutch established interests.
Secondly, what is at stake here, as in many countries, is not free speech as such, but rather the rules governing public speech and the question of who has the right and power to determine these. These rules are anything but given or natural, and their constitution is itself a political contest, deeply entangled with economic and social issues. Just as the Chinese state recognizes this in the case of Liu Xiaobo and has acted quickly and decisively in its own interest, so Wilders recognizes that this is so, and is acting just as quickly and decisively in his own interest.
Get our weekly email