Posts Tagged ‘politics’

As students enrolled in the conflict studies program we were privileged to assist and participate in a masterclass by Frans Timmerman, a Dutch politician for the PvdA (labour party) and the Minister for European Affairs in the Fourth Balkenende cabinet (2007). He has also been the private secretary to Max van der Stoel, the High Commissioner on National Minorities for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OCSE). Although I do not directly pursue such a career, I was curious to know more about his experiences.

Frustrated with his party’s shift to opposition he was very urged to talk about the current political situation in the Netherlands. Polarization, populism and Geert Wilders. “Do you think voters are rational?”

According to Timmerman we Europeans are spoiled. Naturally, our problem today is not that we’re still the most wealthy and that others are in fact very poor. What is at stake, instead, is that there’s no longer an improvement of our wealthiness and that there is a decline. Thus, feelings of fear and resentment arise. Our secure position – access to healthcare, education, employment – is under threat and we need to find a scapegoat. It’s so easy to turn against an ethnic other…

Timmermans made a remark about the distribution of the votes for the PVV (Wilder’s party) in relation to the multiculturality of a city. It appeared that in the “whitest” cities the number of PVV votes was much higher compared to the bigger cities and multicultural neighbourhoods. He has done a small research by interviewing a couple of hundreds of people that voted for the PVV in these cities and apparently people seek for someone that shows empathy with their fears. These fears are fundamentally social (health, employment, welfare), but are threatened by this other that appears to be around.

But that is nothing very new. We know that this is exactly what is happening in an increasing number of western countries. What hasn’t been discussed, however, is the way in which we tend to counter this problem of different ethnicities by multiculturalizing our society, but more importantly, with our integration policy. The latter forces the ethnic other to “stop being who they are” and become more like us. Can you expect someone to become someone else? To do away with the foundations of your self? Does our expectatio of them to adapt and their difficulty to do this results in frustration from both sides (they don’t want to adapt – they don’t respect us for who we are)?

From immigrants we moved to our role as citizens in society. Although the state’s role to exercise control is decreasing, we still tend to outsource everything to the state and, as a consequence, we expect that this higher force can resolve all our problems. We have rights, and they have obligations. But what if we subvert these roles? What if they have rights, and we have obligations? Have we become so individualised that we lost our feeling, or rather, obligation to be solidary? Have we lost the patience to understand the other and thus build a community? Timmermans gave an example of a man that bumped into him on the street. The man reacted very aggressive, because his way was blocked. I experience this so often when biking through Amsterdam; people who curse you when you accidentally bike in their way. Do we focus too much on ourselves, on what we want, and on our freedom? Could one perhaps argue that the “freedom” we claim is becoming competitive, as in “my freedom is better when it takes your freedom”?

Finally, this anti-solidary tension in our society recalls that deeply buried and vague memory of community life and group-feeling, and the guaranty it used to provide for the basic physical and material needs. Smartly, the populist parties in western Europe focus precisely on this aspect. Zizek already explained the rise of the extreme right by claiming that the liberal left has focused so much on multiculturality, tolerance, ethnic equality and environmental issues that the social classes have been forgotten. The extreme right can give these people exactly what they want, and creates an enemy in order to enforce this feeling. Having an enemy fuels the system. And that’s where we come back where we started at. Now the circle is round and the question remains: how to break it open?