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Home Opinion The Dutch social laboratory: From progressivism to populism?
Netherlands • Progressivism • Populism

The Dutch social laboratory: From progressivism to populism?

René Cuperus - 19 September 2013

The Netherlands reputation as a ‘progressive guide land’ is being turned on its head as the pillars of the post-war order – party democracy, the welfare state and European integration – shake from their foundations

Last week, Simon Kuper wrote an interesting piece in The Financial Times under the title “How we all went Dutch”. He analyses that the Netherlands acted as a kind of social laboratory of the world. For a long time, the Dutch thought of themselves as a “progressive guide land”: an advanced model for other, more backward, countries to follow, and, according to Simon Kuper, they were right. “The Dutch invented much of the world of 2013: bicycles in cities, legal soft drugs and gay marriage. I suspect their next scheme to go global will be legal euthanasia.’’  His explanation: “Dutch policymakers aren’t hippie potheads. They legalised dope because they are cold-headed realists… The Netherlands isn’t the permissive society. It’s the pragmatic society.’’

So far, so good. Because Kuper ends his piece in gloomy fashion: “Sadly although the Dutch created the world of 2013, they’re not now busy creating the world of 2033.  I wonder which country has taken over as the brilliant social laboratory to the world.’’

Here, he might point at the actual political and social situation in the Netherlands, which is quite depressing. First of all, the country is suffering from, what I earlier in State of the Left described as, “Triple A Blues”. The country is member of the Northern Elite Club of Triple A creditors, but at the same time it is suffering from Southern European-style economic problems: a home-made housing bubble, rising youth unemployment, marginal economic growth.

This constitutes the worst of two worlds: as a small creditor country the Dutch are paying Eurozone-rescue transfers (without getting “geopolitical rewards’’ like Germany), and at the same time it is facing severe domestic socio-economic troubles on its own. One has to understand that it is not easy to sell an enthusiastic story about Europe and the EU in Holland these days.
For that reason, political trust in the social-liberal Grand Coalition of the conservative-liberal VVD (prime minister Mark Rutte) and the social-democratic PvdA (Party Leader Diederik Samsom; Vice Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher) is at an all-time low. The established parties got all the blame for the predicament of the Dutch economy, whilst the populist protest parties are sky high rocketing in the opinion polls. This applies especially to the right-wing populist PVV Freedom party of Geert Wilders, and to a lesser extent to the Party for the Elderly (50Plus) and the left-wing Socialist Party (SP).
The Netherlands now has become one of the populist laboratories of Europe and the world, in strong contrast to Simon Kuper’s portrayal of a test country for progressive values and practices. It is not any longer trendsetting progressive values and practices, but instead is one of the frontrunners of the pan-European populist revolt.

One could even state, that this new Netherlands constitutes and represents a huge warning to other countries, especially to neighbouring Germany. For Germany, the Netherlands has transformed from a positive guide land to follow into a “negative guide land’’ not to follow. The Dutch developments are a nightmare scenario for Germany, an image of fear.

Imagine how Angela Merkel and her CDU – the stability anchor of the German political system - look at the Netherlands at this moment. First of all, they see a ruined and marginalised Christian Democratic party, once the powerhouse of post-war Dutch politics, which is comparable to the ruins of Christian Democracy in Belgium and Italy.

More generally, the Germans observe the implosion of the political centre in the Netherlands, the political middle of established parties under pressure by the protest parties on the flanks.

They also see the huge rise of anti-EU Euroscepticism in the Netherlands and the return of nationalism. And the middle class – the holy gesellschaftliche Mitte – being squeezed within the new inequalities of the globalisation process. Furthermore, there was recent research in the Netherlands demonstrating that, contrary to the political culture of deliberation and poldermodel  – consultation –  large amounts of Dutch citizens yearn for a “strong political leader” to force breakthroughs in the complex political decision-making processes of the Netherlands.

For post-war Germany, these trends and developments constitute no less than a political nightmare. Germany feels itself – with or without good reason - surrounded and besieged by the demons of history: nationalism, xenophobia, anti-democratic attitudes.

The good news about the German federal elections is that Germany seems to be the lucky eye in the storm of pan-European populist protest. It is to the great merit of Chancellor Angela Merkel that the political and social atmosphere in Germany differs from surrounding countries. Germany radiates stability and calm. The country remains risk-averse, a bit traditional, and solid, but it looks a lot less orphaned than the Netherlands, which lost its way somewhere (and hopefully temporarily) in the Great Transformation of our age. In person, Mutti Merkel represents a country which is not losing its head. Laptop und Lederhose, Energiewende und Heimatmusik: they go together well.
Germany is doing very nicely. Economically, sportingly (Bayern München) and in terms of international influence, it is performing well. Berlin has become a cool place. For years, Germany was maligned at seminars in London and Washington for being the dinosaur of the industrial society with a cool-factor of minus 100. It was doomed to get lost in the global rat race. Now, Germany has come back as the undisputed political-economic powerhouse of Europe; albeit reluctantly.
However it is not without worries. Germany is surrounded by the demons of history, which the country, in its modern form, fought-off so successfully. The post-war politico-social order is shaking at its foundations: the party democracy, welfare state, European integration.  Germany is witnessing the rapid erosion of these post-war guaranteed achievements, with staggering panic, most notably in neighbouring Holland.
In the King’s Speech to kick off the new political season, the Dutch Government introduced the so-called “participation society’’, in which people take control of their own lives, replacing the classic welfare state. ‘The current situation is not sustainable’, King Willem-Alexander said: ‘People want to make their own choices, determine their own lives and care for each other.’ So it is only appropriate that care and social services be brought ‘closer to people’, the king said, listing the cabinet’s controversial plans to decentralise and ‘individualise’ care services, youth services, home care and job creation.

It will take some time for the Dutch to get back as progressive social laboratory to the world. The first aim should be to move away from being seen as a negative role model for the rise of populism, by solving transformational problems and beating the historical demons.
René Cuperus is senior research fellow and deputy director at the Wiardi Beckman Stichting, the thinktank of the Dutch Labour Party

A contribution to the State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network's Social Democracy Observatory

Tags: Simon Kuper , Simon Kuper , Mark Rutte , Diederik Samsom , Lodewijk Asscher , René Cuperus , Opinion , State of the Left , SOTL , Netherlands , Dutch , Dutch Labour Party , Partij van de Arbeid , PvdA , Eurozone , EU , European Union , Jeroen Dijsselbloem , Welfare , Debt , Deficit , Unemployment , Dutch , Europe , EU , European Union , Eurozone , Germany , PVV , PVV Freedom Party , Geert Wilders , 50Plus , Socialist Party , SP , Angela Merkel , Christian Democratic Union of Germany , Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands , CDU , CSU , CDU/CSU , Belgium , Italy , Nationalism , Euroscepticism , Xenophobia , Anti-democracy , Anti-politics ,

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