The Netherlands, a tiny country in disarray

The Netherlands could easily act as a dissolver of parliamentary democracy.
Elections in Europe: episode 1, The Netherlands.
On March 15, 2017, Dutch voters come to the polls to elect a new parliament. Dutch care ethicist Frans Vosman gives his view on the political situation of this tiny unruly country.

On March, 15, 2017 Dutch citizens can vote for a new 150 seat parliament. PVV (Partij voor de Vrijheid, Party of Freedom), a party that is not really a party, because formally there is just one member, (Geert Wilders) is leading in the polls. Wilders, a member of parliament for his own movement since 2004, advocates leaving the European Union, stopping immigration from Muslim countries, closing all mosques and he wants to forbid the Koran as it “stirs up violence”. Holland should stick to “its Jewish-Christian values”. His winning formula is Take control back over Holland. His social program however is leftish. Wilders, a clever and the same time grotesque figure by appearance, advocates spending more money on nursing homes, lowering the retirement age back to 65 and lowering house rents. He has his clientele in a growing number of angry, dissatisfied white people, mainly in lower and middle class environments. A frightening feature of his ‘movement’ is that should Wilders come to power, he has, unlike AFD in Germany, hardly any MP’s or administrators who are capable of taking governmental responsibility, even if one distances oneself from the imperious style in governing that Wilders despises. A flock of bizarre followers is with him in parliament now. None of the other bigger parties in Dutch Parliament is willing to form a government should Wilders’ PVV become the largest party. That’s what they claim before the elections, anyway.

Typically Dutch

As Timothy Garton Ash has said with regard to so called populism, emerging in many Western countries, it is wise to look at the particular history, culture and circumstances of countries and not equate too easily Brexit, Trumpism and nationalist and populist movements. And indeed, the Dutch situation has some specifics. Between 1963 and 2017 the small country has seen its population grow with 50 %, from 12 to 17.1 million inhabitants, people flocking together in urban areas, leaving a lot of space in the North East for instance. The country is extremely dependent on trade, has in comparison to Germany almost no heavy industry left. In fact, economically it is part of Germany: it is its import-export shop. In the nineties it has enthusiastically given in to so called neoliberalism. Privatization of sectors, previously governed by the state, became important. In fact a whole range of hybrid organizations came to life, partly private, partly state controlled. Furthermore deregulation was the catchword, whereas on the other hand more rules were installed. Thirdly, a massive responsabilisation takes place. Citizens and civic organizations were made accountable, with a double message: ”do it yourself but beware if politics gets aware of something it thinks is ‘scandalous’”. Not just the two liberal parties promoted this agenda, the social democrats and Christian democrats did so as well. The welfare state has been under ‘reconstruction’ since 1994. In thirty years complexity in society has increased dramatically, caused by e.g. the rise of technology, the influx of groups of immigrants from non-western countries, the globalization of capital traffic and of production of goods and services. With regard to the immigrants, the actual living together got normatively tagged. ‘Integration’ became the keyword. And as it is with normative categories in politics: they fail, never ever the ‘ideal’ in realized. Thus the tag proved not to be very helpful. In fact the state is not capable anymore to protect its citizens and to insure some decent and reliable way of living. Not only is there a persistent group of jobless people, the shake out in the financial sector and in retail is going on and on, leaving many more people jobless. Next to that an army of 1 million one-man-businesses is depending for work and income on commissions. They act as the caoutchouc in economy. If it is true that Trump supporters in the rust belt just have one single demand, jobs, then in Holland there is certainly a large group of people who would say: give us one thing, certainty. Precariousness is an issue emerging in public consciousness.

Political culture

Culturally the Netherlands has a strong tendency to individual freedom and to a high number of political factions. Pluralism was always there, in the Republic of the 17th century, but also in the 19th century as Holland became a parliamentary democracy. In 1922 it became a mature and real democracy as women got the right to vote. In Germany five parties will compete in the parliamentary elections in fall 2017, in the Netherlands as many as 27 parties, of which 11 are sure to win seats, 6 out of these 11 are about of the same size, around 15 seats. Holland’s long standing political culture to accept pluralism and talk and talk until a settlement is found, often a tradeoff that keeps the country at the middle of the road, has declined. This so called ‘polderen’ was a trustworthy political way of guiding the pluralist country. It had its impact not only on political life but was an expression of the civil sphere. Over a long period it required solid argument, the patient exchange of arguments. By now, that civil sphere has changed drastically. Associations like churches, social housing initiatives and trade unions have become shadows of what they were, in a relatively short period of time. Polderen, bargaining over what is acceptable amidst plurality, still exists. However, the level of argumentation has dropped. At the same time a completely different kind of pluralism has emerged: people who despise representative democracy, varying from white angry loud mouthed men and women to young Dutch citizens from Turkish and Moroccan descent, mocking the institutions that hold together democracy, like the judiciary, the police force and parliament itself. The trias politica and the traffic of checks and balances are openly disparaged, when for instance MP Wilders comments the work of judges. This political development could be called populist, but then one should acknowledge immediately that this is widespread over many political parties. It is not a matter of one or of a few parties, as politicians from various political color speak out in the same way. Dutch people are said to be outspoken, direct in their communication. One should rather say that rudeness has become a firm part of Dutch identity. Insults have become ‘normal’. This is not just a matter of language. It is a cultural feature as well: the inability to perceive where other people walk, how they move in public space, stipulating sameness. Others have to behave in the same way I do. If you don’t like it, we’ll hear it. If you don’t protest, if you don’t adapt, if you don’t defend yourself then my behavior is apparently acceptable. This rapid change in culture has political importance: it has become unimaginable that ‘my’ course of action is something really bad for ‘others’. In that sense, the old sensitivity for the way of living and moral and political aims of others has largely disappeared. The new pluralism is characterized by difference in lifestyles and an opiniating way of going through life. In her 2013 book Caring democracy Joan Tronto wrote that it is difficult in the US to argue and debate about differences. In a different way that is true for the Netherlands as well. But unlike the US with its emphasis on the constitution, on checks and balances and on the judiciary, no one in the Netherlands ever argues that politics and all citizens should take the constitution as the fundamental political creed. Only article one, freedom of speech, is often quoted. Pragmatism, fixing problems, on the one hand and moralizing, painting political issues in moral colors, on the other hand seems to be typically Dutch. Grundgesetzpatriotismus (Germany) or the foundation of a new republic (French republicanism) are unthinkable in the Netherlands. A small group of self declared republicans may quite easily provoke the abolishment of the monarchy . Equalizing everybody, regardless its role in sustaining democracy, is a popular sport. The esteem for keeping people together, a role played noticeable by the king and by some mayors, is not high, despite the rethorics of “come together’. A ‘new republic’ however will never be founded in Holland as there are no fundamental and positive ideas whatsoever in the political arena about the agonal in public life, about the role of the state nor about the revival of the trias politica and of institutions in the political and civic sphere. There are hardly any positive proposals about Europe either, the very cornerstone for the survival of the Netherlands as a state, there are many statements about what Europe should not be. This is not to say that some political philosophers, historians, sociologists and think tanks have not come up with ideas. The ability in Dutch politics to theorize new pluralism however is very limited. Argument and argumentation have been dwarfed in this tiny little country.


Institutions are weakened via continued political discourse about ‘do it yourself’. They got weakened as well as they lost track of their primary goals, intrinsic to the practice of e.g. healing, teaching, judging: schools, hospitals, the judiciary. French sociologist Francois Dubet, inquiring into the school and health care systems, developed a thesis about the decline of institutions, a decline which has its own history in the Netherlands and does not just apply to France. Institutions have become organizations with a multitude of desired effects. The fact that these institutions, now dilapitated, build up the polis and are political in essence, is being forgotten. Probably a simple counter strategy, to re-institutionalize, won’t work. The remedy against black seldom is painting it over with white.

Do it yourself

Basically the state has started saying to its citizens: “we cannot cope with the multitude of problems, so do it yourselves, take care of yourselves, create a group of people around you that will take care of you, we won’t do it anymore unless in case of utter emergency”. A caring society will have to do with a state that has an interpretation of care of its own. Caring gets dubbed with: stimulating, activating, ‘recovery of autonomy’. Care by the state does not mean actually do something. There is this nice expression that got popular amongst professional caregivers and social workers: ‘caring with your hands tied behind your back’. Citizens have to care, the officials are there to ‘stimulate’. Actual caring of professionals is framed as ‘pampering’ citizens. Of course rhetorically this message is brought in the most positive of tones, lingo provided by so called neoliberalism that associated itself with cultural trends like the craving for autonomy.

The inefficient remedy

There is a longstanding tradition in the Netherlands to use morals in politics. At present parties from right to left advocate ‘coming together’, ‘taking care of others’. Even if this sounds similar to care ethical ideas, it is not. As French care ethicist Fabienne Brugère has analyzed with regard to French socialist politics and English care ethicist Marian Barnes with regard to Labour, lingo about a caring society, the plea for caring for each other, has a completely different meaning in politics than in care ethics. Without doubt the intentions of Dutch politicians, asking for a change in mentality, pleading for solidarity and taking responsibility for others are good. Their intervention however is a direct counter remedy, intended to remedy against rudeness and in fact against depolitization. But they themselves effectively depoliticize politics. A political understanding of deeply felt uncertainty about one’s position in society, at present and in the near future, seems to be lacking. How could people acknowledge that they are not just consumers, not just bourgeois but also citoyens? How can the enormous reservoir of actual connectedness amongst people be acknowledged as a source of politics? Maybe in Dutch civil society new forms of belonging and of actual responsibility will arise. Surely care ethics could contribute to that, if care ethicists would be willing to think in political, non-moral terms about what I call friction in living together, the agonal, possibly but not necessarily developing into conflict. The perpetuous normative ‘people should’ (do this, avoid that) is not only powerless, it prevents an analysis of the political.

In the present state of Dutch politics the dissolvment of parliamentary democracy can easily be provoked as politics has helped to introduce deeply felt insecurity about one’s position in the polis. The rash experiments with so called direct democracy in the Netherlands erode parliamentary democracy as there is no counterbalance of a robust representative democracy left. ‘Direct’ democracy will not accommodate the deeply felt insecurity of citizens and will not be a caring democracy.



About the author: Frans Vosman

Frans Vosman

Prof. dr. Frans Vosman studied moral theology and philosophy at Nijmegen University and did a doctorate on economical ethics in Paris and Rome. Professor Louis Vereecke was his promotor. He was engaged in medical ethics before he took interest in the ethics of care, at Tilburg University, where he was professor ethics of care. He held a chair ethics of care at the University of Humanistics, Utrecht. He was interested in combining conceptual and empirical ethics and in the fundamental political character of the ethics of care. Together with colleagues he did research in a general hospital about patients perspectives and research with regard to people with an intellectual disability. He focused on the ethics of care as a form of fundamental political ethics, He considered the connections with other forms of political ethics, with epistemology and political forms of phenomenology to be quintessential. Frans Vosman died in June, 2020

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