Dutch elections and colonial continuity: The history of race and racism in Dutch nation-building

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Today is the Dutch general election to determine which parties will control Dutch parliament. It is essentially a race between Geert Wilders and the PVV and Mark Rutte and the VVD – one a far-right party and the other a center-right one. This election, and the campaigning around it, should by now prove two things: the first that the political spectrum in the Netherlands has moved to the right to such an extent that the term leftist politics is all but meaningless; and the second is that the emergence of Islam and race as central topics of debate is not something “new” and is not even an emergence in any technical sense; if anything it represents a continuity with older colonial modes of self-identification.

In an Al Jazeera piece on the elections, this quote caught my eye:

“We will get the verdict this evening after an election campaign that has been very divisive and has seen expressions from different party leaders concerning Islam, immigration and the economy” (Dominic Kane).

Those three core issues that have defined the election are in no way separate from one another. Islam, immigration, the economy. These three issues – framed as “problems” each political party wants to “solve” – have a much longer historical presence than is admitted in much of the analysis on the so-called “emergence of Islamophobia” in the Netherlands. What happens when we label something an emergence? What happens when Holland is categorized as having “departed” from its liberal, tolerant, reasonable past? What happens when Holland is commonly understood as “decent” and that this decency is now lost after a shift to the right?

I want to posit instead that this election has not marked the emergence of Islamophobia as a form of racialized politics; this election has merely made transparent the fact that for the past few centuries the Netherlands has operated within this framework of racialized politics. Citizenship rules and regulations, categories of belonging, media, educational and everyday semantics – all of these structures that organize daily life are thoroughly racialized. The famous categories of allochtoon and autochtoon (indigenous and non-indigenous) rely on colonial understandings of who was part of the Dutch empire and who was not. Debates about who has integrated well (Indonesian colonial subjects) and who has failed to integrate (Surinamese, Antilleans, Moroccans) are also based on clear colonial legacies, where the violence Indonesians faced when they came to the Netherlands is erased, and the racism and lack of support Surinamese, Antilleans and Moroccans were met with when they arrived is pushed to the side.

When we begin tracing these historical legacies, it becomes clear that modern nation and state building in the Netherlands was a racial project from the very beginning. When migrants began to arrive from North Africa and Southern Europe, much of the discourse surrounding the white working class was extended to these new migrant groups, specifically the notion that they needed to be civilized into Dutch culture. Another example is the way in which Surinamese men were discursively portrayed as violent and aggressive in the 1980s. Yet in the 1990s this portrayal extended to and became focused on Moroccan men. One should note, however, that such shifts are never complete. In the Netherlands today it is clear that negative assumptions about the white working class prevail, and that Surinamese men are still often portrayed as violent and aggressive. This highlights the enduring nature of these discursive formations. They are resilient precisely because they are linked to class formation and nation building through bourgeois notions of “civilized”. In other words, the identity of the rational, white bourgeois Dutchman is constituted in a dialectical relationship with numerous “Others”—thus making the discursive formation necessary to Dutch identity. This draws our attention to the continuing need in Dutch society to create “Others” in order to both construct the identity of the civilized Dutchman, but also, by extension, legitimize certain social political and economic policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of color.

It is crucial to note that the underlying argument in the cases of both internal and external “Others” was a racial one. The white working class was often portrayed as being genetically different from the rest of society. While it is true that in the Netherlands there was a strong discourse that blamed class differences on context rather than genetics, it remains the case that the working class was often seen as inherently inferior. The same logic was used when it came to the external Othered, who were seen as genetically inferior because of both racial and cultural attributes. When Southern European and North African immigrants arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, their constructed racial Otherness was understood through cultural differences. Culture became the vessel through which racial difference was understood and class the vessel for understanding the racial difference of the Dutch working classes leading up to the 1960s. In both instances, racial constructions were hidden under the label of either class or cultural difference.

And yet, despite this, there is a tendency in the Netherlands to locate racism in individuals, as isolated incidents. As Melissa Weiner points out: “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for maybe a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each year, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in The Netherlands.” At the center of this process of othering is the construction of the Dutch self-image as tolerant and thus of Dutch society as excluding racism, homophobia, sexism, and so on. Dutch society is constructed as tolerant and open, and indeed this has become a universal image of the Netherlands. Attempts to argue that this election shows how the Netherlands has “changed” and lost its tolerance/liberalism/decency are problematic and plainly incorrect precisely because building the nation was a racialized project from the very start. Islamophobia is only the most recent expression of this project, but it is not new, nor a departure.

Here the emergence of the welfare state is key, and its specific ties to colonial and working class history. In an excellent post, Egbert Alejandro Martina shows how the emergence of the Dutch welfare state represented an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living. This shift occurred through imagining the welfare state as a disciplinary force that would deflect attention away from structural inequalities (in this case economic inequality between classes) and instead shift the focus onto disciplining the working class and making it socially acceptable. Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

What I want to argue is new is the broader material context in which all of this is taking place, namely the crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the dismantling of the welfare state. It is not a failure of integration that forces politicians to discuss Muslims; rather it has been an extremely successful tactic that has deflected attention away from the state’s role in dismantling the social services Dutch citizens have had since the 1950s. By privileging capital over labour, the state and various political parties have sold out the social democratic pact and this is having massive ramifications on the choices, opportunities and daily lives of Dutch people. However it is not as simple as immigrants or non-whites being scapegoated either. It is not that “during economic crisis people naturally become more racist” or want to blame anyone who is different. It is not a natural human response or justifiable. It is a concrete result of the particular ways in which the Dutch elite have constructed Dutch nationalism and the Dutch state. It did not have to be this way and it is not a natural human response. It is a result of historical processes of class and race intersecting to produce the political effects we see today.

The tendency to ignore the Dutch colonial past – social forgetting as Weiner calls it – is important here in understanding why there is so little resistance to the extreme racism rampant in the Netherlands today. This Dutch colonial history is not something to be navigated or worked through, and indeed can be presented positively or, at least, as a relic of a time that was not necessarily “wrong.” The denial surrounding both its status as a colonial empire (as well as the fact that the Netherlands controlled territories until 2010) and its neutral moral position on colonialism allows the Netherlands to construct a national imaginary based on tolerance. Similarly, Gloria Wekker’s excellent book White Innocence, focuses on:

…a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia. Accessing a cultural archive built over 400 years of Dutch colonial rule, Wekker fundamentally challenges Dutch racial exceptionalism by undermining the dominant narrative of the Netherlands as a “gentle” and “ethical” nation. Wekker analyzes the Dutch media’s portrayal of black women and men, the failure to grasp race in the Dutch academy, contemporary conservative politics (including gay politicians espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric), and the controversy surrounding the folkloric character Black Pete, showing how the denial of racism and the expression of innocence safeguards white privilege. Wekker uncovers the postcolonial legacy of race and its role in shaping the white Dutch self, presenting the contested, persistent legacy of racism in the country.

It is this archive that is important to remember. White innocence, along with social forgetting, have functioned to hide the central role of race in Dutch nation building. The Dutch self is a racialized self. This is not new, but as old as the Netherlands itself. This is why I believe the newly established political party “Artikel 1” is an important intervention in contemporary Dutch politics. Because it is based on anti-racism and not just class politics, it breaks the silence surrounding this topic – a wilful silence I would add, not an innocent one – and provides what the Dutch left has long failed to provide: a politics that is about race and class and gender and sexuality – not just about class in a reductionist sense. There is still a long way to go, but speaking about race and racism is a necessary step.

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Parts of this post are from an article I co-wrote with Vanessa Eileen-Thomas: Old Racisms, New Masks: On the Continuing Discontinuities of Racism and the Erasure of Race in European Contexts.

Voting and the question of meaningful change

Just now I was browsing through my favourite news site (commondreams.org) and I realized most of the pieces are on the US election. Commondreams is a more leftist site, and so most of these articles tend to be pro-Obama. It got me thinking, for the millionth time, why so many American progressives/leftists are ignoring all of Obama’s faults in a series of desperate bids to win him this election? We get it: Romney would be worse. But Obama is far from what these leftists/progressives stand for. To many outsiders, it seems like the US system just keeps reproducing itself with a new face every 4-8 years. Whether that’s Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Romney, it’s likely that the US will continue to be a negative force in the global geopolitical arena, with wars, drones, and continued economic dominance over other countries.

Then I started thinking about Egypt’s last presidential election, between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. And realized I was kind of being a hypocrite. During that election, which many Egyptians saw as having to choose between two horrible candidates, it was traumatic to have to support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the regime the 2011 revolution tried to bring down. And the question that kept coming up was: WHY? Why are we in this position, one year after having a revolution? Why do we have to choose between these two candidates when we know Egypt has so much more to offer?

The answer is that the system is too strong. In the US and in Egypt, widespread discontent with policies are not enough to bring about change. In Egypt even a revolution wasn’t enough to ensure that we could choose between more than just two Mubarak-era figures. The US seems to be in a similar situation, where the system is proving to be much stronger than the people. In the end, we are left with these ‘choices’ that are supposed to convince us that we live in a ‘democracy.’ But really, what’s the difference? Is Shafiq that different from Morsi? Were either of them actually going to bring about social justice, dignity, bread and freedom – the main demands of the revolution? Are either Romney or Obama going to create an economic system in the US that is fair and just? Are they going to end discrimination? Are they going to prevent the US from continuing to be an imperialist force int he world that brings death and destruction to countless people? Or are the institutions and class interests too strong to be influenced by the people through a system of voting?

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre,

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.”

I’ve heard countless people say “Not voting means giving up your power.” Really? What power, exactly? Can’t the act of voting itself be seen as giving up one’s power?

I remember myself clearly telling people that Morsi was horrible, but he was better than Shafiq. It was better to have someone like him than to bring the regime back to power. And I guess that’s what many American leftists are doing by supporting Obama: pointing out that while Obama has faults, Romney would be much worse.

But is this it? Is this just the reality of politics? We accept the fact that we actually don’t have power, and that decisions are made behind closed doors? Accept the fact that even revolutions aren’t always powerful enough to change things?

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.