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A small, flat piece of earth

A small, flat piece of earth

Markus Appenzeller

I am not a Dutch citizen, and therefore I am not allowed to vote in the Netherlands – unfortunately. I am also not allowed to vote anymore in Germany because I left the country too long ago, but that is a different story and whether I voted or not, I have been living in this country for two decades, and therefore I am complicit. Usually I am writing on this blog about urban topics, but after Wednesday’s Dutch elections and the landslide victory of ultra-right wing politician Geert Wilders I could not do differently than broadening its scope temporarily.

What I started wondering more and more in recent months is where the tolerance and openness of the country had gone. Don’t get me wrong.  The Netherlands are still one of the most liberal countries – but only if you fit into the bracket of white, western (ideally Dutch), wealthy and not Muslim. Depending on the number of these criteria you are not fulfilling, the degree of liberal feeling those complying with all of them grant you decreases. I know many Russian, western educated, well off people that experience this country as the heaven on earth. But if you are a black, Sudanese, poor Muslim – then ‘have fun’. Of course these criteria are not exclusive to the Netherlands – they all exist to a smaller or larger extent in many Western countries, but only few have cultivated the lie of being this liberal and caring country like we in the Netherlands have. This was not always the case. Until the 25 years ago, the country embodied what it portrayed. Neoliberalism had a much more profound impact here than anywhere else. Something most – me included – did not realize until recently.

The Dutch are proud of their collective exceptionalism. According to the narrative, it is born in the collective fight against the forces of nature, steeled in building dikes and pumping the water out. It was even turned it into a political model that fascinated the world in the 1980s and 90s and propelled the low lands to the pinnacle of societal advancement: the ‘Poldermodel’ (named after the system of land reclamation and drainage that created large parts of the country) where all relevant societal forces worked on consensus for big societal questions that subsequently were carried out collectively.

Listening to Dutch politicians, this model seems to still be alive and kicking. Whenever there is a bigger problem, members of parliament stress the words ‘we’ and ‘together’. But the receiver of these messages has gone missing. The collective society existed in the past. It was offering you benefits, but it also was demanding from you to conform to it in being tolerant and downplaying the ego wherever collective goals were affected. Today, there is no such thing as limiting the ego, in large parts thanks to one and a half decade of market liberal ruling of the country. The Dutch happily embraced what this model offered. One could get out of the straightjacket of state collectivism and replace that by that of the peer group. The big collective fragmented into self-referential closed circles of like-minded people. One could join or leave groups – commitment was not necessary, since nobody enforced it. But to keep the image of the country the Netherlands used to be, everybody painstakingly took care that the narrative of this liberal-caring miracle stayed intact. I have met hundreds of people that kept singing the song of Dutch exceptionalism – and the world all to happily liked the rhymes.

However, removing the ‘collective glue’ that held the Dutch society together had profound impact on the ability of the country to organize what necessarily needs a larger collective: spatial planning became a mess, in Covid times 16 million doctors felt they had to make their own rules to fight the pandemic, the housing crisis became unsolvable because of the absence of a degree of consensus and the same goes for climate change transition and the nitrogen question. All these and many more big topics stranded because any form of collective thinking and downplaying of ego has vanished.  Instead, a libertarian mindset emerged that – in the absence of a corrective – got cultivated in all the self-referential groups of the fragmented society. After that way of thinking had rooted in society, it was unable to practice the art of compromise of the Poldermodel. What also has vanished in its slipstream is tolerance towards other groups, especially those that do not meet above-mentioned criteria.

Wednesday’s elections show to the world that the Dutch narrative they heard is bankrupt and a big lie, and I’m afraid we all, living in the Netherlands, will have to suffer the consequences for the time being. Transforming that narrative is difficult in the absence of the collective spirit that lay at its base. It now is a great opportunity for the Netherlands to say goodbye to its felt exceptionalism and accept that it is a small, flat piece of earth with a bunch of people that accidentally live on it. A country that is less liberal and less collective than it portrayed itself for decades, and a place without a greater mission and outsized ambitions. Unloading all this will be liberating, and after this catharsis there might be room for great new ideas.

By Markus Appenzeller
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