Dutch Democracy: A User Experience - Blog #2: After Concern
An English-language blog on the arts, the state, and business unusual over the 2017 Netherlands Election.
Last Thursday March 2nd the political rhetoric within the Dutch election took a turn. In something close to an about-face, current Dutch Prime Minister and centre-right party (VVD) leader Mark Rutte called upon the electorate to “stop that trend”—with reference to the present Euro-American far-right sweep.
This calls for a pause. Rutte is the leader who kicked off the election-month with an unprompted open letter to the press, calling upon those at variance with ‘Dutch values’ to kindly self-deport. Rutte is also the leader who had been happy—up until last Thursday—to let exclusive-nationalist right leader Geert Wilders entirely set the tone of the campaign on social issues, complacent to pick up the right-voting leftovers through an ‘anti-immigrant but still good at business’ positioning. Now, two weeks before the election date, Rutte is calling upon the greater concern of the Dutch electorate; “After Brexit, the US, also the Netherlands—then France, Germany and Italy will follow.” Rutte opined. “If you look at the chaos that arose in the US and the UK, then it’s essential that we avoid that.”[i]
Well, I’ve learned a whole lot about ‘concern’ over the Dutch election so far; most of all through two encounters I had in Eindhoven over a week ago. The main lesson has been that if a ‘left’ or emancipatory politics is to offer any kind of way out of here, it is going to have to shed its assumed disposition of a politics of concern. What is needed—urgently—is a politics after concern.
The Tough and the Concerned–A Neoliberal Spectrum
As I discussed in my first blog post here, since the early 1980s era of market liberalisation and social democratic privatization, the economic and the social function of ‘the political’ has sustained a divorce. For the left, this has been a loosing game. Obviously its tradition constitution—defending labor against the interests of big business—has been devastatingly compromised. Its claim to the electorate has been reduced to a weak and negatively defined stance; ‘vote for us—we’re deeply concerned about the social fall-out of policies that we should oppose but are powerless to actually prevent’.
What I will argue here is that this evacuation (neoliberalisation) has reduced the electoral settings of liberal democracy to a choice between the ‘tough’ and the ‘concerned’. That is, a choice between political-affective aesthetics, largely untethered from political-economic substance.
Take former President Obama, for example. Obama presented a relentless image of ‘concern’. Even when he was preaching hope he oozed concern lest all the hopefulness get carried away and certain folks be left behind. Present Trump, on the other hand, exudes ‘toughness’. He’s so tough he’s indifferent even to his own state’s institutions of the rule of law.
The Netherlands perhaps offers a dramatic demonstration of this disintegration of left substantive discourse and the febrile nature of the remaining politics of concern. The true story of the 2017 election is perhaps not the resurgence of Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV), but the drastic evaporation of the centre-left Worker’s Party (PvdA). For decades over the post-War period the PvdA led Parliament and presided over the reconstruction of the Netherlands on social democratic principles. In 2017 the PvdA may well enter Parliament only as a minor player—a left fragment among the rubble.
Baffled by this situation, I spent the past weeks asking Dutch colleagues and friends for the reason: Had there been a leadership scandal? Had someone slept with someone inappropriate? Embezzled funds? Been otherwise caught red-handed? But no, there is no such obvious cause—it was explained just as something baffling and deflating. Finally I came across an answer at a public event at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, and in conversation with local D66 candidate Mpanzu Bamenga; a Dutch citizen and naturalized refugee, Bamenga perhaps had the insider/outsider perspective that the question needed. “You see”, he explained, “there are only really two parties proposing to be ‘tough’. That’s really what they’re saying—they’re ‘tough’. But on the other side there are lots and lots of little parties all with different messages and the people that don’t want to be tough are spread among them.”
A series of striking graphs published in the Financial Times[ii] in February demonstrate this analysis—projecting the fracture of the ‘concerned’ left vote across a broad array of parties. In 2017, these include concern for aged care (50plus), concern for Islamic communities (DENK), concern for Afro-Caribbean communities (Artikel1), market-inflected environment concerns (GroenLinks), radical post-anthropocentric environment concerns (PvdD) as well as Christian concerns (CU) and workerist concerns (SP).
The spectacular nature of centre-left splintering in the Netherlands is understandable through the historically week constitution of a labor-basis to the Dutch left. Unlike the UK and Belgium, the Netherlands’ path through modernity was led through mercantilism, not industrialization—and, counter to Marxist teleology—didn’t properly graduate through feudal relations. Such was the finding of Dutch poet, revolutionary, and anti-colonial agitator Henriette Roland Holst in ‘volume 1’ of her Kapitaal en Arbeid in Nederland—an analysis published in 1904 that set out to understand the lack of a revolutionary consciousness among the Dutch[iii].
Increasingly through the ‘war on terror’ and ‘global financial crisis’ period, the neoliberal-left ‘politics of concern’ has been electoral suicide. Meanwhile the neoliberal-right politics of toughness has metamorphosed into a radical—indeed fascist—nationalist politics of indifference. But the failure of the left as the preference of the concerned is not only at the ballot. As a liberal ideology it also fails in the very basis of an ethical politics that it proposes to perform. Or rather, it merely performs the ethical as a negative stance towards the neoliberal consensus. The recent film of Dutch artist Robert Glas demonstrates this failure starkly in the almost bizarre practice of ‘Motivational Interviewing’ deployed by the Dutch state the deportation of refugee claimants.
‘Concern’ for Those of Whom One Has No Concern At All
The film—How to motivate someone to leave voluntarily—was screened at a special event at the Van Abbemuseum and shot by Glas along the path of his three year-long legal battle to photograph the deportation detention centers operated by the Dutch state. In the process, Glas became aware of a new counseling tool entering into use by the Justice Department; ‘Motivational Interviewing’.
Motivational Interviewing was developed in the 1990s primarily for use in cases of addiction. The technique eschews any effort of reason or rational debate, but instead leads the patient through a process of exhausting her oppositions to relinquishing a harmful object, to then instead build up a picture of her world without it. Classically the harmful object would be an addictive substance such as a drug or alcohol. In its use by the Justice Department however—the harmful object is the idea of the Netherlands as a liberal, inclusive society.
The video by Glas documents a hypothetical training session in the technique, featuring a real trainer employed by the Justice Department, as well as two actors in the role of trainee counselor and deportee. The proceedings are at once soft, tenderly expressed, and yet grueling to watch. Across the footage the deportee’s expressed fears and rational complaints are steadily bled dry. I would really like to go more into the details of that danger,” says the trainee counselor, as he is coached in leeching the will to resist through a generous deployment of absorptive empathy and concern.
As a portrait of the Dutch state in action, Glas’ film depicts in granular detail the fundamental falsehood of the politics concern—the brutal reality that in the condition of the liberal state, ‘concern’ is what may be appropriately expressed for those one has in fact no concern for at all.
The question then, is what a left politics can look like after concern? Of what form a new resolute articulation can take. What is clear is that the politics of concern is by now rank and unconvincing to an electorate well experienced in its hypocrisy. What is also clear is that it would be a mistake to look to the parliamentary left for serious articulations. Structurally, the fractured left parties are locked into a divisive, partisan battle among themselves; totally disincentivised from a broader emancipatory project. I have become convinced that the only serious option is a major left social movement from outside the political apparatus, shifting the very terms of the debate and refusing capture in the stale matrix of concern.
This cause is surely magnified against the real catastrophic backdrop of climate change as well. In the time of ecological disaster, the distancing, paternalist, objectivising and negativising stance of ‘concern’ has no useful place. As the Belgian critic Isabelle Stengers recently explained to the Dutch audience of a launch for Flemish journal nY; “no, we’re really fucked” (french pronunciation fookéd). The catch to the politics after ‘concern’ will be for those newly wise to this condition to organize and learn with those who have been savvy to it for many generations, having long been on its dis-possessed side.