Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

The Revenge of ‘the Other Half’: Lessons From the Netherlands

Ewald Engelen


Jonas Denil

| 7 mins read

And again, the pollsters got it wrong. Again, the chattering classes exploded in indignation. Again, reporters undertook faux-ethnographic field trips to the places where ‘the other half’ lived, to find explanations for their irresponsible voting behaviour. Again, clips from interviews with voters were ruthlessly ridiculed on the socials by the academically certified. Again, calls for curtailing democratic citizenship rights were voiced by the privileged. And again, the centrist parties that had gambled and lost, accused voters of racism to avoid the painful task of facing their own complicity.

So much, so familiar. For this is the story of Brexit, Trump, and the yellow vests in France. But also of Fortuyn 2002, Baudet 2019, BBB earlier this year – unbelief followed by moral indignation, based on a misguided presumption of centrist innocence.

Nothing is further from the truth. There is a wealth of research to draw upon here, which covers post-austerity Europe. The explanation is simple: austerity breeds hardship, especially for the poor, which in turn results in votes for the extremes on either side of the political spectrum.

The Dutch case fits perfectly. Since 2010, the Dutch government has pursued relentless austerity drives. The result was the longest recession in the history of the Netherlands, longer even than in the 1920s. And, as always, it hurt the poor much more than the rich. Data show that the poorest decile gained only ten percent in disposable income since 1980, while the richest ten percent gained fifty percent.

Moreover, these long austerity years came hard on the heels of one of the most thorough neoliberal makeovers in Europe. From a welfare state with a level of public expenditure in the early 1970s of Swedish magnitude, it was transformed into a residual welfare state of Anglo-American design in a mere forty years.

Nowhere in Europe have public services become a happier hunting ground for Anglo-American finance than in the Netherlands, with Blackrock snapping up large chunks of social housing, private equity buying up childcare, dentists and GP practices, and Australian infrastructure funds buying up data centres, parking lots and public utilities.

The results for the foundational economy were dismal, especially in the rural areas where schools, hospitals, elderly care facilities and bus stops were ruthlessly thinned out. And as some PVV voters were heard saying after the elections: the erosion of the foundational economy was crucial for their voting behaviour.

But so was the absence of alternatives. The decision to construct a neoliberal utopia as well as the decision to pursue mindless deficit reduction, were not only those of Mr Rutte’s VVD but were backed by every centrist party.

The neoliberal makeover of the Netherlands started in the late 1980s and was backed by the Christian democrats of the CDA and the social democrats of the PvdA. The same was true for the deepening of neoliberalism in the 1990s. This time it was the liberal-conservatives of the VVD together with the social liberals of D66 and, again, the social democrats of the PvdA which did the redesign.

So it was with the misbegotten austerity drive of the 2010s. The first government of Mr Rutte consisted of a coalition of the the CDA, backed by Mr Wilders’ PVV. When Wilders pulled the plug because he couldn’t stomach further austerity (!), the Greens, D66 and the progressive Christian democrats of the CU took over. The coup de grace came in 2012 when Mr Rutte’s VVD joined forces with the PvdA to cut back on state expenditure to the tune of almost 40 bn euro. Hence, all were involved, all were responsible. And all were thus not to be trusted with the fate of the poor and vulnerable.

On top of that, successive Dutch governments had put the onus of the excessive historical ecological footprint of Dutch energy and food producers squarely on the shoulders of households. Multi-billion euros in indirect and implicit subsidies for peak polluters and emitters were matched by increasingly shrill moral appeals on citizens to reduce their footprint. Access to green technologies (e-cars, solar panels, heat pumps), however, was put behind subsidy schemes that required sizeable savings to apply for them.

The result was a striking case of reverse solidarity: the financial burdens were for the poor while the rich got away with the gains. But it also turned the energy transition into an elite project, which increasingly became subject to similar dynamics as identity issues. Just as woke pronouns became a litmus test for political progressiveness, so it was with demonstrations of green consciousness: virtue signalling by the rich to denigrate the poor.

If you put this together, it becomes understandable why voters massively rejected the political propositions of the centre as soon as the temporary blanket on political contestation that were the two long covid years was lifted. On 22 November, coalition parties lost almost half of their earlier electoral support, while the United Left led by Mr Timmermans that still campaigned under the shadow of its earlier neoliberalism failed to mop up disaffected voters. Instead, ‘the other half’ chose Mr Wilders PVV, the only party, in their view, with sufficient shock value to frighten the elite.

The lessons from this sorry tale of class betrayal are obvious:

  1. Redesign the foundational economy around the real needs of citizens and kick new public management and financialized agents out of public services;
  2. Start green policies with heavy investments in the housing of the poor and electrified public transportation;
  3. Stop insulting culturally conservative voters over their unwillingness to adopt the latest linguistic fashions developed at US-based Ivy League universities;
  4. Start experimenting with direct democratic modes of collective decision making (referendums, citizens’ councils, mini-publics) around wicked problems such as the nitrogen crisis, the energy transition or the protein transition, since general elections do not provide governments with sufficient legitimacy to embark on the type of large scale interventions needed to address these problems.

Anything is better than the current facile hand wringing over the racism of populist voters.

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    Ewald Engelen

    Ewald Engelen is a professor of financial geography at the University of Amsterdam, co authored After the Great Complacence and is involved in the foundational economy-project of Karel Williams and Julie Froud.

    Articles by Ewald Engelen