You are here

Amsterdam: Berlin

The last decade has seen an alarming rise in the electoral success of the extreme right in Europe, which has moved with great effectiveness to exploit the dislocations and insecurities created by the globalism to re-ignite the old mix of racism and xenophobia.

David Garcia

Issue #72, February 2005

"It is the peculiar genius of the Dutch to seem at the same time, familiar and incomprehensible."
— Simon Scharma, An Embarrassment of Riches (University of California Press, 1988)

The fact that a Dutch-Moroccan man with suspected links to radical Islam has been charged with the murder of film maker and controversialist Theo van Gogh in November 2004, has further sharpened the dilemmas facing beleaguered Dutch multi-culturalists who had already failed to find a position and a language effective enough to stem the continuing rise in the popularity of the new right in the Netherlands.

Holland is not alone; the last decade has seen an alarming rise in the electoral success of the far right across Europe. As the English philosopher and commentator John Gray pointed out, this movement should not be confused with the far right of the nineteen thirties which was born of hyper inflation, unemployment and poverty. Today's new right has sprung up in wealthy countries, (Austria, France, Denmark and now the Netherlands) and trades on the anxieties created by the problems and dislocations of globalisation. Whilst the various mainstream centrist parties continue their unquestioning consensus, refusing to paint anything but a rosy picture of the globalised free market, the far right that has moved effectively to make political capital out of the fact that "even in the rich countries globalisation has losers as well as winners". They have effectively exploited legitimate anxieties and real problems to re-ignite Europe's traditions of xenophobia and racism. Like the fascism of the 1930s this movement follows the economic orthodoxy of the time. Gray wrote "It promotes a high tech economy and global free trade but insulated form the worlds poor by a ban on immigration. If this is fascism, it is the fascism of lap-tops not jackboots." However unlike the loose affiliations that make up the anti-capitalist activists this movement have no qualms about playing the party political game.

Of all the examples of the European new right perhaps the most slippery is the version has arisen in the Netherlands. A number of elements make the new Dutch right particularly hard for its opponents to grapple with. To begin with it has appropriated some of the armoury traditionally associated with the radical left. The undisputed father of the Dutch movement, Pim Fortuyn who came to international prominence in 2001 with his election to the leadership of the political party Leefbaar Nederland, only to be assassinated weeks before the election that might well have brought him to power. Fortuyn was a very "out" gay man who actively used his sexual identity as part of his campaign against Islam. In the infamous interview for the Dutch national daily the Volkskrant, he characterised Islam as a "backward culture" and then went on rhetorically to ask; "In what country could a leader of such a large movement as mine be openly homosexual? It's fantastic that it's possible. That's something that we can be proud of. And", he added, "I want to keep it that way."

Fortuyn is not alone in having confounded the usual stereotypes. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, member of parliament and leading spokesperson on immigration of the Dutch centre right party the VVD, was van Gogh's partner in authoring the inflammatory anti-Islamic film that probably lead to his murder. The letter pinned with a knife to Theo van Gogh's body was primarily addressed to Ali.

Ali is a charismatic and undoubtedly courageous Somali woman, who fled an arranged marriage and found refuge in the Netherlands. She is currently waging a political and rhetorical campaign against Islam focusing (among other things) Islam's oppression of women. So when we oppose her, whom are we opposing? A political opportunist, an inflammatory demagogue or campaigning feminist?

These are the dilemmas facing the few remaining champions of the Dutch tradition of multicultural tolerance. Imagine how much more difficult their task has become when one of the most visible of these liberal fundamentalists, Theo van Gogh was slain by an Islamic fundamentalist. Did this event demonstrate that van Gogh and his associates had been correct all along?

A Kind of Revolution

Although not a revolution in the literal sense, the three years that have elapsed since the election, in 2001, of Pim Fortuyn to the leadership of the political party Leefbaar Nederland, to the murder of Theo van Gogh in November 2004, has indeed been revolutionary, in the sense that there has been a seismic shift in the terms and conditions of public discourse in the Netherlands.

Theo van Gogh

On the same day when van Gogh was slain, the Mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen moved with speed. He proposed and led a demonstration a "noisy vigil" in which demonstrators were encouraged to bring drums and whistles. The march attempted to draw together the different strands of Amsterdam society in a collective shout of rage against those who would smash the freedoms and way of life Holland has long taken for granted, above all the freedom to speak your mind without fearing for your life. One of the banners I saw on TV, (I chose not to march) simply read "Pas op. Ik heb een mening" (Watch out. I've got an opinion). Theo van Gogh and Pim Fortuyn may have been murdered by very different men and for very different reasons but what they held in common a widely shared libertarian understanding of what liberal society stands for. A society in which freedom, particularly free speech, trumps other values. It is not only their belief in this principal but also their willingness to test this principle to destruction, which makes me characterize this group as liberal fundamentalists.

The thousands of people who poured onto the streets of Amsterdam to demonstrate their anger and disgust at the murder of an artist were, by no stretch of the imagination, right wing zealots, they were in fact far closer to those who have been occupying the square in Kiev. This was Amsterdam's middle class intelligencia acting to protect their prized secular freedoms from attack by a militant theocratic Islam. The fact that it was an artist that was murdered cut to the heart (literally as well as metaphorically) of the issue. What is at stake here is the core liberal value, freedom of expression. Fortuyn's commitment to the supreme value of freedom of expression is demonstrated in part of the fateful interview which he lead to his expulsion from the party he lead, in which he declared that he considered Article 7 of the Dutch constitution, which asserts freedom of speech, of more importance than Article 1, which forbids discrimination.

The crowds demonstrating in Amsterdam at the death of van Gogh were a different constituency from those who have, in a recent TV poll, voted Fortuyn the most important ever Dutch man or woman, trouncing such internationally renowned icons of humanism and tolerance as Erasmus and Rembrandt. They are probably closer to those who lined the streets to honour Fortuyn's funeral cortege.

At the time the emotional reaction to Fortuyn's death (particularly among the working classes of cities like Rotterdam) was rather mockingly characterised at as being the Dutch equivalent of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. But this is not so far off the mark. Fortuyn built a meteoric political career by shooting from the hip instead of indulging in the cautious self-censorship of the professional politician. Like Diana, he seemed to represent a revolt against a stuffy and inexpressive establishment. Both Britain and Holland are protestant countries countries, with political establishments traditionally suspicious of uninhibited expressions of feeling. In both cases they were shown to be out of touch with the populist zeitgeist.

From Amsterdam to Berlin

Everything is what it is and not another thing.
Bishop Joseph Butler
Everything is what it is and not another thing.
Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin

On the eve of Theo van Gogh's murder, rather than go on a march and a bang a drum I found myself foraging (sad case that I am) through a series of late lectures by Isaiah Berlin, published posthumously as The Roots of Romanticism. These talks were transcribed more or less verbatim, so they have a sketchy vitality; they are vivid, urgent, sometimes rambling and scatological. Understandably he did not wish them published in his lifetime as they were also working notes towards a book he had started too late in life to be able to complete. But still (on that day) the words jumped off the page seeming to offer, a different kind of language and a deeper analysis of the origins of our version of liberalism. Something that might clarify (as oppose to simplify or resolve) some of the contradictions of actually living the reality of pluralism, in the era of globalization. In the first of these lectures Berlin proposes that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century introduced a new understanding of the notion of tragedy into western culture. His proposition was that from Oedipus to Othello the view of tragedy is consistently one in which the tragic events are the inevitable result of some human weakness or error, some avoidable or perhaps inevitable lack of something in men: knowledge, skill moral courage, ability to live, to do the right thing when you see it. But for the Romantics of the early nineteenth century this is not so, argues Berlin.Taking examples which range from Schiller's "The Robbers" to Buchner's "Death of Danton," tragedy in this iteration is not the result of any fault, error or weakness in the protagonists but a collision between heroic individuals sincerely and uncompromisingly perusing incompatible values. There is a collision here with what Hegel called the good with the good. It is not due to error (or weakness or even fate) but to some kind of conflict of an unavoidable kind. Here we see the moment in cultural history when we start to treat difference not simply as a fact of life but as a value with special moral significance. It is in Berlin's particular interpretation of the German artists and thinkers of the Romantic movement that we find the seeds of his own pessimistic version of the liberalism.

In the Netherlands right now nearly everyone is desperately seeking solutions. But Berlin's political philosophy implies that outside of authoritarian regimes (a road down which the Netherlands might just conceivably be slipping), quite often there are no solutions. Just choices all of which will be bad combined with the law of unintended consequences. Ours is the era always in search of win win solutions. We have grown unfamiliar with the notion that, as Berlin phrased it, "serious political choice frequently involves loss and sacrifice not merely trade offs or compromises but genuine sacrifice of desirable ends: so much liberty sacrificed for so much equality or justice sacrificed for the sake of mercy. and so on.."

The value of Isaiah Berlin's perspective is not that it offers solutions; rather it frees us from the illusion that there is something wrong, unnatural or illiberal about a society made up of extreme antagonisms. Lack of harmony does not always represent political failure; indeed it is the complacent refusal to confront the presence of these antagonisms that has been a contributing factor to the current spiral of violence and tragedy. But the opposite is also implicit in Berlin's approach. A suggestion of the need for vigilance, circumspection (even courtesy) in our use of language. It is interesting how in the current climate the term "political correctness" is frequently used to ridicule anyone who seeks to use language respectful of the sensitivities of particular groups or cultures.

Since Fortuyn blew the roof of Holland's cozy and paternalistic consensus politics, unedited expressions of prejudice if they reflect our "feelings" have become positively fashionable. Feelings have become big political business in Holland these days. Open expressions of saloon bar bigotry, is taken, if not always for native folk wisdom, then at least as a healthy antidote to the pieties of old style politics. And those who dare to criticize the current rise of Islamophobia are likely to find themselves denounced as the mind police of political correctness.

Berlin reminds us that pluralism will necessarily generate a complex landscape of potentially conflicting values and antagonisms. They will not need to be sought out; they will be all too present. Antagonisms should be neither suppressed (the Dutch mistake in the past) but neither do they need to be deliberately inflamed (the Dutch mistake in the present). Only liberal fundamentalists such as Geert Wilders, Theo van Gogh and Fortuyn, interpret free speech as a free for all. For Berlin, "Loss was inevitable, because values were in conflict and because human reason was incorrigibly imperfect."

Berlin's ideas are important for us because he helps us resist our addiction to quick fixes and the organized optimism that inform the party political democracy of a consumer society (as the recent US elections showed us pessimistic realists rarely win elections). Living in a pluralistic society will never be a soft option. It is simply the kind of society, which most openly expresses the intrinsically divided nature of human psychology. In proposing a human nature this is an essentialist creed, but not in the manner of cynical and simplistic Darwinian neo-liberals who see the market economy as an expression of our essential nature as competitive predators, or even Karl Popper's technocratic and critically rational "open society". Berlin's contribution was a darker liberalism that laid the emphasis squarely on the fact that values are frequently incompatible; justice and mercy, equality and liberty often find themselves irreconcilably at odds in daily life, in principle and (most happily) in art. "Reason could clarify facts, but choice itself was an act of will, instinct and emotion and as such was a gamble made in the dark," he wrote. It is the incompatibility of values that gives rise to the tragic dimension of liberal choice.

In his various and numerous reiterations of this perspective Berlin is a useful corrective to the "happy clappy" third way social democrats who promise a world full of choice but without loss or sacrifice (we are promised low taxes and social justice for all). But it also makes him the enemy of utopian politics, which often seek to elide different values into a harmonious and seamless unity. He saw this tendency as the main reason why utopian political movements tend to morph into authoritarian regimes.

The quote he used most often was Bishop Butler's "Everything is what it is and not another thing." But for Berlin "Liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience. The truth has never made men free, and freedom did not always make men better."

David Garcia is professor of digital culture design at Portsmouth University and Utrecht School of the Arts.

Copyright © 2005 by David Garcia. All rights reserved.