Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Cure (or: Confessions of a Liberal Anti-Neoliberal, with Recommendations)

Make Holland Great Again...?

Who am I?
What do I stand for?
What is it that unites me with those who are like me?
What is it that divides me from those who are unlike me?
The current wave of rightwing populism answers these questions along lines of nationality and ethnicity, often with strong racial connotations. The slogan “Make America Great Again” really means “I want to be proud again of being an American.” Likewise, in my own country, followers of Geert Wilders want to be proud again to be Dutch. The French want to be proud again to be French, the English to be English, and so on. Only in Germany such sentiments of national pride have long been taboo, for obvious historical reasons: if Germans should be proud of anything, it had to be of being exemplary Europeans. They still are, but even in Germany the tide is beginning to turn.
I understand these sentiments very well, for once upon a time I used to be proud of being Dutch. This was in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Paris and began seeing my own native culture and mentality in a new light. Not that I disliked the French – on the contrary, there was much that I admired about them – but I liked the values of my own little country even more. I felt that in the Netherlands, small as we might be, we had excellent reasons to be proud of our long and thoroughly sympathetic tradition of openness and pragmatic tolerance in dealing with the facts of cultural or religious diversity. Those values of Dutchness went at least as far back as the seventeenth century, when my country was a relatively safe haven for refugees persecuted for their beliefs elsewhere in Europe. And for a Dutchman of my generation, such values were connected on a deep emotional level to the stories my parents had passed on to me, about Dutch resistance against totalitarian oppression during World War II. True: today we know that these heroic stories were partly idealized and romanticized. Still, there was an important movement of resistance. Many ordinary people did risk their lives to stand up for those who were being persecuted. These stories helped define my way of looking at the world. I am grateful to my parents for passing them on.
And then everything changed. While I used to be proud of being Dutch, during the years after 9/11 I have grown to be deeply ashamed of how my country abandoned and betrayed its core values. With surprising speed, we descended downwards along a negative spiral ending up in a poisonous climate of intolerance, suspicion, xenophobia, egoism, hatred, and verbal and sometimes even physical violence against minorities of all kinds. This development began with Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant figure on the right, a political outsider who began saying things that many people were thinking but did not dare to admit. With hindsight, I still look at him with some sympathy. I did not share his political stance, but I respected his attitude of saying what I think and doing what I say” and his disregard of bourgeois morality (for example, even while running an election campaign for becoming Prime Minister, he was perfectly open about his homosexuality). However, Fortuyn opened the gate for a whole second wave of much more vicious rightwingers, demagogues, and opportunists such as Theo van Gogh, Rita Verdonk, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others. Finally we ended up with Geert Wilders. Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist, and van Gogh was butchered in the street by a radical Islamist. Those were deeply shocking events, and my country has never recovered. We have not been able or willing to find our way back to what used to “make Holland great”: our traditions of tolerance and acceptance, of “live and let live,” our openness towards others, our nondogmatic mentality, our way of dealing in a low-key and pragmatic manner with the facts of cultural or religious or sexual diversity – ideally with a sense of self-relativizing humor that befitted such a small country, and that somehow seemed to capture what it meant to be Dutch.
All of that vanished almost overnight. Today I feel that my country has betrayed me – or rather, that it has betrayed itself and what it once stood for. Dutch “identity” seems to have become an empty shell, a vacuum ready to be filled with depressing debates about zwarte Piet and groundless paranoia about refugees and what they might be up to. Refugees from countries such as Syria – normal people, ordinary people like ourselves who have lost everything and had to run for their lives to escape from murderers, torturers and rapists – are routinely portrayed as though they are dangerous criminals themselves. What happened to common decency? What happened to our willingness to empathize with other human beings? Watching the public debate, I cannot but look with feelings of deep shame at what the Netherlands have become.
“Make Holland great again”? Never before have we been so small.

The Takeover

Now does all this imply that I embrace “Europe”? Isn’t that what stereotypical “liberals” or “lefties” like myself are supposed to do? Well, no! Around the same time, during the mid-1990s when I began discovering my positive Dutch identity, I also became aware of a very different phenomenon. People all around me seemed to be getting quite obsessed with “the economy.” Why was that? With hindsight it is clear to me that I was perfectly naïve and ignorant about what was going on at the time. For instance, it puzzled me that we suddenly needed to have a separate block for “economic news” on the evening news. Why make such a big fuss about money, I wondered, we had been doing just fine without that – thank you very much! At the time, I did not grasp why politicians on the Social-Democrat left, such as our Prime Minister Wim Kok or Tony Blair in the UK, were so proud to “shed their ideological feathers” and began looking and behaving exactly like the capitalist rightwingers that I had always disliked. And I did not understand why, all of a sudden, public services such as transport, health care, or education needed to be “privatized” and turned into commercial enterprises. They had served us quite well, hadn’t they? We were being told that those measures would “reduce prices and increase quality,” but it was clear for all to see that the opposite was true. Prices went up, quality decreased, and worst of all, everything became infected by the slick dishonest language of commerce. Hospitals once used to exist to cure the sick – but now patients became “consumers,” health care became a “product,” and the bottom line became financial profit rather than making people well. Was I naïve? I certainly was, and I was ignorant too. Like so many others, I simply could not see what was causing these changes.
Very similar developments were taking place everywhere else around me, and it all became wrapped up with another New Thing called “European integration.” It wasn’t just that politicians, across the spectrum from “left” to “right,” all began spouting the same economic newspeak about privatization and deregulation, so that if you didn’t like the economization of everything you were left pretty much without a credible candidate to vote for. But on top of that, it became clear that those politicians who were supposed to be in charge had less and less control over what was happening in my country. They kept handing big chunks of national sovereignty over to Europe, without ever asking their own citizens for permission to do so. They had no respect for the truth: to give just one small and mostly symbolic example, after the introduction of the Euro everybody could see that a glass of beer in downtown Amsterdam was suddenly more than twice as expensive, but I stil remember well-known politicians simply denying it. “No no, you’re mistaken, the price has not gone up.” Everybody could see that the sky had turned green, but they insisted it was still blue. Such dishonesty was shocking, but we learned to get used to it, for it kept happening all the time. Eventually, it became perfectly clear to me what this thing called “Europe” really meant. Of course: it was “the economy” again – what else? The slogans are well known: “It’s the economy, stupid!” (Bill Clinton) “There Is No Alternative” (Margaret Thatcher).
No alternative indeed. We pretty much ended up with no credible politicians to vote for because they were all saying more or less the same thing. Hence we ended up with no opportunity for citizens to influence what happened to their own country. And we lost our opportunity to choose for anything that actually meant something real to human beings unless it had first been quantified and converted into economic terms. In short, it was not enough that the Netherlands had forgotten and betrayed their identity: the very country itself seemed to be taken away from us and handed over to some remote, abstract, democratically deficient economic entity called “Europe”. Did anybody ever ask me, or my fellow citizens, whether we agreed with all of this? No, our politicians felt sure they knew best what was good for us all. Even at those rare moments when European citizens managed to get a word in, and used it to say “no!” (as in the case of the European “Constitution,” rejected in 2005 by the Dutch and the French), those leaders found a way to work around the problem and end up doing what they wanted anyway (the Lisbon treaty of 2007). They had learned their lesson though: better not ask your citizens for permission again, just do it. This type of arrogance became typical of the managerial “elites”.
I repeat: I was perfectly clueless at the time. It was only much later that I began to understand a bit better what was happening, and why. The story is well known by now: the move from Keynesian “embedded liberalism” to the triumph of Hayek’s and Friedman’s ideology of Neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan, leading to the “Washington Consensus” after the end of the Cold War, and so on and so forth. After the Wall had come down, Neoliberalism would deliver “the End of History.” American-style capitalism would spread all over the world, bringing the blessings of freedom and democracy wherever it went. The global free market would make us all into one big happy family.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. How is it possible that so many people even believed in such a story – and some still do? The problem with any dominant ideology is that it is blind to whatever does not fit its own narrative. In this particular case, the grand narrative is incapable of perceiving any dimensions of reality that do not fit the particular logic that governs neoliberal economics or cannot be translated into its language. From the outset, the whole thing was based on wholly unrealistic and perfectly utopian dreams unchecked by historical awareness. And perhaps most of all, it reflected a shocking disregard of basic human psychology. Which brings me full circle: human beings need more than money and security. They need identity too. We need to know who we are, what we stand for, what unites us with others like ourselves, and what divides us from others unlike ourselves. That is the bottom line.

Human vs Neoliberal

Finally then, after several decades of neoliberal brainwashing, the chickens have come home to roost. The populist revolt is telling us what those who have been dreaming of a neoliberal world order refused to see, or were incapable of seeing. It is not a pretty sight. As regards identity, this is how I imagine the conversation between an average Human Being and a neoliberal ideologue:

Human: “Who am I?”
Neoliberal: “You are a consumer. Or let me be more specific, you are an individual. That is to say: you are a rational agent who is driven exclusively by your own self-interest.”
Human: “What do I stand for?”
Neoliberal: “Well, ehm, didn’t I just tell you? You are a consumer on a market. So you stand for yourself. For maximizing your own interest!”
Human: “But what unites me with others like myself?”
Neoliberal: “Ehm… nothing really, to be quite honest. Except that all those others are self-interested individuals too! You have that in common.”
Human: “What then divides me from others unlike myself?”
Neoliberal: “They hate your freedom!”
Human: “Excuse me? How so? Can you please explain?”
Neoliberal: “Isn’t it clear? Your freedom as a consumer is your freedom to choose, and it is the market that gives you that freedom. Make sure that you remain a consumer! Make sure you value nothing higher than your own personal interest: make sure that you get what you want. And for God’s sake, don’t act irrationally! I mean, don’t be so stupid to ever think of others first, or imagine that you should share what you have. Never put their interest above your own interest. If they win, you lose. Think of yourself first, for that is what everybody else is doing.”

The problem is that the neoliberal, in this conversation, is in fact not much of a human being – at least he doesn’t behave like one. And this is what makes it so easy and natural for our generic Human to morph into a populist. See how that goes:

Human: “OK, OK, you made your point. But now shut up, for I have something to tell you. Yes, I will put my own interest first – all right. But here’s the thing: I am not ‘interested’ in being just a consumer! I do not want to be just some disconnected atom in some impersonal machine that is just trying to manipulate me to squeeze money out of me. That is not my ‘interest.’ And don’t you tell me that I’m all about making ‘rational choices.’ No, I care! I care deeply, you idiot, that’s why I’m so fucking angry! Don’t you get it? I’m a human being. I have feelings. I care about people. I care about my people. I want to be with people who are like me. I want our leaders to be people like me: I want them to be people who care about me and who care about people who are like me. And you know what? You are not like me at all! Just now, you were trying to tell me that those who are unlike me ‘hate our freedom’. Well, I have news for you buddy: it is you who hates my freedom! You just want me to follow your rules. You want to turn me into a ‘consumer’ who does what he’s being told so that you can take advantage of me. I suppose that’s how you ‘maximize your own interest’. Well, I’m not interested in what you want, or what anyone else wants. I’m interested in what I want, and I sure do not want that F$%^&*@#$%! system of yours! And by the way, don’t you dare lecture me about ‘democracy’ or ‘equality’ or ‘human rights’. You least of all! You’re so full of shit, you don’t even believe in that stuff yourself – look at how you behave! So how do you expect me to believe in those things? You have no decency. You talk about ‘democracy’ but you don’t listen to people. You talk about ‘equality’ but you look at folks like us as deplorables. You talk about ‘human rights’ but you don’t believe in any ‘rights’ except your own god-given right to pursue your own individual interests at the expense of others. How could I possibly have any respect for you and your so-called humanitarian ‘values’? Get out of my face! I’d trust anyone rather than trust you – I’d even rather vote for some idiot with funny blond hair, just to piss you off.”

What a dilemma! 

I recently discovered that some of my friends hate the “neoliberal world order” so much that they even seemed willing to welcome Donald Trump and keep trying to defend him as “the lesser evil.” Anything but Hillary! Anyone who will blow up the system for us! Then again, some of my friends are so scared of Trump (as they should) that they are tempted to forgive even the neoliberal world order. By comparison, its defenders now look almost benevolent. Anything but Trump, anything but Le Pen, and so on. As should be perfectly obvious by now, I see the choice between neoliberalism and rightwing populism as a choice between the Devil and Beëlzebub. They are both enemies of humanity. I perfectly understand the fury of my “Human” against the “Neoliberal” and his system, for I share that fury, and I even understand quite well how s/he turns into a populist. But here’s the thing: the Human revolts against neoliberalism because s/he is Human. Human beings are not made to live in an inhuman world, they cannot stand it. It is for that very reason that the politics of hate, intolerance, egoism and xenophobia do not offer any real alternative, and never will – not even to the rightwing populists who think they will. They are the symptoms of a disease, not the cure.

So What is the Cure?

The cure is that we care. The cure is that we care about what is happening to the world around us, that we care about human beings and what is happening to them right now and everywhere around us. Not just what is happening to ourselves, to “our own,” to “people like us” – no, the cure is that we care about what is happening to people, period. Please note that I'm not talking about some kind of generic love for humanity” in the abstract: no, I mean caring for human beings because they are human beings, people like us. Why do we care? We care because we empathize. We happen to know very well what it is to be a human being – after all, we are human beings ourselves. We know what it’s all about. Underneath the anger there is fear, and underneath the fear there is suffering. Unvariably, that is what you find when you get past all the bullshit.
The cure lies in rediscovering what it really was that those people used to mean, once upon a time a long while ago, when they were using such very big words: “freedom”, “democracy”, “equality”, or “human rights” – and used them wholeheartedly, with full conviction, without irony, and without apologies. These are big words for a reason: they refer to big ideals. They have absolutely nothing to do with the small stuff that neoliberalism has been selling us (!) under those names. In fact they are the very opposites of what they have been made out to be. They need to be rediscovered.
The cure lies in rediscovering our common humanity, because that is what really unites us. Make no mistake: it unites us not just with our friends or our facebook buddies in our facebook bubble. It unites us even with those who oppose us, even with those who hate us, even with those who are trying to kill us, who seem to have forgotten what it means to be human because they have forgotten themselves. The cure is to go - not halfheartedly but with full force and full conviction - for true values: the kind that cannot be quantified and converted into money, statistics, or other tools of power and domination. Not by any coincidence, such values are basic (or should be basic) to what is called the “Humanities.” In the most profound sense, they are what still remains when all else vanishes, for unlike their opposites they cannot be destroyed. What are those values? The big ones, of course, the classics (traditionally known as the trancendentals): goodness, beauty, truth. What else could they be? There’s no room for irony or cynicism here: if we are afraid to be serious even about these matters, then we might as well give up for then we have already lost.
So that is the cure: that we care for whatever is good, whatever is beautiful, and whatever is true.

All else is secondary.