The Netherlands has experienced another political tremor. On the evening of nationwide municipal elections on March 19, the right-wing politician Geert Wilders asked supporters gathered with him in a café in The Hague whether they would like more Moroccans in the city, or fewer. His audience chanted “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” To which Wilders responded, “We’ll take care of that.” He later went on to say in an interview that it would be wonderful if there were fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands as a whole (not just The Hague).
Many people responded with outrage, saying this time Wilders had gone too far. Three days later, some 5,000 to 8,000 demonstrated in Amsterdam against racism and discrimination. Complaints were filed with the police and the government anti-discrimination bureau. Within two weeks, the police had received 5,000 formal complaints filed in person and 15,000 through the Internet. In a court case in 2011, Wilders’ previous verbal outbursts were deemed to be shocking and insulting, but he was found not guilty of inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims and non-Western immigrants. However, this time, since his speech targeted a whole group based on nationality, it may meet the legal standards of discrimination for which Wilders could be prosecuted.
Several major newspapers condemned Wilders’ latest hate speech, and within a month at least 13 politicians from Wilders’ Party for Freedom (known by its Dutch initials PVV) deserted it, including one serving at the European Parliament. The Dutch Labor Movement Federation (FNV) said it would no longer invite the PVV to its events, and the Labor and Socialist parties said they would no longer work with the PVV in parliament. Until now, the unions had invited PVV spokespersons to their rallies, as they had all parties across the political spectrum. The PVV was also included as a supporting (though unofficial) member of the right-wing governing coalition in 2010, until it refused to support the drastic austerity spending cuts in the spring of 2012, causing the coalition to collapse and new elections to be held the following September.
The Politics of Scapegoating
In his attempt to repair the damage, Wilders claimed that he didn’t mean that all Moroccans should be expelled, only Moroccans with a criminal history. Here, Wilders is peddling his politics of fear, portraying inner cities as crime-ridden and in need of tough policing and law and order. In reality, the level of crime in the Netherlands has been falling, including the crime rate among Dutch Moroccan youth. The country has decided to close 19 prisons, in part due to the declining crime rate as well as budget cuts. Nonetheless, the continued association of Dutch Moroccans with criminality is a racist trope that many in the Dutch popular media and political world continue to promulgate. When crimes are committed by white Dutch citizens, their racial-ethnic background is never mentioned, yet it is almost always mentioned in cases of crimes committed by Dutch Moroccans.
Meanwhile, little attention is given to the fact that Dutch Moroccans face rates of poverty and unemployment three times those for white Dutch workers, experience widespread discrimination in employment, housing, and credit, end up in de-facto segregated schools due to the system of school choice (which allows parents in mixed neighborhoods to send their kids to schools in white Dutch neighborhoods), are harassed by police who engage in racial profiling, and have seen mosques vandalized. They are also subjected to demeaning stereotypes in the media, represented as criminals, welfare-dependent, and backwards, and are referred to with racist epithets. All this, despite the fact that they and their parents are the ones who have done back-breaking work in the factories, harbors, and construction sites, and who clean the homes and take care of the children and elderly for more well-off households.
For a Dutch population exposed to the “Moroccans as criminals” racist trope (such as in the most widely read tabloid newspaper De Telegraaf), Wilders’ “I meant criminal Moroccans” qualification seems to be salvaging his sinking ship. His support actually grew slightly two weeks after the “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” episode. An opinion poll in early April showed his party running in second place for the Dutch parliament, in line to rise from 25 to 26 seats—a close second to the centrist Democrats 66 (D66) party, with 28. In one poll for the May 22 European Parliament elections, the PVV was coming in first, with 16.5% of the vote (five seats).
What accounts for the ongoing support for this racist and xenophobic far-right party in the Netherlands? A breakdown of election results by district indicates that much of his support comes from lower-income predominantly white Dutch communities. As the economic crisis continues, the poor and working classes have been most affected by unemployment, stagnant and falling wages, cutbacks in public services, and the dismantling of the welfare state. The two parties of the coalition government, comprised of the social democratic Labor Party (PvdA) and the pro- business People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), have been the ones implementing the austerity policies, so voters express their dissatisfaction by refusing to continue to support either one. Indeed, both experienced serious losses in the most recent municipal elections.
The Right’s Phony Populism
The alternatives include the parties on the far right (PVV) or the far left (Socialist), as well as the centrist D66, which had remained outside the governing coalition. Although a supporter of austerity, the D66 party and its leader have forcefully challenged Wilders in parliament, which helped bolster its popularity with some voters. However, Wilders has cleverly put forth a strong critique of austerity, forcefully denouncing the cutbacks currently hitting the health-care sector, and presents the PVV as an anti-establishment party. This has helped him to siphon votes away from the only other party opposing austerity, the Socialists. In that sense, he is a useful tool of the capitalist class and the bourgeois political parties, who—fearful of the popularity of the Socialists—are happy to see working-class votes directed elsewhere.
Despite the anti-austerity position, at its core, Wilders’ economic program promotes a pro- business agenda, with tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, deregulation, and a reduction of the welfare state. Indeed, he started his political career working for many years for the pro-business VVD party. But his pro-business program is covered with a populist veneer, in order to gain working-class votes. Wilders has quickly discarded the populist wrapping paper when necessary for achieving political power. For instance, he dropped his opposition to raising the retirement age after the elections of 2010, in order to support the ruling coalition government.
So how does Wilders attract a particular segment of the working class that is opposed to austerity and might otherwise vote for the Socialists? By combining his anti-austerity critiques with anti-immigrant rhetoric, his politics of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia work to stir up anger and direct it at scapegoats. People in these poor, working-class districts are predominantly in the “less-skilled” sectors of the labor market, those more affected by globalization and offshoring. The jobs that remain are more threatened by competition from immigrant labor, whether Moroccans or, more recently, immigrants from Eastern Europe. His xenophobic rhetoric has also targeted Eastern Europeans, especially Poles. In the winter of 2012, the PVV set up a website for people to report complaints they had about immigrants from central and Eastern Europe. So Wilders uses not just Islamophobia to mobilize hostility against scapegoats, but also xenophobia towards recent immigrants with white, Christian backgrounds.
The anger and frustrations in these poor working class districts are easily stoked by Wilders and serve as a divide-and-rule politics to keep the working class divided. While the working class as a whole suffers from this division, it is the immigrant workers who bear the brunt of the pain, while the white Dutch workers can carve out some amount of privilege from their relatively elevated status. With somewhat higher household incomes and lower unemployment and poverty rates, white Dutch workers bear some culpability for buying into and reproducing the ideologies of racial and cultural superiority. And yet, the greatest culpability lies with the ruling business leaders who finance—and the politicians, media moguls, and academic ideologues who support, or at a minimum tolerate—a system that produces these ideologies and, in turn, enlarges their bank accounts and entrenches their dominance. The ruling elites may well be relieved when workers focus their anger and frustrations on scapegoats rather than on the capitalist economic system that has experienced one of the longest periods of crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Wilders’ antipathies extend beyond austerity and immigrants, however. Another target is the whole European project. He has been calling for a Dutch exit from the European Union (EU) and the euro, and a return to the Dutch guilder. He has been forming alliances with other far-right parties throughout Europe, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) in France (see sidebar), and together they are gearing up for the upcoming May elections for the European parliament. Some estimates are that up to one-third of the seats of the European parliament could end up in the hands of far-right parties. Such a development would not just be a political tremor, but a full-blown earthquake, one that could possibly lead to the breakdown of the EU and the euro.
Admittedly, the EU and the euro have many critics on the left, including socialists, who see it as a neoliberal project that favors the business class over ordinary working Europeans, and the northern net exporter countries over the southern net importer countries. However, the destruction of the EU and the euro could result in a larger economic upheaval that could deepen the crisis to levels yet unseen. Who really stands to gain from the dissolution of the EU and the euro? Given that the euro has the potential to be a rival to the U.S. dollar and could threaten the dollar as the world reserve currency, there are likely those in the United States who would be happy to see the demise of the euro, and would be willing to finance Wilders’ anti-Europe agenda. However, the main motivation for international funders’ support for Wilders most likely lies with his anti-Islam and pro-Israel politics.
While information on the financing of the PVV is not publicly available (since the party has not asked for any government funding), a former PVV member disclosed to the press that tons of money has come from the United States. In one instance, a suitcase with $75,000 was delivered to the party offices. One of the best known U.S. funders is Daniel Pipes of the right-wing think-tank Middle East Forum, who has given Wilders amounts in the six figures. Wilders also receives support from Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger, and David Horowitz, the California-based neoconservative. Both Horowitz and Pipes have in turn received funding from Aubrey Chernick, a Los Angeles software security billionaire whom the Center for American Progress listed among the “top seven funders of Islamophobia.” Wilders also has ties with right-wing groups in Israel, and has met with right-wing Israeli politicians such as Aryeh Eldad and Avigdor Lieberman. He recently toured the United States (on one occasion by invitation of Sears Roebuck heiress Nina Rosenwald), becoming a darling of Islamophobes wanting to strengthen Judeo-Christian values.
How should the left respond? First, we should recognize that the strategies behind the rise of the far-right in the Netherlands follow a pattern occurring across Europe, in some cases being adopted by other far-right parties, such as in France (see sidebar). The lessons learned in one context can help those fighting similar struggles elsewhere. The left needs to wage a stronger fight against austerity and demand that more government resources flow to the poor and working-class families in disadvantaged neighborhoods, to bring down rates of unemployment and poverty, and to create decent, meaningful jobs in these communities. But it also needs to combine the fight against austerity with a strong campaign against racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia. This can be in the form of government policy (anti-discrimination policies in labor, housing, and credit markets), education (anti-racism and multicultural awareness in schools), community organizing (holding the media and police accountable for racial stereotyping and profiling), stronger hate-crime legislation, support for migrants and asylum seekers, and stronger campaign-finance disclosure laws. By focusing on the values of sharing and solidarity, working-class communities should be brought together to oppose the crisis of capitalism that is tearing apart the social fabric. Unfortunately, the left in the Netherlands and across Europe appears to have failed on this so far. The acceptance of austerity by most political parties and the general drift to the right has produced fertile ground for far right-parties to take root, and raised the danger of a far-right resurgence.