This year’s municipal elections saw a very low turnout. Only 39 percent of voters cast their vote. Were you surprised by that?
“Not really. Rotterdam’s turnout is always low. One reason why this particular turnout was so very low is because the national government has outsourced a lot of its formerly centralised duties to municipal governments. So municipalities now have to do more things with less money, which makes it impossible to do things right, by definition.”
“Secondly, if you take into account the housing policy we’ve had in recent years, it’s not surprising that there are neighbourhoods in Rotterdam-Zuid where only 19 percent of people cast a vote. We have a mayor who says that people who don’t like it here should simply fuck off. We have a mayor and municipal executive who are OK with peaceful protesters being beaten by the police while protesting against the city’s housing policy. And we have a municipal government that is getting rid of tens of thousands of houses. Yes, getting rid of them, even though we’re dealing with a record housing shortage. People feel like they’ve been screwed over, and they’re right about that.”
Willem Schinkel is Professor of Social Theory at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. His publications include De Gedroomde Samenleving (2008), De nieuwe democratie (2012) and (in association with Rogier van Reekum) Theorie van de Kraal: Kapitaal, Ras, Fascisme (2019). In addition, he often writes about subjects specific to Rotterdam. For instance, last year he wrote about the Coolsingel riots and the housing protest that got out of hand
So one might say: so cast a vote for a party that really wants to change things. Which is not what happened.
“No. What is new is Volt and Bij1 entering the municipal council, both obtained two seats. The latter party (with which Schinkel is affiliated – ed.), in particular, has a programme that is potentially interesting to the many people who didn’t vote this time round. But this party, too, will have to prove its worth.”
Twenty years ago, Pim Fortuyn managed to get people to vote. What happened there?
“I’d like to put that statement into some perspective. I think Fortuyn would not at all have appealed to many of the people who didn’t vote this time round. The majority of Rotterdam’s inhabitants are not white. And he didn’t appeal at all to non-white Rotterdammers. He was actually being racist to them. People like to say that Fortuyn managed to reach the people, but what we really mean by that is that he gave a voice to a specific group of white people who had been disappointed by the politicians of the time and were attracted by this racist alternative.”
But weren’t there people from a migrant background at the time who voted for Fortuyn?
“Yes, there were, just like there were people on unemployment benefits who voted for him, even though Fortuyn promoted the abolition of unemployment benefits. But I think it’s pretty obvious that they were mostly white people.”
Ever since Fortuyn, Dutch people have been obsessed with the gap between politicians and the common people. How did he do that?
“When politics are discussed, people often act like people have all these mental boxes representing opinions, and politicians must seek to tick all these boxes. But half the time, we have no idea how we feel about things. Politics are affective. Politics have something that philosophers call a performative dimension. Fortuyn created something new. That’s why no one saw him coming. The lesson we can learn from Fortuyn is that he wasn’t a hit because he said what people were feeling or thinking. It was the other way around. He said things in such a way that people then started thinking them.
“At the start of this century, politics weren’t political at all. It didn’t involve any battles. It was purely technocratic management, completely designed to increase or decrease certain percentages by a few percentage points. When Fortuyn brought up ‘the mess left behind by the purple coalition government’, he was mostly referring to an ideological mess. It should be added that the change he made was mostly cosmetic. When it came down to it, his policy strongly resembled other parties’ policies. For instance, take the racist Rotterdam Act. As early as the 1970s, Rotterdam had a policy – implemented at the time by PvdA – capping the number of Surinamese people in one neighbourhood. The idea was that they had to be distributed [among the various neighbourhoods]. But Fortuyn presented this idea in a completely novel manner.”
Does it make sense that our populist politicians – Fortuyn who wore dandy-esque suits, Wilders who has this aristocratic-looking voluminous hair, Baudet who is a frat boy who likes to lie on pianos – aren’t representatives of the people at all?
“Yes, it does. Populists – or rather fascists, as I prefer to call them these days – largely rely on their style and charisma.”
You seem to have no qualms about using the word ‘fascism’. You also use it a lot in your book, Theorie van de Kraal. For me the word conjures up images of dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini, who incite the people to take up arms.
“In Walter Benjamin’s definition, fascists are people who seek to mobilise ‘the masses’ in a racialising way without wishing to affect the property structure, which is to say, without doing anything about the capitalism that allows these masses to be exploited. Workers are mobilised, not in the name of a socialist ideal, but in the name of a national socialist ideal.
“In Western countries, big business struck an implicit deal with white workers in the twentieth century. Workers will occasionally be thrown some breadcrumbs, as long as they don’t rise up. And if they are in danger of rising up, they will be told that the real danger is coming from some external force. From migrants, or from people of colour. This being the case, white workers generally end up siding with the big businesses who exploit them, rather than with the workers who happened to be born elsewhere, or who haven’t lived in this privileged part of Europe for long. Maybe that doesn’t involve the use of arms, as with Hitler. But that doesn’t alter the fact that we’re engaging in the politics of death in the Mediterranean, just to defend white people from outsiders, and to make sure capitalism doesn’t suffer any negative effects. Thousands of people drown there every year. Libya receives EU funding to protect a system that results in slavery. We have blood on our hands. And yes, that’s an actual policy we’re engaging in.”
Are PVV and Forum voor Democratie fascist parties?
“I’m not really interested in answering the question as to whether Baudet is a fascist. What is good to note, though, is that these kinds of parties don’t do anything about the ever-increasing exploitation, the growing wealth gap, and the fact that wage growth is not commensurate with increased productivity. However, they do give white people the feeling that they are superior, that they have more rights than people who have only recently moved to this country. They are being promised that they will be able to keep their current way of life. And it should be noted that, in this particular respect, these parties aren’t all that different from VVD, CDA, SP or GroenLinks.”
It is often said that, since the shock election of Pim Fortuyn, Dutch politics has shifted considerably to the right. Why is that?
“The fear of ‘the next Fortuyn’ has given politicians carte blanche to engage in a discourse that is increasingly overtly racist. In that sense, Fortuyn represents a break with the past that was instigated by the system itself. The idea is that we must be explicit about things, because if we aren’t, the people will be unhappy. This has created on open horizon for right-wing parties. Wilders was a bit more of a rightist than Fortuyn. Now Baudet is taking it another step farther. And all the other parties have shifted [to the right] along with them, even GroenLinks and SP. As a result, we’ve lost our left wing. Currently, leftist parties hold thirty of the 150 available seats, and that’s if we’re counting generously, which is to say, if we include PvdA. And to a large extent, the parties concerned have themselves to blame for that.”
Would the situation in the Netherlands have been different if we’d never seen the rise of Fortuyn?
“I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. We would have seen the rise of someone else. There were quite a few people who were saying more or less the same before Fortuyn came along, about things such as Islam’s incompatibility with liberal democracy. Frits Bolkestein said such things, as did Paul Scheffer, and even Paul Schnabel. And we’ve had other people since then. Parties that used to cater to workers have shifted to the right all over Europe. Mitterrand in France, Schröder in Germany, Blair in England – they all went along with the neoliberal wave of the 1980s and 1990s.”
Sander Schimmelpenninck created a series of documentaries for VPRO about the gap between poor people and wealthy people in the Netherlands. The series got rave reviews. In it, Schimmelpenninck, who himself belongs to the wealthy class, says that the reason why he made the series was because he fears that someday poor people will no longer put up with it, and ‘all hell will break loose’.
“Which is great. When people like that are afraid we’ll come and get our dues, we’ve got them where we want them. Because of course we’ll come and get them, one day. After all, [wealth] belongs to all of us. All the profits the rich kept to themselves, all that capital that resulted in more and more capital. Where did these profits come from? We gave them those. Everyone who is in another person’s employ is being exploited. So of course we’ll come and get our dues.”
In recent years, many people have said we need a populist politician on the left wing. Would a leftist Pim Fortuyn be the solution we seek?
“At the end of the day, it won’t be in anyone’s best interest for us to keep going like this. That is true for racism and exclusion, and it’s also true for climate change. Look, many people believe that they’ll be able to keep everything they hold dear by voting for Forum voor Democratie. But it’s an illusion. At the end of the day, everything will be lost. Our entire planet is breaking. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that capitalists won’t quit anywhere. Not of their own accord. We need a truly leftist party that will demonstrate this to people in an inviting way. After all, we haven’t tried that yet in the Netherlands. So as far as I’m concerned, we needn’t give up hope just yet.”
Pim Fortuyn was a professor at Erasmus University for a while. EUR gave us truckloads of rightist politicians before and after him as well, ranging from Neelie Kroes to Joost Eerdmans. To what extent can your employer be said to be part of the problem?
“This is true for universities in general. It is known that Leiden University’s Faculty of Law plays a major part in the production of national elites. Erasmus University has a very corporate style. This is where future generations of capitalist managers are being trained.
“I like to say that universities spray men who wear ties into the world. They’re not always men, and they don’t always wear ties either, but they’re strawmen who guard the existing status quo. So universities shouldn’t get too pretentious, what with all their bullshit about ‘solving’ the major issues of our time. We helped create those problems. If there hadn’t been any people who created nuclear bombs, our world would look quite different today. But universities are more than that. They’re still places where other ways of life can be thought up, where people can still think outside the status quo.”