Thursday, May 25, 2006

Two faced liberalism

“Een dubbelhartige partij” [A two-hearted party]
Marcel ten Hooven, pp28-31, Vrij Nederland, 20 mei 2006

The race for party ‘list-puller’ (lijsttrekker; parliament faction leader) of the VVD is about to come to an end. Though there are three candidates, it looks as if the real race is between Mark Rutte (minister for Education) and Rita Verdonk (minister for Immigration). Seeing that the VVD is doing so well (or better in comparison with other parties) whoever wins the race may very well be the next prime minister in 2007.

There’s been much talk and debates between the two candidates, so much so that there is a fear that the party is split. One the one hand, Mark takes politics with a cool and rational approach, while Rita has a very confrontational and straight-talking stance. While the majority of the party elders seem to have thrown the weight behind Mark, Rita seems to be popular and understood among the ‘average Jan’ (Dutch version of ‘average Joe’). The split raises interesting questions about this so-proclaimed ‘liberal’ party, and the meaning of the term ‘liberalism’.

VN has a good summary of the difference between Mark Rutte and Rita Verdonk:

“Rutte is of the opinion that the belief in progress is the motor of our society and also one of the driving forces behind liberalism. ‘Politics cannot [exist] with the idea that somewhere out there is a green grassy field, something that is more beautiful than the present, and that you as an individual can bring that beautiful future closer if you take the best out of yourself’, is a typical opinion from him. Verdonk on the other hand talks about threats, especially from the part of immigrants with another culture and religion, against which strong leadership and well guarded borders are [necessary]. Muslims are welcome only if they acclimatize to ‘our’ values and customs.”

Why is there such a split in opinion and outlook? The article explains that the liberalism developed in the 19th Century out of a firm belief in individualism and an end to suffrage based bonded to the condition of property ownership. The split comes from the difference perception of what the role of the state can play in the ‘liberation’ of the ordinary individual/worker from his condition of subjugation to traditional class organisation and order.

“In liberal circles [the spirits] are divided between the advocates and opponents of mass-democracy and social legislation. The advocates were of the opinion that progress demanded […] breakthrough [in] political and social emancipation. The [maintainers of the status quo] were afraid that the granting of rights to the ‘crowd’ would only deliver disorder and bad government.”

In 2002, Dutch politics experienced an earthquake with the rise (and eventually sudden fall) of Pim Fortuyn. He was able to galvonise public opinion by openly raising issues about the building tensions in the eight years of neo-liberal government under the Purple coalition. National utilities and companies were told to ‘liberalise’ and ‘commercialise’, but with rising prices, the quality of services and reliability fell. Of course, Fortuyn’s open criticism against Muslims in particular, and immigrants in general, delivered many political points as he championed for a very restrictive immigration policy. He could be the one that could be accredited with putting issues about the contradictions in the Netherlands’ policy of integration and the tensions of a ‘multi-cultural society’ on the agenda.

“The advent of Muslim with their different moral perspectives proved the optimistic expectations that with the triumph of the western, liberal market-economy western values such as personal freedom and autonomy, scientific and religious freedom and the equality of man and woman would also be shared worldwide after the fall of the Wall wrong.”

Liberalism, I always thought, connotates a world-view that all man and woman are equal, and that all diversities are to be embraced in a celebration of universal tolerance and the idea of ‘unity in diversity’. But this new brand of ‘popular liberalism’ seems to show that this is not the case. Elsewhere I wrote, in the context of the ‘triumph of Liberalism’ in the world after the Cold War, that ‘Liberalism is not so liberal after all’:

(From “Critically assess the democratic ‘liberal peace’ thesis with reference to at least two other traditions of International Relations theory”: International Politics course, done at SOAS, 2004.)

“Liberal theory emphasises much on the disease of minority tyranny and closed systems of government and markets, but says little about how non-liberal polities function in the liberal-minded world, except that they are rivals[1].

Just as in the territorial state there is a distinction between citizens and foreigners, in the Liberal world the existence of an inclusive/exclusive dichotomy of states exists between those in ‘peace’ and ‘war’ zones. This demarcation invites trouble, because it immediately slaps on labels of those who either deserve or do not deserve to be members of the identity-bound community, and impliedly, creates a division between superiority and inferiority[2].

[the whole liberal concept] is continually enforced by [channeling political power] to create false ideas and existences of threats, belonging, alienation and liberation, and therefore constantly goading individuals and states to have certain desires and aversions.”

And so we see this kind of what I like to call ‘sham liberalism’ occurring at the national level. Debate and discussion of the immigration is perhaps the easiest way to manipulate public opinion, because it is the most divisive, and the easiest to create and emphasise the feeling of ‘us’ against ‘them’. Populism latches onto that because according the VN article:

“[the] pupolist turns himself away from the party establishment, places the people on the stand, strives toward charismatic leadership, and makes a rallying call based on unity and patriotism.“

Verdonk has publicly admitted that there is nothing wrong with ‘populism’, and wonders why the term has such a bad reputation. She claims as the ‘People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy’ (VVD), we need to listen to the people, appeal to their desires.

The question is who is doing the leading, and who is doing the listening.

[1] Ibid. pg 223. See also Gary Simpson, ‘Two Liberalisms’, 12/3 European Journal of International Law 537 (2001), pg 559

[2] Alexander Wendt, ‘Why a World State is inevitable’, 9/4 European Journal of International Relations 491 (2003), 516

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