Is the Netherlands an egalitarian oasis in a world of uneven wealth distribution and growing inequality? It depends on which ideological lens you use to look at it, as Casper Thomas demonstrates in an eminently readable article about global inequality in De Groene Amsterdammer. A member of the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy would say that income inequality in the Netherlands is comparatively small (true), while a member of the green left party GroenLinks would argue that wealth disparities are too great. That is also true. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, it is also the major issue of our time.
Subsequently, economists battle it out and the same politicians await reports and statistics that support their own ideological views. But after 10 years of Mark Rutte as prime minister, we can conclude at least one thing with certainty: that economic growth has primarily benefited major corporations and investors. Furthermore, under three Rutte administrations, a conscious decision was made to place the greatest tax burden on workers. The egalitarian oasis appears rather to be a mirage.
The question that concerns me is: Where is the mass social resistance movement? Indeed, it appears as though the Netherlands could also use a Bernie Sanders. God knows that the paralyzed left is desperate for a Bernie-type figure.
The Democratic presidential candidate, who describes himself as a democratic socialist (partly as a badge of honor), but who in a European context would be called a proper social democrat, is doing everything in his power to bring about positive social change with a simple yet universal message: the pursuit of a fair and just society.
And that message is catching fire. Whether native citizens or immigrants, those with the lowest status have it the baddest. Or, as Ewald Engelen would say: it’s class, stupid, not identity. Discussions of identity are a diversion, according to Engelen, and are used to prevent discussion about growing inequality and the dismantling of the social safety net.
That is true to a degree. Conversely, however, cultural factors also exist. People are not merely economic beings. Sanders understands this very well when he discusses the challenges facing minority groups. He listens and takes their concerns seriously without being paternalistic. In short, they are treated as full-fledged citizens. As a result, he has successfully created a broad-based, grassroots social movement.
This seems to me to be a model worth emulating. Though the right is already gearing up for a fight by placing the immigration and integration debate at the top of its agenda ahead of the 2021 elections (speaking of diversionary tactics), the left would do well not to take the bait. It is time for left-wing political parties to present a strong and credible alternative and to take control of the political debate. I never imagined it would be an American who would lead by example on this front.
Lotfi El Hamidi (L.elHamidi@nrc.nl @Lotfi_Hamid) writes rotating contributions to this column along with Tom-Jan Meeus.