Explore More »

“Social Capital”ism: Challenging the Monocultural Fantasy of Dutch Politics


Against the backdrop of the world’s increasingly unsteady lurch into the 21st century, the traditional Dutch political system is struggling to provide solutions for untraditional problems. This struggle seems to be due in large part to shifting currents in modern Dutch society that belie the stereotypical notion of the Netherlands as a homogeneous, placidly tolerant country. Prevailing feelings of disengagement and xenophobia, an increasingly-ineffective reliance on top-down solutions, and, notably, tensions involving growing ethnic minorities have called into question the idea of Dutch identity, and in the process have left Dutch politics at an impasse. 

In our exploration of this impasse, we came to observe that the tensions that have arisen specifically related to minority issues parallel many of the tensions and challenges facing Dutch society and politics as a whole. We began to wonder if the solutions for (or, at the least, the methods for beginning to address) some of the problems inherent in protecting minority rights and maintaining peaceful coexistence in Dutch society might offer lessons or a useful starting point for tackling the issues of that society as a whole. We did not attempt an exhaustive survey of the mechanisms of Dutch government, nor could we analyze all of the multifacted issues relating to minority communities. Our intent was to gain a sense of why Dutch society and politics are in a period of transition, to relate them to one another, and to search for general ways to steer that transition in a positive direction.

Tensions and Challenges

Many of the tensions we explored were extremely well-illustrated in the Netherlands’ recent referendum on and rejection of the European Constitution, a political event that clearly involved the question of continental identity.  The referendum became a touchstone for issues that had very little to do with the Constitution itself (indeed, it is likely that many who voted on it had little idea what it meant). Rosi Braidotti, a professor of women’s and European studies, believes that the vote hinged primarily on Dutch notions of “cultural identity and fear.” Historian and author Chris van der Heijden sees it more as a problem of public disconnect with the “abstract people” in faceless bureacratic institutions. 

If the referendum is any indication, then, the Dutch political scene is marked by confusion, and it is difficult to find a unifying perspective for addressing its problems. We theorized that by examining these problems through the specific lens of minority issues, we could formulate a more comprehensive understanding of them, from which to develop a point of approach for tackling the question of where we go from here.

In defining just what “minority issues” meant for us, we focused on the physical and residential, political, and emotional separation that often marks the relationships between native Dutch and minority ethnic, racial, and religious groups, as well as between those groups themselves. A June 2005 study by the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau found that only one in three indigenous Dutch people themselves maintains contact with members of ethnic minorities in their free time. The resulting divide has not been “solved” by any independent actor, political or otherwise, and the seriousness of the issues (highlighted by their ubiquity in the media) is particularly apparent in the post-9/11 era. 

We found parallels to these problems in the state of Dutch politics at large. For example, the difficulty in successfully integrating or emancipating Muslim immigrants (or even in agreeing on the meaning of any of those words) is echoed and amplified by the complex process of Dutch depillarization. The faltering preeminence of the poldermodel of collective negotiation is highlighted by its failure to accommodate diverse minority groups that cannot be represented by a single person. And the ethno-cultural firestorm set off by the murder of Theo Van Gogh was fueled by the furious political discussion in the wake of Pim Fortuyn, with both debates continuing to rage.

A Disconnected Population

The major problem, however, can be stated quite simply: people are not connected to each other. As Braidotti puts it, “The social consensus has been blown up violently.” This fracturing of popular solidarity has been underway since the era of depillarization, begun in the 1960’s, and well before the recent rapid influx of immigrants. As Dutch citizens deviated from their traditional ‘pillars’ (religious or political communities within which nearly all interactions took place), “traditional social ties and the associated social alignments, which long acted as guides to action for groups of like-minded citizens...[began] to disintegrate.”  Van der Heijden adds that depillarization has happened far too fast, and that “we can’t create a common culture overnight to replace what we’ve lost.” 

As if the rapidity of that transition weren’t enough, the era of globalization and the international mobility that has resulted have accelerated it even more. The new and confusing developments of the EU, global terrorism, and a perceived “flood” of immigrants have placed a political premium on what Braidotti associates with a battle over “cultural identity.” She explains that the simultaneous introduction of internal and external challenges to the question of what it means to be Dutch has politicized that question and thrust it into a system that lacks “linguistic and material means” for dealing with it—“we have no lexicon to fill in the Dutchness.” However vaguely defined their identity is, though, many Dutch clearly feel that it is under threat. 

This sense has been exacerbated by media attention to minority issues that is, as journalist and media advisor Victor Joseph describes it, “the opposite of careful and precise”: sensationalistic at best and damaging at worst. As a means for coping with and processing this flood of information, Braidotti believes that many Dutch have adopted a posture of systematic cynicism that simply mocks their society in lieu of questioning it. This irreverent, pessimistic attitude found its patron saint in the figure of Theo Van Gogh, who also provided a sounding board for the popular frustration and its xenophobic undercurrents. Van Gogh’s assassination, van der Heijden feels, set the process of Muslim integration back “at least 10 years,” and triggered a climate of fear in which societal gaps have been severely widened. 

Integration and Involvement

It seemed as if each person we talked to had a different view of the best way to “bring people together,” as well as a different idea of what that meant.

Joseph sees personalization as the crucial element on the “ground level,” and finds no substitute in that process for person-to-person dialogue. He explains, “When people know each other, ‘the danger of Islam’ becomes ‘the danger of my neighbors Ahmed and Fatima.’” This process of psychological familiarization can also be implemented on a local political level. Joseph describes a recent Rotterdam ‘day of dialogue’ where citizens met at tables set up throughout the city to discuss concrete issues facing their particular cultural communities as well as Rotterdam as a whole: “No subject was taboo. The main thing was the idea of inclusion.”

Van der Heijden sees the key to productive interaction in “social capital— the interaction between people which helps to realize a good society and an adequate life; the means to realize social goals, as money is the means to realize economic goals.” He feels, though, that society has moved too quickly away from the social capital provided by pillarization without replacing it, and unlike Joseph feels that the solution could lie in a temporary (non-institutionalized) general retreat: “Give people time to reflect, to tend their own gardens, and then we can start again.” 

Similarly divergent viewpoints were articulated on the question of societal accommodation for immigrant groups. Kay van de Linde, a political consultant, believes in a policy of “tough love.” He feels that immigrants can only achieve a feeling of belonging through such achievements as learning Dutch and setting up mutual-aid systems, for which inducements such as conditional social welfare programs could be useful. Braidotti articulates a different view. She believes that it is Dutch society that must change its structures and learn the actual and emotional languages of its new participants, and that creating space in the media and elsewhere for discussion of common viewpoints can also bring to light the oft-ignored issues of diversity within the minority groups themselves. 

Though somewhat contradictory among themselves, the above techniques for ethnic integration can also be addressed to the widespread political inertia. In general, an increased emphasis on active citizenship in both majority and minority culture would improve a sense of mutual engagement with society. Though we will discuss this in greater detail below, we think one thing that comes out strongly is the necessity of a platform from which people feel they can take concrete action and make statements that matter. Several modes of expression that are less overtly political should not be underestimated in their ability to provide such a platform, nor in their function as unifiers despite the fact that the social sphere they create can, almost by definition, exist slightly removed from reality.

For one, the capacity of the arts for social commentary has long been recognized, and the Netherlands has seen several examples of that recently. The violently divisive film “Submission,” while indisputably successful in bringing certain issues to national prominence, has in our opinion primarily polarized and shocked its audiences. An alternate approach to confronting similar issues was adopted by Adelheid Roosen, who took two years to interview a wide variety of Dutch Muslim women and combined the results into a theatrical piece called “The Veiled Monologues.” The play incorporates different Muslim views on the touchy issue of female sexuality, and in a respectful manner invites its audiences to voice their own opinions. This piece also demonstrates the wide latitude for cultural interpretation afforded by artistic statements, which improves their communicative ability and versatility.

Chris van der Heijden thinks that, as with many things in the world, it all comes down to football: “Until everyone comes together on the football field, which you can’t force them to do, we haven’t achieved anything.” Braidotti, a fervent fan herself, sees football matches as a benign and healthy way for people to “voice their aggressive nationalistic urges.” In addition to the social outlets offered in team sports, the practical skills and values taught by physical activity can have more individualistic benefits. Henk Oosterling, a black-belt karate instructor, piloted a school program teaching karate to aggressive young male students, seeking to channel their destructive impulses into a discipline with an ethical framework. The creation of these microcosmic worlds of stage, field, or classroom offers an opportunity for removed reflection as well as for interaction in a common language with common rules and common goals.

Prime Minister Who? 

“Lack of leadership. Period. We can all go home.” Van de Linde is unequivocal about the problem with Dutch politicians. The problem is also magnified for him because “the political system is archaic, it doesn’t fit the well-educated, individualistic, highly-informed [Dutch] populace.” On these basic points, most of our sources agreed. Campaign professional Alex Klusman feels that the Netherlands has grown a “political caste” whose isolation in The Hague prevents their engagement in any of the real issues facing those they are supposed to represent. Van der Heijden sees the problem as emblematic of a world increasingly turning towards a “managerial style” of leadership, in which disconnected administrators “try to find solutions when they’re not in the world where the solutions have to be found.” Entrenchment far beyond their period of usefulness, lack of perspective, and a preoccupation with politics as a career isolate government officials from their country. In addition, the party-based system, in which only the 2.5% of the populace who belongs to a political party is eligible for government service, emphasizes the disproportionate representation of a small section of society.

This vacuum of effectiveness in governance and attractiveness to the public means the system is open to strong figures whose influence may be damaging despite their popularity. The meteoric rise of Pim Fortuyn, for example, indicated a strong populist undercurrent waiting to be tapped. Van de Linde, Fortuyn’s campaign manager, believes much of Fortuyn’s appeal was due to his “underdog aspect” and his penchant for “telling it like it was.” He also thinks that “anyone with enough money and media savvy who can run a campaign separate from the Hague could win 50 seats in Parliament.” However, there were distinct anti-immigration tenets in Fortuyn’s message, and we worry that it would be easy for an aspiring politician to capitalize on nascent trends of ethnic hostility and ride a more blatantly anti-minority message to power, as is currently the case in Belgium. 

The recent “political framing” debates in the United States suggest that it is relatively easy to motivate a disaffected populace around a discrete, negatively defined enemy figure or idea; what is difficult for a politician is to navigate the complexities of social issues while simultaneously encapsulating those issues for the public, all the while avoiding scapegoating or pandering to less-generous instincts. It is especially difficult to do so when the government is as out-of-favor as it currently seems to be in the Netherlands, and maneuvering the country out of political indifference without establishing a political cult or blaming certain elements of society is a tension that will continue to provide challenges.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a politician who, while sucessful in jumpstarting discussion, may have proved a negative influence. Braidotti in particular believes that she has “destroyed Muslim women’s ability to speak out, for fear of betraying their community.” A cult of personality in politics can also be dangerous for minorities who grow used to looking to one particularly sympathetic politician to handle their issues. This practice is ineffective for minorities in the short term because individual politicians are greatly beholden to their parties, and in the long term because it fails to induce parties to adopt minority-rights measures into their platforms.

Out with the Old

The expression “out with the old, in with the new” characterizes many of the steps that could be taken to reinvigorate Dutch political leadership. It seems that it will be impossible for the system to change while those currently in charge of it remain firmly lodged at the top. This insular political community reinforces itself through the practices of administration-appointed political officials from mayors on up. Van der Heijden would like to see a reintroduction of citizen-politicians, with requirements for real-world experience and prohibitions against overstay in government—as he says, “everyone has an expiration date.” Klusman thinks an increase in number and scope of elections would result in “politicians who actually know what people want.” The time is ripe for a crop of young leaders to bring a fresh outlook to The Hague.

Several models for new leadership exist, governmental and otherwise. The lessons of Fortuyn on the ability of a politician to harness the rampant desire for change should not go unheeded, and some see the crime journalist Peter R. de Vries as a potential heir. Klusman thinks de Vries is popular because he is “difficult to pin down as right or left, and he seems non-political.” Braidotti praises the beloved Princess Maxima and the rest of the royal family for taking it upon themselves to serve as positive symbols for multicultural engagement—Maxima herself has devoted much time to the group PAVEM (Participation of Women of Ethnic Minorities). 

It is also difficult to ignore the increasing power of entertainment figures such as Bono of U2 or Bob Geldof of the Live8 Concerts to mobilize popular support for ending poverty and aiding minorities. Klusman cites Bono’s ability to promote the Millennium Development Fund, by “just saying, ‘It’s about poverty, it’s about AIDS,’ and people respond.” Though some politicians critique these figures as out of touch or frivolous, their motivating power has proved a force to be reckoned with. 

Is Anyone Listening? 

It became clear to us that, in addition to the problems of a divided populace and its ineffective leaders, a specific problem exists in the presence of a gap between them. Again, the recent EU referendum reaches the very core of this problem; in many ways it seems to have been more of a statement of dissatisfaction with the Dutch government than resistance to the concept of Europe. Van der Heijden believes that the EU as it stands now represents the ultimate ‘managerial’ society: he has heard no acceptable answer to the question of “what are they doing for us over there?” The fear of cultural identity being threatened, the specter of Turkey’s admission, discontent with the Euro—we think that a ‘no’ vote based on each of these issues can also be seen as a failure of the government to convince its citizens that their interests would be served by a broad constitution, just as it has failed to address their concerns on the national level. 

Klusman is adamant that the vote “in no way shows disinterest in politics.” The large turnout and the lively public debate over the referendum, in addition to the more general “growing memberships of movements, campaign groups and target-driven organizations”  suggests that there is a vast constituency waiting for a government with which they can connect, and searching for ways to voice their opinions. The present system’s failure to communicate with them, to demonstrate concrete results, or to question itself in any meaningful way has furthered the gap.

The government particularly fails when addressing minority issues. The shortcomings of the poldermodel for disparate minority communities have not been successfully overcome, as Islam expert and writer Maurits Berger explains, and government programs have not found in those communities any infrastructure in which to operate. For many, the recent episode of Minister of Immigration Rita Verdonk’s defiant attempt to shake Tilburg imam Ahmad Salam’s hand (when she was aware that his religion forbids it) is emblematic of the unproductive and unrealistic tactics of a government that has no idea with whom it is dealing.

Bridging the Gap

It seems clear to us that any successful solution must involve an increase in the flow of information, connections, and action between all levels of society. Concentrating first on local levels can be an easily-manageable way to do this. Joseph reports that in the Rotterdam Day described above,  Mayor Van Opstelten also invited small groups of minorities, the unemployed, and other segments of the populace to his home to discuss concrete solutions to their problems. Events such as this, or perhaps even Verdonk’s proposed ‘Dag van de binding’ (Day of Engagement) can be gradually expanded into a national network of informal but realistic communication.

The flow of information is, of course, controlled by various channels. While media reform is an amorphous concept that is difficult to achieve, an increase in positive messages from the government about minority groups could help rescue that area from what Braidotti deems a constant flow of sensationalism and scare-tactics. Klusman feels that an improvement in the government’s strategy for addressing issues before they have been carelessly thrust into the public eye would allow them to take better advantage of the media as opposed to the other way around. It is possible, for example, that an ‘EU Yes’ Campaign that focused on the constitution’s human rights standards could have provided a positive and popular theme, as well as addressing fears of Turkey’s subpar human-rights record. Claiming the issue of minority rights could provide an affirmative and tangible issue for the government to work on, as well as increasing positivity in messages sent to the public.

Active citizenship and participation in society, both crucial to its successful function, are realized most directly in elections. We believe that the best way to address the widespread lack of connection is to focus on quality over quantity in voting. An emphasis on local elections (including, most likely, direct election of mayors), and an expansion of the political infrastructure at the regional and municipal level would benefit politicians who are active and well-known members of the communities they represent. Local elections involving small constituencies would allow minority groups to send more of their own members into office. Making government positions more attainable for all would reduce the prevalence of ‘career politicians’ and give people with relevant and up-to-date ideas access to power. Party platforms which incorporate these issues and pay attention to local communities should also be adopted. While “voting on things all the time” is not the best way to accomplish anything, as van der Heijden explains, and while elections are rarely the optimum method for advancing the legal rights and protections of minorities, an increase in the outlets for civic participation calibrated to a level where they make a tangible difference would be beneficial for all. 

Cautious Optimism

A country is never perfect, and it is obviously much easier for two students to talk about changing an entire society than it is to do it. However, we believe that in the areas of populace, government, and connection between them there exist concrete steps that can be taken—each of which could in itself make tangible connections among people, and plant viable seeds of understanding. 

Integration and interaction cannot be forced, and anything that facilitates their natural occurrence should thus be explored for its positive potential. But solutions on each of the levels that we have identified can lead to and reinforce one another. Anything that can heighten a sense of engagement will bring us further towards, in van der Heijden’s words, “a society in which people value each other again”—something we might call a Social Capital.




Personal Sources

Maurits Berger, Islam expert and writer, (Lecture, June 7, 2005)

Rosi Braidotti, Professor of Women’s Studies in the Arts at Utrecht University, (Interview, June 28, 2005)

Chris van der Heijden, historian and author, (Interview, June 25, 2005)

Victor Joseph, journalist and media advisor for the Landelijk Bureau ter Bestrijding van de Rassendiscriminatie, (Interview, June 23, 2005)

Alex Klusman, Director of the Booij, Klusman and Van Bruggen Campaigns Agency, (Interview, June 23, 2005)

Kay van der Linde, campaign consultant, (Interview, June 27, 2005) 


M. Gijsberts and J. Dagevos, ‘Uit elkaars buurt: De invloed van etnische concentratie op integratie en beeldvorming,’ Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, Den Haag, June 2005 

H. van Gunsteren, ‘De geboorte van de Europese burger,’ in: Vrij Nederland, 18 June 2005. 

C. van der Heijden, ‘Red de democratie van de democraten,’ in: Vrij Nederland, 11 June 2005.

J.A. van Kemenade, ‘The Democratic Deficit: ways to revitalize the Dutch democratic system”


F. Vermeulen, ‘The mood after the hysteria: ‘No’ to the European Constitution shows political shift’, in: NRC Handelsblad, 25 and 26 June 2005.


http://www.henkoosterling.nl/ (Henk Oosterling’s personal website)

http://www.pavem.nl (Participation of Women of Ethnic Minorities)

http://www.scp.nl (Social and Cultural Planning Bureau)

http://www.tin.nl/io/nieuwsbrief/maart2005.htm and

http://www.mamacash.nl/images/general/annual_report2003.pdf (information on The Veiled Monologues)


Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2005


Related Media

Browse all content