Belgium: Reshuffling of the right wing heralds growing polarisation

Last month, the far right Vlaams Blok changed its name to Vlaams Belang, supposedly to be a “nicer” and “more polished up” version of its former ultra right image. They want to present themselves as a strong conservative party, a “respectable” alternative on which the ruling class can rely to carry out its attacks on the working class. Even in small and peaceful Belgium, all the contradictions are piling up, waiting to explode in one way or another.

Last month, Belgium’s supreme court ruled that bodies linked to the far right Vlaams Blok party are breaking the country’s anti-racism laws, upholding a verdict handed down by a court in April this year. This was considered a great victory for the Left. The question remains what really has been solved now. Even in small and peaceful Belgium, all the contradictions are piling up, waiting to explode in one way or another.

From Vlaams Blok to Vlaams Belang

After the court ruling of November 9, the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) changed its name to the Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest). Although strictly speaking they were not forced to make this move, the Vlaams Blok decided to adopt a new name as this suits their strategy perfectly. In the 1980s the Blok used to be a small far right party group that split off from the Flemish nationalists. Then they were most notoriously known for their semi-fascist rhetoric and aggressive symbols like the boxing glove. However, over the years they have gradually polished up their image to that of a respectable right wing party and have added “family values” to their propaganda. Without a doubt there are still some fascist elements left in the party (including in the leadership), but more and more their strategy of “broadening” their appeal is paying off and now they are increasingly seen as a party “you can do business with”. The skinheads have been kicked out and the gentlemen (and women) in suits have been brought in. The renaming of the party to Vlaams Belang is a new important step in this process.

Older electoral propaganda:
“Order in the house”

Nevertheless, the Vlaams Belang seems to suffer from a certain schizophrenia. One moment the leadership emphasises the difference with the earlier Vlaams Blok, another moment they emphasise the continuity. That is no coincidence. On the one hand they want to make themselves more acceptable; on the other hand they want to keep their anti-establishment image and their old guard of ultra rightists. The party leadership skilfully alternates between the “good cop” Gerolf Annemans (the “civilized” party intellectual) and the “bad cop” Filip Dewinter (the “brown” agitator). It is in this manner that they are leading their party to power. However, herein lies a real contradiction that is raging between the hard-line right-wingers and the “respectable” wing. Up until now the leadership has been able to keep both currents in check. They can see that government positions are within their grasp and are desperate to participate in a right-wing government. If they fail to break out of their isolation, they will probably be plunged in a deep internal crisis. The 2006 municipal elections will be the moment of truth for their strategy of “broadening” their appeal.

The human rights organisations that filed the lawsuit, clearly wanted to play on these internal contradictions by making it harder for other parties to collaborate with the Vlaams Blok after a conviction for racism. They wanted to strengthen the so-called “cordon sanitaire”, the general political agreement between all the other parties not to cooperate with the Vlaams Blok. But in a sense we can say that the court ruling has achieved exactly the opposite of what the prosecutors intended. As usual the Vlaams Blok was able to present itself as a victim of the establishment. And a lot of people sympathize with victims because they hate the establishment. The result is that once again the extreme right came out strengthened from the whole episode. On top of that, a growing number of politicians are calling for collaboration with the far right because “the cordon is undemocratic since it excludes all those people who voted for the Vlaams Blok.”

Furthermore, the Vlaams Blok leadership can seize upon the ruling to counter the criticisms of the hard right in its ranks who claim the party is going “too far to the left”. Thus, the path has been cleared for a “nice” and “polished up” version of this ultra right party. They want to present themselves as a strong conservative party, a “respectable” alternative on which the ruling class can rely to carry out its attacks on the working class.

In the liberal VLD the call for collaboration with the far right is now becoming louder and louder. Actually, the recent elections for chairman of the VLD were focused on this issue. The candidate of the liberal right wing, Jean-Marie Dedecker, was openly advocating collaboration with the Vlaams Belang. Although he lost the elections, he could garner the support of almost 40 percent of the party membership, despite the fact that only one liberal MP supported him and the whole of the party establishment, including Prime Minister Verhofstadt, put their weight behind the “moderate” candidate, Bart Somers, who won with barely 50 percent. And even this “moderate” liberal has stated that, “if the democratic current in the Vlaams Blok wins, the VLD will be forced to look at the matter again.”

In fact, the Right has already been in crisis for some time, and it is trying to regroup, as did the Italian right wing in the 1990s. The Christian Democratic CVP (now called CD&V) has traditionally been the party of the ruling class, but after their severe battering some years ago, the majority of the bourgeoisie shifted its allegiance to the liberal VLD. Since the latter is now also going from crisis to crisis and has lost credibility, the CD&V has been able to recover and win back some support. However, it is clear that the ruling class itself is divided over which horse to bet on. A small but growing part of the Flemish bourgeoisie is openly supporting and even financing the far right because they long for a strong conservative party in a period when the economic crisis is also hitting Belgium.

The Vlaams Belang knows this and they are constantly making gestures to the other right-wing parties. One can say a lot about these reactionaries, but their strategists are not stupid. When the right to vote for immigrants in 2004 was finally put on the political agenda, they waged a huge campaign against it and were able to involve members of parliament from the CD&V, the VLD and the N-VA (another Flemish nationalist party). What they want is to gather around them the right-wing currents in the other right-wing parties. It is likely that in the future parts of the Christian Democrats, Liberals and Flemish nationalists will be absorbed by such a big conservative alliance. For instance Boudewijn Bouckaert, leader of the influential liberal think-thank Nova Civitas, dreams that, “we from Nova Civitas can create one party, consisting of the Vlaams Belang, the right wing of the VLD and the right wing of the CD&V, a party which is at least as strong as the PS in Wallonia, a party comparable with the Republicans in the United States, equally right-wing, but not more right-wing than that.”

Interestingly, the Vlaams Blok also gets its inspiration from the neo-conservatives in the US. Gerolf Annemans, commenting on the situation in the USA, has said, “With the victory of Bush we saw that they are ten years ahead there.” That is why the far right organises visits to the United Stated in order to study the ideas of the conservative think-tanks. In this way they are trying to see how they can better utilise the conservative values of the family, the people, etc., to bolster the ideology of Flemish nationalism.

Convergence of interests between Flemish bosses and the far right

An ever-growing part of the Flemish bourgeoisie longs for a strong conservative party to the right of the liberal VLD and the Christian Democratic CD&V. For them the labour movement and its political expression must be taken on. In particular they are enraged by the positions of the Parti Socialiste (PS), the social-democratic party in the French-speaking part of the country (Wallonia). The PS is by far the biggest party of Wallonia with 37 percent of the votes. It is also one of the most left-wing social-democratic parties in Europe – which is of course not too difficult considering the Blairs and the Schröders of this world. Although the PS is far from pursuing a genuine socialist policy, as part of the government coalition it is blocking some counter-reforms, for instance in social security. Because of the capitalist crisis on a world scale, even the defence of some workers’ rights is costing the bosses too much. Therefore the bourgeois media, especially in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium (Flanders), are constantly attacking the PS.

Demonstration of the far right:
“Flemish wealth in Flemish hands”

Flanders is an export base for foreign multinationals to the rest of Europe. Without much capital of their own, Flemish capitalists have a subordinate position on the world market. They own mostly medium-sized businesses, so the Flemish ruling class is actually made up of medium and small capitalists. Since these medium sized companies are linked with a thousand threads to the multinationals, they are coming under more and more pressure due to the crisis on the world market. In conditions of extreme competition, the welfare state is therefore costing them too much. That is why a growing part of the Flemish capitalists see a solution in the Vlaams Belang, which can act as a battering ram against the labour movement in general and the PS in particular. In the upper layers of the Flemish ruling class there is more and more talk of a “Danish model”, which means support for a right-wing minority government backed by the far right in order to cut labour costs and to implement severe capitalist policies. An opinion poll after the last elections revealed that 52 percent of Flemish managers even think the Vlaams Blok should be part of the government. The latest cosmetic operation of the Vlaams Blok renaming itself to the Vlaams Belang, is precisely intended to transform the party into the “respectable” voice of this wing of the ruling class.

Strikingly enough, even the official organisations of the bourgeoisie have left the door open. The small businesses’ association Unizo has bluntly stated that, “if the party becomes acceptable for other political parties, we will follow that path.” VOKA, the umbrella of the Flemish “employers”, are waiting to see what the party programme will offer on the economic front. “If they stick to their old positions, then we don’t believe in it. The Blok was an ardent supporter of protectionism. In a region like Flanders with many exporting companies, that is the shortest way to bankruptcy. From an economic point of view their programme was pernicious and absolutely undesirable.” In other words, possible support for the far right mainly depends on a neo-liberal economic programme. In their views about the labour movement and the PS, the Vlaams Belang and the Flemish ruling class get along quite well. For the Vlaams Belang their slogan “Our own people first” means primarily “Our own Capital first”. They offer themselves as a tool to the bosses, who will use it when they need it in their fight to uphold the privileges of their class.

Class struggle and the national question in Belgium

The capitalist crisis on a world scale is sharpening the contradictions between the classes. In order to see how the class struggle will develop in Belgium in the future, one only needs to look at the Netherlands and Germany. Both countries resemble Belgium in their social structures and have also been through a period of long relative social peace. Today, however, there is a growing radicalisation in the Netherlands (see Reawakening of the Dutch working class) and Germany (see Class struggle on Monday...” and more and more during the rest of the week as well) . The events in the Netherlands and Germany are a manifestation of the reawakening of the working class, which is demanding change. In Belgium, radicalisation is still in an early stage. Contrary to other European countries, in recent times Belgium has not seen a major confrontation between Labour and Capital, between the workers on the one hand and the government and bosses on the other. Partly this can be explained because 2003 and 2004 were important election years so politicians were not eager to confront the masses. It is no coincidence that the bosses, as well as the politicians, started to beat the drum about cuts in social spending and lengthening the working week immediately after the 2004 elections. Now this has provoked the union leadership to call for a national demonstration on December 21, during the present round of negotiations with the bosses. This could be the beginning of such a major confrontation in Belgium.

However, the Social Democracy in government has drawn some lessons from recent events in the neighbouring countries and is trying to avoid a clash. In Wallonia, the PS already drew some conclusions from the electoral defeat of the French PS back in 2002. The Flemish Socialist Party (SP.a) is much more to the right of the PS and during 2004 at times they have been the most ardent advocates of the bosses’ policies, with some SP.a leaders calling for “harsh and structural measures” to reform the welfare state. But after the events in the Netherlands and Germany, plus the growing dissatisfaction in the Belgian trade unions, even the SP.a has started to advocate only “soft measures” in order not to provoke the working class.

Belgium, a small country where
the national question has not been solved

Also, an important wing of the bourgeoisie is trying to delay a major confrontation as long as possible because they know that by doing so the old methods of compromise and reconciliation will be destroyed. Belgium was built on the basis of all sorts of compromises. Its bourgeoisie is a rather weak ruling class, for in comparison with other European countries it does not control that much capital. Compared for example with the Netherlands, the Belgian bourgeois do not possess many multinationals. On the other hand the trade unions are strong compared to other countries. With a population of 10 million, almost 3 million people are unionised! Contrary to the rest of Europe, Belgian workers still have some sort of automatic indexation of their wages (sliding scale), although this is under serious threat from the bosses.

Furthermore, the Belgian bourgeoisie is weak because it was never able to solve the national question. The Belgian state is a very fragile construction. Therefore bringing the Flemish far right into the government poses difficulties, because in practice it would mean separatism and abandoning the Belgian state. It poses the possibility of a Balkans in the heart of Europe. That is a perspective the Belgian bourgeoisie (and their masters in France and Germany) wants to avoid. The problem is that every time they are faced with difficulties, the bourgeoisie and the reformists have a tradition of diverting issues along nationalist lines. Especially when there is an economic crisis, they try to put the blame on the other region, Wallonia or Flanders. As a consequence the Belgian state has dynamite built into its foundations. As we said, the Flemish bourgeois and their media are putting the blame on the Walloons and the PS for the crisis in the social security system. In this way they are strengthening Flemish nationalism and therefore also the Vlaams Belang.

The bankruptcy of the “cordon sanitaire”

The “cordon sanitaire” is breaking down at a fast pace because the Vlaams Belang increasingly corresponds to certain tendencies now present within the Belgian capitalist system. In actual fact, when it comes to the question of ideas there has never existed a “cordon”. The other parties, the right-wing parties being the first among these, have never had scruples about borrowing some of the ideas from the programme of the Vlaams Blok.

The far right is keen to come to power. Unless in the coming period significant developments in the class struggle transform the situation, in the 2006 municipal elections, the “cordon sanitaire” will cease to exist in some cities and villages. This will exacerbate the realignment of forces on the right. Even now the cordon is slowly crumbling away. For example in Deurne, a suburb of Antwerp, the far right already has a de facto majority because some councillors have broken with their former parties and are now voting together with the Vlaams Belang.

All this shows the futility of the “cordon sanitaire”. This artificial antithesis between the so-called “democratic parties” and the Vlaams Belang only creates a false sense of security. For the right-wing parties there is nothing absolute in this arrangement, since several of their leading figures have already proclaimed their willingness to collaborate with the Vlaams Belang. On the other hand, the Left simply has no need for such a formal arrangement to justify not collaborating with the far right. The Left, even the reformists, are staunch enemies of the extreme right. Hence the “cordon sanitaire” is not something which should affect the Left.

However, collaboration or not with the far right certainly is a heated discussion within the Right. Therefore, the distinction between Left and Right is far more relevant than the false antithesis of “democratic parties” versus the far right. In other countries where the far right has become part of the government (e.g. the Netherlands, Austria), they have been used as an alibi to push through extremely anti-working class policies. There we saw the far right being exposed in the eyes of many once they were in government, and their fall (FPÖ and LPF) led to a strengthening of the “traditional” right wing parties, which are now pursuing exactly the same policies. If one is opposed to the far right, then logically one should also be opposed to the other right wing parties.

If the last ten years prove anything, then it is that all the talk about democratic parties is in reality nothing else than a trap for the Left. The alliance of the labour leadership and left intellectuals with the “democratic” right wing is used as an alibi against a genuine socialist programme “otherwise we will alienate the other democrats”. By short-sightedly clinging on to a so-called “united front” of all democratic parties as a strategy in the run-up to the 2006 elections, a possible left alternative is quashed from the very beginning. This will only add to the demoralisation within the Left when the “cordon sanitaire” is officially declared dead by large parts of the liberals, Flemish-nationalists and Christian Democrats.

What kind of democracy do we want?

The recent parliamentary elections, in which the Vlaams Blok got 24 percent of the vote in Flanders, have conclusively proven that court rulings and appeals to democracy will not stop the advance of the far right. Neither does it lead to any doubts on the part of right-wing politicians, who already openly proclaim they want to collaborate with these reactionary gangsters. In that sense, last month’s court ruling was no real victory for the Left. What was there to celebrate? “The values of democracy”, the argument goes.

We don’t think it is pedantic to ask what kind of democracy is implied here. The democratic right to work longer for the same wage? The democratic right to sacrifice our pensions to give tax cuts to the rich? The democratic choice between a bad job or suspension from the dole? That is what democracy means for a lot of people. So many people think why shouldn’t they vote for the Vlaams Belang? After all, all the “democratic Flemish parties” sing the same tune and blame the Walloons for all the ills in society. As a consequence, many people conclude that it is not wrong to vote for the Vlaams Belang as at least they consistently want to cut the so-called “Walloon tumour” from the Flemish body.

Of course we don’t deny that in Belgium certain democratic rights exist that in a great part of the world are still a dream. The oppressed classes in Belgium have gained these rights through a very bitter struggle, for example the struggle for universal suffrage. However, the Vlaams Belang intends to take back many of these gains and their programme on trade union rights, immigrants and women is very clear in this respect. It goes without saying that we wholeheartedly defend these rights.

However, it is not only the Vlaams Belang that wants to curb our democratic rights! The other parties do it as well. The record of the last years says it all: an electoral threshold of 5 percent was introduced in order to prevent smaller parties from getting representation in parliament; summary jurisdiction was used against anti-war activists; refugees are increasingly treated as criminals, and so on. Social protest is more and more criminalized. Trade union activists who take part in picket lines are threatened with heavy penalties; anti-globalisation activists are portrayed as criminals and are taken to court; and anti-war protesters are arrested “preventively”. Many people without a Flemish sounding name cannot find housing or a job. Where are their democratic rights? Minister of Labour, Frank Vandenbroucke, is undermining the right to unemployment benefit. But what about our right to a decent job? And what about “economic democracy”? Why is it that a small clique of shareholders can take all the decisions about a company and its workers?

From all this, it is clear that the present form of democracy, i.e. bourgeois democracy, is very limited. Common people have no say whatsoever in the real big choices facing our society. These choices are made for us by the ruling class, in particular the big bankers and bosses of the multinationals. Politicians meekly implement their guidelines and, for that matter, even have a seat on their business councils. No wonder many Belgians think all political parties “are all the same”. Just look at the austerity policies that are being implemented across the whole of Europe. Who has “democratically” decided on these? As we saw in the last European elections, governments pay the price for this and are consistently voted out, only to be succeeded by other parties pursuing the same policies of cuts. These are the margins the capitalist system imposes, and every politician who refuses to break with the capitalist logic is consequently forced to move between these undemocratic boundaries.

The curbing of democratic rights does not fall from the sky, but is connected to the period of crisis the capitalist system is going through. In order to defend the profits of the shareholders and the authority of the state, there is less room for those rights and liberties. Trade union struggle and every other kind of radical movement need to be silenced. If that is not possible with the old methods, then they will do it by using the far right.

Racism not a moral issue

In order to combat racism and the parties that spread this poison, it is necessary to start with a clear analysis of the phenomenon. Unfortunately, large parts of the Left approach the matter from a strictly moral point of view. The Vlaams Belang is seen as a phenomenon in itself and is not put into the broader social context. Quite a few honest leftists denounce the racism of this party in particular and point the finger at people “because racism is bad”. This tactic has dominated the movement for almost twenty years now. Some people even go as far as denouncing all the people who vote for the far right. Despite these moral denunciations the ideology of the Vlaams Belang is penetrating society deeper and deeper. Moral denunciations have no effect because they do not give an answer to the real problems of working people.

The problem with these left intellectuals is that they do not understand the real situation workers are facing in the factories and in the working class neighbourhoods. The official Left is not offering any concrete solutions to the genuine social problems workers are facing. If these people were to spend just some of their time in a working class neighbourhood or in the poorest parts of the cities, then perhaps they would understand why some of them vote for the far right. For those who are not in the know yet, we would like to tell them that there is a lot of misery in the world, and Belgium is no exception.

Workers are exposed to growing pressures. If you listen to their stories, you cannot but notice that Belgium is undergoing a lot of suffering and stress, despite the relatively high material living standards that have existed for a considerable (although shrinking) part of the population. It is this frustration which leads a growing number of people to vote for the Vlaams Belang.

Due to the policies of the Social Democrats over the last twenty years, parts of the working class have been driven into the arms of the far right. But what many do not understand is that they see this as a way of protesting against the current state of affairs. They are looking for an explanation for their worsening living conditions. From the right-wing and the bourgeois media they hear two very simple explanations. Although they are utterly false, they are seen as clear explanations: “it is the Walloons and the immigrants who are squandering our wealth and we are forced to work harder while they are able to take advantage of our social security.” The Vlaams Belang only needs to nod its head and count its votes with satisfaction.

The left parties remain silent in the face of this wave of right-wing propaganda that is dominating the political agenda. Either they simply deny the problem (“Things are no worse than before” or “I’m glad to live in this wonderful country”), or they give vague answers, or they run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, trying to please all sides. Nobody dares to explain the real reasons, i.e. that it is the bosses and the rich who are squandering the wealth we produce and that the bourgeoisie wants to divide us by pointing the finger at the Walloons and the immigrants. Racism is bad not in any general abstract sense but because it divides us!

Opposed to this “left moralism”, the Marxists of Vonk pose a strategy on the basis of the class struggle. The stress and frustrations that are forcing people to look for such false solutions will only be resolved if the cause is taken away, that is capitalism. And this in turn is only possible through the class struggle.

The recent demonstrations in the Netherlands show how real these ideas are (See The Netherlands: The end of the “polder” model). They show that a vote for the far right can turn into a struggle for a more just society. Almost 300,000 protesters from all ethnic backgrounds flooded Amsterdam on October 2. During such a struggle workers get to know their real comrades. They learn in practice that people with a different skin colour but from the same class have the same interests. In fact, the events in the Netherlands show us that there are only two ways. The murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamic fundamentalist is used by the Right to spread their reactionary demagogy and in that way to divide and rule over the Dutch masses. This way inevitably will lead to barbarism. On the other hand the Dutch masses are waging a class struggle against the right wing government and the bosses. This struggle must lead to socialism, or it will be defeated. There is no middle road between future socialism or future barbarism. One has to choose.

The success of the far right has a deep impact on the consciousness indeed. The uninterrupted rise of the far right has undoubtedly affected certain parts of the Left and led to demoralisation. At the same time this phenomenon is forcing people to think and ask themselves, “Why is it that this clique of utter reactionaries and open racists is able to keep growing?” In reality, and although this seems contradictory, this questioning is only the harbinger of a future turn to the left. The unrest is piling up but has no way of expressing itself. Through the lack of a left alternative the ultra right can exploit this frustration. Asylum seekers and immigrants are an easy scapegoat. As long as the workers’ leaders continue to act as a break on the movement, the reactionaries will extend their influence and will continue to spread their racist poison. Protest movements, however, develop in a dialectical way. The Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands, for example, achieved a high vote in those neighbourhoods that were most opposed to the privatisation of public transport in Rotterdam. In other words, the success of the far right only shows that the people are fed up with the status quo. Sooner or later this anti-establishment mood will swing to the left.

Therefore, it is about time the Left abandoned its fixation solely on the racism of the Vlaams Belang. Racism is indeed reactionary. However, by placing all their opposition to them on racism alone the Left is playing the game of the far right. By doing that, they forget to strike at the enemy where it can be hit hard, in its socio-economic programme, which only represents a minority in present society.

Despite its demagogy, the Vlaams Belang is a party prepared to defend the interests of the bosses with an iron fist. They want to take the trade unions to court; they want to cut social security; they want to take away unemployment benefits, etc. Particularly in times of crisis this is the perfect way to counter the reactionary thugs of the Vlaams Belang. Link the struggle against the far right to the developing class struggle in the workplaces and develop it with a programme of fundamental socialist change. That is the challenge before the Left and the labour movement in Belgium and internationally.

December 15, 2004

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