Netherlands: a turbulent start to 2021

The Netherlands is a European country where relatively little happens. By outsiders, it is often seen as sober, efficient and stable. The first month of 2021 however already saw the resignation of the third Rutte government and the most violent riots for 40 years. Meanwhile, the labour bureaucracy is moving against the left.

On 15 January, the third government of Mark Rutte resigned because of the so-called 'child care benefit scandal'. Two months prior to the elections, it decided to admit its guilt for all the mistakes the three Rutte cabinets made, in order to appear responsible. That is the least-damaging option for them, preventing this question from playing a major role during the election campaigns.

The childcare benefit scandal has shown the inhuman face of the Dutch capitalist state and the policies of Mark Rutte's three governments over the last 10 ten years. The lives of 26,000 Dutch citizens have been destroyed by false accusations of fraud related to their request for childcare benefits, after which they unjustly had to pay back tens of thousands of euros. Those people now are in huge debt, which led to some of them being evicted from their houses and many of them ending up in conditions of poverty.

This was not a case of a few bureaucratic 'errors'. There was a real policy to hunt alleged fraudsters. Citizens with two nationalities have been marked as a “risk group”, which shows how the state apparatus is drenched in racism. On top of this, the government has tried to cover this scandal up for many years. All of this in order to be “cost-efficient” and pay back the public debt owed to big finance capital.

Rutte Trump Image public domainDespite everything, the scandal-ridden Rutte will probably go on to form a fourth government, due to the relative stability of the Dutch economy and the lack of a left alternative / Image: public domain

At the same time, Mark Rutte's government did everything possible to lower the tax burden on big companies. During the coronavirus crisis, companies like KLM and Booking.com received billions of euros from the state in handouts. This really demonstrates whose interests Rutte and his government serve.

The scandal also shows that the idea of the “rule of law” as a neutral arbiter in society is an illusion. After all, the Council of State agreed with the hunt for the suspected fraudsters. Its vice-president, former minister Piet Hein Donner, was involved in a legal proposal regarding the childcare benefits and later was the one responsible for leading the original commission researching the problems with the benefits system. This commission came to incorrect conclusions and exonerated the guilty parties. It took a parliamentary commission to finally figure out the truth after many years.

This resignation is a symbolic first step, but the question is not yet closed. The promised compensation of 30,000 euros to all the affected parents is not assured, because the tax agency and private creditors have claims on the debt that these people have accumulated. These debts must be cancelled.

Also, the resignation is only a half measure, as the responsible ministers continue to fulfill political functions. Rutte will still be the party leader of the VVD (the right-wing liberal party). Lodewijk Asscher, former minister of social affairs, decided only a few days before the resignation to renounce his role as parliamentary leader of the PvdA (Dutch Labour Party).

The Dutch parliament denounced this scandal in the strongest words. However, political parties like VVD, CDA, D66, PvdA, the Christian Union have all been part of Rutte's governments and have been co-responsible for this control system. The Green Left party gave external support to the government on certain 'reforms', as did the right-wing demagogic PVV under Geert Wilders. For many years, the poorest layers of the Dutch population (and sometimes specifically Dutch citizens with a migrant background) have been incriminated as a group that would frequently commit fraud while asking for social benefits, which would make it necessary to set up a rigorous control system. This has played a role in setting the better-paid layers of the working class against the poorest layers, which are painted as parasites.

Two months before the elections of 17 March, the ruling parties now promise compensation and a complete reform of the state institutions to prevent this from ever happening again. This land of milk and honey cannot be brought by the ruling parties, the parties of the ruling class.

Anti-curfew riots

In the last days, the Netherlands again reached the international headlines, this time with reports about 'anti-curfew riots' that shook the country. What was behind all this?

On 23 January, the demissionary government implemented a curfew between the hours of 21.00-4.30, in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus, specifically the new British mutation. While 90 percent of the population supported the second lockdown the country is in, this curfew had less support (76 percent). It is seen as 'the wrong measure to take now', as there had been reports that flights from Britain would not be suspended, while non-essential production goes on and nothing is being done to fight cases of bosses forcing workers with symptoms to come to work. The Rutte's government's handling of the vaccination programme has led to extra frustration, as the Netherlands started to vaccinate weeks later than other European countries and there is a feeling it is being done at a snail's pace.

While a curfew in the abstract is a means to fight the pandemic, it has exemptions for people that have to return late from work or who have to do evening and night work. The interests of the bosses are still being served. Meanwhile, getting some fresh air on your own is not allowed for the average citizen. This has added to the frustration, and led certain layers to draw mistaken conclusions.

There is not any progressive content in the so-called 'anti-curfew riots'. Basically, it is not one single phenomenon, but a few different events that were triggered by each other. On Sunday, during the day, there were 'anti-lockdown demos' in Amsterdam and Eindhoven. This is no new phenomenon. Like the ones seen in e.g. Britain and Germany, they are a mix of 'anti-vaxxers' and conspiracy theorists, together with spiritualists, all kinds of petty-bourgeois types, and a layer of lumpen elements, including fascists and football hooligans.

The difference was that this time there was a bigger layer of confused and frustrated 'average citizens', and the hooligan elements were completely prepared for a showdown with the riot police, carrying with them firework bombs and weapons. The ensuing clashes saw hundreds of arrests, and the police used water cannon and tear gas on a scale not seen in many years. The police spoke about the 'worst riots in 40 years', referring to the 1980 Amsterdam clashes between police and anarchist squatters on the queen’s coronation day.

These demos caused shockwaves and were followed in the evening by riots in about 10 more towns and cities. In the evening, they were more diverse in social composition. In certain towns they had a reactionary character, like in Enschede, where a mob attacked a hospital. However, many others were mostly gatherings of frustrated local youth, attacking the police with stones and fireworks. In some cases, these were continuations of earlier clashes that took place in the summer and in December, with the difference that now they took all place at the same time. Reactionaries (sometimes the same that initially supported the Sunday demos) now try to present this as being caused by 'immigrant kids' or 'Moroccan kids', but these riots also took place in smaller rural towns with barely any immigrants.

Often there was a copy-cat effect, with adventurist elements calling for gatherings. Sometimes criminal elements were involved that wanted to use the riots as a smokescreen to loot shops. In a few cases, in big-city neighbourhoods with many immigrants, there were calls for riots that seemed to be made by fascist elements from outside, in order to discredit these neighbourhoods.

However, we cannot just dismiss these events as young people being misled or 'lacking education and good parenting', as some have argued. There is a brewing anger in Dutch society, and the coronavirus lockdowns have increased the overall pressures, leading certain elements to use the curfew as an excuse to engage in riots in a way to get their energy and frustration out.

While there were new riots throughout the country on Monday night, on Tuesday night they were restricted to a few incidents in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. As the rioters are only a small minority, they will not be able to hold on for much longer. However, new waves are possible, especially when new 'anti-lockdown demos' are called for. The coming weeks can see new outbursts.

Whither the Netherlands?

Despite everything, on the surface it looks that Mark Rutte is still going to win the coming parliamentary elections, and will be able to form a fourth government. This has led some on the left into complete demoralisation and the idea that 'in the Netherlands, nothing will ever change', 'the people are just stupid', etc.

We should analyse the situation however. On average, the third cabinet of Rutte saw a period of small recovery. The Dutch economy before March 2020 was doing relatively well. Unemployment dropped below 3 percent (although this obscures the fact that the Netherlands is a champion of part time work and precarious contracts). The public debt was being paid off and dropped below 50 percent of GDP. It had a relatively good position to face the crisis, as it could permit its public debt to rise to at least 80 percent of GDP without many problems, in order to implement bail-outs for businesses, support for self-employed people, etc.

Another important factor is the lack of a working-class political opposition. The so-called 'left opposition' of the Labour Party and the Green Left basically gave critical support to all the government's plans. They joined the chorus of the coalition parties, media, 'intellectuals', bosses organisations and the king, who all 'stood behind our statesman Mark Rutte'. They were joined in this by the trade union leaders, who supported the bailouts, while never asking who in the end would have to pay the bill for them. The Dutch Socialist Party (SP) has had some justified criticism of the government’s healthcare policies and played an important role in fighting for the victims of the benefits scandal. However, it focuses mainly on criticising all the individual problems and does not present a clear socialist alternative that can mobilise the working class and youth against the rotten Dutch capitalist system. For example, its response to the benefits scandal is the slogan: "For an honest government", which brings illusions in reforming the rotten state apparatus and actually is the same as what the government parties propose.

For this reason, the overwhelming majority of the population supports the government’s policies against the pandemic, as the only clear alternatives are the right-wing demagogues of Geert Wilders' PVV, or the 'anti-lockdown' conspiracy theorists.

The most probable perspective is that Rutte manages to set up a fourth government: a broad coalition which includes some 'left' parties as well. This then might seem to be a victory for him, but the coming years will be significantly more difficult. The inevitable downscaling of the support packages, and the question of who will pay them back, will mean that there will be bankruptcies, unemployment, crisis and austerity on the horizon. This means that more turbulence will be ahead for the 'calm and stable' Netherlands.

For a fighting working-class leadership

What is lacking, more clearly than ever before, is a strong leadership of the workers' movement. As mentioned above, the trade union federation FNV basically supports the main government policies, while it tries to 'lobby' for small reforms with almost all political parties.

In February and March, the elections for the FNV leadership take place. There was an attempt to get a militant working-class candidate elected president. Niek Stam, the leader of FNV Havens (the dockworkers' union), applied for the elections. He has a long history of leading militant struggles, which aroused enthusiasm within the union ranks. However, the union bureaucracy managed to block him from the race on dubious grounds that he did not fit the profile, which has led to a lot of anger. While this particular battle was lost, this shows that there is an opposition current developing and we can expect more militant initiatives in the coming years.

Socialist Party Netherlands Image Donald TrungThe SP leadership effectively suspended its youth organisation and members are leaving in big numbers / Image: Donald Trung

On the political plane, there have been some turbulent developments taking place in the SP. In late November, the party bureaucracy withdrew all its support for the youth organisation ROOD, after its refusal to remove from its leadership two left-wing members who had been expelled on dubious grounds by the mother party. The bureaucracy basically suspended the whole youth organisation, until a commission will report in May (after the elections) about how to move forward. There were already many worries, as the youth organisation organised more political discussions (instead of only focusing on stunts and direct action) and spoke against the SP entering a new Rutte government. Because the youth condemned the opportunism of the leadership, they had to be put in line, while all the leftwingers and 'communist infiltrators' had to be neutralised and expelled by the party leadership. The youth organisation ROOD is basically operating as an independent youth organisation now.

As a result, the left of the party started to be more organised in the latest SP congress in December, with big minorities voting to condemn the suspension of the youth and asking for factional rights and real discussion in the party. Other left-wing members are however leaving in droves, being completely demoralised. The party is nothing like the pole of attraction it was in the early 2000s. Its membership has almost halved since 2007. It's the task of the left-wing elements to organise themselves as much as possible to fight the bureaucracy for party democracy and steer a socialist course. However, it is too early to see what the result will be. Whether there will be mass expulsions, or a big split, or simply a further decline that reduces the party to a big national-reformist sect, all remains to be seen.

In any case, one way or another, there is an objective need for a socialist party of the working class: a party that is connected to the workers' struggles, which attracts the best elements of the working class and the youth. The absence of such a party distorts the political spectrum, which is fragmented and confused.

What is needed most of all is a strong Marxist tendency in the Dutch labour movement and youth. Join the Dutch comrades of the IMT and help build this tendency, in order to prepare for the turbulent period ahead!