Student Activism in the Netherlands Needs to Get Realistic and Demand the Impossible

Be Radical, Demand that which is Relevant if it wants to be taken seriously by its public.

by Gingri Savonarola and Yonach Baron Samedi (2011)

A stereotype of the Dutch student predominates from the top levels of society and the  media. It is part of a consensus: students in Holland are infantilized, they are still children in their 20s. They sit on their bean chairs of student financing, smoking cannabis indica and have supportive upper-middle class parents like much of the population. In the Utopia for the undeserving that is the Netherlands, mediocre college-pupils enjoy a careless existence as featured in Clearasil advertisements on TV.

An example of this is visible in the informercial on the OV student travel card:

This propaganda-PR image—vaguely echoing the traces of Calvinist morality whose overtones still resurface in Holland’s secular, mercantile welfare state —has a pedagogical function of setting a culture of silence. (Culture of Silence is an educational concept spoken of in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed championed by Brazilian scholar Paolo Freire.)

Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If a twenty something year old young intellectual worker is pedagogically conditioned into a larval troll who remains a child when he is actually in the natural phase of involvement in a social fabric and its decision making procedures, then no one has to take interest in what the student has to say. He has no concerns, he does not pay taxes or work and therefore holds less stocks in the polis of political life and choice.

This regime of opinion seems to prevail in the Netherlands and alienates the rest of the population from students, while invalidating voices of students who rebel. This image of the Netherstudent-troll arguably developed under Balkenende’s administration. It is a trope or imaginary that might very well be resorting to the memory and guilt people of Verhagen’s and Balkende’s generation have towards their student years.

The generation of the CDA leader Verhagen studied during the 1970s. Verhagen took 11 years over his bachelors. This was a time when higher education in its traditional role—as a production system for knowledge, preparing young adults of the elites with information and mental articulation necessary to inherit the profession of coordinating society—was paralyzed. The factor paralyzing the Cold War institutions of higher education was largely the counterculture and leftist-activist cultures among students, who carried out strikes and used the educational firms to lobby for their own new taboo-breaking lifestyles.

A result of the newly indulgent era was that in 1960s and 1970s, Western students did not toil over their degrees, but used the framework of strikes inside the universities to facilitate their more individualistic rebellions. This does not mean that such excercises in previously unattainable freedoms were without value. Attaining a degree in the 1970s, like Verhagen did despite that he was not a revolutionary liberation-oriented Christian Democrat (he was more being a parasite of the counterculture) implied a picture that the children of baby boomers are familiar with from their parent’s narratives: students inhabiting a fantasy-filled world where they often took ten years to complete a bachelors voyaged to live on islands off the coast of Spain to drop acid in communes.

Verhagen, Balkenende and Rutte and their contemporaries spent their student years in the lazy and indulgent fashion reminiscent of the stereotype they now associate with today’s students in the Netherlands, in order to justify education budget cuts. These financial austerity measures are of a reactionary character. There is a proposed 3000 euro fine, to be paid annually by students who take longer than the appointed 3 years over finalizing a degree—students who have medical handicaps and cannot possibly finish a degree in such time limits that have already been constrained over the recent years, will not be exempt from this stressful new lateness-tax dreamt up by arrogant dunces.

Arguably, the aggressive nature of the government’s depiction of students in this light might have its origins in that the current leaders are projecting: they are sexual sadist, self-scorching Calvinists, who see the moral phantoms and demons of their own sins and their guilt of having strayed so deeply and so far from the Dutch work ethic in their student years in the 1970s when you did not have to do much to get a degree. This would explain their new determination to make the younger generations pay for ancestral crimes of alleged social-parasitism that the CDA-VVD accuse them of.

A student movement based in the Netherlands, to be successful, I think must purposefully and indirectly deconstruct this opinion-aura created by the government and by the failed and self-indulgent generation of the parents (in the case of students with middle class backgrounds.)

The best way to deconstruct this PR is by empasizing the importance of the following implications of our project:

  1. Systematic exclusion of handicapped students.The education budget cuts will severely impact the futures of those among the young who are handicapped and therefore need extra concessions and considerations to develop their talents within the framework of attaining a degree. A girl at our February occupation spoke out especially on how these governmental austerity measures discriminate students like her with an invisible handicap. She is among those threatened with huge fines: the fines in her case are not merely a financial burden—they are a social stigma and a threatening slander. She is being told, implicitly and by bureaucratic diminuendo, that because of her handicap she is a leech, a parasite.The awareness and shame involved in this are much worse than a student who is “normal” but will have to cancel his post-degree travels and work extra long at the call center, as bad as that may be. It is a socially-approved humiliation and an invalidation.

    This is a part of the world where under an occupation 70 years ago the average citizen collaborated with fascist imperialism whose policies of “euthanasia” deemed handicapped people regardless of their compensating talents as just that: leeches who burden the health of wider society. It can be annoying when Leftists are always referring to Nazis and the holocaust at every instance of oppressive structures making themselves visible. Nonetheless in Europe the trauma and memory of these events is still embedded though under a layer of denial and disassociative hysteria.

  2. Xenophobia.In 2009 I interviewed _______, an International Relations professor in Holland for a journalism class. He said the impact of the budget cuts and rising tuition fees will literally be conducive to the “Dutchification” of UCU and of Dutch student life in general. Students from Bulgaria and Romania, and many other foreign locales will not be able to pay the rising tuition fees as they are usually from the middle classes of their countries. Colleges’ PR budget for attracting “developing world” talent will go up to compensate for the new scarcity. But the new foreign exchange and international students, will this time no longer be from the middle classes of their poorer countries. They will still disembark from the same country, like Bulgaria Thailand or another terrain high in the capital of exoticism but officially inferior in most other ways—only the new wave of students will be predominantly from the maximum, uppermost elites: those most likely to converge in reactionary and pro-business opinion and eager to assimilate into Western elites.A young man I met in the Landelijk Studenten Protest (‘National Student Protest’) meetings is a Russian-American foreign exchange student at the Hague Royal Conservatory, and is not from the Third World but from the United States. He said that even students like him face exclusionary, anti-expat financial policies at the music conservatory, (which should not function like a neoconservative, corporate-minded institution.)

    “Dutchification” of student life ties in with the broader general lines of the xenophobia and racism that has come out of the tolerance-closet in Holland very explicitly in the last decade. Now it has reached a higher pitch under the VVD-CDA with their satellite-entourage of morbid clowns who lobby for a more reactionary Low Countries under the denomination of the PVV, “Freedom Party”.

  3. The Islamophobic college: the austerity measures come hand in hand with a right wing Islamophobic government. This government has targeted “Islamic education” two-fold in the austerity measures, what is meant with Islamic education might not only be Koran-school but also other social facilities for the children and young of Muslim immigrants. Government funds to education once went into the systematic welcoming of Turkish immigrants to Holland in the 1980s, by using the “pillar” system of education to provide parallel schooling in the Turkish language. This “pillar education” type of pedagogy has now been eroded by reactionary austerity.) It has become noticeable that after protests in which the Landelijk Studenten Protest participate, some of the students who have joined and who greet us the most enthusiastically are the female muslim-Moroccan students, often in hijab (the veil).I do not know the details of the plight and experiences of “allochtonous” female students from these origins, but a social movement concerned also with their suppression needs to give heed and forum to their voice. It is a known situation that the Moroccan girls struggle especially hard to ascend out of their immigrant-community dilemma through higher education while the Moroccan boys—at least according to public social-media narrative—linger behind in less eloquent, often more aggressive subcultures.

    (An example of islamophobia beginning to manifest in higher education is VVD leader Mark Rutte’s adovacy for policies of “vigilance” towards Near Eastern and Muslim university students who might “radicalize.” )

    Student activists will need to distinguish between opposing Islamophobia and the opposite reactionary mentality that has characterized a lot of European activism, of building a romantic and sentimentalized defense of immigrant religiosity and exotic cultures of piety. A Moroccan woman who refuses to wear hijab or does not profess Islamic faith endures at times a likely worse Islamophobia than the faithful immigrant in some cases: she will find herself—despite absence of the costumes of piety—often excluded by the broader “authochtonous” white society for a stigma of Islamic heritage she cannot wear as if it were an honor.

    It is a stupid act to assume all victims of anti-Muslim sentiment and propaganda in Europe are Muslims. Many immigrants—especially among the often famously secular Iranian and Kurdish communities, the more educated Middle Eastern immigrants and not to mention people of religious minorities like the many Arab Christians and migrant networks of North African Jewry exiled in Europe—become targets of anti-Muslim discrimination and Ironic Islamophobia.

    In reaction to xenphobic and Islamophobic elements in the anti-education measures, the student activists can cite as a demand that one of the first educational programmes that can be cut are the mandatory “integration” courses and exams for migrants and refugees.

    Other educational programmes that we think must be first to go during a time of ascetic “austerity,” are anti-radicalization and anti-terrorism-awareness courses, which receive ample government funding.

  4. Attack on  critical reflection through the cutting of philosophy and humanities courses. Most of the courses that are the quickest to face cuts by Van Rooy and the whole systemic superstructure above her, are the humanities, philosophy courses and the art-related. This also includes the social sciences and science trajectories that might dare involve philosophy.
    The fields like philosophy and art are related most to reflection, it is necessary to cut out the contemplative life and reflection that accompanies intelligent action when a right wing regime wants a society that does not complain about the increase of troups and mega-embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those who were schooled to see reflection as un-economic and un-empirical are less likely to object to the bombing and violent philanthropic interventions in Libya, and future North African subject countries that want dignity and liberation.
  5. Capital Flight Routes from School Sector to War Industries A major emphasis of a student movement’s effort should be the relations between education-downsizing and the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and recent new Dutch involvement in post-revolt Libya. The Defense Department gets the education money extracted from the indolent, flea-bitten students of the OV commercials.
    The infantilization and culture of silence goes towards silencing a whole society that is in a full-Nelson, castrated and cheering while the associates of Hero Brinkman, VVD and CDA but also any future governement of a reelected PvdA go through with their dreamed-of national project—the quest of redeeming the lost Dutch colonial testosterone and the memory of their once successful colonial power and entreprise. In the Kamp Holland debates in the Balie, Dutch politicians advocated this desired teleological goal. They aim to realize the retro-colonial vision by thickening their presence in Afghanistan with neocolonial Dutch-trained police stations, Brand-Obama-designed Dutch megaembassies with super ambassadors and more army tech toys.This nationalist and militarist project is unfortunately not only the goal of popular village idiots like Hero Brinkman and Wilders, nor is it restricted to the older right wing orthodox VVD. It is also the position of the Christian Democrats, whose functionary Henk Jan Ormel at the Kamp Holland 2011 public debate in the Balie said the Dutch involvement in establishing its military structures over Afghanistan can remain glorious only if they remember to keep working with the more reliable, honest section of the Taleban—those Talibanis who are not infected with Al Qaeda Islamism, but who only concern themselves with asserting the ethnic identity and race privlege of the Pashtun. It does not take an anthropology Phd or Orientalist to understand the implications of this would-be Christian Democratic admiral. By skipping through the airport novel The Kite-Runner by Khaled Hosseini a reader who has not toured the Afhanistan-Pakistan knows there is a history of ethnic cleansing and racism of the Pashtun ethnic group towards rival groups like the Hazaras. (what is maybe underemphasized in the Kite Runner book and movie are the vice-versa relations of discrimination in history.)

    Arguably, Pashtun political elites adopted Islamism in part as a weapon to enact pre-existing ethnocentric goals. The taleban was successful in large-scale massacres against many targets from ethnic minorities—their motivation might not have been purely Islamism oriented; ethno-nationalism could have been a factor. The most terrifying future scenario more many in the region is the emergence of an anti-democratic, violent Pashtunistan. The dystopia of Pashtunistan has become more realizable thanks to the bungling Coalition of the Willing and the militant ambassadors in their new Forbidden Cities, the mega-embassies that are the intellectual property of the current US President.

The student movement can involve itself in the Middle East revolutions most impressively, not merely by the attempts at mimesis of North African revolutions nor by charity and solidarity. The Libertarian-Left’s chief wizard Dr. Chomsky has for a lifetime of tireless lecturing reinvoked the same argument about morality and foreign policy: the US has no right to intervene in Cuban or Iraqi official crimes or punish foreign criminals as long as it still continues to support, feed and empower violent police states and state terror across the continents.

Similarly, Netherlands-based student activists can help the Near Orient’s pro-democracy rebellions, which arguably are not revolutions in the literal sense unless we look at them in a long term evolution of political transformations over a decade.

They show solidarity in obvious ways that go beyond the recent, remarkable mimesis of Tahrir Square and Spanish assemblies of the Amsterdam Latin communities that students of the local movement joined last month. Socially-awakening students domiciled in a Northern country that collaborates in occupying Arab lands can best express their compassion and solidarity by taking domestic initiative to boycott, strike and shut down the whole educational system, with building-occupations and much more until the authorities meet student demands. These demands cannot be too humble, especially as they are made in the Netherlands, a socio-economic capital of entrepeurial arrogance.

The most important demand has to be “Cut funding to Defense that is being directly siphoned off from the school sector.”

This funding is an arguably illegal reallocation of public funds into privately-manipulated war and weapons-corporation sector. It is not merely misabbrogation of public funds, it is the international fiscal crime of capital flight normally associated with the corrupted client-state governments of Third World countries who facilitate capital flight in collaboration with illegal activities of Western multinationals.

The interesting phenomenon that has taken place in the European Union during their hours of petty despair over a virtual and hysterically imagined Second Great Depression, is that policies that normally applied to the Third World semi-decolonized states are now internally broadcast. For example the exploitation of Greece by blackmailing the country and bankrupting it with the IMF and the World Bank is typical of the Latin American economic disasters like Argentina and oligarchy-run Venezuela in the early 90s, or Mexico and Central America during the shock doctrine applications of the Clintonite NAFTA era.

Capital flight arguably characterizes erosion of education sectors, justified as necessary measures of moral purification—“austerity measures,” as if the neoliberal economists were following the lead of Thomas More, Savonarola and Ghandi, instructing the rabble that the time of indulgences, decadence and pampering the lazy and the weak are over, now we must surrender to monastic-sounding, Buddhist and Catholic values of “austerity.” The shady transfer goes towards enriching military ambitions to destabilize Third World emerging democracy-markets such as Libya.

These are sign-marks of what Noam Chomsky called “third worldization” in the case of his hometown in New England. The advanced societies for all their hubris start to act like Bolivians in bureaucratic nomenclature, while people in the Third World like Tunisians carry out revolutions whose intellectual traces show they studied Voltaire and liberal revolution for decades.

But with the signals of truly oppressive mentalities being applied in a more blatant fashion within the welfare fortresses of Europe, a more radical action is not only suitable or necessary, it is also realizable. When the elites lower their standards of conduct from those of First World moral authorities, closer to those of Third World nepotists, then this means that activists can react not as they ordinarily do in the Netherlands, but more in the tradition of how protestors act in such Open-Corruption-ruled countries and illiberal democracies.

This idea of dramatically reinventing the orientations of a student movement, making it about more serious goals of oppression with clearer politics are a means whose urgent logic is best compacted in The French Debordian anarchist Situationist slogan: “Be Realistic. Demand the Impossible”

Among the Dutch student activists there persists a very capitalistic mentality, of every student remaining in his fenced system of isolation wherein the fact that he is keeping a busy schedule is an emotional and work-morale self-validification. This is a diseased psychology of the Northern, Reformation-damaged countries and an entrepeneurial bourgeois mindset. It is comical and surprising for foreigners even from other Western countries like Italy to see that a demonstration in the Netherlands is scheduled for one hour on a quiet Sunday or Saturday morning in the Hague and seldom exceeds this 1 to 1.5 hour limit. In a Balkan or Mediterranean country a demonstration can last a month, among Serbian philosophy and art students who defied Milosevic’s regime a month was modest for the duration of a university building-occupation. The SACU and KSU student demonstrators, who I co-occupied with, congratulate each other after holding the building in Drift 21 for three to four days without succumbing to the threat of police pressure. The activists are serious yet they are bitter that it costs them energy to do activism serving their interests, they have to fit a demonstration into their schedule.

The aim of a demonstration against drastic and irresponsible education downsizing threatened by the exploiting social echelons is that the protest lasts at least a week if not a few weeks, so that it slows, frightens and intimidates power. It is a pleasure to see the faces of stock brokers and executives shaking and trembling cocaine-nervous, agoraphobic when we marched and disrupted business-as-usual in the financial district of the Hague. The disenchanted ordinary and dingy-looking people in the streets reacted—often visibly, non-verbally, emotionally—that we were a relief from the regular anxiety, disorientation and depression of their working lives. But this is more a gestural charcoal sketch of what a demonstration can effect, a real one.

A strike is not something you accomodate into your Taylorite-schedule. Strikes have the forbearing, miraculous-healing effect of suspending the gravity of your schedule and duties to State and economy. When there is a major strike, for the next month or so school is out. You do not then have to worry about losing your ECTS points or your shot at a diploma if you take time to demonstrate: the system halts, frozen. Then there is not only the vicious noise of slogans and whistles but beneath that layer a silence and calm, and a glimpse of what freedom is and can feel like despite the threats coming from official hierarchies’ aggressive forces and the police.

This theatrical act of silence is a stance of inner power, of relative freedom and libertarian energy that sends a lot of terror through the parties, the powerful and the mercantile elites who all live parasitically off the hysteria and restless bustle of a neurotic business-managed society like the Netherlands.

Perhaps in the midst of strikes, the avenue of building alternative universities can be explored. Parallel, clandestine academies will be necessary when the series of Euro-reactionary governments has reduced the educational system to specifically accomodating exclusively and only the inferior social studies of Managment and model-economics, whereas all honorable paths touching higher up the tree of knowledge than management sciences will have been labelled decadent and pruned. Then an official degree will be wortheless, if not contemptible, and associated by the rest of the world with the current phalanxes of aspiring-elite poche kids visible in Holland’s student cities, who demonstrate their reactionary stances with the metrosexual A Clockwork Orange uniform of striped Lacoste shirts and retro-aristocratic-dandy hairstyles. Only alternative universities in defiance of the governing imbeciles like Verhagen, Rutte, Brinkman and Van Rooy will command the slightest admiration from those unwilling to bend to the mentality of 21st century European brownshirts.