Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means

From the Dutch ‘Patricipation Society’ to the Northern European neo-colonial weapon of austerity: the case of Greece.

by Arturo Desimone, via counterpunch

The Netherlands’ ruling political technocracy, since long before the crisis, has long proven itself to be a lap-dog of two very different masters—always seeking to please both powers, at times meeting with indifference, or strangling itself upon the leashes of contrarian forces.

The Hague is at the forefront of supporting Germany versus Greece in the dictatorial policies of austerity. The Dutch government had also involved itself as an optimistic volunteer in the Coalition of the willing, during the US-Iraq occupation when Germany had opted out. But to be fair, this was not merely the Dutch chance to please Blair and Bush: continued involvement by the Dutch in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan was another way to fulfill the now-prevailing sentiment of nostalgia for the era of the pirates, or the ”maritime heroes (zeehelden, as the Dutch ministers refer to them) of the Dutch East and West India Companies, the world’s first multinationals. The fleets are not the same, nor is Europe’s military might, as the EU charter cattishly observers how the EU is ‘’an economic power house and a military worm’’ (a tongue-in-cheek way of saying “a coward who knows how to manage the profits of American imperial war, but who more often uses economics to conduct war by other means.”)

The enthusiasm for the foreign policy of structural violence towards Greece is similar to the enthusiasm for war: the only difference, is that the Dutch and other small European countries could not be as significant in warfare (and nor could Germany because of the limitations imposed by her impoverished historical image, Germany’s only remaining poverty.) The yearning to export a gunboat has been replaced by the exportation of nothingness, a corrosive and dangerous nothingness that unlike the gunboat costs nothing to produce, invisible as a disease held in a syringe.

Despite its name, austerity is about decadence and mediocrity and garish entertainment. Austerity measures, like any other war, provide spectacular game. The spectacle commands the popularized euphoria of an archaic Northern European ethnic consciousness and patriotism currently seeing its unfortunate revival.

In the Netherlands, it goes by the name of “the Participation Society” ( participatie maatschappij), announced by the monarch alongside the prime minister and other spokespersons of the political and business establishment, as well as co-investors in the deregulated market. The ideology behind “Participation’’ means the state and public ownership are brutally eliminated by market deregulation, so a more playful, sporty, vigilant society is born, a society deserving of the legacy of the Netherlands, the very republic of the entrepreneur. Anti-corruption slogans, and the culture of blame play a major role in the foreign policy towards Greece, as the Dutch are always incorruptible. The campaigns of so-called ‘’anti-corruption’’ breed new manifestation of corruption with more profits flowing directly to the European control authorities.

“Participation’’ and ‘’anti-corruption’’ also make up the bulk of the language currently in vogue with progressives and left critics of such right-wing politics around the world: the juvenile search for exposing ‘’corruption’’; the misunderstanding of capitalism itself for “corruption,” is a problem that has invaded much of the cultural and academic left along with the culture of blame.

“Anti-corruption” means to make the system more brutally effective, by eliminating its weaknesses with the just, Nordic commissioner’s scalpel. Anti-corruption is the improvement of a predatory machine that cannot be skirted or fooled, the anti-capitalism of the right. The rhetoric of blame, moral shaming and ”transparency” used by the powerful Eurogroup against Greece is also the culture of blame found within neoliberal identity politics among the cultural left.

The minister slashes the funding of universities, but announces grants for vocational schools teaching small business management to adolescents: it is expensive, perhaps more expensive, but dumbing down the population can lower transaction costs for the businessmen and will ensure loyalty and aggression. Dumbing-down is a science in the Netherlands, and one that was not at all unique to the conventions of the recently-vanished social democratic order.

An economic and technocratic policy has rallied much of the Northern European general public into wild, concerted applause for investment capitalism.

The newspapers marketed to the non-immigrant working classes in the Netherlands and Germany decry how Europe is still making ‘’gifts’’ of money to the Greeks. “Hoppa! Another 5 billion to the Greeks” read the headlines of an issue of the Dutch Parool, mimicking the Greek word for toasting with ouzo (every Dutch and German tourist who visited Greece learned it on their first day.) Of course, the ‘’gifts’’ are relief-packages that are only allowed on the condition of Greece surrendering public ownership of its institutions, lands and buildings: the aid money is actually a bargained-down price of buying, and the investment expecting long-term returns as any business investor knows is necessary in order to make more profits.

Dutch newspapers frankly discuss how Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a Dutch Labour Party minister and Euro-group commissioner, can best break Greece. Columnists like Paul Brill recently tried to illustrate the risks of doing business with Syriza, with allusions to “blunders’’ and tactical mistakes the Dutch made in New Guinea in the 1950s: when the Dutch military was attempting to hold on to its last colonial territory within the Indonesian island-chains, but erred in how it read the intentions of local, tribal Papuan chieftains. While reading the Dutch commentary machine, it becomes clear when there is a nostalgic or patriotic political motive by the metaphors they use: typical Dutch expressions from the sea-farer period crop up. “Don’t go into sea with Syriza”, (meaning ‘look who you step into business with’) or ‘’the ship is not to be made clean’’ meaning, ‘’the slate is not be wiped clean,’’ or ‘’no forgiveness’’, ‘’their claims touch neither the hull nor the harbour’’ and so forth.

Minister Dijsselbloem receives much praise as a school-room enforcer of discipline upon the rowdy children who abused Europe. No amount of Greek sacrifice or capitulation is enough. Before his Brussels career, Dijsselbloem racked up his reputation for guiding Dutch Labour towards its reactionary and disciplinarian manifestations, in which authoritarian loyalty among party members is a requirement. He earned stripes while pleasing the right in his crackdown on the ‘’Antillean welfare mothers’’, unemployed black women who mostly originate in the Dutch island Curaçao, and who breed fatherless children—supposedly with the bullseye intention of a welfare-bonus from the state. Dijsselbloem was on the job, tough on the Antillean problem; the cure for just a small symptom of the relationship the Netherlands has cultivated with its overseas dependencies in the Caribbean, islands like Curaçao, Aruba and St Martin. That relationship is similar to the hyper-modernized colonial ties between the United States and Puerto Rico, though in some aspects the Netherlands has taken on more archaic and reactionary stances, with the majority ruling right-wing VVD (Nation, Freedom and Democracy Party) as well as Labour politicians talking like sheriffs and landlords on the islands, reversing any of the progressive arrangements made since the 1970s in the shadow of Surinam’s declaration of independence.

The Dutch stance on toughening up police presence on its overseas tropical islands is a phenomenon that goes hand-in-hand with the Dutch ferocious barking in favor of tougher disciplinarian measures on Greece. It remains part of imperial and retro-colonial nostalgia.

Anti-corruption rhetoric is used by Dutch politicians like Labour’s Ronald Plasterk, despised in St Martin and Curaçao for his involvement in directly replacing the native police commissioners and judges with Dutchmen who do not speak the creoles of the Dutch Caribbean and who require translators. Whereas it was the Freedom Party’s extremists who had previously argued for kicking the islands out of the kingdom for being corrupt dens of thieves, Labour-left is the party that puts actions before words, reversing the autonomy of the islands that have their own parliaments and their own local judiciaries, constitutions and police forces.

On the Dutch-Caribbean island, the anti-corruption official speaks in mostly penal, pedagogic and criminological terms—addressing concerns of the Dutch nativist voter who complains of all the Antillean youth emigration to the Netherlands; Antillean youths are associated in the press and in police culture with delinquency and vagrancy. There is a long-standing rancor of the Dutch towards their islands, regarded since the 19th century as parasitic expenses, as the world’s very first Indian reservations or welfare colonies.

In the case of Greece, the Dutch support for disciplinarian measures (mostly enforced by Euro- commissioner Dijsselbloem) are expressed less often in terms of crime. Either way, the anti-corruption euphoria reveals itself as a form of ‘’penal populism’’ used locally by Dutch politicians. The penal populism is justified by slogans of progress and ‘’equality’’, not so surprising given the prominent role of the Labour-left (or the Red neoliberal) establishment in colluding with the right.

Today Greece has taken on a new face: its features merge, transform into those of the black welfare-mother who Dijsselbloem searches for in his nocturnal visions. Greece has replaced the black Antillean welfare-mother needing to be kicked and repudiated by Dijsselbloem for her abusing the fragile system, for having grown obese on their expense, and is being thrown a janitor’s cloth.

Usurpation is Emancipation

The language of ‘’anti-corruption’’ is often used by the global corporate media in its frenzy of mimicking left-wing stances. The intended effect is to confuse ‘’anti-corruption,’’ and sensational shaming of the corrupt culprits, with a profound critique of the ruling financial systems. Both the left, or what has been called the ‘’red neoliberal establishment’’ recently (such as in the response to how the British left-labour establishment conjoined in the shaming of Jeremy Corbyn) as well as the right wing are using the language of anti-corruption, transparency, and shaming of culprits.

A typical method of such ‘’anti-corruption’’ spectacle, is to rename usurpation ‘’emancipation.’’ For instance, the method of securing more posts for women on inspectors’ commissions and lauding the progress in women’s rights—assuming that a world with more of Christine Lagarde will translate into justice, fairness and equity. Lagarde herself chants in unison with the omnipresent gender-politics, having said ‘’had the Lehman brothers been Lehman, sisters, today’s economic crisis would look quite different’’—in what way different, Lagarde does not specify, but her skill at moral-fiscal sadism in Greece perhaps seems an attempt to prove she can outdo Kissinger who boasted of ‘’making the Chilean economy scream’’ in the 1970s. (The Dutch journalist Joris Luijendijk, known previously for his forays in Palestine, criticized this false consciousness in recent articles.) The politically-correct left has not made any effort to contradict or correct women like Lagarde. The blame and anti-corruption culture is prevalent in the posturing tabloid media. There is an adolescent’s discovery that the system that feeds is actually unjust and corrupt, to the adolescent’s great surprise. When the local institutions in Italy or Greece are taken over by Euro-group appointees, the news items will prefer to point out how ‘’half of the new directors are women!” while ignoring that all of the new rulers are Austrians, Swiss-German, German or Dutch. That such an order can express more ‘female’’ values is unlikely. More important is how the political establishment uses ‘’anti-corruption’’ to cleanse itself of internal weaknesses, becoming more deadly and formidable–and as a consequence, not merely less ‘’female’’ or less ‘’masculine,’’ simply inhuman.

The anti-corruption chatter is perfectly revealed for what it is, when Northern European affluent states in the Eurogroup, aided by the IMF are renegotiating the debts of Southern European countries: quickly, the incorruptible commission members, male and female alike, indulge and engage in crime and corruption much in the same way the rational British gentlemen of the 19th century suddenly discovered they possessed a savage, animal side while foraying in the jungles of India and the Serenghetti.

There is the reality of nepotism, mafias and corrupt family dynasties that have long wielded power in countries like Greece and Spain (and perhaps this even makes the European South more recognizable to most countries in the world.) Yet somehow the reality of corrupt dynasties must justify the Tin-Tin heroics of a Dutch, Austrian or Swiss inspection committee that comes riding in to impose discipline and to erode all local governments’ constitutional and sovereign power. Such ‘’transparency’’ politics is quite an obvious form of retro-colonialism, bearing overtones of the colonial nostalgia now predominant in European politics. No one is denying it either, only the defenders of retro-colonialism argue that it is necessary; first of all necessary as therapy and as a revenge against history for the nation demanding structural adjustments, and of secondary importance, it is necessary for the moral upbringing of the infantilized Southern country, which receives a harsh nanny-lesson and the shock-doctrine.

Nonsensical economic programs bearing the religious name of ‘’austerity’’ have been deployed by German and Dutch creditors as a theatrical punishment of the Southern European debtor-nations. These countries have been referred to by economists since 2011 as the “PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece). “Austerity’’ is a spectacle for a callous audience, both in the case of Greece, as well as in the ‘’workfare’’ programs for disabled poor within the Northern societies who demand infinite attrition from Greece. The bread and circus of austerity-politics is parcel to the neo-primitivism that accompanies neoliberal economy and its cultural products. The cruel spectacle has revived a European tradition of the kind typically associated with the Counterreformation and the middle ages: public torture as spectator sport, the gallows as entertainment..

The predictable and immediate consequences of the Euro’s lessons in morality are blatant and horrifying in the treatment of Greek hospitals. The lack of available needles and scarcity of HIV/AIDs medications that Greek doctors complain of, gets reported in the Dutch newspapers like Volkskrant as ‘’Greek hospital mafia is making demands!” and Syriza is accused of replacing the hospital directors with their personal friends who lack medical training, echoing the Euro-parliament’s and Der Spiegel’s accusation of Syriza consisting of ‘’amateurs’’. What is meant by ‘’Syriza’s amateurism’’ is that politicians in a left-wing party are not former directors of companies or financial consultancies, unlike many officials in Dutch and German labour parties. Traditionally, the politicians of the left typically come from the unions or from militant organizations that provided social services in poor neighborhoods, (seldom from the board of directors of corporate firms, as those are the ranks supplying the right wing with its impresarios and would-be-emperors like Trump or George Bush the elder.)

The rapid third-worldization of Greece is unfolding. German-Dutch austerity measures, presented as ‘’disciplinerung’’ or ‘disciplinary measures’ by the Eurogroup, disenfranchise most public institutions of Greece. Suddenly, the typical third-world problems crop up: scarcities of clean needles and of adequate medicine affect Athenian hospitals since 2012.

Capital flight is the staple financial problem of the third world, where capital is funneled out of a country as quickly as possible, destined for banks in affluent and stable countries. Such ‘’liquidity’’ is institutionalized by Germany and the Netherlands. Investment means purchasing power, money is granted upon the conditions of impossible austerity.

There was a vain hope that Greek austerity measures being passed so unexpectedly by Tsipras, breaking all his promises to his people, are false promises to the Eurogroup or concessions made from an isolated and choiceless Greece. Let us hope the Nordic stereotype of the corrupt, mask-wearing and lying Southerner are all true, and that the promises made by Tsipras to the enemies of the Greek people are promises to be rambunctiously broken. After all, the Europhiles have shown they are not really rational. They too are corrupt, but call their corruption networking, their methods of money-laundering employ their overseas departments or the charity institutions and the austerity measures they inflict even on their own people. And they, the chosen nations leading the Euro-group, have not kept to their past agreements. “Elections can’t mean anything’’ shrugged the German treasurer Wolfgang Schlaübe.

It would be praiseworthy if Syriza soon acts to horrify the German establishment, by going on with nationalizing industries just like the Bolivarians and Chavistas did in Venezuela and just like the Kirchners’ and Evita Peron before them once did in Argentina. It seems a vain, and desperate wishful thinking for now. Greece needs support from nearby countries, hopefully the next elections of Spain and Portugal might produce such allies. Putin’s relationship with Germany, and his ties with the Euro-skeptic parties who hate Syriza are less clear-cut and adverse as in the cold war relations existing between Russia and the United States. Russian officials are meeting with Merkel in Minsk to discuss the Minsk accords in relation to the war with Ukraine, and a positive support of Syriza, the enemy of Germany, was not at the right strategic moment as the Greeks had hoped.


Arturo Desimone is a writer, poet and visual artist currently based between Argentina and the Netherlands. He was born and raised on the island Aruba, a son of immigrants and exiles. A book of his poems, La Amada de Túnez, is forthcoming from the Argentinian poetry publisher Audisea Libros. His poems short fiction pieces and translations have appeared in literary journals such as The Adirondack Review, Blue Lyra Review, CounterPunch Poets Basement and Drunken Boat.