Geert Wilders and the rise of the new radical right

Issue: 131
Posted: 28 June 11

Maina van der Zwan

If someone in England stands up and establishes a party which positions itself between the racist BNP and the conservatives, it would also get 20 percent of the vote. I would very much like to establish parties in other countries. The people want it. An anti-Islam wave that is unstoppable.1

A week before this comment by the leading Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders, the English Defence League announced it was considering standing candidates in national and council elections. EDL leader Tommy Robinson said, “I think this country needs a party that is not afraid to say things some would consider unpopular”.2 Undoubtedly, the sort of party he has in mind is Wilders’s anti-Islamic Party for Freedom (PVV). Just a few months earlier Robinson and his violent gang had organised a demonstration in Amsterdam in his support. The demonstration, meant as a show of strength and launchpad for a “European Defence League”, failed miserably.3 But the intention of the EDL is clear: it is searching for ways to force a political breakthrough. And it sees Wilders’s party as a model to follow.

Robinson is not the only far-right figure who wants to draw lessons from Wilders’s success. Marine Le Pen, while struggling for control and political direction of the French Front National, announced she wants to strengthen the ties with the PVV.4 At around the same time a new party called “Die Freiheit” (Freedom) was launched in Germany, modelled explicitly on the PVV and endorsed by Wilders.

These examples of mutual attraction among Europe’s far-right are part of a wider trend. Nazi parties, street movements like the EDL and populist racist electoral parties are cross-pollinating and making political breakthroughs. The fascist Jobik has doubled its vote and has become the third largest party in Hungary; the extreme right Sweden Democrats have entered parliament for the first time; the Northern League won regional elections in 2010 in Italy; and the nationalist “True Finns” became the third largest party in the Finnish elections in April 2011.

Concurrently with these advances, racist policies are gaining ground—deportation of Roma, denaturalisations of convicted migrants, banning of the hijab and the building of mosques, and pogroms against immigrants. Wilders, junior partner of the current Dutch minority government, is one of the figureheads of this trend. His party has become the third largest in Dutch politics, and his viciously racist politics play a central role in Dutch political life.

In just five years Wilders has gone from an isolated radical rogue who split away from the mainstream right to one of the most powerful politicians in the Netherlands and an influential exponent of the far-right internationally. He has started building an international network of like-minded groups and think-tanks.5 This year he will publish a book with the aim of taking his crusade against “Islamisation” to the United States. Given the fact that Wilders is not just a Dutch peculiarity, an analysis of the driving forces behind his rise to power could be useful for activists battling similar formations elsewhere.

The heritage of Pim Fortuyn

Wilders’s rise has been meteoric. He created his own parliamentary faction in 2004, and won nine out of 150 seats in 2006 and 24 in 2010. But his success did not come out of nowhere. It had been prepared by shifts in mainstream politics that took place over a decade and were catalysed by Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant anti-Islamic columnist turned populist politician.

Fortuyn’s entrance into the political arena in 2001 marked a profound shift in the political climate in the Netherlands. Until then all had seemed well in a country famous for its social stability and supposed tolerance. But something had been brewing beneath the surface and erupted with a vengeance when Fortuyn started attacking the political establishment. He hit a weak spot at the right time.

The then reigning “purple government”, an alliance between social democrats and liberals, was hugely unpopular. Fortuyn presented himself as a fresh “neither left nor right” outsider on a mission to upset “old politics”. This struck a chord with a lot of voters who were sick of the mainstream parties. Their anger was channelled into a typical right wing populist agenda, which raged against “the bureaucracy”, immigration, crime and specifically Islam.

Where other far right forces that had attempted to break through in the 1980s and 1990s had been branded as fascists and were consequently isolated, Fortuyn succeeded in shaking off this contaminated baggage. He was openly gay and explicitly pro-Israel, distancing himself from the anti-Semitism and homophobia of traditional Nazi parties like the French Front National and the Dutch Centrum Democrats. This crucially helped him ward off attacks of extreme right affiliations and present himself as a respectable politician.

In March 2002 Fortuyn won the council elections in Rotterdam, winning 35 percent of the vote in the second largest city in the Netherlands. Two months later, just before the national elections, he was shot and killed by an environmental activist. His party, the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), posthumously got 17 percent of the national vote. It went into government, but without its central figure it succumbed to infighting and imploded after a series of splits.

The years after Fortuyn’s murder saw a fight over his political heritage. Survivors of the LPF, breakaways from the free-market liberal VVD and leaders of small Nazi splinters, all tried to fill the space Fortuyn had left behind. One of those was a VVD-parliamentarian by the name of Geert Wilders.

Born in 1963 to a Catholic family in Venlo, Wilders has his roots in the economically depressed south of the Netherlands. As a young adult he travelled to Israel where he volunteered for several years in a moshav (Zionist settlement), becoming in his own words “a true friend of Israel”.6 Back in the Netherlands he worked in the health insurance industry before becoming a parliamentary assistant to Frits Bolkestein in 1990. Bolkestein was the party leader of the VVD and the future European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services.7 It was from him that Wilders learned the tricks of the trade. Bolkestein is a leading neoliberal and provocative xenophobe, who consistently tried to push the boundaries of public debate to the right.

Wilders was elected into parliament in 1998. At first he remained fairly invisible, but this changed when he was appointed VVD spokesperson for foreign affairs in 2002. He used his new position to vent his ideas about the dangers of “Islamic extremism” and “Islamisation”, often going further than his party’s point of view. Bolkestein had departed to the European Commission in 1999 and since then Wilders had become more and more dissatisfied with the course of the VVD. Confronted with the success of Fortuyn and radicalised by 9/11, Wilders wanted his party to become a hard right force which could radicalise the political environment and cut off any competition from the right. The leadership however, wanted the party to remain on the centre-right, dedicated to the European Union (EU) and coalition politics.

In 2004 Wilders was expelled after leaking his own internal memo calling for a more right wing course and subsequently refusing to promise to restrain himself.8 He remained in parliament as an independent, with hate speech against Muslims and migrants as his trademark. From 2005 onwards he headed the parliamentary fraction of the newly established PVV.

The social context within which this occurred was very turbulent. The years following Fortuyn’s murder saw massive anti-war demonstrations and union mobilisations against pension reforms. In 2005 62 percent of the Dutch electorate rejected the EU Constitutional Treaty, despite (and partly encouraged by) a fierce “Yes” campaign by the government, the union bureaucracy, NGOs, the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA) and the Green Left. Only the anti-neoliberal Socialist Party (SP), the far left and Wilders had campaigned against.9 Consequently, approval rates for the government hovered between 15 and 20 percent, and the next general election showed strong political polarisation.10 On the right, Wilders had been the most extreme representative of Fortuyn’s politics and won the fight over his heritage. In the 2006 national elections he won nine seats and his far-right competitors none. Meanwhile, on the left the SP obtained a historic victory, gaining 25 seats.

Disillusionment followed the failure of mass demonstrations to change government policies and all eyes turned to the parliamentary scene, with especially high expectations in the SP. But in the following years it was not the left, the social movements or the unions that set the tone of debate: it was Wilders, often leaving the rest of the political landscape confused and disorientated.

The politics of the PVV

Taking a lead from Fortuyn, Wilders has been pushing for a rightward shift by channelling general discontent towards an agenda of authoritarian neoliberalism and Islamophobia. His politics are a combination of aggressive verbal attacks on “the left elite” (specifically the social democrats, but more generally the whole political establishment, the media and intellectuals), concealed neoliberalism and rampant Islamophobia dressed up in a post-9/11 world view.

Wilders argues that Islam is a monolithic political ideology, inherently opposed to “Enlightenment values”, poised at world dominance and about to take over Europe. Here he takes the American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s prediction of a developing clash of civilisations to a new level. It is not only that post Cold War international politics is supposedly driven by cultural and religious conflicts: according to Wilders an existential battle between the West and Islam is nearing the end phase. Speaking at the Hudson Institute in New York in 2008, he told an enthusiastic crowd:

I come to America with a mission. All is not well in the old world. There is a tremendous danger looming, and it is very difficult to be optimistic. We might be in the final stages of the Islamisation of Europe. This not only is a clear and present danger to the future of Europe itself, it is a threat to America and the sheer survival of the West. The United States is the last bastion of Western civilisation, facing an Islamic Europe.11

Wilders is an avowed supporter of Israel, which he sees as the crucial external frontier. For him, parties like the PVV form the last line of defence against a fifth column of Muslims. The only way to win would be an Israelification of Europe, treating Muslims as second-rate citizens and a permanent threat to “our way of life”. He has argued for a “raghead-tax” (a thousand euro fine for wearing the hijab, described by him in a speech in parliament as “making the polluter pay”),12 proposed that the Dutch army fight “street terrorists” (ie youth of Moroccan descent) at home instead of in Afghanistan,13 and wants to abolish the first article of the constitution which declares all citizens equal and replace it with one identifying the “Christian-Jewish and humanist” tradition as the dominant culture.

Around these policies Wilders has built an international network, ranging from American neoconservatives and evangelicals to members of the armed settler movement and high officials in Israel, with the more traditional extreme right parties from Europe uncomfortably in between. Most of his funding comes from the United States, where Daniel Pipes of the Middle Eastern Forum boasted of having raised “an amount of six figures” for Wilders.14 His American speaking tours have functioned as an ideological ice-breaker for a new radical right in the US, going much further with his Islam-bashing than most American politicians and institutions dare to go.

Wilders’s social-economic policy is intentionally fuzzy, combining hard liberalism with more social measures, supposedly aimed at defending the “hard-working Dutch”. This has caused some commentators to describe Wilders as “culturally right wing, but socio-economically left leaning”. This is spectacularly mistaken. Coming from the VVD, Wilders has neoliberalism ingrained in his DNA. In his “Declaration of Independence” of 2004 he wrote that the welfare state, regulation and taxation need to be cut down to create a more corporate friendly environment.15 He has always stood for economic liberalism with a typical do it yourself, middle class twist to it. By “hard-working Dutch” he does not mean working class; he means the ideal of the self-made entrepreneur. Tellingly, the new candidates for the provincial elections in March were described by one journalist as “tie-types”, pro-business and keen on countering any formal obstructions to building projects and entrepreneurial initiative.16

The so-called social shifts Wilders has made were intended opportunistically to broaden his electoral base. In the run-up to the 2010 general election he made promises to resist the raising of the pension age and cuts to social security. The first he abandoned just hours after the election results had come in, and the second when he was able to become junior partner to the most right wing government in Dutch history. Put to the choice, Wilders has consistently opted for neoliberalism, from furthering the privatisation of the health sector to dismantling rent control in the social housing system.17

This commitment to neoliberalism has only occasionally led to an upset among his voters. In October 2010 bus drivers in The Hague were enraged after the PVV discarded their earlier promises and supported the privatisation of public transport in the political capital.18

There is nothing left wing in Wilders’s politics. He is a power-politician who is more willing to lie about his real nature than any other representative of the mainstream right. The main reason he has got away with this deceit is his effective use of racism as an electoral battering ram, which he has managed to connect very explicitly to social issues. Since the onset of the economic crisis he has been insisting on the necessity of saving billions of euros by cutting “costs of mass migration”. He has pleaded among other things for limiting social security to non-Western migrants, minimising judicial aid to those having lived in the Netherlands for longer than ten years and forcing immigrants to pay for their own integration and language courses.

This racist scapegoating has functioned as a very effective lightning rod for class anger, deflecting it against migrants. The result has been that a large part of the social base of the PVV believe that they stand to benefit from the repressive and racist measures, even if in practice it means a continuation of the ruling class neoliberal onslaught. The elements of racism and neoliberalism are present in all mainstream parties, but the way Wilders takes this to new extremes and combines it with aggressive anti-establishment rhetoric has made him a dynamic political force that differs fundamentally from the rest of the political spectrum.

Characterising Wilders’s new radical right

The rise of Wilders is not an exclusively Dutch phenomenon. The last two decades have seen the rise of new, more aggressive right wing political forces, ranging from Forza Italia to UKIP to Jobik. All these formations defend an extreme form of neoliberalism and a return to authoritarian politics and police-state methods, and fully identify with the “war on terror”. In most of the cases they use Islamophobia as a way to give their programme a popular base, sometimes also engaging in anti-Roma or even anti-Walloon agitation in the Flemish case. They all harbour authoritarian, racist and anti-democratic politics that call upon forces outside of the established institutions.

But there are also important differences, especially in strategic orientation. Roughly three currents can be distinguished. First of all there are euro Nazi parties like the Front National and the British National Party. They bind together an older cadre hardened by fascist politics with an electoral strategy aimed at creating local strongholds. Second, there are violent street movements like the EDL and those we have seen in Russia and other Eastern European countries. Third, there are populist racist parties like the PVV and UKIP, which retain a purely electoral strategy and try politically to distance themselves from the fascist elements within the extreme right.

It is important to note how these currents are cross-fertilising. The rise of Islamophobia and the electoral success of far right forces have given confidence and political space to smaller fascist formations. These in turn have learned from their big brothers and looked for ways to broaden their base by downplaying their racism and joining the electoral process. This seems to be the direction that the EDL is taking, starting out from a position very different from Wilders, but now steering much more closely towards his model. The recent research by the Searchlight Education Trust found that 48 percent of Britons would back an anti-immigration party if it was not linked to fascist imagery, confirming the frightening potential for this strategy.19

Other fascists have decided to try their luck joining the existing electoral projects. Despite trying to keep them outside the PVV, research showed that 20 known extreme right activists were involved in the regional elections of the PVV.20 Fully fledged fascist formations are currently still marginal, but austerity capitalism creates a social dynamic that can push these currents in the direction of fascism. So where does the PVV stand within this spectrum?

For a long time the significance of Wilders’s political project has been downplayed. The established parties chose to ignore him as much as possible, whitewashing Wilders as a harmless clown and hoping the storm would blow over. Clearly this perspective has been wrong. Wilders has proven to be a very intelligent political operator, who has gone from success to success, and in the process has succeeded in pushing the whole political landscape to the right.

Wilders stands apart as an extreme racist, an aggressive neoconservative, and according to several commentators and activists, a modern fascist. This last argument is mostly made by comparing the current situation to the 1930s, Islamophobia to anti-Semitism and thus Wilders to Hitler. There is obviously ground for the comparison. The PVV systematically dehumanises Muslims and minorities, rejects universal values, displays a deep-seated hatred towards anything that resembles the left, and its elected officials have a high level of acceptance for violence (with a quarter of its parliamentarians convicted of criminal activities).

But there are also problems with labelling Wilders a fascist, both analytically and in terms of strategy. The PVV maintains a purely electoral strategy and has little street presence. Party organisation has been limited to parliamentary work and volunteers for electoral campaigns. The PVV has no local branches, although there have been a dozen tightly controlled local meetings since its establishment that have been important in securing Wilders’s electoral base. The PVV does not have membership, aside from Wilders himself.21 Only a few of the elected officials of the PVV are allowed to speak to the press without prior consent of Wilders. He is a maniacal control-freak wary of a dynamic he cannot master.

His fear that a more vocal and visible membership would reveal its extreme right tendencies is justified. Numerous party candidates have been removed from lists because of revelations of ties to the extreme right, and the first instance of open dissent over the question of organising a youth wing immediately led to an internal crisis. The only PVV demonstration that has had Wilders’s approval brought together a colourful array of fuming, flag-waving loonies and half the cadre of former Nazi clubs.

The rudimentary elements for a development towards fascism are present, but are consciously suppressed in fear of destabilisation. This is mostly a result of Wilders’s instrumentalist approach. For him politics is about gaining influence and so far his estimation has been that the best way to do so is by following a controlled electoral approach. Why rock an unsteady boat if it progresses on course? Furthermore, the current material situation is not pushing the party towards fascism. In the Netherlands the effects of the current economic crisis on people’s lives, though severe, are still in no way comparable to those of the 1930s. This means there is not yet the kind of desperation in the middle classes to drive them towards more violent solutions, a key characteristic of fascist movements.

Of course this could change. The unfolding economic crisis is already creating the kind of social turbulence and political polarisation in which fascism can grow. Moreover, with his hateful rhetoric against Muslims, Wilders has created a dangerous dynamic that could take on a life of its own by manifesting itself as a movement on the streets. We are already seeing the signs of violent attacks on mosques and Islamic schools and threats against leftist activists and intellectuals. This leaves the future trajectory of the PVV as an open question. Further success or a severe crisis could drive its radicalisation further, but it is also possible that it will be absorbed into the establishment or that increased pressure will cause it to implode like the LPF before it.

It would therefore for the moment be most accurate to characterise the PVV as a populist party of the new radical right. The strategic consequence of this is that combating the PVV does not centre on physical confrontation to stop the movement on the streets. But like fighting fascism it does require a broad movement that can counter the racist ideology and unmask Wilders as an enemy of working people, of whatever colour or creed. This is a very urgent task for the left. Furthermore, combating the PVV calls for clarity in ideas, for an understanding of its historical roots, how its ideology functions and what the role of the mainstream parties has been in facilitating its rise.

The roots of bitterness

Where does the support for Wilders come from? The dominant analysis is that a winner must be right and so there must be a general popular anger over multiculturalism, crime and Islam, which Wilders simply recognises and verbalises like any other elected representative.22 This is a convenient analysis, because it dodges all kinds of difficult questions about the role of the political establishment in paving the way for Wilders—it is also wrong and dangerous.

The motivation to vote for the PVV is as much racist as it is a general expression of protest against the established political parties. In one poll, 38 percent of voters said the main reason for voting PVV was “its programme”. Another 38 percent answered “Distrust in government and politics in general”. Asked what the most important programmatic points of PVV are, 33 percent answered “Too many foreigners” and 22 percent answered “Tougher on crime”. When given the opportunity to put their motivations in their own words, two themes stand out. One is a fear of foreigners and Muslims (government soft on “criminal foreigners”, for preservation of Dutch culture and against mosques). The other emphasised anger against the government (self-enrichment of The Hague, not delivering on promises, and “pocket-filling social-democrats”).23 PVV voters see politicians as thieves, are vehemently against rescuing banks and have (very) little trust in “the current government”—95 percent against 71 percent of average eligible voters!24

Practically all research into the PVV’s base stresses the combination of xenophobia and strong distrust in government. All too often these two are causally linked (“Government is softer on immigrants than voters want them to be, so that is why there is a voters’ revolt”), but that is just too easy. Both the “No” vote in the EU referendum and the huge win for the SP in the 2006 elections (17 percent of the vote against 6 for the PVV) demonstrate that the anger is much broader, more diffuse and politically fluid than just straightforwardly anti-immigrant.

Looking more closely at the changes in society sheds light on the question what feeds this general anger. Like elsewhere in Europe the past 30 years have seen a stealthy takeover by neoliberalism and a transformation of Dutch society.25 The collective tax burden was lowered, state budgets were divided into sectors and capped, government services were privatised and social security became a repressive instead of a supportive institution. The economy was deregulated, even more integrated into the world economy than it already was, and by the end of the 1990s the Netherlands had become one of the world epicentres for financial innovation.26 With unemployment at a historic low at the turn of the century there was talk of the “Dutch Miracle”. The Economist Intelligence Unit wrote in 2001 that the Netherlands was “the best place in the world for investment”.27

But beneath the surface tensions were building. Most of the 1.4 million newly created jobs in the 1990s were low-skill, low-productivity and low-paid. Moreover, 50 percent of those created between 1994 and 2000 were part-time and 40 percent were flexible.28 Household debt had exploded and there had been a stark rise in overtime work, way above the European average.29 The job market had become segmented into an upper echelon that was doing a lot better and the rest experiencing the imposition of greater “flexibility” and a decrease in salaries and secondary benefits.30 And with taxation for multinationals near zero and a new range of taxation loopholes for the rich, a wealth gap between the haves and have-nots opened quickly. Between 1980 and 2005 the richest 10 percent saw their purchasing power rise by an average of 60 percent, while the poorest saw theirs decline by 10 percent.31

There was an astonishing level of political consensus over the neoliberal operation. The ideological counter-revolution after the revolt of the 1960s, which stresses that people are responsible for their own success or failure, had been very effective. All mainstream parties adapted smoothly to the neoliberal consensus, party programmes converged and the economy was depoliticised. A pact between the bosses and the unions to keep wages low was institutionalised and called “the polder model”. As a result, the working class was pushed onto the defensive, with most strikes aimed at retaining employment.32

Figure 1: Development of purchasing power for lowest income group and highest 10 percent of income (1980=100)
Source: CBS
figure 1

These developments were not without effects. One was a sharp increase in pressure on individuals, both at work and in society more generally. It was established in 2000 that one in five workers struggled with psychological fatigue,33 and in 2005 that one out of ten workers would suffer a burnout at some point during their lives.34 By 2008 there was talk of a “depression epidemic”, caused by a combination of neoliberal policies, the pharmaceutical industry, marketing companies and clustered health agencies.35 According to Storm and Naastepad the increasingly anonymous and threatening world environment had the effects of what Erich Fromm once called “mutual human indifference, and relatedly, a loss of self-confidence as the ‘sense of self’ is determined by market success”.36

Another effect was a deep-seated distrust of established social institutions, politics in general and the government in particular. An opinion poll on democracy and government in 2007, with more than 100,000 participants, revealed a huge gap between what kind of society a large majority wanted (one based on solidarity and equality, with a government taking responsibility for education, childcare, health, public transport and aiding people in financial distress) and the way the present society is perceived (anti-social, stressful, with solidarity undermined and government managed irresponsibly).37 Less than half of the respondents said they feel politically represented. This is not only a remarkable figure. The poll shows that the roots of the bitterness are much more anchored in social-economic frustration than is generally assumed.

While the whole political establishment bears responsibility for this, the ensuing instability and political crisis was most serious for the social democrats. They had adapted to the new fashion, officially shaking off their “ideological feathers”, as they put it themselves, and becoming the favourites of the international Third Way jet set. The career of PvdA leader Wim Kok tells the whole story: labour leader in the 1980s, prime minister in the 1990s and board member of multinationals and banks in the new millennium. His successor, former Royal Shell manager Wouter Bos, confessed to no longer having dreams for the future, and reduced the aim of socialists to “making life just a little bit better”.38

So the bitterness and distrust caused by decades of neoliberal policies goes very deep. For the new radical right it was a matter of tapping into this general anger and channelling it against “the left elite”, who they framed as having naively opened the floodgates of the immigration that is destroying “our way of life”. Wilders did not do this on his own. His path was paved by a multitude of intellectuals, journalists and politicians.

Forging the new racism

Looking back, it is easy to see two intertwined ideological trends developing in reaction to the crumbling support and growing resentment towards the political establishment. One is “integrationism”, which argues that “metropolitan problems” (crime, unemployment and social deprivation) are caused by an influx of migrants who were unable to integrate into Dutch society because of their cultural baggage. The second trend is a resurgence of nationalism, creating a sense of community based on conservative (often articulated as Christian) values.

The “integration debate” was forced into the mainstream by 9/11, the “war on terror” and Fortuyn. But the issue had been pioneered in the years prior to this by Frits Bolkestein and social-democratic publicist Paul Scheffer. From the early 1990s onwards Bolkestein regularly published opinion articles in which he blamed “failing integration” on the cultural relativism of the political elite and pleaded among other things for the right of asylum to be restricted to occasional individual cases since the Netherlands were “full”.39 In 2000 Scheffer wrote an essay that would become a landmark in the racist turn of the public debate called “The Multicultural Drama”, in which he said that “unemployment, poverty, school abstention and criminality pile up among ethnic minorities… We are talking about an enormous number of stragglers and people without prospect, who will increasingly burden Dutch society”.40

The arguments of the likes of Bolkestein, Fortuyn and Scheffer rest on three assumptions: there are distinct “ethnic” groups who differ from each other by cultural identity; these groups cannot live alongside each other unproblematically; national or “ethnic” identity is the most important binding factor from which individuals derive a sense of solidarity. Despite all the evidence pointing towards a social-economic rather than a multicultural drama, the mainstream, including most of the left, has been won for this reasoning.

The flip-side of scapegoating cultural differences for social problems is a resurgence of Dutch nationalism. With “inferior” culture being framed as the main cause of society’s problems, the solution is seen as making “Dutch culture”, whatever that may be, hegemonic. As Scheffer formulated it in the same essay, “a lazy multiculturalism is gaining ground because we insufficiently articulate what binds our society together… Let’s start by taking the Dutch language, history and culture seriously”, which in turn should lead to a new “national consciousness”.41

What has followed is a trend of forced assimilation, with among other things mandatory Dutch lessons and cultural entrance tests for migrants, and a national awareness programme for moral values run by the state. The latter was the flagship of the Christian-Democratic prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, who led four different cabinets between 2002 and 2010. Ranging from advertisements against littering to a plea for citizenship based on “Jewish-Christian values”, the programme has been ridiculed as old-fashioned
moralising, but its effects should not be underestimated. Based on the theories of “moral leadership” and communitarianism of the American Third Way sociologist Amitai Etzioni, it has strengthened the right wing assumption that people are responsible for their own social situation. Policy should not be there to support people, but to punish those who do not conform.

These intertwined ideological trends of scapegoating migrants and renewed nationalism have aided the forging of a “new racism”, which has shifted racist focus from colour to culture, from body to belief.42 The social dynamic, however, is the same as with the old racism: static stereotypes about minorities that fuel fear, hatred, discrimination and racist violence.

As a result racist ideas have become more rooted in Dutch society. According to research in 2006 half of the Dutch consider themselves Islamophobic and 66 percent find Islam irreconcilable with “modern European life”. A shocking 10 percent consider themselves racists. They find “native Dutch” more intelligent than and superior to migrants. According to 66 percent of the participants, racism is widespread and 80 percent think racism has increased over the past years.43 Results of research among youth underline the trend: 54 percent of 14 to 16 year olds say they have (very) negative feelings about Muslims. Interestingly the resentment is strongest in rural areas and white schools, where students get most of their opinions about ethnic and religious minorities from the media instead of personal experience.44 In 2010 the PVV won the mock general elections among school students.45

The rise of the new racism has not been confined to the sphere of ideas and opinions. Discrimination against job applicants has risen, especially against young men with “Muslim beards” and Arab features.46 Attacks on mosques have increased, with incidents of arson, blood smears on walls and even a decapitated swine on the doorsteps of a mosque in the northern town of Groningen.47 In 2008 researchers observed “a sharp rise in violent incidents against Muslims… Which is all the more striking, since this trend goes against a general decrease in racist violence”.48

These developments have been picked up and actively pushed by mainstream media outlets, right wing bloggers and a battalion of neoconservative intellectuals.49 Together they have formed a new activist right which has found coherence around the issues of integration, Islam, freedom of speech, security, the phantom of the “left elite” and climate change as a conspiracy of the environmental movement.

Explaining Wilders’s success

Wilders’s electoral success is thus based on the emergence of a much broader new right playing into a generalised feeling of discontent, actively creating a right wing “common sense”, an accepted vision of reality which Wilders only had to refer to and build upon. He differentiates himself from this broader movement by positioning himself on the most extreme wing of it and framing every issue as part of the existential battle against “Islamisation”. The question as to how his political project has been so successful, however, remains. It is one thing to want to create a new right political force, and another to actually succeed in it.

The first reason for the success of the new radical right is that its racism has been very useful for a neoliberal project in crisis and was thus aided by the establishment. Years of pushing through hugely unpopular policies had reduced the political effectiveness of the mainstream parties. Given the rise of anti-market sentiment the mainstream right could not continue on its old ideological footing that “the market is best for everyone”.

In this context the discourse of Dutch society being burdened by mass immigration and calls for a stronger state provided the centre-right parties with both a distraction and an excuse for a more authoritarian form of neoliberalism. That is why the extremist hate speech of Fortuyn and Wilders, which a decade before would have been rather marginal and probably prosecuted, has now found a resonance in the entire political establishment.50

In an unusually candid interview former minister of justice Piet-Hein Donner revealed how this interaction between the mainstream and radical right functioned. Looking back at the period right after the murder of Fortuyn he explains that, despite being immensely unpopular, his hard right government was able to use the political polarisation to push through neoliberal reforms: “Against the background of the critique that Fortuyn had formulated there was a feeling that firm decisions had to be made… We thought that in the eyes of the public we could not do the right thing anyway, so we just did what we wanted. That was a very liberating feeling. There was simply less discussion about the why”.51

The ideological momentum created by the new right and the “war on terror” also opened a space for all kinds of measures that had been unthinkable 20 years ago: a law that allows for pre-emptive arrest of whole groups, area interdictions for youth with some kind of conviction on their record, a biometric database of all citizens, the highest density of phone taps in the world, preventive searches, body-scans at the airport, quotas for poor people settling in certain neighbourhoods, and so on and so forth. The argument is, of course, that these measures are necessary for fighting crime and terrorism, but in practice they are used for social control, from criminalising protesters to disciplining minority and working class communities, very much fitting with the needs of authoritarian neoliberalism.

The second reason for the success of the PVV is the lack of a counterforce. The left parties have ideologically adapted to Wilders’s offensive rather than confront it. Moreover, the low level of class struggle means that workers’ collective action has not provided an alternative outlet for the discontent at the bottom of society. A united fightback along class lines against neoliberal attacks could have helped overcome prejudices over creed and colour, thereby narrowing the breeding ground for the new radical right. The different trajectories of Fortuyns’s LPF and Wilders’s PVV are telling. When anti-war and labour mass movements peaked in 2003 and 2004, the LPF was nowhere to be seen and vanished as a political force after internal fights led to several splits.

The PVV rose to electoral success in a period of very low social struggle and with a mainstream left that was traumatised by the experience of Fortuyn. The blame for his murder had been put on them, for supposedly having created “a climate of demonisation”. Wilders then cunningly used this to create a taboo on criticising him, resulting in a left that was even weaker on the issue of anti-racism than it already had already been.

Furthermore, the union leadership and the left have not only failed to organise the fightback against austerity measures, but have also moved to the right on the social-economic front, leaving themselves badly positioned to channel class anger. This has been a key reason why Wilders has been able to get away with presenting himself as an anti-establishment force. Revealingly, when the government moved to raise the pension age in 2009 there was a large majority of the country, let alone union members, who were opposed to this. Instead of transforming popular opposition into mass struggle, the union leadership opted for a strategy of lobbying the social democrats in government. When that failed, it was Wilders and not the left parties who denounced the unions for having betrayed the “hard-working Dutch”, resulting in another leap for his party in the opinion polls.

The social democrats have been in permanent crisis over how to deal with Wilders and their own unpopularity. They have the largest migrant voting base. This has resulted in sporadic statements of Labour politicians against racism, mostly on a rather soft basis. At the same time they have been part of the same logic that drove the rest of the political establishment to adapt to the new right. The PvdA has been responsible for tightening immigration laws pushing through more repressive measures for social control. Its city councillor for The Hague has mimicked Wilders by warning of a “tsunami of East Europeans” and its parliamentarians have among other things pushed for legislating pre-emptive arrests of “problematic street youth”. Party leader Bos famously argued that the party should dare to break with consensus politics and polarise more, not on the economic front, but against the multiculturalists. “We should generalise more. [PvdA Mayor of Rotterdam] Aboutaleb says it is little Moroccan brats who have created Wilders. I think he is right”.52 The social democrats are covering for their own role in the neoliberal onslaught by howling with the wolves.

Green Left and the SP also have an ambiguous track record, firmly criticising Wilders at certain specific moments, while at the same time embracing parts of his agenda. Both parties have gone out of their way to defend Wilders’s “freedom of speech” and both have refused to take part in anti-racist activities, with the argument that it is “not done to attack a colleague outside of parliament”. Former Green Left leader Femke Halsema has called on Muslim women to throw off the veil and has called on the left to criticise Islam.

The overall position of the SP is possibly worse. As long ago as 1983 it published a notorious pamphlet called Migrant Labour and Capital, in which it stated that “the difference in development and culture makes it very difficult for the Dutch to work and live together with their foreign colleagues”.53 Consequently they argued that migrants should be encouraged to return “to their own country”. Back then the pamphlet was condemned as racist by the rest of the left. In the current climate the SP seeks revenge by claiming credit for “having recognised the problem of integration way ahead of the pack”.

This has led it to take very dubious positions on migration and integration issues, recently calling for a reduction in “the stream of workers from Eastern Europe” or the “raw invasion of Poles”, as one SP parliamentarian put it, instead of attacking bosses and the Bolkestein directive for undermining collective contracts.54 Not surprisingly, the SP has been soft on Wilders. Its serious attacks have been on the level of Wilders “not keeping his promises”, specifically on social-economic policy. Its criticism of Wilders’s witch-hunt of Muslims and migrants is either formulated very generally or framed pragmatically along the line that there are more pressing problems than burqas and that Wilders’s solutions are “not realistic” and “go too far”.

The mainstream right has used the PVV’s extremism to push through neoliberal policies while the left has been half-hearted and unprincipled in its opposition, moving so far to the centre that it has been incapable of providing an alternative agenda to the cuts that are creating the anger Wilders builds on. Any effective answer to the far-right should challenge both problems, combining principled resistance to racism and Islamophobia with the building of a new left that goes into the offensive against the establishment, instead of wishing to be part of it.

Lessons from the Netherlands

The trajectory of the PVV corresponds to a more general trend of a far right on the rise in Europe and the US. So what are our lessons for those who are combating similar formations elsewhere? It is clear that the left cannot fight the right from the centre and cannot win by ideological adaptation. All Dutch political parties have reacted to the rise of Wilders by adopting part of his rhetoric and agenda. The idea is that this would take the wind out of his sails. Instead it has given credibility to the PVV and emboldened it to go even further.

Economism is not good enough. The SP has focused on attacking Wilders’s neoliberal agenda, but without also combating his racism this will prove to be a futile exercise, precisely because it is racism that binds Wilders’s voters to his pro-business programme and undermines the potential of a collective fightback. Similarly, attacking Wilders on the grounds that his ideas cannot practically be implemented does not work—ethnic cleansing can be implemented and it is the story that matters. People do not vote for Wilders because of his practical policies, but because they have been convinced by the totality of the new right ¨common sense”.

So what strategy would work? Fighting the rise of the PVV requires pulling together all forces from the Muslim communities, the left, trade unions and social movements to fight his racist ideas and policies through campaigns, demonstrations and meetings. This also calls for challenging ideological misconceptions that are still widespread on the left, such as the idea that Islamophobia is fundamentally different from traditional racism because it is a “critique of religion”. Furthermore, it is of the utmost importance to build opposition to the austerity politics that Wilders supports. Such strong opposition can undermine Wilders’s base among sections of the working class that believe he defends their interests, and at the same time lay the basis for creating solidarity among Muslims and non-Muslims by bringing them together for a common cause. Finally, because the growth of the PVV is partly based on the failure of the mainstream left, countering it requires building a new radical left that does not leave attacking the political establishment to Wilders.

Given the developments of the past five years it would be easy to draw pessimistic conclusions about the chances of this strategy materialising. While recognising that there is no doubt that the political climate has become more difficult for socialists, such pessimism would be wholly unjustified.

First, the PVV is an unstable formation. Its ideas have sunk more deeply in working communities and the party has developed somewhat of a core of capable people around Wilders. But its rapid growth has depended on a strong contradiction: a social face of respectability to broaden its base combined with an extremist ideology that conceals its pro-business neoliberalism and stimulates extreme right activism. So far this contradiction has not been exposed, either by events or by its opponents. But this has been in circumstances which have been more than favourable to Wilders. Serious pressure on his fragile apparatus can push this contradiction to the fore and crack his mask of being a respectable representative of “the people”.

Secondly, as is true everywhere in Europe, we are witnessing the first signs of a resurgence of combativity. So far these are only hopeful beginnings: a hard won nine week cleaners’ strike,55 a surge of student protests and a first series of one-day protests against austerity measures in public transportation, culture and education. But with an economic crisis that will continue to create shocks, an unstable right wing minority coalition that is pushing through incredibly unpopular cuts, and international examples of people fighting back, it is very unlikely that Dutch workers will remain docile. And a resurgence of class struggle would be the best hope for turning the tide against the new radical right.


1: Kuiper and Benschop, 2011. Thanks to Pepijn Brandon, Alex Callinicos, Martin Smith and Peyman Jafari for their comments on an earlier draft.

2: Hughes, 2011.

3: Thomas, 2010.

4: Gross, Halifa-Legrand and Thierry, 2010.

5: In July 2010 Wilders announced the International Freedom Alliance, a network of groups and individuals who are “fighting for freedom against Islam”

6: Liphshiz, 2008.

7: See, for a documentation of the relationship between Bolkestein and Wilders, Fennema, 2010.

8: Fennema, 2010, pp70-88.

9: Brandon, 2005.

10: TNS NIPO, 2005.

11: “Geert Wilders spreekt bij het Hudson Institute in New York”, PVV website, 29 September 2008-

12: “Wilders wil ‘kopvoddentaks’”, Trouw, 16 September, 2009.

13: “Wilders: Stuur het leger naar Gouda”, De Telegraaf, 15 September 2008.

14: Meeus and Valk, 2010.

15: Wilders, 2004.

16: Versteegh, 2011.

17: Wetenschappelijk Bureau van de SP, 2011.

18: “PVV voor privatisering opernbaar vervoer”,, 18 October 2010-

19: Townsend, 2011.

20: Kafka, 2011.

21: A purely legal construction to discourage infighting.

22: This is the rough line of argumentation from left to right. See, for example, Fennema, 2010, Scheffer, 2007, Rossem, 2010, and Wansink, 2010.

23: Synovate, 2009a.

24: Synovate, 2009b, p18.

25: To my knowledge the best book on the neoliberal takeover of the Netherlands and its effects is Dam, 2009.

26: Meeus, 2008.

27: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2001.

28: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, 2001, p60-73.

29: Storm and Naastepad, 2003, p145-146.

30: Delsen, 2002, p74.

31: Dam, 2009, p214.

32: Velden, 2000, p307-308.

33: Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, 2000.

34: Hupkens, 2005.

35: Dehue, 2008, p261.

36: Storm and Naastepad, 2003, p147.

37:, 2007.

38: Tegenlicht, 2007.

39: Bolkestein, 1991, and Bolkestein, 1993.

40: Scheffer, 2000.

41: Scheffer, 2000.

42: See, for an elaborate analysis of the new racism, Seymour, 2010.

43: Motivaction, 2006.

44: Dekker and van der Noll, 2007.

45: “PVV wint scholierenverkiezingen”, Trouw, 18 June 2010.

46: Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau, 2010, p15.

47: “Groeiend geweld tegen gebedshuizen”-

48: Anne Frank Stichting, 2008, p35.

49: De Telegraaf, Elsevier, HP/de Tijd, GeenStijl, the Edmund Burke Stichting, Theodor Holman, Max Pam, Leon de Winter, Afsin Ellian, Paul Cliteur and Joshua Livestro, to name just a few of the key players.

50: There is a case pending against Wilders for inciting hatred, brought to the court by anti-racist activists. It has been used to great effect by Wilders for publicity, while deflecting time and resources from building a movement against him. The case does reveal a drastic shift in the political climate. Contrary to the situation in the 1990s, when a far-right parliamentarian was convicted for less extremist remarks, the public prosecutor now demands acquittal for Wilders, this among calls by left and right alike that Wilders’s freedom of speech should be safeguarded.

51: Bessems and Nieuwenhuis, 2008.

52: Peeperkom and Sommer, 2008.

53: Socialistiese Partij, 1983, p14, quoted in Brandon, 2009, p204.

54: SP, 2011, and Zwan, 2011.

55: Dekker, 2010.

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