Professor of Economics Sjoerd Beugelsdijk regularly asks himself how to deal with increasing polarization in the Netherlands. He is not very optimistic, given the ‘toxic cocktail’ of underlying causes. He wrote about this subject in his book De Verdeelde Nederlanden. He starts every new day in an optimistic mood, because he also sees some promising developments.
Text: Martin Althof, Communication Dept. / Photos: Henk Veenstra
In his book, Beugelsdijk notes that a number of major trends have converged in the Netherlands over the past few decades, leading to heated debates, increasing intolerance, and polarization. These trends concern developments such as globalization, the changing role of the government and increasing individualism.
Beugelsdijk concludes that progressive globalization has changed the Dutch economy. A new economic structure has emerged, with other types of jobs and new winners and losers. The higher educated have an advantage. In many sectors, job insecurity has increased considerably, which has particularly affected the lower educated. Beugelsdijk explains: ‘There are ZZP-ers, self-employed workers without employees, who have deliberately chosen this independent work option, with all its pros and cons. Some of those ZZP-ers, however, would be better off in regular employment, for example in the construction sector. They are poorly paid and can suddenly run out of work.’
Although economists are arguing about it, Beugelsdijk is convinced that inequality in the Netherlands has increased. ‘I am not just talking about income inequality, but also particularly about wealth inequality. A large number of people have been faced with a series of negative factors in recent decades: job insecurity, little bank savings, no home of their own, difficulty in renting a decent home, and regularly being dependent on government support. I always say that, since the eighties, economic principles have permeated society. We have gradually become used to thinking in terms of profit, market, and individual responsibility. This is clearly a reaction to the period preceding the economic era. When, on top of this, the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, the conclusion was clear: The capitalist system had won; no other system was better than ours! Over the following two decades, this victory was celebrated. The phrase “B.V. Nederland”, Netherlands Inc. was coined. This also meant that the government had to be structured as a company, referred to with the term “new public management”.’
Nobody reflects nostalgically on the slowness, inefficiency, and lengthy meetings at universities, government institutions, and also in the business sector that were so typical of the 1970s. Neither does Beugelsdijk. ‘That time has passed, but now the scales have tilted too much to the other side. Everything is measured and expressed in numbers and figures. In the healthcare sector, nurses only have around 10 minutes to spend on one patient. In academia, scientists are assessed on the basis of the number of articles they have published, and there is bureaucratic red tape everywhere.’ Beugelsdijk concludes that, as a result, our welfare state has changed as well. ‘From a relatively simple and accessible system to a complicated one, with all kinds of conditions and control mechanisms. The problems surrounding the Dutch child allowance scheme and the settlement of the earthquake damage in the province of Groningen are cases in point.’ In his opinion, this transition has caused widespread discontent and distrust towards the government. Particularly among groups that depend on that very same government: the vulnerable, with little money, and an accumulation of problems such as debt and a limited social network. vAs a result, society is divided into two groups, and a deep gap is emerging between the two.’
In recent decades, Dutch society has clearly become more and more individualized. Beugelsdijk: ‘Symptomatic of this development is the phrase “Dat bepaal ik zelf wel” (nobody tells me what to do). On the one hand, this is positive: it has brought freedom to many people. But it also has a downside: Many people have lost their moorings. They wonder, where do I belong?’ As an example, he mentions the group of people who want to hold on to Dutch traditions, such as the Sinterklaasfeest (feast of St Nicholas), whereas others have a much more international and multicultural perspective. ‘The latter regard themselves more as European or global citizens and are concerned with global problems, such as climate change and racism. These two groups regularly come into conflict with each other. Most people, however, have inclinations associated with both sides. Me too: I like to have an international perspective, but also enjoy Dutch and Groninger traditions. But the voice of civil society, the large group in the middle, is drowned out by the noise of the juxtaposed parties.’
Beugelsdijk is worried about these developments in Dutch society. He even speaks of a ‘toxic cocktail’. ‘At some stage, we will reach the point of no return. When the perceptions and experiences of different groups in society differ so widely, nothing will get off the ground anymore. People no longer listen to each other but will condemn each other’s views. This kind of polarization will paralyse society.' Beugelsdijk notes that political fragmentation (there are 19 political groups in the Dutch House of Representatives) and the fact that politicians are more concerned with public perceptions than with substance is certainly not helping. ‘In this context, social media acts as a catalyst for the underlying factors.’
Despite these worrying trends, Beugelsdijk sees positive developments as well. ‘I can see that the problems I just mentioned are increasingly being identified and recognized. By political parties, the academic world, and societal organizations. For example, in their “Agenda 2030” the Dutch employers’ organizations MKB Nederland and VNO-NCW speak of “countering polarization”, among other things by restructuring the economic system. An example is the ratio between fixed and flexible labour.’ He adds: ‘It sounds a bit soft, but it's so important that we continue to have dialogue. We need to stop thinking in terms of winning and losing. If you “lose”, you don’t forfeit your right to have your own opinion. In short, don’t make it a zero-sum, all or nothing game.’
Beugelsdijk realizes that it will be a lengthy process. Heaving a deep sigh, he wonders: ‘Will the penny finally drop that communities and collective interest really matter?’ He believes that we can rapidly take concrete measures in several areas: education, housing, the economy. ‘An example would be more mixing and less segregation in primary schools. Smaller school classes are really important. They are better for both pupils and teachers. Or, immediately abolish the verhuurdersheffing (landlord levy) for social housing corporations, so that financial resources are freed up for investment in proper social housing. And discontinue the so-called jubelton (a tax-free lump sum), which increases the divisions among groups on the housing market. Take a very critical look at all these temporary funding schemes for structural problems, with accompanying conditions and control mechanisms.’ Beugelsdijk acknowledges that these proposals cost money: ‘Yes, perhaps we need to raise taxes in some areas. For example, by taxing capital and wealth and reducing income tax. In any case, we will have to invest in order to reverse the trends of division and polarization.’
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