"Searching for Utopia" by Jan Fabre

“Searching for Utopia” by Jan Fabre

Although there are serious tensions in the commercial sector and the government, it remains to be seen whether a deeply-rooted tradition like the consensus culture can really disappear. After all, it is embedded in many other fields of Dutch culture. A shift in business leadership and government style does not necessarily mean that family life will change. It is interesting to note that a sociological study concluded that decisions traditionally made by fathers are now increasingly made together with the rest of the family. Another observation is that Netherland has a comparatively high number of clubs, societies, unions, and other organizations in which the consensus principle survives. So, the consensus culture is pretty strong. In the past, Spanish, French, and German overlords were unable to overcome the Dutch addiction to consultation, and it is unlikely that the introduction of new styles of leadership in some sectors will influence every part of Dutch society.

National culture is not a patchwork of a number of loose elements and, just as the words of a language get meaning only when arranged following a certain syntax, the elements of a nation’s culture become meaningful when arranged in accordance with a certain principle. In Netherland, this principle is the need for open debate and consensus, which expresses itself in all fields and walks of life.

We may perhaps call this a ‘national character’; at least, these traits are as old as the polders and the Amsterdam canals. It is tempting to believe that something that has served the Dutch quite well for so long is superior, but that would be a logical fallacy because it would ignore all the dark sides we have dealt with above.

One glaring weakness in the culture of consensus has recently become only too apparent. While in France the laïcité is not subject to debate and the freedom of speech takes uncontested priority over the freedom of religion, for a long time the Dutch have continued to dream that there could be no real tension between these basic rights. When the first, Dutch version of this text appeared as a small book in 1999, it ended with the warning that as long as the debate about Islam remained focused on headscarves, real issues would be evaded. As it happened, Dutch society was unprepared when religion (i.e., the immigrants’ Islam and Balkenende’s conservative Christian moralism) made its come back.

So, the Dutch model has both good and bad aspects. Whatever its qualities and weaknesses, the main point is that the Dutch longing for consensus is a kind of cultural grammar. If it disappears, will it be the end of the Dutch as a cultural identity? For about a millennium, mutual consultation was the cornerstone of Dutch political and social life and all attempts to delimit the perennial process of mutual consultation have failed. True, the Kok and Balkenende cabinets have said that they wanted to ‘depolderize’, but in the end, they all had to seek consent from the organizations in which the consultation culture lies embedded: trade unions, employers’ organizations, and self-appointed committees to save this monument or that bit of nature, etc.

Whether Dutch cultural identity is disappearing or merely changing, we will not know this year, next year, or even in ten years’ time. That Dutch companies will be run along Anglo-Saxon lines is inevitable, but political life may retain its ancient qualities, for better or for worse. The central issue may be whether Dutch politicians will realize their voters hate them because they try to run a nation as if it were an Anglo-Saxon company, neglecting the process of mutual consultation. The current crisis within western capitalism may or may not result in a new appreciation of the French, German, and Dutch models and be instrumental in saving the Dutch cultural identity, inextricably bound up with consensus.