The January 8 meeting of the Partij van de Arbeid (Labour Party) in Leiden on the government bill by state secretary Jetta Klijnsma showed in a nutshell the kind of inequitable, patronising and even openly derogatory behaviour that is displayed by a substantial part of the social democrats versus those who receive social benefits. Here is an analysis of an evening of talking about the unemployed and the ‘’acceptable” ways to manoeuvre through parliament even more repressive regulations against the reserve labour force.
|The original text in Dutch
(January 15th, 2014.)
Translated into English by Jet.
The government bill that Klijnsma uses to push the already crumbling welfare state further towards the abyss is meeting with large resistance at the bottom of society. This is causing commotion among quite a few PvdA members. Traditionally, as soon as the poor start complaining the social democrats are the ones to immediately start to quiet things down, to encapsulate the discontent and to dismantle the emerging bottom-up struggle as much as possible. Some PvdA members occasionally long back for the supposedly ‘good old times’ when the party would lovingly pat his children on the head as comforting father of the national workers family. According to these almost extinguished members the party has over the years developed into a more and more neo-liberal direction and in this way has disowned its past as workers party. In this way they try to swipe under the carpet the fact that historically the social democracy has always prioritised the interests of the state and capital. Before and especially after the Second World War the social democrats always regarded it as their task to make workers more productive and to integrate them into capitalism, to raise them to be respectable, obedient and hardworking citizens. This ineradicable urge to drill the workers and groom them for the labour market is again visible in the way in which the party deals with the unemployed today.
Not only party members, ladies and gentlemen clearly living off the fat of the land, attended the meeting but also a handful of unemployed among whom several Doorbraak activists and members of the committee Dwangarbeid Nee (No to Forced Labour). In a packed meeting room a number of distinguished PvdA members gave their speeches after which the public had the opportunity to ask questions. Among the invited speakers there was no representation at all from people on benefits. In the paternalistic tradition that defines the PvdA the unemployed are always only talked about and not invited to join the discussion. The meeting mainly revolved around John Kerstens, PvdA member of parliament and previously a union man, who after switching to parliamentary politics had expressed his wish that the PvdA go “back to its roots”. On January 8 these “roots” consisted mainly of well-nourished middle-class people who listened politely to what he had to say.
The Leiden PvdA council member Anna van den Bogaard kicked off the information evening by claiming that her party defends “the fragile groups”. Those who live at the bottom of society and have had to listen to this all-time favourite mantra all the time must have felt frustration but also surprise. The social democrat singsong about “strong and social” has served as a kind of wallpaper, fringe or loincloth for many years. In the current societal climate that has become Right-wing, to the extent that Left-wing has become a swearword, one would expect the PvdA to have banned all reference to solidarity with “the vulnerable in society” from its advertising. This because there is an enormous risk of being laughed at and ridiculed, and that could lead to even more disastrous results for the social democrats at the next elections. Still Van den Bogaard repeated some of these worn-out phrases about helping “the vulnerable” without even blinking her eyes. The PvdA probably needs this cardboard leftism to define its identity no matter how colourless, and to somehow survive in the party political landscape. Perhaps it is meant to somehow desperately maintain a positive self-image.
Forced labour is euphemistically labelled as “service contribution” in the proposed Klijnsma bill, and Van den Bogaard described this as “an obligation in the form of volunteer work” for those on social benefits. She did not seem to realise to what extent she is mistaken in this. The essential issue is obvious: the benefits receiver does not do the work on a voluntary basis. Those who do not work without pay shall not eat, according to the motto with which the state is pressurising the unemployed. Anyone who refuses to do obligatory unpaid work will lose their income and will be starved. The council member advocated to only implement the “service contribution” in cases where this would help towards the reintegration of the unemployed. By using this argument she intended to avoid the obviously embarrassing question as to who has the mandate to determine if the forced labour promotes reintegration. When asked she would have had to admit that it is always the reintegration official who can make or break the unemployed by threatening them with sanctions. Van den Boogaard was of the opinion that forced labour should not become a standard obligation for everyone. It should only be an option in the proposed law. But any form of forced labour in whatever form or shape and for whatever length of time is too much.
When Kerstens took the floor it became clear that he had taken it upon himself to turn the government bill into something “acceptable”. According to Kerstens this can be done with some tinkering here and there. But the only thing that could be considered “acceptable” here would be to withdraw the proposed bill altogether. Obviously the regulations in the proposed bill from Kerstens’ party member Klijnsma will constitute the next step in the demolition of the welfare state. Nothing “acceptable” can be made out of that. The Dutch workers union FNV (the former boss of Kerstens) and the committee Dwangarbeid Nee have also been fiercely critical, and have protested against the government bill: the plans should be thrown into the trash, the sooner the better. During the meeting none of those present pleaded for this, however. Subscribing to the self-image of “the PvdA is a decent party that helps the vulnerable” means that the party members are fooling themselves.
You can wonder about which PvdA hot shots squander the interests of the workers and unemployed the most: government ministers such as Klijnsma and Lodewijk Asscher who hold hands with the VVD (Conservative Liberal Party), or members of parliament such as Kerstens who try to force the end of the welfare state down the throats of the social democrat voters by making them believe that their policies of demolition can be made “acceptable”. The false assurance that everything will be well in the end is rocking the party supporters to sleep. Through leftish criticism on details in elements of the bill the parliamentary party attempts to create wider support among the party members and to rush the bad apple of Klijnsma through parliament as a wonderful delicacy. Unrest within the party is smothered by meaningless empathy: “We do share your concerns” and “We are worried too”. But any attempt to take off the “sharp edges” of the policies, and in that way silence the unrest, is only seen by the middle level of active party members who are rounded up for discussion meetings about the umpteenth demolition proposal. The PvdA has long lost contact with the people at the bottom of society. The struggle that is taking place there is hardly noticed by the elite circles of the party oligarchs and leaders. In one way this has its advantages: the party no longer succeeds in keeping the underclass under its paternalistic control.
The welfare state once was the figurehead and the pride of the social democrats. The PvdA has been involved for some time now in tearing it down. Keeping the social underclass under control is no longer done by offering some extra crumbs but through punishment, force and repression. This does mean that the party risks shaking the foundation of the once hard-won social peace, the historical compromise of the welfare state.
Kerstens talked about the “risks” of the proposed bill, for example in the area of forced labour. He made it appear as if those risks are somewhere in the future and can be managed by some technical repairs to the bill. As if forced labour was not introduced already years ago in the reintegration industry. It is used freely there, to intimidate the unemployed and provide employers with employees who work for free. It was remarkable to hear him declare almost jubilantly that those unemployed who are already providing informal care will not be obliged to do additional unpaid work. Apart from whether or not this is correct and whether it will not happen anyway, it was rather cynical to hear him emphasise this instead of talking about the increasing destruction of existing employment because paid workers are laid off and sooner or later forced labour takes over their work. He appeared unwilling to discuss this mass substitution in any way whatsoever.
A Doorbraak activist in the room pointed at the widely-discussed “De Volkskrant” newspaper articles of December 24 2013 in which the shocking experiences of forced labourers illustrated the starvation politics of the state. He pointed out that the soothing words of Kerstens are in fact too little too late because the practice of obligatory unpaid work has outpaced the proposed bill with full approval of the PvdA.
His remarks provoked reactions from Van den Boogard and Kerstens that made it clear which side they are on. Van den Boogaard immediately started to question the experiences of the forced labourers as described by De Volkskrant. The reality of the forced labour turned out to be too overwhelming for her and she saw no other way out of this than to simply deny everything. She even branded the experiences of the unemployed as implausible fabrications. She also hinted that the forced labourers themselves are to blame for the problems that some of them encountered. To further disqualify the opponents of forced labour she also sneered that these critics are calling the forced labour centres “concentration camps”. She of course referred to Doorbraak. The Leiden municipality is also conducting a smear campaign against Doorbraak to stigmatise us as extremists gone mad. However, never in our battle against forced labour – not in our articles or our speeches, and neither in our conversations with forced labourers – do we make this kind of dangerous comparison. As anti-fascists we are very aware of the huge risk of trivialising the atrocities of the Second World War and the fascism of that time, and of the pain that is caused to the victims if such comparisons are made with current day injustice. Later however councilman Henny Keereweer bluntly denied on the PvdA Leiden website that Van den Boogaard en Kerstens had brushed aside the experiences of forced labourers. First the denial of the harsh reality of forced labour and subsequently denying that denial: the social democracy is having trouble dealing with bottom-up criticism.
What was remarkable in the entire debate was the fact that those on benefits were not treated for one moment as subjects in society, let alone addressed in person. “The unemployed” were moved back and forth as objects by the middle-class present. The problems defined were not considered from the perspective or through the eyes of the unemployed but through the prism of the rest of society. When discussing problems these were not the problems of the unemployed but instead the problems that these completely impoverished unemployed might constitute for other people in society, for the employed, for the government. How to control this? That is what the social democrats are concerned about. Lack of respect, humiliation, exploitation and lack of rights – all these experiences of forced labourers appeared to be irrelevant during this meeting. It is only what can be expected because the party is used to top-down control, not to promote the interests of unemployed from bottom-up, and to fight together with them against injustice.
Even if the unemployed were mentioned this was only to repeat for the umpteenth time that they were really eager to work. This again was not based on the views of individual benefit receivers but on their own imagined ideal. Many unemployed actually are not so enthusiastic about all these so-called flexible, shitty jobs that they are forced to take by their “client managers”. But they are obliged to do that work. Hidden behind these initially positive-sounding words about the willingness of benefit receivers to work there is a warning, a threat: you want to work and we know it. Because it this is not the case, if you do not want to work, you will suffer the consequences. You will feel the whip of the social democracy. This is how the paternalism of the social democracy links seamlessly to the neo-liberal enforced labour of the VVD, and to the Christian-democrat charity where the poor do not have rights but only qualify for assistance if they show the right exemplary behaviour.
“Concerned” party members have laid down the unrest within the Leiden PvdA about the government bill in an appeal to the parliament. Initiator of the appeal Leendert Jonker expressed his feelings of “anger” about the Klijnsma-proposal. In the proposed bill he saw mainly “mistrust” towards the unemployed, “damaging their livelihoods” and even “repression”. The Doorbraak activists almost fell off their chairs hearing such a fine social democrat use this term. But of course Jonker is old-style, one of the generation that is dying out who would rather pat the workers on the head than chase them up. As long as they behave, that is.
In order to keep things under control Kerstens quickly tightened the debate by indicating the narrow margins for manoeuvring. The party has taken on government responsibility and in the coalition agreement the outline for the government bill had been agreed, he informed the meeting. As a consequence most of it had been laid down already. Better luck next time. It was clear that the ranks needed to close and that party discipline had to be maintained. In passing he quickly put the blame for the most painful elements of the Klijnsma proposal on the VVD. But it really is a PvdA state secretary who is behind these regulations and is defending these with might and main. And it is in fact the PvdA that has forged the coalition agreement with the VVD and carries full responsibility for it.
All the same, one party member caused a stir by declaring that he would leave the PvdA if the “obligatory service contribution” would remain in the government bill. This was Jelmer Renema who has written a number of critical articles about forced labour and has the courage to make a stand in the PvdA. It was clear from his words however that surprisingly he does take the sordid commercials from his party about “decency” and “help for the vulnerable” seriously. It seemed as if he was talking about a different party altogether, about a myth that hardly resembled the actual PvdA of flesh and blood since its establishment in 1946. But one swallow does not make a summer. More than that: with the social democrats at the wheel the hibernation will continue for a long time in the icy neo-liberal landscape.