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The Return of Ghosts: Debating the rise of Geert Wilders and the far-right at the Nexus Symposium

The Nexus Institutes Return of Ghosts conference was inspired by the rise of far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands

The Nexus Institute's Return of Ghosts conference was inspired by the rise of far-right politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands

I spent last week in Amsterdam, where I participated in the “Return of Ghosts” symposium of the Nexus Institute, a discussion/debate about the resurgence of neo-fascism in Europe and anti-democratic trends in the West. Besides providing a forum for debating European politics, the symposium was the occasion for the first public appearance in Europe by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature last month. The arrival of Vargas Llosa, one of the world’s foremost intellectuals, resulted in an overflow crowd filled with members of the Dutch media, the country’s political class, and the royal family.

Even with Vargas Llosa in the spotlight, the participants’ attention was focused on Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is now the third leading party in the Netherlands. With his gathering influence, Wilders has essentially placed the Dutch coalition government in a stranglehold; the government meets with him every Wednesday to gauge his opinions and ask for his instructions. While Wilders dictates at will to the government, he remains independent of it, comfortably avoiding the consequences of policies he has helped to shape. It is the perfect position for a politician whose agenda is comprised exclusively of xenophobic populism, and typical strategy of the far-right in countries across the continent.

Wilders’ base lies in the mostly Catholic south, where ironically few people have ever encountered a Muslim. He has also generated support in the city of Groeningen, once a citadel of the communists. Seeking to expand his base, Wilders promised to hire scores of “animal cops” to investigate and prosecute the abuse of animals, a clever wedge strategy in the only country I know of that has a party dedicated exclusively to animal rights. Of course, Wilders could care less about our furry friends. His stated goal is to end immigration not just to Holland but to all of Europe; ban the Quran (free speech is only for the “Judeo-Christian” community), and severely limit the rights of Muslim citizens of Europe by, for instance, instituting what he called a “head rag tax” on Muslim women. Wilders’ international allies include the goosestepping neo-Nazis of the English Defense League, the far-right pogromist Pam Geller, the Belgian neo-fascist party Vlaams Belang, and a substantial portion of the US neocon elite. Over the course of just a few years, he has become perhaps the most influential Islamophobe in the world.

But does this make Wilders a fascist? Rob Riemen, the director of the Nexus Institute, thinks so. Riemen has just published a book entitled “De Eeuwige Terugkeer Van Het Fascisme,” or “The Eternal Return of Fascism” (I eagerly await its English translation), dedicated to highlighting the danger of Wilders’ eerily familiar brand of right-wing populism. In the book, Riemen urges readers to compare Wilders’ politics to the early incarnations of European fascism, not to the genocidal terminal stage fascism of late World War II. He calls the parallels between Wilders and the early fascists “one-and-one.” In an economic and civilizational crisis like the kind the Netherlands is facing, Riemen warns that reactionary figures like Wilders can easily seize power while centrist elements stand by politely and passively, refusing to call a spade a spade. Where Wilders’ ascendancy will lead is unknown, but if he is not stopped in his tracks, Riemen is certain the story will not end well. In the week after its publication, Riemen’s book flew off the shelves, selling 5000 copies while generating heated reactions from across the spectrum of debate.

Riemen told me that despite the public enthusiasm for his book, his characterization of Wilders has been attacked as “un-Dutch.” In Dutch culture, as in so many others, open confrontation is avoided at all cost. Political disagreement is welcomed only if it is expressed in a collegial manner, as though nothing more than reputations were at stake. So the Dutch cultural elite generally goes along to get along. The resistance Riemen has met since he called Wilders out seemed to have alarmed and frustrated him. Why was it so difficult for liberal elements in the Netherlands to recognize the clear resonances of fascism in Wilders’ political style? he wondered. And why did they seem more concerned with regulating the terms of debate than with forming a united front against the far-right? Once the symposium opened and I was able to see the Dutch elite in action, I began to understand Riemen’s indignation.

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