It’s not that easy. That’s what some commentators have replied to the narrative that the Dutch riots of last week were simply down to conspiracism and stupidity. E&M‘s Eden Lutz agrees, and gives a glimpse into the problems of a society shaped by decades of neoliberal politics.
Burning cars, smashed windows, confrontations with the police: for a few days, the Netherlands was swept by riots erupting in response to the imposition of a 9 p.m. curfew, starting on Saturday the 23rd of January. The images and shock traveled quickly: Bild reserved its largest font imaginable for the headline BÜRGERKRIEG (“civil war”), videos of the violent clashes and looting were broadcast by all the major news networks, and the parallel with the Capitol riots earlier this month was quickly drawn. Meanwhile, within the Netherlands, political interpretation was initially eschewed. Politicians and commentators made a clear distinction: this criminal behaviour does not deserve the label “protest”. Destruction of private and public property, violence against law enforcers and journalists, setting fire to a corona test centre: these people were just looking for an excuse to riot, they had to be punished, and there was no need for “sociological explanations”, to speak with prime minister Mark Rutte.
Social scientists should be more intimately involved with policymaking as the pandemic is evolving from a medical to a societal crisis.
This dismissive attitude may explain why nobody saw the riots of the past week coming. Already in October last year, a sociologist from Erasmus University questioned the fact that the Dutch Outbreak Management Team, which advises the government on Covid19, consists solely of medical scientists. He argued that social scientists should be more intimately involved with policymaking as the pandemic is evolving from a medical to a societal crisis. A historical analysis published in August indicated how epidemics can be incubators of social unrest along at least three dimensions. First, the clash between policy measures and people’s interests creates friction between society and institutions. Second, inequality is exacerbated because the weights of mortality and economic welfare compete. And third, the psychological shocks that come with the epidemic can contribute to the production of irrational narratives on the causes of the spread of the disease, resulting in conspiracism or xenophobia and racial discrimination. These warnings, that now seem prescient, are in fact nothing but the very thing that the Dutch prime minister deemed unnecessary: sociological explanations.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Rutte is not so keen on any interpretation of the riots, given that it cannot exist separately from his own government – which, should be noted, resigned two weeks ago over a scandal concerning child welfare, in which thousands of families were wrongly accused of fraud due to institutional racist biases. In the short term, this civil unrest reflects on the cabinet’s management of the Covid19 pandemic, and in the long term, on ten years of neoliberal policy that he and his party, VVD, have pursued – and the two are, of course, intimately connected. With its depoliticised, medicalised approach to Covid19 and its continuous appeal to people’s own responsibility, the government has failed to act decisively on many occasions, its justifications for (too little to late) measures often inadequate. In the long term, growing inequality and socioeconomic precariousness, insecurities on the labour and housing market, defunding of education and welfare programmes, privatisation of health care, tax breaks and state aid for corporations and anti-immigration rhetoric have built up to a tense social dynamic to which a global pandemic was the worst imaginable catalyst.
They felt unheard, left behind, and angry.
While political parties tried to blame the riots on each other’s electorate, there was one thing that seemed to unite the diverse coalition of people that took to the streets all over the country in response to the curfew: they felt unheard, left behind, and angry. And they were men – but this is perhaps not the time and place for a dissection of the crisis of masculinity under neoliberalism. On the third night of the riots, in a Dutch talk show, an exasperated police officer wondered out loud: now that the genie is out of the bottle, how do we get it back in? The frenzy seemed to be spreading like wildfire, as did the anger over the violence and destruction; some politicians were even calling for the army to be deployed. At the time of writing, however, the unrest has subsided, the curfew is still in place, and the first arrests have been made. Protests are initiated here and there, but they are less viral and aggressive, with police seeming to have regained control over the genie for now. Parliamentary elections are taking place in March, and Rutte’s VVD is currently polling at 43 seats (27%), with the second largest party making up just half of that. It seems like we will have to wait a little longer before the bottle is broken.
Photo: Burning Car in Manchester, 2011, by Richard Hopkins on Flickr