In Holland, the situation spins out of control. And me, I keep hearing echoes. Like cheap sequels made to cash in on the success of an original Hollywood blockbuster. For example, the Jaque al Rey demo in Madrid was a sequel to last year’s siege on parliament. It has become an even bigger failure than expected, partially because of the rain. Earlier this month, there has also been another ‘March against Monsanto’ after the surprise success of the original marches in May. And on October 19 there have been demo’s in various big cities as a sequel of the sequel of Global Revolution Day two years ago. Finally, in Turkey, authorities have stealthily moved in to destroy trees on the campus of Middle Eastern Technical University, causing daily clashes with the Darth Vaders in Ankara, and with protesters all over the country.
I have to admit, I haven’t been on top of these events. I won’t look into it. Instead, I will focus on what’s happening in Holland at the moment. You wouldn’t believe it, really. I have a feeling the whole country got caught up in a South Park episode.
It’s all about our most beloved annual tradition. The St. Nicholas celebration. If you’re not from Holland, you will not understand the emotional connection of the Dutch people with this holiday. This is why recent events have caused such an outcry.
Let me give you the basics of this holiday.
St. Nicholas is an old bishop, dressed in red with a long white beard who comes to Holland from Spain every November. He is the archetype of Santa Claus, ever since the Dutch brought the Sinterklaas celebrations to New Amsterdam in the 17th century.
Saint Nicholas, protector of sailors, children and thieves among others, is well over a thousand years old, but he is a man of his time. He comes to Holland on a steamer, and when he is here he rides on a majestic white horse. At night he rides the roofs, and if the children have been good, if they sang their songs to the old saint, if they left a carrot for the horse, he will reward them by leaving some candy or a small present.
The saint is a very vital man for his age, but with all the children in Holland, he can’t do this on his own. This is why he is accompanied every year by a band of ‘Black Petes’. They are Santa Little Helpers. They go down the chimneys to leave the little presents in the children’s shoes in front of the fire place.
The Petes are a jolly bunch. They are dressed in the colourful outfits of 17th century Spanish mercenaries, which makes them look a little like clowns. Their faces are painted with colours varying from light brown to pitch black.
Though the Petes are officially the old white man’s servants, they have been portrayed ever more as a kind of ‘cabinet’ for the Saint. There’s a Pete for every chore. Some are clumsy, some are funny, some are smart. The most beloved Petes are surely the Candy Pete, and the Presents Pete. The least popular one is Whiny Pete. The most feared, without a doubt, is Flagellation Pete. I’ll get to that.
The Saint himself is a wise and venerable old man, he comes here to judge and reward. He knows everything about all the children. It’s written down in the ‘Big Book of Saint Nicholas’, courtesy of the NSA.
For the children, such a figure inspires awe and respect, which creates distance, tension, submission. This is where the Petes come in. They defuse the drama, they put the old moral roots of the tradition in perspective. Children can relate to the Petes because they are down to earth, they like to joke around, they are cool.
From the moment the steamer arrives, children in all of the Netherlands, including the Dutch West Indies, are in joyful expectation of the ‘delightful evening’ of December 5, the climax of the festivities.
It’s the eve of the Saint’s birthday (actually it’s the day he died). Mysterious gloved hands are pounding suddenly and loudly on the window. On windows everywhere. Who will it be? It was Pete! He left a brown old bag, with presents and sweets for everyone.
Children under ten usually believe it is all true. This is why the Dutch television expressly prohibits the Saint from appearing on two channels simultaneously. Little children might start asking questions.
For children over ten and up to ages 99 and beyond, the St. Nicholas celebration has a different meaning. Everyone gets a little present, but the present is not what matters. It’s how you present it.
In all types of social organization – the family, the class room, the work floor, the football club, church, the board room – people draw lots a few weeks before the holiday. For the person you draw you are supposed to buy something small, worth only a few euros, and wrap it up in such a creative way as to express something about that person. Character traits, interests, a recent event. Sometimes people pimp up the wrapping into delicate sculptures made of boxes, papier maché, plastic tubes or whatever. Other people turn it into a treasure hunt, where clues are hidden throughout the location.
Each ‘surprise’ has to be accompanied by a brief poem in rhyme. It is customary for the poem to be signed by ‘Sint and Pete’ and dated ‘Madrid, December 5’. It serves the same purpose as the wrapping of the surprise, to highlight something about that person, to explain why this gift is appropriate, to tease and to make fun, or even to hint at something that not everybody knows…
This is what makes the St. Nicholas tradition so much fun. By roleplaying as a rhyming saint, people can say things about each other that they wouldn’t normally sign with their own name. Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrecked, and some relations for ever scared each year on December 5, but overall St. Nicholas eve is a joyful celebration for all ages.
So, you may wonder, what’s the big deal? Well, Pete is black. And with him being a servant to a white master, this raises the question of racism.
Every year the issue comes along and for the duration of the season it persists as a soft background noise in the small print of the papers. But this year, for some reason, the Black Pete Discussion is a major headline. It’s a bit weird actually, because there is more than enough serious news to report on. An ongoing diplomatic row with Russia, a major bank of ours (the ‘clean’ one) being fined 1 billion euros for fraud with interests rates, and the revelation that the NSA has been tapping millions of phone calls in the Netherlands.
No, all of this, doesn’t matter. Black Pete is on all the front pages. And the big question is: ‘Are we racist?’
Most people in Holland don’t like this discussion. Nine out of ten people want to Black Pete to stay the way he is. Even among the most politically correct left wing party and among immigrants of all colours, a majority is fine with Pete being black. ‘Of course we’re not racist,’ people seem to say, ‘Now don’t confuse the children’. And they wait for it to blow over.
The whole discussion came to a head when the United Nations got involved. A U.N. commission is currently investigating the supposed racist nature of the St. Nicholas celebrations, the same U.N. that goes around to enshrine every shred of folklore as ‘human heritage’. One of the commission’s members, with very dubious credentials, didn’t wait for the outcome to ventilate her personal opinion.
In a most ignorant and undiplomatic way she denounced the tradition as overtly racist and outdated. She placed all the blame with a hypothetical group of ‘organizers’, and she urged the prime minister to put an immediate stop to this monstrosity. She treated the Dutch national tradition as if it were some kind of evil practice of the Ku Klux Klan!
No wonder, the following day, Holland rose up.
While hundreds of thousands of children all over the Netherlands broke down and desperately cried at the thought that the United Nations might take away Black Pete, their parents started to organize themselves.
An initiative to save Black Pete on Facebook went viral and got one million supporters on the first day, and a million more on the second. The U.S. equivalent, adjusted for population size, would be 20 million hits per day.
At the same time, local militias of paramilitary Petes have been erecting road blocks and digging trenches around the villages and neighbourhoods of Holland to defend the St. Nicholas celebrations to the bitter end in case the U.N. actually invades. They will also make sure that the Saint will not enter their territory unless accompanied by Petes who are black beyond any reasonable doubt. Petes of other colours will be shot on sight.
The Southern States of the Netherlands have already threatened to secede from the Union in case Black Pete is emancipated. The situation is critical. The prime minister, when asked about the issue said that “Black Pete is black. There is nothing I can do about it.” But it didn’t do much to appease the spirits.
It gets worse. Remember Martin Luther King? The March on Washington for civil rights? Now, imagine tens or even hundreds of thousands of people with painted faces marching on The Hague in defence of a white man’s right to be black. No kidding, not this time. It’s going to happen tomorrow on the Malieveld, Holland’s most symbolic protest venue. Our own version of Taksim Square.
What can I say? Well, obviously, I can say that the Dutch are out their minds. And that is exactly what I like about this country. Dutch people are usually open-minded, practical, tolerant, easy-going, etc. Only once in a while, for very different reasons, people here just collectively freak out. I can also say that the critics have a point. Depending on how you interpret the figure (there are dozens of schools of thought on the subject), you can definitely argue that there is a racist component to the original Black Pete. But that doesn’t mean that the contemporary St. Nicholas celebration teaches racist values to children.
The celebration has already changed a lot over the last century. Until recently Black Pete wasn’t cool at all. He was kind of a mob boss’s body guard, ready to screw you up for life at the Saint’s wish. As a kid, if you had been bad, you wouldn’t get candy or sweets, you would get whipped, then stuffed into a dirty old bag and taken back to Spain.
Nobody really knows what happens to the bad kids in Spain, but people commonly believe that they work as slaves on the Saint’s estate under supervision of the Petes. Now how’s that for racism? A black guy whipping spoiled white kids and forcing them to pick oranges fourteen hours a day? They would be returned to Holland after a year, with a note for their parents: ‘Rest assured, your kid will never be naughty again.’
The flagellation, abduction and enslavement of small children for educational purposes has become very rare lately. St. Nicholas has become much more humane with age, and his Petes have become much more fun. They may even become a little less black some day, but if that happens, it will be because the Dutch decide so themselves. Not because of some United Nations commission mingling with our traditions.
There is also an ironic side to the whole question, which will not go unnoticed, I hope. To illustrate this I will divide the world into St. Nicholas countries (the West), and Black Pete countries (the rest). Historically, the St. Nicholas countries, and Holland in particular, have this nasty urge to go to the Black Pete countries, colonize them, and rudely dismiss their culture as backward and outdated.
This time someone from a Black Pete country has come to Holland with an index finger raised and a complete lack of relevant knowledge, to say that we – a civilized St. Nicholas nation! – are effectively a bunch of barbarians.
So now we know how it feels.
It won’t take too long before I can start writing a blog about the ‘Dutch Revolution’. The newspapers have been announcing it for weeks: Holland is the new Greece. And since yesterday, when the figures came in, it’s official.
I’ll try to give you an idea.
Before the crisis started, Holland had three-and-a-half big banks. One of those collapsed and was nationalised in 2008. Another one could only be saved with a massive injection of public funds. The third is a cooperative bank, still pretty safe, and the half bank was nationalised a month ago. This one had always been specialised in savings accounts, but when the economy went through the roof in the early 2000s they decided to compete with the big banks and started building castles in the air.
The bank massively invested in real estate, mostly in Spain, in 2008, which turned out to be neither the time nor the place to make a lucrative investment. They were able to creatively mask the fact that they were broke for almost five years, but when a run on the bank began to take shape the state decided to take over.
It’s a curious thing. For the last twenty years or so, EU legislation has outlawed public support of national industries, but obviously for banks one can make an exception. They are, practically, above the law.
A very reasonable Dutch law says that no public servant should earn more than the prime minister (about 200k euro per year). Fortunately there are ways to circumvent this. Over the last few decades the government has outsourced much of its tasks to semi-public entities, whose managers have the advantage of being able to fill up their pockets with bonuses, without the disadvantage of having to respond to the public.
These are the modern ‘regents’ as they say in Holland, an urban oligarchy that divides lucrative jobs among each other, without possessing any capabilities to speak of.
Now, what goes for semi-public entities, doesn’t go for the nationalised bank. The bank is public, but the social-democrat minister of finance still hired a banker for over twice the allowed pubic salary, while stressing that all employees will see their pay checks and pensions cut.
Of course, with the banks being exceptions, you can break the law, if you’re a minister. Because you need a good banker, and you won’t find one for less than 50,000 euros a month. It’s not me who says so, no, it’s the market, and the market is always right.
You’re allowed to doubt, sure, but doubt is ridiculous. I would say: why a banker? Weren’t they the ones who caused this mess in the first place? Are we absolutely sure we can’t find a capable person that will cure a bank for less than half a million per year? And instead of a banker, can’t we find a renowned economist, a professor maybe? Someone with enough self-esteem to lack the need for an exuberant pay-check?
Sure we can. But we have to convince our so-called representatives to make it happen. They still have the nasty habit of listening to the priests of high finance who keep predicting doom and destruction if their advices are not put into practice to the letter.
Well, if it’s going to be doom and destruction, we better make sure it’s going to be fun as well.
One Dutch columnist wondered, ‘Why haven’t the windows of the banks been shattered yet? Why haven’t they been burned to the ground?’
He was smart enough to add that he wasn’t instigating anyone to do anything. He was just wondering.
Me too, I’m just wondering what it’ll take. In 2008 the whole economy collapsed, and yet, nothing was done to punish those responsible, or to avoid it would happen again. The high priests could keep harvesting their bonuses while the rest of us were asked to make sacrifices. Then in 2011, occupying all over the globe, people tried to make a change, peacefully. But nothing happened. The high priests are still there, they are laughing at us from their ivory towers.
So what will it take?
A demonstration? Or two? Three?
A riot? Or two? Three?
A molotov? A bomb? Or ten?
An armed insurrection?
Hell yeah, all of it. And you know why? Because we are humans goddamned. We might be sedated by comfort, but deep down we realise that we are being screwed over every day. Deep down we’re longing to be free, waiting for the moment when it all explodes and we will smash up the ivory towers of power.
Remember, this is Holland. The fucking best place in the world to be born in. And it’s sinking.
How come? Why Holland? You want to know more? Alright, listen. I’ll teach you a word of Dutch, a very important word. No, it’s not ‘apartheid’. You already know that one. It’s ‘hypotheekrenteaftrek’.
Got that? No? Okay, once again, slowly: ‘Hy-po-theek-ren-te-af-trek’. It means tax deductability of mortgage interest.
Holland is maybe the only country that still gives this type of incentive to stimulate people to buy a house. It made real estate prices rise much faster in Holland than in other countries. Especially because many people took a mortgage that they didn’t bother to repay, because prices were rising anyway. A house was an investment, a chicken with golden eggs.
Or at least, that’s what it used to be. Now it turns out it was only a bubble. New laws state that if you take a mortgage, you have to pay it back. The hypotheekrenteaftrek will be phased out. The result of this is that hardly anyone can afford a house at the current inflated prices. Those prices are starting to fall. And they will fall further, they will readjust at normal levels of the countries surrounding us. Which is what, half the current price? A third?
The real estate bubble in Holland, like in Spain, has been the motor of the economy for years. Now people find the value of their assets going down every month. They are reluctant to spend. The economy is in recession, unemployment is soaring.
So, we have a country which is ruled by ventriloquist bankers, and politicians sitting on their lap. We all have to pay. Not only the home-owning middle classes, also the students who no longer get subsidised to study, but who will have to indebt themselves American style before joining the ranks of the unemployed. And the elderly of course, the people who built up this great country and its once admireable welfare state. Right now, while the baby boom is reaching the pension age, the government has decided to close almost half of the elderly homes. They can die at home, agonising on the floor for days, there’s no money to take care of them, or let their offspring do that, like the days of yore. Come on! We need three billion to buy a bank, another ten billion to buy the latest generation of super cool jet fighters! We can’t take care of our elderly! They’re useless anyway.
So what’s left? Maybe the last traces of the famed Dutch tolerance? Hardly. We are decent people, we don’t do drugs, we don’t do hookers. So we don’t want others to do it either. Foreigners can get their weed from a dealer in the alleys. We don’t want them in the coffeeshops anymore. And the social-democrats prefer the prostitutes of the red light district to return out of sight, to the shabby parking lots on the edge of town, to get fucked for a shot of heroine without any health care at all.
It’s a lot better this way. The real estate value of the red light district is (still) huge. The brothels can be turned into a luxury shopping district with classy restaurants. Hell yeah! Let’s be proud of ourselves. We are such decent people.
So, let’s get back to the big question.
‘How long will it take?’
We tried to be reasonable, a few years ago, when we occupied. We can also be unreasonable. After all, we are the 99 percent. We are too big to fail. If the powers-that-be are deaf to our most reasonable demand of an economy that serves the people and not the bankers, then there is no reason to talk to them anymore.
All we can do, at that point, is to bring them down with whatever means necessary.
Dordrecht, January 29 2013
A happy new year to you all. And do forgive me for not keeping you informed, but there is not a hell of a lot happening as the Spanish revolution goes.
As I understand, it have been months of accusations, divisions and internal struggle. Once again, the movement seems primarily preoccupied with itself.
On the other hand, new actions and protests are being prepared. On February 23rd there will be a demonstration of the ‘United Waves’, representing the struggles for housing, public health care and education.
Also on a local level, actions continue. The platform against foreclosures is active all throughout Spain. Lately, they occupied a bank in Málaga and turned it into a soup kitchen.
Myself, I’m in Holland for the moment. And every time I’m here, back from the South, I have to get used to it. Holland is such a well organised little country, full of people who are generally decent and open minded. Aside from short periods of explosive irrationality, the Dutch prefer collaboration over confrontation. We haven’t had civil war or popular uprisings for centuries. Poverty in Holland is almost non-existent.
There is a very symbolic, almost biblical story that explains why. It’s a true story, it happened over five hundred years ago, right here in my home town of Dordrecht.
The Dutch, back then, used to be similar to so many other peoples in Europe. They fought each other over power. Left against right, democrats against republicans, guelfs against ghibellines, hooks against kabeljauws. That kind of thing. As political factions battled each other in the streets, the lord-their-god frowned upon the Dutch, for they had forsaken the covenant, their founding bond with the waters.
The water, to the Dutch, is both their most powerful ally and their most devastating enemy. It is the water, the sea, which is the ultimate proprietor of this country. The inhabitants only exert their dominion on a lease. And when the lease runs out, the water will take the country back.
As a matter of fact, they say that while it was god who created the heavens and the earth, it was the Dutch who created Holland. And it’s true. After the earth was crafted and covered with vegetation and wildlife, the lord carefully collocated all of the original tribes as he deemed fit. But when every land was divided among the peoples, the lord found that he still had one tribe left. To his personal embarrassment he had to admit that there was no room on earth for the Dutch.
“Let me make it up to you,” he said unto the Dutch, “I will give you a special treat, a challenge.” He plunged them into the shallow waters of a river delta and said, “Here, take this swamp. And show me what you can make out of it.”
Local proverbial wisdom states that either you pump, or you drown. And so the Dutch were forced to pump. They built dikes, canals, windmills. They harnessed the waters and they sailed off to trade in riches on faraway shores.
The lord looked down on them, and he was pleased. So he said unto the Dutch, “You have proven your worthiness, I shall make a covenant with you. You will be granted power over the waters and you will be my chosen people for as long as you will dutifully protect and respect this country, its dikes, and the life and liberty of its inhabitants.”
That was the covenant. And now, in the late 15th century, while the people were indulged in passionate mutual hatred, the covenant was broken.
For years all around Dordrecht the dikes had been neglected because of all the turmoil. And so one fateful evening – it was St. Elizabeth’s day – the waters rose.
Holland as people had known it was swept away overnight. Tens of thousands drowned. Hundreds of villages and hamlets were buried in the mud. Because of the flood, Dordrecht became an island. And up to this day, the old fishermen claim that when the full moon reaches its zenith, you can hear the bells of the churches over the water, the churches that were swept away by the tide.
It was only then, after all their efforts were turned to naught, that the Dutch painfully remembered the covenant. And Holland rose again.
This story has left only vague traces in the historical memory of this country, which is a shame. Not in the least because its biblical symbolism could easily apply to the present state of the planet.
The last time I was in Holland it was autumn, and occupation fever had broken out. In no other country, except for the United States and Spain, so many squares were taken in so many towns and villages.
I was amazed. I visited occupations in Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Tilburg, Eindhoven. And in my native town of Dordrecht of course.
I felt the blind enthusiasm of a blossoming revolutionary movement, the great feeling that the rules of the game have changed and that everything can be possible. But with a difference. I didn’t get carried away by it this time, because I had seen it all before in Spain. I knew that sooner or later the enthusiasm would inexorably consume itself, and reality would return like the sun after a night of fiesta.
Since then, the rains have come, and the snow. Christmas came by, and new year’s eve. Spring was late, and even though it’s July by now, summer in Holland has only started last week.
During all this time, many of the occupations resisted. But as the long dark season wore on their numbers dwindled, not so much because of the weather, but because of internal turmoil and growing impatience from the authorities.
When I came back, a fortnight ago, the occupations in The Hague and Utrecht still resisted. The remainders of Occupy Amsterdam had been cleared by the police in March.
“Wow,” I thought, “they are still here. I have to pay them a visit soon.”
Next day Occupy Utrecht folded their last tent, and the day after also Occupy Den Haag finally surrendered. It was too late for me to say goodbye. The camps had become a magnet for drug addicts, outcasts and homeless. The few brave indignados who had resisted were finally outnumbered. They didn’t feel safe any more, and they abandoned the square.
So the occupations in Holland withered away, and the image they left is one of a naive bunch of protesters with no clear ideas on any subject, and of shabby downtown campings, potentially dangerous and smelling of dope and alcohol.
Last year, when the general assembly of Puerta del Sol decided to lift the acampada after four weeks of occupation, someone asked me if I agreed. At the time, I didn’t answer. But now, with sufficient hindsight, I can say it was the right decision.
Nevertheless, the Dutch occupations resisted a harsh winter and two of them lasted for almost nine months. It’s a remarkable feat.
I step off the train in Eindhoven. For me this is another little piece of home. And a most interesting place it is. Many western cities have become what they are today because of the multinationals they spawned. Turin and Fiat, Atlanta and Coca-Cola, Detroit and General Motors. But few cities have been so intimately linked to a company as Eindhoven is to Philips.
Quite literally, Philips built this city. So allow me to take you on an infomercial tour to a corner of the Netherlands that proudly presents itself as ‘the smartest region of Europe’. Don’t worry, there is a point to all this. You will see.
It all started off with a good idea. A light bulb, so to speak. It had been the result of many decades of research and the final ‘invention’ is usually credited to Thomas Alva Edison.
If modern copyright custom were in vigour at the time, each of those small advances would have been rigourously patented, and Edison would never have been allowed to create his light bulb.
But the good idea traveled fast and far. In a small village in Brabant, two brothers took it up and started constructing their own bulbs in a country shed. Today, the Philips brothers would be considered pirates, they would be sued out of business by Edison. But back in the closing years of the 19th century the Philips family had no trouble starting up their business, because American patents were not applicable under Dutch legislation.
Without ‘pirates’ like Anton and Gerard Philips, Eindhoven would never have turned from a sleepy Brabant village to the ‘smartest region of Europe’.
So first came the factory, then came the city. Cozy little houses for the blue-collar workers, spacy villas for the management, facilities, parks, swimming pools, sportsclubs etc. Soon the village of Eindhoven swallowed the five villages around her to form a curious star-shaped agglomeration.
During the Great Depression, a company orchard was planted on the outskirts of the city. It was one of many employment projects of the age. Because in the 1930s the reigning economic philosophy on how to counter the crisis was quite the opposite of today’s. More government spending, instead of harsh austerity measures.
The unemployed labour force was harnassed to build works for public use. It caused the debt to increase, but this way the workers would have money to spend. And money needs to keep rolling. As long as it does, so economic guru John Keynes predicted, the economy would continue to grow.
Unfortunately, in the midst of rising political tensions and visceral demagogy, the economic crisis spiraled down to a devastating world war.
The Philips brothers evacuated themselves and many of their directors to the United States and took most of the company’s capital with them. The factories continued to operate under German supervision during the war, and the Philips orchard proved to be very useful. In times of shortages the apples were used to make the infamous rations of Philiprak (‘Philips mash’).
After the war, Philips pioneered its way into various branches of consumer electronics (with mixed results) and Eindhoven continued to be at the center of its global web. But by the end of the century the relationship between the company and the city was radically changing as a result of globalisation.
Manufacturing had been outsourced to low-wage countries, the monumental old factories were being given new residential or commercial use. The city reinvented itself as a place of design and high-tech R&D.
In the midst of this great makeover, the Philips orchard still exists. We had family lunch there the other day. You can eat pancakes with apples straight from the garden. It holds thousands of trees, neatly planted the Dutch way, making maximum use of minimum space. It’s an experimental ground for students of the agrarian university of Wageningen for research into biological ways of extensive farming.
I take a quiet walk there. When the harvesting season comes you can pick as many apples as you can carry for a small fee. And me, I wonder about the whole revolution/evolution issue.
It’s true that many things are very wrong with our way of life, and getting worse. But in a broad perspective, many other things are definitely getting better. So maybe change is happening, very slowly. It’s a matter of economy, sure, but it’s also a matter of social and moral acceptability.
Maybe we will do away with chemical agriculture and industrial animal exploitation. Not only because in the long run it’s unsustainable and unhealthy, but also because people will convince themselves that it’s no longer acceptable.
For ages, until not so long ago, the institution of slavery has been morally acceptable. It was finally abolished not in the least because people became aware that it was wrong. The same thing eventually happened with child labour, with the legal inequality between men and women, between whites and blacks, between gay and straight.
So why shouldn’t this moral awareness slowly extend to the treatment of animals and the earth itself? I have a feeling it’s already happening right now.
Or maybe not. Social awareness doesn’t come by itself. You have to keep pushing it. That’s why it’s a good thing to be a revolutionary, to keep demanding the impossible, always.
In case we don’t succeed, we will at least have shaken things up. Ideas will take root, and with a bit of good luck, history will prove them right.
Since October 15 and thanks to Occupy Wall Street, the movement has spread worldwide. Holland got contamined as well. It isn’t yet massive, but it’s rooting in various places.
Around fiteen cities and villages are said to be occupied. The most prominent acampadas are to be found in The Hague and Amsterdam.
After more than a week in which rain and the first hints of frost came peeping around the corner, both camps are still there, and growing. It was time for me to pay them a visit.
I had a kind of déja vu. More or less I recognised the stage of development of the two encampments. Things don’t seem to be totally fluid any more, they are taking form, but they can still easily be moulded.
In The Hague someone admitted that the occupiers are reinventing the wheel. They know hardly anything about what happened in Spain this spring. After Wall Street, people here just started camping for a better world. For me it makes it all the more interesting to see that, without really knowing each other, these spontaneous societies roughly organise themselves in a similar way on the basis of the same principles. Inclusiveness, non violence and direct democracy.
Apart from that, the differences and the cultural peculiarities are easy to spot.
In The Hague the camp is not on a square near parliament, but on a part of the central Malieveld meadow. From a historical point of view the karma of the place is not favourable. When the socialist leader Troelstra failed to spark a Dutch revolution in 1918, this is were the counterrevolution staged a grand patriotic hommage to the royal family.
Up until this weekend a part of the meadow was occupied by the circus. Now the encampment of around thirty tents drowns in space, with a view of central The Hague in the distance.
It’s monday morning. Occupy Den Haag looks clean and quiet. The tents are spread over differently sized lots delined by wooden sticks and ropes. This creates the paths of the village. There are toilet boxes and the camp is powered by a generator, although the first thing I hear is fervent talk about an ambitious solar energy project. On the perimeter of the camp you find a big army tent, a Communications tent, a small caravan used as Information point and a First Aid center.
The army tent is the meeting point. In the back there is a table with chairs and in the front the kitchen is installed. The penumbra, the blankets on the floor and the small plastic windows answer to the Dutch need for cozyness. When I come in, there is a meeting go on.
Half a dozen people are discussing about holding a census, about numbering the tents that were donated and indexing the people who sleep there. “We need to know who is where, and if everybody is well enough equiped against the cold. Especially when people are drinking, they risk undercooling.”
It perfectly fits the village atmosphere of people knowing and caring for each other. But it also borders closely on interference of the private space on the part of the community. Not surprisingly, the anarchists have their own autonomous tent.
I have noticed some other Dutch traits today. In The Hague the ‘polder’ model of patient and endless negotiation reigns supreme. People hold three assemblies a day. They call them ‘meetings’. Lately they were caught having a meeting to discuss whether to keep calling their meetings ‘meetings’ or not. The reason being that a meeting is usually presided over by someone. So maybe it would be more appropriate to call them ‘assemblies’.
Records are kept of each meeting, which have to be meticulously transcribed, corrected and published in time for the next meeting. So keeping up with all the red tape can take all day.
Still, there are enough people active outside meeting hours to get things moving. Several commissions have been formed, even though all issues are discussed in assembly. Next to Food, Cleanliness and First Aid there is an Art commission and the distinct commissions of Info, Pr, Media and Communications. They haven’t yet formed working groups on themes like Politics, Economy and Environment.
Like in other acampadas, there are also people with personal problems, heavy drinkers, homeless, and people who need help. Or maybe, camping out on the Malieveld together with committed citizens is just the environment they need.
I talk to one of the occupiers. He participates in the Kitchen, and in the Communications team doing livestream. He has been homeless for four years. “When you’re living on the streets you have to rely on your instinct of survival. It makes you a lot more inventive.” And he explains how you can make a saw or any tool in copper, with rubble you can find in the trash. “If this is going to be a real village”, he says, “then I want to be the blacksmith.”
Before I leave I pass by the army tent. Two elderly people are sitting in the back talking. They are content, or even relieved that they see people getting together and speaking out against the financial system.
“Finally”, one of them says, “it has begun.”
As I step out into the open, onto the meadow, I hear a voice calling after me. “When you go to Amsterdam, tell them to come over here. We still have some room left.”
It wasn’t just a joke. In Amsterdam they desperately need space. People are camping on the small square of the Stock Exchange, which is a side space of the grand Damrak avenue. The square is absolutely packed with tents. It’s a clear difference, where The Hague is a village, Amsterdam is a town.
It’s a lively place, too. A crossroads for tourists and outlandish locals, for businessmen and petty crooks. The square might be small, but it makes for a great scenery. Crammed in between the landmark Beurs van Berlage and the luxury department store of Byenkorf, the town is directly facing the entrance of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.
This is where the modern stock exchange first came into being, this was the financial capital of the early modern world in Holland’s golden age. The city has a bond with the former Dutch colony which was named after her and which is known today as New York. It makes it all the more symbolic that they are camping right on the steps of the Beurs.
Last week the occupiers rolled out the red carpet for the brokers and staged a sale of shares in love, peace and happiness. It was ludicrous enough to make the news. The movement has gained a lot of sympathy, both in the press and from the locals. The shopkeepers are happy with them and many of them support the initiative with donations of food, even the big chains. The city council leaves the occupiers alone as long as they keep the place clean and safe, and the police collaborates. Some will disagree, but the presence of a vital and colourful protest camp in the heart of the city is a blessing for the image of Amsterdam.
The occupation has been going on since the 13th, and it has been booming. A couple of days ago a grand urbanistic make-over was done to host all the tents in a more organised way.
The current layout of the camp is simple. There is one major artery that crosses the square. It’s the broad way. On either side of it there are so many tents that there is no room for little neighbourhood squares, and no room even to pass.
On all sides of the rectangle there are the community structures. The Information tent with public gathering space are on the side of the Beurs van Berlage. Along the stock exchange there are toilets, a generator, the Infrastructure commission and the Library. On the Byenkorf side there is the kitchen and the mysterious Media bunker, completely sealed off.
I was happy to meet various comrades from the marches to Brussels. Bobby and Maggie, my anarchist friends from San Francisco, tell me about one of the major problems of the camp. The lack of safety. At night, sinister types are roaming around the place looking for things to steal, and heavy drinking is being practised in the camp itself.
Lack of sense of safety leads to fear and suspicion. We have noticed that. A security force has been instituted, called the ‘peacekeepers’. They walk around with walkie talkies, and it seems some of them take their position very seriously. They might think it gives them some kind of authority over others. Various kinds of peacekeeping methods are being employed. From trying to convince trouble makers to be calm, to calling the police and have them be taken away.
Another of the problems Bobby spoke about was the apparent inaccessability for non Dutch speakers. They perceive the camp as being monopolised by the small core who took the initiative, described as being mainly white, dutch, male.
Typically, Dutch culture has never been dominated by strong monarchs, but by a class of wealthy merchants backed up by rigid calvinist morals. These are the ‘regents’, the people who you will find nameless on the obscure portraits of the Dutch masters. It almost sounds to me as if the culture of the regents has also perpetuated itself in Occupy Amsterdam.
Some of the Dutch occupiers deny this. In working group meetings, when non Dutch speakers are present, the language is English, and the General Assemblies are simultaneously translated in small groups. The people who seem to have divided the various nerve centers of the organisation among each other are same ones who have kept this thing going, day and night, for over a week. Still, there has been a lot of criticism from the inside about the lack of openness, especially of the Media center.
In any case, it wasn’t easy for Bobby and me to get access to the place. Bobby had never been inside since he got here. We had to become members of the Communication commission, we had to wade through procedures, we should have been required to call telephone numbers and even have a kind of job interview. Finally, by simply insisting, we entered. It wasn’t worth the effort. There was little there, most of the communications team had already been transferred off ground.
At dusk the General Assembly is celebrated in a corner of the square. Earlier on, a Basque comrade of mine, from the marches, had said we should try to explain these people how to hold an assembly. “They don’t take acts, they don take speaking turns. It’s crazy!”
I preferred to look on. First thing I notice, the assembly is not held in a circle. It’s a hemicircle facing the group of moderators, like parliament and government. The crazy thing, which I had never experienced before was that they use ‘the human microphone’. This means that people speak in short sentences, which are repeated by the entire assembly. To prepare people for this, someone shouts “Mike check!” for as long as it isn’t repeated loudly enough by the group.
It’s very awkward to hear people repeating every single thing a speaker or a moderator says, be it nonsense or not. But it has a clear advantage, which might just as well be a disadvantage in certain cases. Whenever a speaker starts to be annoying, or people don’t agree, the microphone simply fails, and the word goes to someone else.
I had to admit that the Assembly was very dynamic. It didn’t lose much time in details or conflict and it didn’t last too long. It was also carefully orchestrated. As I look at the two moderators, I have the odd feeling that I’m watching a cinematographic re-enactment of the very same thing I am watching. They seem to be actors. And this is full 3D with surround sound provided by the public.
The theme of the assembly is alcohol abuse and how to deal with this. I hear various propositions for rules, toleration time-slots and the like. The final decision that was pre-prepared by the moderation team, was that drinking should be limited to inside the tents.
It’s accepted unanimously, even before it is fully translated to some of the non Dutch speakers. One of them is just in time to object. He is visibly worried for interference in the sphere of personal freedom. He proposes that the peacekeepers do not get the right to enforce the decision.
It is accepted. People themselves will be responsable for not drinking out in the open.
It’s naive to say the least. The potential drinkers are probably absent in this assembly, like most people. And even if they weren’t, everybody knows that this rule will not be respected. I wouldn’t respect it myself. If I want to drink a beer on the steps of the Beurs van Berlage, I will do so.
It will create the familiar situation in which rules and practice do not comply. It will lead to something not exclusively Dutch called ‘tolerance’. And this is not a good thing, not at all. Tolerance implies arbitrary authority. It simply means to say this: ‘Your behaviour goes against the rules. And if you are allowed to continue to behave like this, it’s only because of my benevolence. So go on, but remember that I reserve the right to enforce the rules whenever I please.’
In Puerta del Sol, also, we had to cope with the problem of drinking. People made it very clear, from the very first moment that the ‘revolution is not raising a bottle’. And also there, it was collective responsability to contain the problem and convince trouble makers to take it easy. But without written rules. When people act collectively responsable on the subject, then the rules are superfluous.
In a society that feels threatened, the contrast between enforcement and control versus inclusion and collaboration becomes more acute. I have a feeling this same conflict is very present in the Amsterdam camp.
In conclusion, the important thing is that the presence on the Beursplein is strong and dynamic. In this respect, I was enchanted to know that they have a commission called Vision. And, just like in The Hague, the general feeling is that people are here to stay. They want to challenge the arrival of winter.
Authorities are tolerant of the situation because they are probably convinced it will not last. The cold, the rain and the frost will take care of it.
If the occupiers manage to keep camping in whatever condition, ‘at least until christmas’, they will have made a statement of force and perseverance. And if in the meantime they will be able to deal with their social problems and practical challenges, they will have fully merited respect.
For the moment, it’s growing, and spreading over other cities. In Amsterdam, you can hear people whispering that the occupiers might open a franchise on the majestic field of the Museumplein.