Neoliberalism with Dutch Characteristics: The Big Fix-Up of the Netherlands and the Practice of Embedded Cultural Activism


2009, JRP-Ringier

Introduction: Processes of normalization in post-socialist Netherlands

Today, we live in the high-days of consensus. Perhaps the most powerful consensus still is Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the end of history, the thesis that in the big clash between world systems the joint forces of market and democracy beat the competition – state socialism – fair and square. Even though fiercely criticized since its publication in 1989 (recently even by Fukuyama himself),[1] the degree to which this thesis still holds the political imagination in a firm grip cannot be underestimated.If philosophy, defined as one relentless battle with common sense, has any practical application, it might be apropos of this consensus of the end of history.[2]

To start with, what is often forgotten in this so-called ‘friendly take-over’ of the East by the West is that the losses were not merely on the side of the ‘losers’ – post-socialist societies that have had to endure the tough ‘cure’ of market reforms (referred to by a euphemistic reapplication of the term ‘processes of normalization’). The alleged winners in the West equally lost something. To be more precise, the ‘victory’ of western liberal democracy struck a final blow against the tradition of social welfare democracy and, inversely, meant the final breakthrough of aggressive neoliberal and neoconservative political models.[3] In this sense, we can claim that since 1989, both the East and West have become post-socialist, suffering from a similar post-socialist condition.[4]

Symptomatic of this condition are the vicissitudes of social housing in the Netherlands.[5] With 40 percent of the housing stock owned and managed by publicly financed housing corporations, the Dutch housing market has long been regarded as the prototype of a social democratic housing market. However, with the ‘regime change’ of 1989, it didn’t take long before attempts were made to ‘tap’ this enormous reservoir of ‘dead capital’ – both from the side of the government and the real estate market, but even from within the housing corporations themselves. Accordingly, since the beginning of the 1990s the Dutch housing market – especially in the big cities – has been subjected to one of the most intensive restructurings in its recent history, also referred to as ‘The Big Fix-Up’,[6] changing the Dutch city as we know it.

What follows is a consideration of the logics, discourse, consequences and contradictions of this sweeping liberalization operation. Similar to the countries of the former Communist bloc, Dutch society is also being subjected to a ‘process of normalization’, the norm in this case being ‘market’ plus ‘Dutch norms and values’. However this so-called normalization comes at a high social cost – a cost moreover that is unevenly distributed, paid for as it is by those groups in society that are least able to do so and are the least likely to profit from the operation. Through an evaluation of the interventions of artists, designers, architects, video artists, etc. with regard to the ‘post-socialist’ housing question in the Netherlands, we discuss the political role of cultural production in relation to today’s consensus of the ‘end of history’.

Social housing in the age of self-solvency…

One of the key documents that set the scene for the liberalization of the housing market in the Netherlands was the ‘National Policy Document on Housing in the Nineties’ issued in 1989 (sic).[7] Its main objectives were to make the housing corporations independent,[8] encourage the workings of the market with regard to housing and stimulate homeownership. It’s not difficult to construct the ideological presuppositions behind this policy document. It is for instance seen as a natural development for renters to want to become homeowners, which is valued as unambiguously good because it would ensure that people take better care of their house and its environment (since, as proto-capitalists, they are now out to protect and enhance their investment). It also clearly promotes the idea that even social sectors should operate in conformity with market norms and criteria because it’s the only way to make them perform better, be more efficient, more consumer-oriented, etc.[9]

Cut off from the state and abandoned to the market, housing corporations developed all kinds of hybrid schemes in order to be able to build housing for those who could not pay the full price, while still making enough profit to be self-solvent – or ‘to keep one’s own pants up’ as it was phrased. Housing corporations entered into partnerships with project developers, sold large parts of their stock to the inhabitants in order to build up capital, demolished strategically well located stock to sell the land and build houses for middle and higher incomes as a way to finance social apartments, etc. This led to some remarkable reversals. For instance, while social housing was traditionally seen as a way to create the right conditions to ensure the stability of capitalism, now the capitalist organization of housing was put forward as guarantor of the future of social housing. Also, the standard reasoning that the workings of the market are always beneficial to the customer – allowing him to have ‘more for less money’ – was reversed: inhabitants were expected to pay more money for a smaller apartment precisely because it now conformed to market standards.

This liberalization operation – which some refer to as a ‘silent revolution’ – led to the demolition of a huge chunk of the social housing stock, for the most part of good quality. This not only displaced a lot of socio-economically vulnerable people for the duration of the restructuring, depriving them from their much-needed local social networks. Since as a rule only 30 percent of what was rebuilt was social housing– which was often already less than what existed before – it became unaffordable for the majority of the residents to ever return to their neighbourhoods, leaving them fend for themselves in a tight housing market. The result was somewhat predictable, yet nonetheless overlooked or downplayed by the ideological fervour of the restructuring’s supporters. In the wake of the Big Fix-Up, a reserve army of what was appropriately called ‘demolition nomads’ was produced: displaced renters who, due to the invisible yet iron hand of the market, wound up in other corporation housing that was often next in line for restructuring. They were thus forced to move from one ‘condemned’ area to another.

So how could it come this far? The necessity, moral desirability even, of the liberalization was partially asserted by depicting the typical inhabitant of social housing as a middle class yuppie (single or couple) who is doing quite well for himself, but still opportunistically clings to his cheap, large apartment strategically located near the city centre or station. Needless to say, in the face of such a clear-cut case of a free rider, it was easy to generate a consensus on the necessity of a market-style restructuring of the social housing stock ‘to trim the fat’. On the one hand such asocial parasitism was felt as a blow in the face of people in real need – the prototypical Turkish or Moroccan family with up to ten kids packed together in a small apartment. But also the middle and upper class felt cheated because good locations were artificially kept outside the market, leaving them no other choice than to move to the suburbs. The figure of the free rider – in itself an archetypical product of the neoliberal imagination – thus allowed the better-off to play victim of an allegedly corrupted and perverse social housing circuit. Could there be a better example of what social geographer Neil Smith calls ‘the revanchist city’: a city torn between different population groups targeting one another for obtaining all kinds of advantages?[10]

If we don’t act now…

Today’s elites rule by permanently maintaining a state of emergency that allows them to push through all kinds of measures that go against the interests of society as a whole – the US-led war on terrorism being the most obvious and most quoted example of this thesis. However, it is often more difficult to recognize the reality of this principle at home, in the Netherlands. This reinforces the relaxed attitude (even among critics) that such scandalous policies would never be tolerated here – inversely upholding the caricature of ‘those wacky Americans’. Let’s not fool ourselves. The liberalization of the housing market is a case in point of how a sense of emergency is produced – albeit not military but social and economic – to legitimize decisions that obviously serve the narrow interest of elite groups.

Every criticism about the quick, massive destruction of social housing met with the rejoinder that the Dutch housing market, due to its strong social democratic heritage, is exceptional for its high quantities of social housing and that in this regard, it is unique in Europe if not the world (the former communist countries not included). It was further argued that precisely due to this historical heritage of a ‘distorted’ housing market, with ‘abnormally’ large chunks outside of the reach of the market, Dutch cities lagged dramatically behind their competitors around the globe and were at risk of missing out on crucial investments from national and multinational real estate groups. Consequently, it was said that all means were justified to undo this historically developed yet, within today’s world, aberrant, untenable and potentially lethal situation.[11]

This ‘discourse of emergency’ is meant to put public opinion into a mental state of panic: ‘If we don’t act now, then the downward spiral in which our cities are caught will be irreversible!’ Usually one doesn’t even specify exactly what it is that will happen. ‘If we don’t act now…’, leaves it to the audience to fill in the three dots with all kinds of visions of the imminent doom and decay that will befall Dutch cities if no drastic measures are taken. This production of panic is used to blackmail people into endorsing a neoliberal, competitive approach to the city, in which the worst thing that could happen to Dutch cities would be to wind up in the lower reaches of what Ricardo Petrella calls the CR30 – the thirty most powerful city-regions in the world. Urban policy documents are full of references to studies revealing how Dutch cities sank several points on the charts of most popular investment locations for companies in recent years.

This economic-financial state of emergency, in which neoliberal kill-or-cure remedies have free reign, is further strengthened by the circulation of everyday metaphors like ‘to be the weakest pupil in the class’, ‘the weakest brother’ or ‘the last rider in the peloton’. These expressions serve the purpose of triggering all kinds of fears about imminent marginalization and humiliation in the public.[12] The problem here is not only that such rhetorical devices are used to push through neoliberal policies. On the level of form, and therefore more unconsciously, it makes people accustomed to the neoliberal attitude of always wanting to be the best, to stay ahead of the competition no matter what the cost. The recent proliferation of the word ‘top’ – top companies, top research centres, top universities, top medical facilities, top museums, top talents, etc. is also exemplary in this regard. All these rhetorical-tactical devices are mobilized to normalize neoliberalist dogma and prevent people from asking the right political questions about their own best interests or from having the mental calm to consider alternative, non-market centred strategies for the city.

This fear of ‘lagging behind’ takes a particular national-chauvinist character in the Netherlands. We are told that the Netherlands has always been at the forefront of things, a leading or guiding country (‘gidsland’), years ahead of other countries and that it cannot ‘slacken off’ now in the face of new global challenges. The spectre of the ‘Golden Age’ – when, according to historian Immanuel Wallerstein, the Netherlands arose as the first global Empire – always lurks in the background of these sort of statements. One only has to think of the recent plea by Dutch Prime Minister J.P. Balkenende in the House of Representatives to restore the ‘good old’ entrepreneurial attitude of the colonial Dutch East India Company to its former glory. This was hardly a slip of the tongue, as was obvious from Balkenende’s rejoinder to the protests of some members of the House: ‘Ain’t it not so?’[13] Is there any better proof of how well established the consensus is on neoliberalism as the recipe for a prosperous and healthy future for the Netherlands?

The rise of the problem neighbourhoods

The liberalization of the social housing market was reinforced with the advent of the discourse on so-called problem neighbourhoods, itself part of a more general policy offensive focused on the specific problematic of the large Dutch cities.[14] Again, a state of emergency was declared, now in the socio-cultural sphere. It was propagated that the Netherlands had been far too tolerant, ‘lax’ even, towards marginal population groups living in its cities – especially foreigners or people from foreign origin. This was said to have led to dangerously high concentrations of socio-urban pathologies in a few areas that, precisely because of their geographical concentration, had become self-reinforcing and thus necessitated a set of tough measures to re-integrate these ‘potential ghettoes’ into the city at large.[15] Since it was then quickly noted that these neighbourhoods usually contained a high percentage of social housing, this reinforced the consensus on the necessity of the Big Fix-Up and accelerated its implementation.

The particular content of the notion of the problem neighbourhood in the Netherlands was seen as twofold. On the one hand, there were the proto-typical foreigners, closed off in their own religio-ethnic network and often earning a living by renting out rooms in their overcrowded and badly maintained social apartments to yet more newcomers. On the other hand, successful ‘ghetto members’ who, through hard work and integration in Dutch society, did well economically but were hindered by the lack of housing options within their (problem) neighbourhood appropriate to higher social status – i.e. a more spacious, differentiated space that could above all be bought rather than rented. Again the revanchist undertones are obvious: the good, hard working, good-natured middle class subject held hostage by the bad immigrant.

To undo these ‘unnatural’ situations, which were said to prevent the neighbourhood from growing into a middle class ideal, all kinds of exceptional measures were undertaken. People from higher socio-economic strata were mixed in so as to restore the proper balance and, most importantly, ‘set a good example’ – one of the key slogans was ‘to see people being entrepreneurial is to make people entrepreneurial’.[16] ‘Successful’ inhabitants were rewarded by being allowed ‘social promotion’. Multicultural shops with market potential were given special management training for branding their business more professionally. Less successful inhabitants (at least the ones who were not displaced) were subjected to zero-tolerance measures and ‘integrated’ through a forced treatment of Dutch ‘norms and values’.[17]

We should connect this upsurge of what has been called neo-racism[18] – especially considering the specific targeting of citizens from Arabic origin – to the rise of neocolonial and neoliberal attitudes in the core of Dutch politics. It is for instance an often-heard claim – even within enlightened circles – that the immigration of cheap labour has introduced groups that have turned the clock back by some forty years. It is implied that they are the main reason that the Netherlands lost its pole-position in the global arena. There is, in other words, an immediate relation to be made between the many frustrations and disappointments that result from a tougher, less fair and often obscure global economic battle and the search for scapegoats for that unwelcome state of affairs: a lazy, retarded Other that thwarts full exploitation of our competitive capabilities ‘from within’.

Neoliberal and neoconservative politics thus come together in the case of the Big Fix-Up to enforce a consensus on the inevitability of the restructuring of social housing. These two constellations might on the surface seem rather strange bedfellows, the first being a predominantly economic-financial doctrine related to the laissez-faire nineteenth-century free trade tradition, the second a neocolonialist programme, a ‘civilization offensive’ that imposes mainly western values on society through military force. Nevertheless, it is a much-noted fact that the two are very complementary, at least for the moment.[19] In Dutch politics, the discourse of J.P. Balkenende, with its dual emphasis on entrepreneurial dynamics and norms and values is proof of the complementarity of this ‘winning combination’.

Art within The Big Fix-Up: a case of interpassivity

The Netherlands would not be the Netherlands if in the wake of the demolition cranes and concrete mixers there would not have been a myriad of artistic interventions engaging with the radical make over of the Dutch city. We can even say that over the last decade, a new artistic genre and repertoire has developed alongside the Big Fix-Up. In virtually all of the neighbourhoods up for restructuring, a heterogeneous bunch of cultural agents have organized projects varying from urban events, poster campaigns, neighbourhood safaris and parties, cooking workshops, do-it-yourself training programmes, farewell rituals, debates, expert meetings, mapping sessions, participatory websites, artists-in-residence programmes and so forth, all tackling issues related in one way or another to the on-going restructuring.[20] Although this willingness to engage with on-going social processes is definitely heart-warming, the majority of these initiatives seem to suffer from what Žižek calls ‘interpassivity’: hyperactive behaviour that has to prevent what really matters from manifesting itself and therefore from being contested.[21]

Symptomatic of such art projects, and not the worst example in many ways, is the project Dwaallicht[22] by Jeanne van Heeswijk. She is a well-recognized figure in the artistic scene surrounding the Big Fix-Up and has developed a sophisticated set of strategies for addressing certain target groups and participants. The project was a response to the restructuring of Nieuw Crooswijk, a so-called problem neighbourhood in Rotterdam. This restructuring basically involved the socio-economic cleansing of the area, and rightly provoked mass protests from the existing population who were declared ‘personae non gratae’ in their own neighbourhood. Against this heavily polarized background, the artist developed a participatory programme that was meant to ‘bring consolation’, as one newspaper put it, to the affected population by allowing them collectively to search for the soul of the neighbourhood.[23] They were asked to collect interesting stories reflecting the socio-cultural history of Nieuw Crooswijk as well as identify its vital energies. One of the results was an interactive website where, on a map of the neighbourhood, one could drag a set of virtual moving dots representing an endangered asset of the area back into the neighbourhood and with a click of the mouse indicate what things one wanted to preserve.[24]

What are we to make of this? To begin with, the project does not problematize the fact that most of the current inhabitants won’t be in the neighbourhood anymore to enjoy the preserved ‘old’ parts of the ‘new’ Nieuw Crooswijk. The website for instance doesn’t contain any dots representing social housing, excluding that even as an option. Even worse, the entire idea of offering consolation by making an inventory of elements for preservation purposes already assumes that the demolition will take place and that the exodus of the majority of the existing population is inevitable. The maximum stake of the project is therefore to secure a ‘new’ Nieuw Crooswijk ‘uploaded’ with some socio-culturally valuable remnants of the ‘old’ Nieuw Crooswijk. As the description on the artist’s website reads: ‘Het Dwaallicht tried to capture the cultural history of Nieuw Crooswijk and its residents for the future to create a narrative monument to the community.’[25] When, thanks to the protests of inhabitants and action groups the restructuring plans were temporarily put on hold, it became clear that the project was grounded in a far too pessimistic assessment of the possible outcomes of the conflict situation. From this alone, it is clear that the interactive website reflected a deeper, passive attitude towards the neighbourhood and resignation about the deportation of the majority of its inhabitants. Moreover, the consolatory manner, which the project took to be its role in relation to the ‘victims’, objectively performed interpassivity.[26]

Embedded cultural activism

This ‘interpassive’ project is anything but an isolated case. If there is one common denominator of the eclectic mix of artistic interventions in the context of the Big Fix-Up, it is both its excess and lack of activism.[27] Or to be more precise, the enthusiasm and freshness of the majority of initiatives stands in opposite proportion to the political courage needed to tackle the highly questionable agenda behind the current makeover of the Dutch city and attack the broad consensus. This contradictory combination is what architecture critic Roemer van Toorn identifies in the field of architecture as ‘Fresh Conservatism’, which combines a seeming willingness to tackle hot issues in an unconventional way with a deep depoliticizing effect on these very issues themselves.[28] How else to evaluate cultural interventions that treat the marginalization and socio-economic cleansing of a neighbourhood as an inevitability and not as the result of a deeply neoliberal and neoconservative politics?!

In searching for the causes behind this tendency, we should perhaps return to the discourse of emergency that is one of the most important tactical devices by which the Big Fix-Up is pushed through. Creating a general sense of urgency makes it easy for the key decision makers to neutralize any opposition. It allows them to put critics on the spot by demanding that, in the face of the ‘crisis’, they come up with a realistic alternative. If they fail to do so, which is not surprising considering the immensity of this demand, they can easily present opponents as ‘irresponsible children’ who shrug away from implementing radical, long overdue measures. Any voice of dissent is thus silenced by the Dutch motto ‘doe gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg’ – which could be translated as something like: ‘act normal and you’d already be acting crazy enough’. In the face of such threats, one should defend the right to ‘mere criticism’, to protest policies without being blackmailed by those responsible into solving the contradictions for them.

These tactics on the part of the ruling elite seem to be very effective. Also within cultural circles it has become commonplace not merely to ‘shout from the side-line’ or engage in deep criticism but, instead, to ‘do’, to ‘get real and make oneself useful for a change’ (as architecture historian and urban activist Wouter Vanstiphout once claimed apropos his engagement with problem neighbourhood Hoogvliet in Rotterdam).[29] The task is thus defined as one of invention, of micro-solutions to alleviate the many concrete, everyday needs, discomforts and grievances of those affected by the restructuring. The unspoken command is that in making oneself useful, one does not radically contest the bigger political decisions and presuppositions behind the social process. It doesn’t take much to see how the latter is the precondition for being able to work ‘constructively’ towards feasible actions, in dialogue and cooperation with the main players in the restructuring process. Or to put it bluntly, the high cost of so-called post-critical cultural commitment is political pacification.

All this brings us to the claim that with the multitude of cultural actions within the Big Fix-Up we have the cultural counterpart of the infamous phenomenon of embedded journalism – in other words, an embedded cultural practice operating in the wake of the exodus of all undesirable elements out of the neighbourhood and obeying ‘rules of engagement’ that are partly imposed from above, partly self-imposed. As a rule, the scope of cultural agency is limited to softening the ‘collateral damage’ caused by the restructuring and inventing humanitarian, compensatory measures or ‘ways of dealing with it’, as opposed to radically contesting the neoliberal and neoconservative measures as such. Needless to say, the self-limitation of this type of cultural activism merely serves the ‘making’ of a post-socialist Netherlands.[30] It is no doubt that the far-reaching co-option of oppositional forces by the ruling order accounts for the seductive power of Žižek’s recent suggestion to progressive forces ‘to do nothing’.[31]

Conclusion: It’s about the relationship between things, obviously!

Perhaps the ultimate, hidden reference behind the embedded cultural production in the Netherlands is the art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, the godfather of ‘relational aesthetics’.[32] Indeed, the art practices in the problem neighbourhoods appear as a sort of ‘street version’ of Bourriaud’s relational art – a kind of ‘Bourriaud in the polders’ so to speak. It also concerns an art practice that no longer aims at producing ‘objects’ or ‘provocations’, but instead wants to generate new social bonds, organize encounters, encourage dialogue, etc.[33] The decisive question here concerns what it is one precisely understands by encounters. In Bourriaud’s discourse these concepts clearly fit in a post-critical conceptual universe that stresses mutual respect, the creation of a modus vivendi and non-oppositional dialectics. With the Dutch case in mind, one has to seriously question the effectiveness of such a model in a context where the existing order mobilizes these very same values as a means to neutralize any deep resistance against its policies. Cultural agents in the Netherlands would therefore do better to endorse Rancière’s theory of political art.[34]According to him, the social relevance of art is to produce what he calls ‘dissensus’, the radical political moment in which two social factions cannot simply ‘agree to disagree’ without a fundamental restructuring of the social order.[35]

Still in another way we can understand the failure of cultural activists to generate a genuine political passion within the context of the Big Fix-Up, through Bourriaud’s framework of relational art. Within the latter, emphasis is on imagining new ways in which people can interact with each other – which is also one of the dominant aims of a lot of cultural interventions in the Big Fix-Up. What is downplayed however are the ‘relationships between things’, i.e. the economic and property relations upon which pro-free market governments and corporations who increasingly act like dogmatic neoliberals have a monopoly. However transgressive it might be to organize encounters between people from different socio-cultural backgrounds or competences through a relational artwork, this will never reach a critical mass if the very same participants are increasingly divided through neoliberal or neoconservative spatial policies. Artists could instead focus their creative imagination on the relationships between things and not between people if they are to be more than palliative actors.

In considering some ten years of cultural interventions in the Netherlands, it is perhaps more telling to see what was not produced in the loaded context of the Big Fix-Up than what was. Where, for instance, is the documentary activist who, in Michael Moore style, took on the monster alliance between government, housing corporations, project developers, neighbourhood organizations and cultural experts? As we argued, there is plenty of material for such an intervention. How long do we have to wait for a ‘wild gesture’ of the same calibre as the one Thomas Hirschhorn made to raise awareness of the alarming right-wing infiltration of mainstream politics in his home country Switzerland? By occupying Switzerland’s cultural centre in Paris, pimping it up with slogans and organizing video screenings and debates, Hirschhorn used all his symbolic leverage to politicize the current worrying developments. If one of Žižek’s definitions of a true act is that of a crazy gesture performed by the subject regardless of the consequences within the symbolic order, then Hirschhorn’s installation Swiss-Swiss Democracy (2004) definitely qualifies. His direct blow against the Swiss political class ultimately resulted in cutbacks to the subsidies of the art foundation Pro Helvetia, which sponsored the event.

In conclusion, we can identify another way in which Hirschhorn’s act is political in Rancière’s radical sense of the word. According to Rancière, democratic politics proper occurs when somebody makes a claim that he or she is seen as unauthorised or unqualified to do – in other words, when somebody is ‘out of line’. It is such a radical political gesture that is lacking today in the Dutch art scene. In this sense the contemporary projects we talk about suffer from what Rancière calls the ‘post-utopian condition’ of art,[36] which can be seen as the manifestation of the post-socialist consensus within the artistic field. The time has come for artists here to break this post-utopian consensus through a crazy gesture striking at the core of the ongoing normalization processes in the Netherlands. They could thereby open up a space in which alternatives, or even the desire for alternatives, can come to the fore and take new cultural form.

[1] See his recent America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[2] Part of the difficulty of resisting the consensus of the end of history is no doubt the intuitively convincing power of Fukuyama’s anthropology of the last man. Indeed who would object to the idea ‘that we are all human beings’ striking a fragile balance – a modus vivendi – between matters of the body and the aspirations of the mind, self-preservation and altruism, individual self-expression and co-belonging and so on? One of the contemporary philosophers who has attacked Fukuyama’s anthropology most ferociously on this score is Alain Badiou. In his philosophy ‘man’ is split into a ‘human animal’, egotistically striving for his preservation and small pleasures and as such despicable, and the bearer of ‘a truth’, with no space for the possibility of a ‘peaceful settlement’ between the two.

[3] The intermezzo of ‘third way’ social democracy not withstanding, which, apart from already being buried politically by now, is perhaps the ultimate Fukuyamian constellation with its mix between modernity and tradition, the individual and society, profits and welfare, etc.

[4] See Immanuel Wallerstein, After Liberalism, part 1 (New York: New Press, 1995), and his Historical Capital with Capitalist Civilzsation (London: Verso, 1995), p. 151.

[5] See also BAVO, The Undivided City and its Willing Executioners (in Dutch).

[6] This term was coined for the exhibition and symposium ‘The Big Fix-Up. Transformations in Post-war Housing’ that took place in the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in 2004. See also the accompanying publication: Jacqueline Tellinga (ed.), De grote verbouwing. Verandering van naoorlogse woonwijken (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004). The more literal translation of the Dutch term ‘De grote verbouwing’ would be ‘The grand or big refurbishment’.

[7] In Dutch: ‘Nota Volkshuisvesting 90’.

[8] Housing corporations had to operate without the so-called ‘object subsidies’, a government subsidy compensating for the inevitable losses related to developing social housing. This virtually meant the withdrawal of the state from the social housing sector. In its place came the so-called rent subsidy (‘huursubsidie’) that is given to individual citizens with low incomes and is meant to pay for the difference between the rent they can afford based on their income and the rent asked by the housing corporation or landlord. The problem with this rent subsidy is that the amount offered or the conditions for obtaining it are liable to change according to the political flavour of the day.

[9] In this sense the Dutch government was already implementing, avant la lettre, the neoliberal General Agreement on Trade and Service treaty (1995) that also pleaded for the liberalization of public services such as housing.

[10] See Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the RevanchistCity (London: Routledge, 1996).

[11] It is obvious that the production of such a generalized condition of self-righteousness and anxiety depicts the current state of affairs as an emergency only to impose another new state of emergency in which neoliberal and neoconservative measures are granted free reign.

[12] Perhaps the figure in Dutch politics who championed this attitude was the former Minister of Finance Gerrit Zalm, for whom no sacrifice was too big to make the Netherlands the strongest pupil in the class when it came to obeying the notoriously stringent financial disciplinary measures the EU imposes upon its member states. He even shamelessly pleaded for hard punishment of other, less successful ‘pupils’.

[13] In Dutch: ‘toch?’ Another classic expression is, ‘And what is wrong with that?’, which puts the opponent immediately on the defensive, making him appear as a politically correct moralist who still uses rigid notions of ‘right and wrong’ to schematize and evaluate the world.

[14] The ‘Large City Policy’ (‘Grotestedenbeleid’) was a covenant between the Dutch state and the fifteen largest cities (later extended to twenty-five) drawn up in 1995. It was later followed by the ‘56 Neigbourhoods Approach’ in which specific neighbourhoods were chosen in the large and middle sized cities in the Netherlands to which special attention and investments would be devoted.

[15] This problem neighbourhood narrative was part of broader critique of multiculturalism as too soft and naïve as well as too modest and negative towards the Dutch norms and values or history, too much respect leading to indifference, etc. In the post-multiculturalist age on the other hand, it was not only again possible but imperative to defend one’s culture and not to be in self-denial or belie one’s own roots.

[16] In Dutch: ‘zien ondernemen is doen ondernemen’.

[17] The latter is of course the second fad of J.P. Balkenende (apart from his nostalgia for the Dutch East India Company): his yearlong effort to restore the traditional Dutch ‘norms and values’.

[18] Ètienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class. Ambiguous Identities (London: Verso, 1992).

[19] See for example David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

[20] These initiatives where either financed directly by the government, market partners or housing corporations as part of the restructuring, or through cultural centres operating as commissioners/mediators, or partly through self-generated funding.

[21] Slavoj Žižek, Pleidooi voor intolerantie (Amsterdam: Boom, 1998), 109.

[22] Translation: ‘will-o’-the-wisp’. The project was commissioned by the Fine Arts Centre Rotterdam (Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam), the Planning and Housing Department and the municipality of Rotterdam, and took place in 2004 and 2005. See (accessed 14 March 2007).

[23] See article ‘Slopen die ouwe teringzooi, en een beetje snel!’, Ron Meerhof, De Volkskrant, 24 March 2005. The article also refers to the Rabobank Woonportaal where it is said stated that, ‘In fact, Jeanne van Heeswijk guides (counsels) the mourning process that the inhabitants have to undergo.’

[24] Apart from the website, a dozen events were organized within the Dwaallicht project. The events were basically live enactments in the neighbourhood of the stories that were chronicled there during the project. For instance, one piece was composed based on the sound of Crooswijk and performed at various venues in the area. Further, there was an event by children in which they expressed their vision of their street, a guided audio tour of the local graveyard, a performance of youngsters about their bad reputation, and so on. Reports on all these events were distributed through a door-to-door newspaper. There will also be a novel written based on all the stories. See also (accessed 14 March 2007).

[25] See (accessed 14 March 2007).

[26] Žižek also claims that by keeping the real issue undisturbed, one legitimizes or ‘fuels’ one’s own activity (‘I remain active thanks to the passivity of the other’ (Pleidooi voor intolerantie, 108) (my translation). Indeed, if the discontents of the affected population are never allowed to manifest itself radically, artists are assured of plenty of feelings of frustration, misrecognition, etc. to do projects with.

[27] See BAVO, Too active to act. Cultural activism after the end of history, unpublished manuscript.

[28] Roemer van Toorn, ‘Fresh Conservatism. Landscapes of Modernity’(1997), available online at: (accessed 8 March 2007).

[29] See (accessed 13 March 2007).

[30] The structural nature of this co-optation of cultural agents within the Big Fix-Up makes it justified to speak of a ‘neoliberalism with Dutch characteristics’ or ‘neoliberalism plus’ (the ‘plus’ symbolizing the many cultural interventions working with the population groups or areas affected by the neoliberal policies, to supplement the harsh, repressive policies) to name the more enlightened, soft blend of neoliberalism of Dutch Big City Policy in particular and Dutch society in general.

[31] ‘State of Emergency’ symposium, Stedelijk Museum CS, Amsterdam, 23 September 2004.

[32] Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationelle (Dijon, Les presses du réel, 1998).

[33] Think of the subtitle of the project Dwaallich by Van Heeswijk analysed earlier: ‘Search for the bonds, connections and relationships within the neighbourhood and its inhabitants.’

[34] See Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible. Politique et Esthétique (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000) and Malaise dans l’esthétique (Paris: Editions Galilée, 2004),

[35] See Jacques Rancière, La Mésentente. Politique et Philosophie (Paris: Editions Galilée, 1995).

[36] Rancière, Malaise dans l’esthétique, chapter 1. See also BAVO, ‘Let art save democracy’ available online at: (accessed 8 March 2007).

Essay published in: Rosi Braidotti et al. (eds), Citizens and Subjects, the Netherlands for example, Zürich: JRP-Ringier, pp. 51-63

Tags: English

Categories: Urban planning

Type: Article