Social Responsibility and Participatory Labour

Despite our provisory inclusion in the conceptualization of “We,” ethnic minority citizens are, nevertheless, earnestly entreated to participate fully in fostering interconnectedness with our fellow Autochtoon citizens—with the aim to reinforce the optimism and strength of the Netherlands. Optimism is the operative word for a coalition navigating uncertain times, trying to keep its head above water and solve problems, all the while “building bridges.” It’s unsurprising, then, that the VVD-PvdA coalition has made the expansion of public participation (“participatiebevordering”) its number one priority. In times of crises, so it goes, “we” all have to pull our weight.

The main purport of public participation is that communities have to become more resilient and self-supporting. And a decentralization of power will make that easier. Civil society, in short, should replace government as a driving force in the management of public affairs. Back in 2009 David Cameron so carefully lamented, without a drop of irony, that “today the state is ever-present: either doing it for you, or telling you how to do it, or making sure you’re doing it their way.” Cameron mused that the “alternative to big government is the big society. We need to use the state to remake society.” Government, in this case, refers, to quote Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose, to “that plane of thinking and acting concerned with the authoritative regulation of conduct towards particular objectives.”

The VVD-PvdA coalition is seemingly taking its cues from David Cameron, offering us a Dutch rendition of “Small Government, Big Society.” It, too, is advocating a mode of governance that meets the needs of citizens by offering custom-made solutions. This mode of governance entails a sharp turn from the status quo—a move from government action to local action. In this scheme, the government acts merely as facilitator, supplying people and organizations with the financial means and resources they need to make a “real” difference in their communities. Local community empowerment is, apparently, all the rage.

Small is the new Big” Commercial by Triodos Bank Netherlands

Increasingly, consumer citizens are called upon to take responsibility for each other, their neighbourhood, “community,” and the “common good.” The government, of course, welcomes and supports these “good Samaritan” civil initiatives. “Many citizens feel,” according to, “involved in their neighbourhood, or home area.” Besides, the utopian ideal to let “families, individuals, charities and communities,” to echo David Cameron’s Hugo Young Lecture speech, “come together to solve problems,” instead of the government, reflects a deep longing to restore the sense of community that has declined—mainly due to government actions.

Municipal programmes, like Meedoen is Belangrijk (Participation is Important), which encourage people with a minimum income to participate in social and cultural activities, are intended to assuage feelings of alienation, increase community involvement, and foster “community spirit.” Yet, despite the promise of less government involvement, this mode of governance seeks to reconstitute the relationship between the citizen, the state, and society in such a manner that masks government control. Rather, the rhetoric of “local community empowerment” reconfigures “the neighbourhood,” and “local communities” as key targets of government, as the term “aandachtswijken” (special attention neighbourhoods) suggests.

Participatory Labour

In line with the coalition’s vision of public participation, municipalities offer “participatory jobs” to long-term unemployed people. “Participatory jobs” give “the unemployed,” i.e. people who are, according to the municipality of Venlo, “far removed from the labour market,” the opportunity to gain work experience, and increase their chances of employment. That way, they can also “contribute to society.” Participatory jobs offer, according to various municipalities, the long-term unemployed a chance to be “very valuable to society,” and, as a result, eventually to “a future, regular employer,” as well. Employment is, if we are to believe the VVD, a means to self-fulfilment, and societal betterment. “People who work are, indeed, happier,” the VVD professes, “and a job promotes social cohesion, integration, and self-esteem.”

“The hardworking Netherlander, who bears the weight of our social security system, should be able to count on the fact that social security money is well spent, that it is used only in those cases where it is absolutely necessary. This means that only those who truly cannot work should receive benefits. Those who do not want to work should be forced and encouraged to work.” – from the VVD website

The idea of citizenship has become tied to productivity, and charitable labour. Further, the hypothesis that citizens are only “valuable” when they contribute socially, culturally, economically to the fabric of the nation-state is not only controversial, to say the least, it also infringes on the emotional well-being of people who are unemployed, or who, for whatever reason, can’t contribute, by casting them as “wasteful parasites.”

The implication is that if you don’t contribute to society, in a manner the government approves of, you are “not valuable.” This reasoning unequivocally opens the door to exploitation. Unemployed people have argued that the “Work First method” (in order to retain welfare unemployed people have to work) amounts to forced labour. However, in 2010 the Occupations Advisory Board, the highest court for social security cases in the Netherlands, disagreed in a case brought by 45-year-old man from Amsterdam. The Board argued that “no physical or psychological pressure was brought to bear on [the man].” Apparently, the fear/threat of losing benefits, during an economic crisis, does not count as psychological pressure.

“Valuable consumer citizenship,” which is tied to productivity, is in itself a very normative concept. It manufactures “valuable,” good, law-abiding, productive citizens and pits them against “worthless,” bad, law-breaking, work-shy anti-citizens, who mooch off the “hardworking Netherlander.” The rhetoric of “valuable consumer citizenship” is part of a wider biopolitical, disciplinary discourse whose stated aim is to produce normal, productive individuals, cohesive communities, and safe neighbourhoods.

Governing by Risk

The objective of both the “community empowerment,” and “participatory job” initiatives is to modify collective and individual conduct, and collective affect, in lived space.

Kun jij duidelijk maken dat niets doen ook overlast kan geven

poster by the police “Can you make it clear that doing nothing can also cause nuisance?”

The administration of lived space, through a “leefbaarheid” (quality of life) discourse, in the name of “safety” is emblematically visualized in the above-pictured police poster, and rendered concrete in the relocation of so-called “problem families”—these are families who, according to, “engage in long-running and structural intimidation of their neighbours.” Attempts to reduce anti-social behaviour and crime, like “Stop street robbery,” through area-based social policies and interventions signal a vested interest in the control and management of social spaces, that goes beyond “creating safer neighbourhoods.”

Crime and order have now become a public concern, and it’s become our social responsibility to stop crime and maintain order. Democratized sovereignty, getting citizens involved in their neighbourhood, whether through actively policing, or being culturally involved, “serves the ends of surveillance,” as Keith Baker noted, “by destroying the obstacles hindering the development of disciplinary society.” Fundamentally, the desire of the government is “to govern not the individual offender, but the criminogenic situation: a set of routines of everyday life distributed within specific kinds of space,” as Nikolas Rose and Mariana Valverde assert. All these initiatives seek to harness the forces of “immanent sociability” inherent in urban spaces by identifying them, ordering them, fostering some, and discouraging others through mechanisms of control.

One such mechanism through which urban spaces, and populations, are regulated is the map of “dangerous” areas. This map renders visible the distribution of risks, and (potentially) dangerous, “suspicious” bodies.

Nederland Veilig » Veiligheid heb je zelf in de hand - De Risico's in je buurt

“Some risks are localized. Fill in your zip code and see what risks arise in your area.”

Recently, the government declared that municipalities will be allowed to deploy mobile cameras “to combat nuisance that moves about.” The measure is intended to repel “intermittent but persistent nuisance from loitering youths, drug dealers, street robbers and pickpockets.” And as of August 1, the government implemented a camera system, which will prop up mobile immigration controls by the Royal Military and Border Police. The system uses “risk profiles based on the KMAR’s [Royal Military and Border Police] accumulated knowledge and experience.” The proximity of some bodies is threatening, or causes “persistent nuisance,” and their doing nothing, as the above police poster illustrates, is doing something threatening. In this view, racism is, as Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley noted, “a regrettable but natural result of too much uncomfortable proximity.”

Maps of “dangerous” areas are meant to establish and mark off  “a territorial division between the excluded and the included, between the spaces of consumption and civility and the savage spaces on the margins,” what Michael Taussig calls “the space of death.” The space of death is “a wide space whose breadth offers positions of advance as well as of extinction.” It is the space of the anti-citizen, whose recognition as a “valuable” consumer citizen is contingent on a certain mode of conduct . Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose write in Governing cities: notes on the spatialisation of virtue,

“The emergence of the notions of exclusion to characterise those who previously constituted the social problem group defines these noncitizens or anticitizens not in terms of substantive characteristics but in relational terms; that is, it is a question of their distance from the circuits of inclusion into virtuous citizenship. The ‘excluded’ might make it into citizenship, if they can only be connected up to the right networks of community and the requisite channels of enterprise.”

The manufacture of “valuable” consumer citizenship, which embraces racialized, classed, gendered, and sexual dimensions, and the control of the border of acceptance and rejection in a society conjured in the cauldron of colonization has always relied on the diffuse borders between “valuable” bodies and “worthless” bodies. This begs an exploration of the dynamics of race, class, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Netherlands. Which bodies are made to inhabit “the savage spaces on the margins”?

Further, “the savage spaces on the margins,” as neoliberal imaginative geographies, fold within themselves, as I have argued, a biopolitical strategy that is motivated by “the anxiety inherent in the ambivalent desire for a reformed and recognizable ‘other.’” That is, an Other whose Otherness is contained, and reduced to superficiality. However, the potential risk that even docile, good, law-abiding, productive non-Western citizens pose—due to the imaginative geography we inhabit—marks us “for continual vigilance lest [s/he] slips into being the other ‘other.’” Risk, then, becomes, to quote Osborne and Rose, “as much a feature of spatialisation itself as it is of the particular ‘characteristics’ of people that inhabit certain zones.”

Amit Prasad and Srirupa Prasad have termed this biopolitical strategy “colonial governmentality,” which gestures toward “its forked operation as an art of government that operates through ‘conduct of conduct,’ but continually draws upon colonial practices.” This continual discursive production and visual mapping of “unsuitable participants in the body politic” renders the idea of politics as a relationship between equals difficult to sustain.

Uncomfortable Proximity

The significance of “too much uncomfortable proximity” to the racialized security and “leefbaarheid” discourse in this “brave new flat world” becomes clear in the following quote, taken from,

“At present, the individuals returning from [those] areas do not present a real threat. However, we are taking into account the fact that the continuous deterioration of the safety/security in a considerable number of conflict areas may affect the Netherlands as well.” — Threat Level Remains Limited; Attraction to Jihad Increases

In this quote the tracking of “Orientalized terrorist bodies,” the securitization of migration, and the desire of Small Government “to combat nuisance that moves about” all meet. In the risk management of mobile people deterrence, detention, deportation, dispersal and destitution have become essential techniques to channel and regulate the mobility of undesirable “external strangers.” Simultaneously, the mobility of undesirable “internal strangers” is regulated through the spatialization of difference, both conceptually (ethnic ranking) and geographically, which determines “the ways multiple identities occupy, or do not occupy, space.

Public policies and discourse have become extremely sensitive to undesirable “cultural differences.” Society needs to be protected, so it goes, from “too much diversity,” which “undermines social cohesion.” The suggestion is that the “Dutch” way of life is under some form of threat from non-Westerners. In this view, a measure like the integration course, which dictates this “Dutch” way of life, should be seen as a technique to minimize cultural differences—a cultural standardization state project. Internal cultural differences are, thus, the fault line of antagonism and conflict.

The regulation of cultural differences, and proximity, puts pressure on the public participation policies of the VVD-PvdA coalition. “Small Government” policies rely on acts of good and friendly neighbouring relations. However “neighbouring in practice,” as Joe Painter observes in The Politics of the Neighbour,  “may be too chancy and too contingent to carry the hopes that are being placed upon it.” AT5 recently reported that the Amsterdam police receives each year more complaints about nuisance neighbours than all other forms of nuisance together. Further, in June 2012 a White Autochtoon Dutch man was charged with the alleged racist murder of his Turkish immigrant neighbour.

What’s more, the majority of the White Autochtoon Dutch population (56 percent), according to an article in the NRC, has (almost) never developed friendly relations with (non-Western) Allochtonen—notwithstanding the VVD claim that employment promotes social cohesion. Annemarie Coevert states that this is “mainly because (non-Western) Allochtonen quite often live together in high concentrations—especially in the big cities, and in certain neighbourhoods.” She remarks, almost as an afterthought, that “Autochtonen are, in addition, reluctant to establish inter-ethnic contacts.” Yet, the government seems to believe that social, ideological, cultural, and racial cleavages can be bridged with commercialism, and civic engagement.

Blank stare

“Small Government, Big Society” measures clothed with the rhetoric of public responsibility, and perfumed with social morality may appear attractive. However, the prescriptive moral and evaluative overtones, coupled with the affective undertones, should give us, when “empathy and warmth are put to corporate uses,” ample reason to doubt the earnestness of an appeal to social and moral values—especially coming from a government that has proven morally bankrupt. Moreover, “Small Government” does not necessarily equate with diminished state power.

It is important to bear in mind that all these “Big Society” initiatives are articulated within a framework wherein both citizens and non-citizens are subjected to state surveillance. In 2005 identification became mandatory, and failure to produce a valid ID is now a criminal offense. As of this year, the illegal residence of foreign nationals, too, is a criminal offence. It is true, as Nikolas Rose and Mariana Valverde assert, that “to govern in the names of norms is to complicate the binary distinction of legal and illegal.” In this framework, the distinction between legal and illegal is complicated: the failure to produce papers both by “legal” and “illegal” bodies is a criminal offence. Moreover, even when doing nothing one can cause nuisance; an assessment that blurs the line between action and inaction—between intent, and thoughtlessness—which has interesting implications for dealing with denials of racism premised on a lack of intention to cause harm.

Government appeals to, and celebrations of, community spirit seem a tad self-serving amidst an economic crisis that has seen high unemployment rates, huge spending cuts, increased poverty, and which “has hit non-western foreigners harder than the native Dutch.” In this light, the coalition’s mantra that “Small Government” is a win-win all around rings quite hollow—especially, when immigrants who don’t speak Dutch are considered undeserving of welfare. “Small Government” rings like a death-knell, when the government’s idea of a “custom-made solution” is to cut off asylum seekers “bit by bit from every possible social connection and psychological security. ” It is clear who the Dutch government think is deserving of help, and who isn’t, whose lives are worth saving, and whose isn’t.

What does social responsibility mean in racial states, which exclude in order to manufacture cultural clones and consent, which construct some categories of people as “human waste,” which construct some bodies as “suspicious” and “dangerous,” when the ideal subject, and by definition the ideal citizen, is White, Autochtoon, and culturally Dutch?


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