donderdag, november 3, 2022

Who has the ‘right’ to have rights?

The war in Ukraine rages on. On the other side of Europe, it’s no longer front-page news and you’d be inclined to forget about it, were it not that Russia’s bringing back the cold—literally, this time. Russia’s gas halt has deepened Europe’s energy crisis, causing skyrocketing energy costs and leaving many Dutch families desperately worried about their financial future. Energy poverty, the term that we’ve invented for this impending crisis, is becoming more real by the minute.

There’s another pressing issue that destabilizes formerly economically secure groups. Due to the housing crisis, many (young) adults are dependent on family and friends for shelter (the ‘economically homeless’). They cannot afford to rent or buy, even if they have a stable income. Of course, not only young adults are affected. According to Tim Verheij, lawyer and researcher affiliated with The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HIIL),  single mothers, newcomers, and low-income families are also economically vulnerable. The (income) inequality in the Netherlands is tangible and the war in Ukraine and the climate crisis will deepen this gap.

Our political leaders seem unable, even unwilling, to provide long-term solutions. It’s easy to reduce these issues to crises beyond our control, such as foreign wars and economic unrest. It still begs the question: why are those with money and power not footing the bill? Are these issues really the result of cold wars turned hot? Or is it really the age-old war between the classes, between the 1 and 99 percent? And if so, what does that reveal about our seemingly stable democracy?

In his book ‘Requiem for the American Dream’ (a play on the famous novel by Hubert Selby Jr.), famous linguist Noam Chomsky shatters the myth of class mobility, also known as the American dream: the conviction that a person, regardless of race, gender or creed, can climb the socio-economic ladder through honest labor. If this type of class mobility ever existed at all, Chomsky says, then it has been destroyed by the shift of power from the working class to a wealthy minority.

In other words, power and wealth remain in the same circles, without trickling down to the majority, as neoliberalism would have us believe. This plutocratic process is an attack ‘on the lower and middle classes, which has escalated in recent decades with the rise of what is known as ‘neoliberalism’ - with fiscal austerity for the poor and tax cuts and other subsidies for the wealthy minority', writes Chomsky.

It's an apt observation, one that is also applicable to the political situation in the Netherlands. As others have argued, neoliberal politics are tearing at the seams of our democracy. Peter Sas, a member of Extinction Rebellion, has fiercely criticized prime minister Mark Rutte’s hypocritical call for solidarity in times of corona, writing that ‘40 years of neoliberal policy has systematically broken down solidarity in the Netherlands: by deepening the divide between the rich and poor; by permitting tax cuts for the rich; by privatizing and ‘marketing’ public services such as housing associations, public transport, and health insurance…’ (the list goes on).

If you deepen the divide between rich and poor, which Sas accuses neoliberalism of, you’re destroying the middle class that connects the lower and upper classes. Although Sas speaks of class in economic terms, it is also clearly a politically charged term. When we talk about class, we also talk about, among other things, education, status, and ideology. Why is it important to distinguish between the economic and the political aspect? And what is the connection between them?

According to Josse de Voogd and Rene Cuperus, those who feel abandoned by the system, the so-called ‘disengaged Dutch’, belong to specific groups. These individuals are typically chronically ill, low-income, from a rural area, and/or without a college degree. If they are interested in politics at all, they feel most represented by populist parties, De Voogd and Cuperus claim. (I would add that we should not regard populism as a conservative-right radical ideology, but as a tactic that creates an ‘us-against-them’ mentality by capitalizing on ethno-nationalist or religious sensibilities, or both. The so-called left also makes use of populist rhetoric. However, in this piece I am talking about populism as practiced by the far right).

Populist leaders often point scornfully at the ‘left-wing elite’, who they say support policies that jeopardize the livelihood of the ordinary, hard-working Dutchman. It is a fallacy that some, especially those who feel abandoned or neglected, are sensitive to. In this polarized discussion, the term ‘elite’ does not refer to the rich and powerful. Instead, it refers to a specific subset of middle-class people, who may have become representative of the whole: educated, able to meet their basic needs, and typically pro-immigration, pro-climate, and pro-Europe. However, ideological differences are not the cause of this polarization, but the result of income inequality, which is perpetuated by the neoliberal course.

We need more (political) unity if we want to change course. It’s time to bridge the ideological divide between the ‘elite’ and the ‘populist’— a divide that is not as deep as we think. A lack of fundamental human rights, a lack of visibility, recognition, and representation, and a deep-seated fear of the future: it can affect us all, disengaged or not. The gap between rich and poor will deepen in the future, partly due to the war in Ukraine and climate change. In times of crisis and increasing poverty, which can lead to a weakened democracy, dialogue and unity are more important than ever, with human rights as our common ground.

But are these human rights accessible to all? Or in other words, who has the ‘right’ to have rights, as the famous philosopher, Hannah Arendt once put it. In an article aptly titled ‘The rights of the poor: between cruelty and paternalism’, Thomas Muntz argues that justice is made inaccessible to the poor in the Netherlands. Instead, the law is heartlessly enforced; the political slogan of ‘catering to each individual's needs’ is clearly a sham, as was evidenced by the heart-breaking Dutch childcare benefits scandal. In the current system, financially vulnerable people are also legally vulnerable. They are poorly informed about their rights and receive little (financial) resources to take legal action. The government also structurally approaches them with distrust. Because of these obstacles, few feel empowered to take action when their rights are compromised, Muntz writes.

Earlier I wrote that we need more unity to tackle this inequitable income inequality. How can Initiatives of Change (IofC) help? Diversity and inclusion have now become important themes, in - and outside politics. IofC also supports these themes wholeheartedly. We must realize that diversity and inclusion goes beyond skin color, gender, and/or sexual orientation. People who are poor and/or have a different political preference should also feel included and represented. We can help combat polarization by having conversations with human rights as our common ground: after all, everyone can appeal to human rights. It is also important that we hold our government accountable when it deprives its citizens of their rights and thus creates a breeding ground for polarization. We can do this by continuing to stand up for others and by having conversations with an open heart. And sometimes, in the style of IofC, just listening and allowing the silence to speak is enough. That’s something we can all do, close to ourselves and close to home.

By Shereen Siwpersad.

*Photo via Canva.