The Forgotten Fortuyn

Twenty years ago, the lifeless body of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn was found lying on the tarmac outside a radio studio in the Netherlands. He had been fatally shot by an animal rights activist while on the campaign trail for the 2002 elections. Nine days after his death, his eponymous party, List Pim Fortuyn (LPF), won 26 seats and the second largest share of the vote – a historic breakthrough known as ‘the Fortuyn Revolt’. Over the following years, the LPF succumbed to internal strife, but new right-wing populist leaders such as Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet would follow in Fortuyn’s footsteps.

This year, on the anniversary of Fortuyn’s death in May, Dutch newspapers were filled with retrospectives, looking back on how the populist revolt had changed Dutch politics. A mini-series on his rise to prominence aired on public television, while publishers printed special editions of his bestselling books. Commentators from across the ideological spectrum remarked on his enduring legacy. ‘Fortuyn’s message is in many respects more urgent than before’, proclaimed the centre-left daily de Volkskrant. Yet many of them seemed curiously unaware of what that message was.

A common refrain was that the Fortuyn Revolt was a nationalist backlash against globalization, a defence of the little man against the aloof technocratic elites. Already back in 2002, pundits were describing Fortuyn’s rise as a fulfilment of John Gray’s prediction in False Dawn (1998) that the neoliberal utopia of a globally integrated market would soon spark nationalist (and fundamentalist) opposition. In 2017, the British journalist David Goodhart wrote of the revolt of the somewheres, the locally rooted ordinary people, against the anywheres, the cosmopolitan urban middle classes. His cited Brexit and ‘the unexpected populist surge in the Netherlands in the early 2000s’ as his primary examples. For Goodhart, it was not the opposition between left and right, but between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, that defined contemporary politics. This has now become a dominant frame for understanding the rise of right-wing populism, in the Netherlands as elsewhere.

The Dutch sociologist Gabriël van den Brink offered a similar analysis in his 2020 book Rough Awakening From a Neoliberal Dream. He argued that the rise of neoliberalism had initiated a process of liberalization and individualization which in turn triggered a communitarian revolt. This ‘rough awakening’ started with Pim Fortuyn, who rallied against the ‘neoliberal enthusiasm of the technocratic elite’. Van de Brink’s book formed part of a larger popular mythology surrounding Fortuyn, casting him as a zealous defender of the losers of globalization. Exactly twenty years after his death, the official biographer of Fortuyn appeared on Dutch television and proclaimed that his subject had always remained a leftist at heart, who ‘relied heavily on social democratic thought’. 

Yet ‘Professor Pim’, as his supporters affectionately called him, was never mealy-mouthed about what he stood for. When asked whether he was a ‘populist’ in the radio interview just before his assassination, Fortuyn replied that he didn’t like to ‘suck up to people’. At the beginning of his election campaign, he claimed that ‘not only our politics, but also many of our citizens are useless. They look too much at what the government can and must do, and far too little at what they themselves can do’. Far from rallying against the neoliberal elite, Fortuyn believed that Dutch elites were not nearly neoliberal enough. His hard-right politics were born out of the neoliberal tide that swept the country in the 1980s and 1990s; yet, in the Dutch collective memory, his strident opposition to immigration and Islam would eventually become so all-defining that it would eclipse his economic agenda.

During Fortuyn’s campaign, though, that economic agenda was front and centre. In his bestselling election manifesto, The Disasters of Eight Years Purple (2002), Fortuyn asserted that the Dutch welfare system ‘had given birth to a monster’. The unemployed were ‘a dead weight in society’ with ‘a big mouth’ which the state could not be expected to feed. Unemployment was a dispositional and psychological problem, which could only be solved by slashing welfare, abolishing rent subsidies and cutting disability benefits. Fortuyn proposed doing away with open-ended contracts and introducing a more flexible labour market inspired by the American model, turning the Dutch worker into an ‘entrepreneur of the self’ and making the Netherlands more competitive on the world market.

‘Why my plea to remove the wonderfully warm blanket of consensus from our little Dutch bed?’ wrote Fortuyn on the opening page of his earlier pamphlet Without Civil Servants (1991). ‘Globalization of culture and economy require a different management of the economy and society, which is enforced by the free movement of people, money and goods.’ Only on the cultural terrain did Fortuyn make a pronounced shift in the mid-nineties, becoming a prominent critic of Islam, multiculturalism and political correctness, who proposed closing the borders for Muslim immigrants. A renewed nationalism, he wrote, was necessary to defend western values and offer an anchor to Dutch citizens alienated by globalization. Fortuyn’s politics were defined by economic openness and cultural closure.

In this Fortuyn was far from exceptional. During the same period, political scientists such as Herbert Kitschelt and Hans-Georg Betz observed that a series of right-wing populist parties with broadly similar positions had emerged across Europe: Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Jörg Haider’s FPÖ, the Swiss People’s Party, the Norwegian Progress Party and the Danish Fremskrittspartiet. Many of them started out as ‘neoliberal-populist’ parties before shifting focus and developing into anti-immigration policies. In The Radical Right in Western Europe (1997), Kitschelt described the combination of free-market and anti-immigration policies as a ‘winning formula’ which had become increasingly capable of mobilizing large electoral constituencies. Right-wing populism, he argued, first emerged as an offshoot of neoliberalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Fortuyn’s work.

Fortuyn began his storied career as a leftist sociology professor at the University of Groningen. He wrote his PhD on postwar socio-economic policy and developed a close relationship with the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA). But at the end of the 1980s he was swept up in the enthusiasm for neoliberal reform. The government had begun privatizing public assets and liberalizing the economy with the help of a small but growing army of private consultants. Fortuyn wanted to get in on the action. His university seconded him to Rotterdam, where he led a committee that authored a report on the market-led renewal of the troubled port city, which had been hit by mass unemployment.

Fortuyn spent this period at the Rotterdam Hilton, with his bill picked up by city hall. In his autobiography, he recalled consorting with his fellow committee members from the private sector, who taught him how to ‘drink the better wines and appreciate the pleasures of salmon and caviar’. After a self-described ‘eureka moment’ in April 1987, he joined a select group of technocrats overseeing the government’s ongoing privatization drive. In the following years, ‘professor Pim’ quickly became a sought-after public speaker in Dutch business circles. He exchanged his jeans and denim jacket for tailored suits and brightly coloured silken ties.

In the early 1980s, the Dutch neoliberal turn was overseen by the Christian Democrats (CDA). The centre-right government led by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers replaced the Keynesian full-employment policies of yesteryear with austerity and supply-side economics. Lubbers’s cabinet ministers, many of them drawn from the private sector, presented themselves as corporate managers. They promised to run the country like a company, referring to parliament as its ‘board of directors’. The state would be trimmed down to its core activities, with peripheral functions outsourced and sold-off. Deregulation and flexibilization were pushed through along with enforced wage moderation, while the trade unions watched from the sidelines.

By the time of Fortuyn’s conversion, however, the campaign for market-led reform had suffered a serious setback. Tired of austerity and concerned about eroding support, the Christian Democrats tacked left in 1989 and formed a government with the social democrats. Many on the right feared that the momentum for market reform was dissipating. In a much-discussed campaign speech, the Labour Party leader Wim Kok proclaimed that after ten years of neoliberal reform, ‘the pendulum had swung too far’. He criticized the ‘authoritarian governing style’ of the previous decade and promised a restoration of corporatist, consensus politics, with trade unions brought back to the table.

Lubbers was denounced by the right for his betrayal. ‘If only we had a Margaret Thatcher in Dutch politics’, lamented the economist Eduard Bomhoff. Thatcher had fought and defeated the trade unions, while Lubbers mistook consensus for a policy goal. ‘Thatcher’s lessons had been ignored in the Netherlands,’ the journalist Marc Chavannes explained, ‘because we conveniently imagine that she is a mal-coiffed lady in a country full of strange figures who seem to have walked out of a television series.’ ‘How do we get rid of late-corporatist structures’, he went on to ask, ‘which are expressions of a fattened harmony model that threatens the prosperity and well-being of the Dutch people?’

Fortuyn joined the chorus of disappointed free marketeers. In the first half of the 1990s, he published a series of bestselling pamphlets in which he proposed a frontal assault on Dutch consensus politics. Fortuyn complained that Lubbers had squandered a golden opportunity: although he had defied the public sector unions, he had failed to deal them a fatal blow. ‘Needless to say, things would be far better now if Lubbers had opted for the method of amputation rather than the administration of a temporary medicine.’ Fortuyn’s wanted a Dutch ‘Iron Lady’ to deal with the trade unions, suggested firing half of all Dutch civil servants and proposed banning permanent contracts. This neoliberal critique of the corporatist consensus as an obstacle to market reform would soon become a central component of Fortuyn’s populism.

Fortuyn became the first public figure in the Netherlands to provide neoliberalism with a populist appeal, becoming a prominent exponent of what Thomas Frank called ‘market populism’: the idea that ‘markets expressed the popular will more articulately and more mean­ingfully than did mere elections, that ‘markets conferred democratic legiti­macy’; that ‘markets were a friend of the little guy’. In One Market under God (2000), Frank showed how ‘market populism’ spread like wildfire during the New Economy and internet bubble of the 1990s. These same arguments formed the core of Fortuyn’s The Disasters of Eight Years Purple: a heavy-handed critique of the so-called ‘purple’ coalitions of social democrats (PvdA, ‘red’) and right-wing liberals (VVD, ‘blue’) which had governed the country in the second half of the 1990s, and which constituted the Dutch equivalent of the Third Way.

Fortuyn began the manifesto with a comparison between the market and the state. In a market environment, he pointed out, a company is punished if it delivers bad products. The consumer decides. The New Economy would therefore strengthen the influence of the consumer. Thanks to the blessings of information technology, mass products could henceforth be tailored to personal preferences. Mass customization would entail the ‘democratization and individualization of economic life’, while in the workplace traditional hierarchies would give way to horizontal networks.

While the business world had adapted to this new spirit of the age, the public sector was still stuck in the industrial age, with its anonymous, large-scale production processes. ‘The consumer-citizen is only paid lip service to’, Fortuyn complained. ‘There is no democracy, unless one sees democracy as marking a box red once every four years.’ This system was propped up by a tiny elite who were invested in the tripartite polder model: ‘a kind of musyawarah system in which people talk to each other until they more or less agree’. Whereas in his leftist days, Fortuyn’s worldview was based on an opposition between the productive working class and exploitative capital, by now he had developed a new, neoliberal class theory. On one side stood the entrepreneurs large and small, Fortuyn’s productive class; on the other, a parasitic group of politicians, bureaucrats and welfare recipients. Fortuyn advocated the radical dismantling of bureaucracy in favour of the citizen-consumer, who should no longer be patronized but rather allowed to make his or her own choices.

This economic agenda was interwoven with a nostalgic longing for what Fortuyn called ‘the human scale’: smaller schools, regional hospitals, workplaces close to home. As he saw it, this scaling down would go hand-in-hand with modernization. Local hospitals would be overseen by specialists from a central location through the use of digital technology. Working close to home was possible thanks to newly established neighbourhood internet pavilions. Fortuyn’s utopian horizon was a curious amalgam of fifties nostalgia and Zoom prophecies. But this striving for ‘the human scale’ was also a thinly veiled plea for more inequality. Fortuyn complained in The Disasters of Eight Years Purple that, under the present system, he received the same care as his cleaning lady while paying much more taxes. This was equivalent to ‘the insurance company that replaces your crashed and expensively insured Jaguar with a Fiat Uno and says: here you are’. On one occasion, when Fortuyn was admitted to hospital, he used this reasoning to demand his own private room, only to be laughed at by the hospital director.

For Fortuyn, individual customization meant paying true market prices, bringing an end to the ‘artificial’ equality which the government maintained through social subsidies, the minimum wage and sectoral collective bargaining. He saw collective labour agreements as an archaic mechanism by which the government imposed centralized salary scales and conditions of employment. In their place, individual companies and employees should be left to negotiate the value of work – with flexible contracts supplanting the permanent job. This would lower wages and strengthen the competitiveness of the country as a whole. In this, Fortuyn wrote, he followed a time-honoured logic: ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’

Fortuyn saw all this as an inevitability enforced by globalization, yet he was also aware that the removal of economic certainties could lead to unrest. ‘In addition to a great degree of freedom and a very considerable enlargement of choice,’ he asserted in Against the Islamization of our Culture (1997), globalization ‘also caused anxieties among those who can only very partially reap the benefits of this internationalization of the world.’ His nationalist agenda offered them an important form of compensation. The unrest that unfettered capitalism produced in the socio-economic sphere would be addressed in the cultural sphere. Thomas Frank described a similar process in the United States as ‘The Great Backlash’: politicians mobilized the electorate with ‘controversial cultural themes’ which were intertwined with ‘right-wing economic policies’. For Frank, the resultant culture wars had ‘made possible the international consensus on the free market, with all its privatization, deregulation, and anti-union policies’. Fortuyn’s legacy is to have introduced backlash politics to the Netherlands.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, ‘They, The People’, NLR 103.