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Who is Mark Rutte?
The Dutch farmer revolt is focusing attention on the prime minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte. Why is he pursuing this agenda to radically restructure Dutch agriculture?
Last week as the farmer protests became international news, I saw people on Twitter characterizing Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte as yet another errand boy of Klaus Schwab. Not to suggest that Rutte might in any way not be aligned with the World Economic Forum agenda, but I don’t think this quite does him justice. He’s a lot more clever than WEF proteges such as a Canada’s Justin Trudeau or New Zealand’s Jacinta Ardern, shallow figures who speak in banal platitudes and come across as figureheads.
Rutte is a highly skilled political operator, perhaps best compared with Germany’s Angela Merkel. He’s held the top seat in Dutch politics nearly twelve years, one the long-lasting PMs in modern Dutch history. As of the start of 2022, he’s leading his fourth coalition government, which following naming conventions is referred to as “Rutte IV”. Rutte is the leader of the VVD, which in increasingly irrelevant conventional political terminology might be described as typically European liberal: economically conservative, socially progressive.
Given that no political party gains an absolute majority in elections in our fractious and divisive age, governments are formed of coalitions of two or more parties. In view of the fragmented political landscape, this can mean pulling together complex coalitions of three or four parties. Like Rutte or not, he’s proven highly skilled at assembling such coalitions, although it can take can exceptionally long time; the current regime took around nine months to form, only seeing the light of day in the early days of 2022. This left the country with a caretaker government during a substantial part of the pandemic, most unfortunate for us, less so for those “lame duck” ministers in charge.
Several years ago, during Rutte III, there was a long, drawn-out public debate concerning an ostensibly obscure matter, a component of corporate tax law, and it was illustrative of the way Rutte works and the kind of politician he is. In short, the government announced it would abolish taxes on corporate share dividends with the goal of improving the investment climate. (Dividend taxes raised some €1.75 billion a year, a substantial sum in budgetary terms for this small country, so it was not a trivial matter).
It was intimated that two of Holland’s corporate crown jewels, Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever, would decamp for London should this not happen. The Dutch tax authorities however indicated that the dividend tax had little or no measurable impact on international investor decisions. Rutte denied having read their report, later it appeared he had. He then made a remarkable comment: that he believed in the “deepest fibers of his being” that it was the right thing to do. We were simply to trust him on this, no evidence or supporting argument required. Within the governing coalition, there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for this change in tax policy, the leader of the Christian Union, Gert-Jan Segers, expressed his displeasure by saying it was like having to “swallow a melon”.
The position the hapless CU leader and his fellow coalition members were in revealed yet another feature of modern Dutch political life: rigid coalition accords formed behind closed doors. Although no political party included abolishing the dividend tax in their campaign manifestos, hence no Dutch voter was aware of the plan and gave their informed consent, it would have been agreed upon during the lengthy post-election coalition bargaining process in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Parliamentarians are subject to party discipline, hence they have no choice but to support that which was previously agreed upon by party leadership. This situation, ghoulishly referred by some here as kadaverdiscipline (literally: “regimentation of corpses”), gives Dutch parliamentary debates a largely ritualistic character; outcomes are largely decided in advance — but vigorous debate is allowed! The opposition is allowed to have its say. The dogs bark, the caravan moves on…
Rutte won in the end. The corporates grew tired of the unwelcome attention, Unilever decided not to move, people thought that was the end of that. But no, Rutte did not relent, the abolition of the dividend tax was transformed into a more general corporate tax cut.
So this is Mark Rutte in a nutshell: a facile dissembler, a “non-ideological” corporate technocrat who has unabashed contempt for democratic process and transparency, and of course is doggedly pro-EU. But he’s confected an air of managerial professionalism, of equanimity and openness, of cheerful optimism that appears to convince much of the Dutch public to trust him, election after election. Whatever his faults, such as a marked indifference to the truth, Rutte is a competent leader and a reasonable man, or so we are led to believe.
This leads us to the current farmer protests. Within the context of the decades-long trajectory of neoliberalism, Mark Rutte is a moderate figure; he’s not an extremist nor any kind of ideological outlier. Yet this declaration of war against Dutch farmers is so radical, so extreme, so authoritarian, so grotesquely ill-timed, that it begs all kinds of questions. What are his motives? Whose agenda is he pursuing? A vulgar land-grab? Multhusian Green politics? A WEF-inspired controlled demolition of the Dutch economy? I for one certainly don’t have the answers.
Whatever is going on, Rutte no longer enjoys the unequivocal backing of his own base; at a June 11 party congress a narrow majority expressed their opposition to the draconian measures in an internal referendum. This largely symbolic gesture reveals yet another feature of modern political life here: the top-down control of mainstream parties. Members are no longer constituents, they are effectively onlookers. The new policies were cast in concrete in the most recent coalition accord, and Mark Rutte intends to forge ahead with this radical restructuring of Dutch agriculture without an explicit mandate from either his party’s electoral base or the public as a whole.
It is too early to tell where the farmer revolt is going. The Netherlands has a deeply rooted culture of census, of which this attack on farmers represents a profound violation. It’s a culture that tends to reject autocratic behavior; the Dutch maintain a healthy anti-authoritarianism. The farmers are becoming increasingly militant. They enjoy widespread public support, although this hasn’t translated yet into widespread active resistance.
For the moment, Rutte’s position looks secure. But if the situation isn’t resolved before autumn arrives and we start seeing systematic food and fuel shortages that some are predicting, this could shake the complacency of the still fairly passive Dutch citizenry. If we reach that point, all bets are off.