Issue #016 Published: 26-02-2018 // Written by: Denis McEvoy

The Brexit delusion and Amsterdam

This is how it tends to work: The government changes social laws and economic regulations supposedly improving life for all of us, particularly for those who are not super wealthy. Yet in reality, something else happens. At first, no one notices. Then life slowly becomes less livable . It becomes harder to buy a house. Finding decent work becomes more difficult. If one does find work, the monthly paycheck has to stretch further and further. Health insurance provides less and costs more.

Meanwhile, benefiting from a range of incentives, companies move in from abroad bringing literally hundreds of well-paid, mostly foreign, workers with them. The logic goes that foreign investment is good for the economy. In a sense this is true, the economy benefits overall. But most ordinary people see their protections rolled back while deep-pocketed foreigners come in and drive up the cost of everything from housing to childcare.  People become frustrated. For aspiring politicians it’s tempting to work with frustrations because they seem to represent problems. But politicians must be careful to avoid simplistic Brexit-style analyses of complex problems. The Brexit delusion suggests that the decline in your quality of life is not because the neoliberal policies of economic deregulation and the dismantling of the welfare state but because of an influx of foreigners.

So the proposed solutions to our problems become more and more simple: blame the foreigners. It’s far easier to run an election campaign blaming foreigners for every problem than it is to tackle difficult questions. It’s less interesting to campaign on the idea that complex social, political and economic forces have caused governments to shy away from policies that involve any form of wealth redistribution and favour economic deregulation instead.

The trouble is that today’s political problems are more complex than ever while people’s appetite for easy answers has only increased. The late ‘90s — buoyed by the birth of new democracies around the world and an internet-driven economic surge — seemed like everything was going to be okay, helping to lull a lot of people into a political sleep. Now, spurred by problems at home and abroad, many have awoken and are all too ready to believe complex problems should have simple solutions.

Brexit was born from a belief that complex problems should have simple solutions: things aren’t going well; there are problems with the EU; there are a lot of foreigners in the UK; politicians, rich people and media types typically ignore our concerns or call us racist, so let’s leave the EU... Amsterdam would do well to heed such muddled over simplifications.

Housing appears as a major issue in the manifestoes of many of Amsterdam’s political parties. Affordable housing is drying up and moneyed expats are paying insane rents, driving the prices even higher. Many who can afford it are buying second properties and profiting from the squeeze by renting them out on airbnb or similar services. The Brexit-delusion offers a simple answer to this complex mess: there are too many expats and tourists in the city and if only we could go back to how things were 20 or more years ago, everything would be fine.

Meanwhile in reality, Amsterdammers, foreign and native-born alike, need to stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens. We need more affordable housing. We need more incentives to help families stay in the city centre. We need to continue the great Dutch egalitarianism that sees rich and poor living in close enough proximity to understand each other, and put the brakes on the current forces that are creating a city centre of ‘haves’ and outskirts and satellite towns of ‘have less’.

Honestly assessing who plays the biggest role in these problems is step one. Should we blame foreigners, many of whom have lived here for a long time and contributed hugely to their communities. Or should we look at the complex combination of ill-advised government policy and opportunistic housing corporations? Because while the ‘old’ foreigners may have contributed more and integrated better than many of their ‘new’ counterparts, their new counterparts are often being routinely screwed by housing corporations who care not one jot about their living conditions as long as the mammoth rent comes in every month. Well-paid foreigners aren’t more appealing as tenants simply because they have a lot of disposable income, they also rarely know their rights as well as the natives and many housing corporations understand this and prey on it.

And, just like the Brexit delusion, the terrifying risk is contagion. Sure, expats don’t love being picked on as a problem but they still enjoy a certain privilege. Refugees and other vulnerable foreigners are also demonized when the Brexit delusion spreads.  Simplistic answers lead to simplistic answers. Just like Brexit, the frustration can be turned easily onto other people who have even less to do with the problem and are in even less a position to do anything about it. Some people actually believe refugees choose to flee their homes and everything they care about to go to a country they don’t know, where they don’t speak the language just so they can get discounted social housing. People already believe this and their numbers will only grow, with racism (if you prefer ‘bigotry’ or ‘prejudice’ that’s entirely on you) following close behind.  

Amsterdam has been a magnet for people from all over the world throughout its long proud history. It has shaped and been shaped by its status as a truly diverse, open and cosmopolitan city. Celebrating Amsterdam’s spirit of internationalism, the Badhuistheater will bring tales from England and the Czech Republic to stage in the first half of 2018 – each a comment on the lives of ordinary people as history grinds on around them. We’ll keep bringing our Dutch neighbours and our international friends of all ages together to enjoy the rare beauty of live theater. 

We hope to see you there.