Title page book De toekomst onder ogen

De toekomst onder ogen ---- How an ideology petrifies into a dogma

Publication: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker (1986, Amsterdam)

First insertion on Heterodox Gazette Sam de Wolff: 19 june 2015

E.A. Bakkum is a blogger for the Sociaal Consultatiekantoor. He loves to reflect on the labour movement.

In 1986 the social-democrat Joop den Uyl steps down as leader of the PvdA, after a political career of many decades1. Immediately thereafter he publishes the book De toekomst onder ogen, which is completely devoted to the demand-side policy in the economy. Although the demand-side policy became only popular during the sixties of the last century, its origin dates from before, in the Great Depression of the interbellum. At the time it became apparent, that the activities on private markets can diminish durably. Then only the state disposes of sufficient means for combatting the slump. That is not done without striking a blow. Subsequenty the paradigm of state interventions in the economy is supported scientifically by great thinkers such as Michal Kalecki and John M. Keynes. State interventions are indispensable for stabilizing the economic conjuncture.

This paradigm became even more authoritative, after the famous institutionalist John K. Galbraith had argued in 1958, that state interventions also provide for various needs, which the private markets can not statisfy. Den Uyl is quite impressed by the ideas of Galbraith. In a sense he had to be, because the social-democracy was searching for new ideals. In 1963 he publishes the pamphlet Om de kwaliteit van het bestaan, wherein he promotes an expansion of the public sector. Society must change. His enthusiasm is so great, that the son of Drees, who is rather thrifty, gives him the nickname professor Uylbraith. Against this backdrop it becomes understandable, that in 1986 Den Uyl returns to this theme. Incidentally, De toekomst onder ogen is a volume of texts, which date back to 1979. Shortly after the appearance Den Uyl is diagnosed with a brain tumor, which leads to his death in 1987.

So although the reason of De toekomst onder ogen has been explained, it remains surprising that the book could appear. For, although this matter was pioneering during the sixties, it has already become controversial during the seventies, after the two oil crises. And during the eighties the mainstream of economics has reconsidered, and abandoned the demand-side policy in favour of the supply-side policy. In the supply-side policy the primary aim is to control the production costs. These new insights have naturally also reached Den Uyl, and one wonders why he nonetheless sticks to the now obsolete demand-side policy. Your reviewer will first summarize the contents of De toekomst onder ogen, and next reflect on the arguments of Den Uyl in defence of his standpoint.

Den Uyl believes that society must have a just distribution of knowledge, income and power. The private market can not bring this about, and thus redistribution is needed, based on democratic decisions. According to Den Uyl this can only work, when the political spectrum is divided into merely two groups, namely left and right. Therefore he propagates the political polarization. This coupling of an idea and an interest leads to an ideology. Den Uyl naturally does not deny, that after the oil crises the growth rate has fallen in all western states. But this energizes the conflict of interests between the factors labour and capital. He wants to combat the effects, such as unemployment and insecurity, by means of more planning and order. For instance, the international capital flows must be regulated more strictly! Labour must be redistributed, and the welfare state must be reinforced.

In the eyes of den Uyl the supply-side policy is a threat, because it leads to an undesirable austerity. It is wrong. He even believes, as a seasoned Keynesian, that the long-lasting depression of the interbellum could return. Therefore he, reversely, wants a European policy of demand-side stimulation. He accepts the budget deficit. Incidentally, Den Uyl does understand, that the economic situation has become structurally less favourable. For, the consumptive needs in the west tend to saturate. And the foreign sales-markets have been reduced due to the decolonization. Besides, it turns out that the raw materials become scarce. And finally the service sector becomes more and more important, and precisely there the labour productivity rises only slowly. Considering all this, the economic growth must be selective. The investments must be managed centrally, because this reduces the chaos of the market. And security encourages growth, does it not?

Den Uyl sympathizes with a working-week of twenty hours, at least for the medium term. Thus the incomes must hardly rise, or not at all. Therefore Den Uyl wants to make the incomes more equal, especially for the lowest incomes and for the recipients of relief. That is primarily a matter of justice, although in this way the consumption is also encouraged. Den Uyl absolutely refuses to economize on these "vulnerable" groups. He prefers to return to the controlled wage policy, which has been abandoned a few years before. Incidentally, in this respect he is supported by the well-known economist Tinbergen. Furthermore, Den Uyl points to the emergence of the information society. He doubts that the citizens truly desire this information. Nobody reads anyway. Therefore he energetically pleads in favour of the traditional activities, such as education, city renewal, and cultural facilities.

When one reflects on the contents of De toekomst onder ogen, it becomes clear that Den Uyl mainly clings to the old arguments of the sixties. He ignores the experiences, which have been gathered during the seventies, as well as the new theoretical insights. Cost control is still disregarded by him, although it is a primary general interest. Certainly in retrospect this inability to adapt surprises. Incidentally, this is not a typically Dutch phenomenon. The British social-democrats also ignore reality in the eighties. And when the French social-democrats come to power in 1982, they completely rely on the demand-side policy, nota bene in combination with nationalizations in the industries. This is too much, so that after only two years Mitterrand is forced to yet retrench appreciably (in French this is portly called rigueur).

All these social-democratic groups were naturally shattered by the failure of their ideology, which no longer has convincing answers for the problems of the modern times. It must have touched den Uyl, that he had been wrong about the social developments. He prefers to stick to his ideas until the end, and thus stifles them into a dogma. His preference for polarization makes it even worse. It is true that in this atmosphere the political satire prospers (see Wim Kan)2, but the democracy pays a high price for this. For a long time Den Uyl has even refused to hand over his function as party leader to the new generation3. Thus during the last decade of his leadership the PvdA got stuck in its pretension to know better, and is actually no longer able to govern.

The following governments have applied a supply-side policy of austerity, in combination with deregulation. And that did not cause a depression. On the contrary, this slowly recovered the Dutch economy from the slump around 1980. Under the lead of Wim Kok the PvdA also embraces it. These facts degrade De toekomst onder ogen to a rearguard action, which was lost in advance. It is ignored. Thus the book unintentionally documents the end of the original social-democracy. This fate also hits its leader, who forty years before still helped to renew the PvdA. But now he refuses to abandon the sinking ship, and thus hinders the rescue operations4. As such the volume remains a politically and historically fascinating document of the time. But the contents is not very instructive.

  1. It is a coincidence, that the career of the cabaret performer Wim Kan peaks at the same time as the career of Den Uyl. This has the welcome consequence, that there are a lot of den Uyl jokes. Already in 1973 Wim Kan says during his legendary new-years-eve preformance: "I have agreed with Den Uyl: he will be on television the first thirty days, and I the last one. He will not tell jokes, and I will not decide about policy measures". Then Den Uyl is the prime minister. The first oil crisis has just begun, and moreover the Netherlands is punished by means of an oil boycott, after the minister of Foreign affairs, Van der Stoel, made a clumsy remark. Kan mocks: "Den Uyl looks like a joker, who has removed his cap. (...) The Netherlands has played the joker, and the prices have directly doubled. (...) In Greece they call den Uyl 'Papatotalloss'". And also: "I do not say: Den Uyl is hungry for power, but he does have an appetite!" "When Den Uyl will stay, then the Netherlands will unitedly sing in 1974: Just say yes to Joop, the Dutch hope in anxious times. With the whole brass band we will follow Joop. Finally the red team has emerged, which leads us to our future". The team of Den Uyl is a combative cabinet. In 1976 Kan says: "Den Uyl is not the government leader, but a course trainer of 'Trouble underway'". He mocks about the christian morals, which become socially controversial, but which nevertheless are defended by the minister of justice, Dries van Agt: "Van Agt wrestles with his conscience. And Den Uyls thinks: I don't want this, upon my conscience!" And: "Den Uyl thinks, three times to the left is also to the right. (...) Perhaps his rank and file will correct him: the owls". But in the end Kan does not expect this: "Nobody will organize demonstrations with banners against den Uyl. It is useless, because soon he will lead them". In 1977, after the elections, the PvdA negotiates poorly, so that a second cabinet Den Uyl is not established. Finally Van Agt prefers a cabinet with the liberal VVD. In 1979 Kan says: "It is all different than expected. The man of the year is not Den Uyl but Van Agt". The relation between the two leader is totally frustrated. Kan laughs about it: "It is a childish bickering between Van Agt and Den Uyl. Now Van Agt orders Den Uyl to say 'Thou' to him". And: "What do you think about Joop Zoetemelk in the Tour de France? It is in the bicycle race like in politics. Joop wins a good second place". Incidentally, Kan remembers the cabinet Den Uyl with sarcasm: "The boys of Joop were 'nice' guys. Sometimes you heard jingling. Another ash-tray breaking a window". In 1981 the PvdA has a poor result in the national elections. Unfortunately only one coalition has a majority: CDA-D66-PvdA. It is clear to all, that Den Uyl does not fit in this second cabinet Van Agt. However, he still demands to become minister. After a few months the cabinet already falls. After the new elections a cabinet CDA-VVD is formed, led by the skilled politician Ruud Lubbers. In 1982 Den Uyl is still the party leader of the PvdA, and Kan concludes: "The cabinet CDA-VVD is not good, because Den Uyl laughs too much. (...) Den Uyl wants to govern with the CDA. With the rosary in his fist". But his star has become extinct, and he is surpassed by others. Kan mocks: "Do you know how it sounds, when even the VARA [socialist broadcasting] sings: Come back, Van Agt. There is an empty throne for the lost son". (back)
  2. There are many songs about Den Uyl. The leftwing cabaret performer Jaap van de Merwe writes the song Op de hele wereld is geen Uyl te koop zo mooi als onze Joop: Once there was a family fond of animals. / That is to say, most of them. / For, frogs and dachshund's were less pretty. / But each evening they sang around the bird-cage: / On the whole world there is no Uyl for sale / so pretty as our Joop. / Therefore we do not want to exchange him , / not for seventy confessional owls. / Do you want him, that is possible, / just invest your vote, / then Joop will create something beautiful. Etcetera. In 1976 the Duo Enka is more critical in Is er nog hoop voor ons, meneer Den Uyl: Is there hope for us, mister Den Uyl? / Or do we just receive dirt from you? / Is there still hope, is there still justice? / With us, in the north, things turn bad. / You hear it on the street and in the church: / there is no work, there is no work. / The men stay at home all day, / that is not right. And in the same year Max Rozenwater writes the song Meneer Den Uyl, wat maak je nou?, probably about the family allowance: Mister Den Uyl, what do you do? / First you hurt me and now my wife. / Because when I go to bed, / my wife quickly takes the pill. / And that is exactly what you wanted. / Now I earn more than 24 greenbacks, / so I can throw away the rest? / No, says mister den Uyl, / you and your 24 gross [so not nett income EB], / you do not get a penny from my wallet. During the eighties Joop Visser writes the parody Als ik zo oud was about the unwillingness of den Uyl to retire: If I were so old and with endless patience, / for many years had lectured the people, / without any progress, / then I would be an idiot to go. / Then it was all their own stupid fault. / If I were so old and my supporters in the morning / were already conspiring in the bar, / and transform progressive ideals into jobs, / then I would certainly not go, if one of them asked it. (back)
  3. When in 1981 a CDA-D66-PvdA cabinet must be formed, in fact most politicians within the PvdA advocate the retirement of Den Uyl. This does not happen. Next the cabinet performs so badly, that the PvdA ministers want to elect a new party leader. However, as a collective they are so divided, that they can not carry through their plan. A detailed analysis is not in place here, but perhaps some citations of the PvdA minister André van der Louw give an impression of the impasse. On p.139 in Op de huid van de tijd he tells: "All PvdA ministers and the chairman of the PvdA parliamentary group asked Joop [in 1982 EB] to hand over the leadership to me. He did not do this, after some reflection, knowing that nobody would confront him in public. This we had assured him out of friendship and because of the enormous esteem for his former leadership". On p.41 in De Rode Hoed en andere verhalen he elaborates on the situation: "When Joop decides to stay, he can count on the loyal support of all. The respect and the admiration for what he has done in the past for the PvdA is great and blocks any other conclusion. Also for me". He personally asks Den Uyl to retire, but can not persevere: "'I know, Joop, the answer is at the bottom of your soul ...' Yes, Den Uyl will stay. Do I deceive myself, or are my steps lighter, when exiting the department, than when entering?" Apparently the future of the PvdA is less important. Ed van Thijn tells on p.91 in Kroonprinsenleed: "Again I cried that I was not available for a father murder". And on p.94 he cites Jos van Kemenade: "It was not right to attack the great leader in front of the parliamentary group. It had been enough - and it was difficult to tell it to him - we yet all remained the children of den Uyl". A hallmark of the relations, based on glorification, is that Den Uyl has been honoured may times with a liber amicorum, for instance De kleine stappen van het kabinet-Den Uyl (1978), Twee dingen ... (1981), Tekens in de tijd (1984), Politiek als hartstocht (1985), Herinneringen aan Joop den Uyl (1988), and Illusies van Den Uyl? (1998). That is really too much. Wouter Bos in Dit land kan zoveel beter rightly states with some irritation (p.16): "Politics was mainly a competition for me. Between Den Uyl and Wiegel. Or Den Uyl and Van Agt. And Den Uyl often lost". And on p.22: "And the stubbornness [of Den Uyl EB] only seemed to increase. Now, after all these years, I also see the other side of that stubbornness: the PvdA did not change enough during the eighties". (back)
  4. The United States of America are also here a source of inspiration. They have institutionally limited the number of terms of the president. Yet the human need for continuity is satisfied, namely by allowing for political dynasties (Roosevelt, Kennedy, and more recently Bush, Clinton). (back)