GroenLinks is seeing excessive capitalism in the Netherlands, but not all speakers agreed, which made for two interesting debates. The audience also had varying opinions: whereas some see ASML as a company that is, above all, an added value for the region because it provides employment opportunities, others are critical of the pressure on the social services and alleged influence on the university. Keep reading for more on the latter.
Professor of Political Philosophy and Economic Ethics Rutger Claassen (Utrecht University) debated Vera Vrijmoeth, researcher at the Netherlands Trade Union Federation (FNV) and a Fellow at the GroenLinks Scientific Bureau. They mainly talked about how we got to where we are today when it comes to capitalism and what would be required to transform profit-focused companies into companies that feel the intrinsic need to add value to society. Fast forward: it’s not a simple process and one that doesn’t seem possible without a form of government regulation.
Bit of history
That was the short answer for people who can’t be bothered delving into the past. Something that Vrijmoeth and Claassen did do. Vrijmoeth: “Primary value distribution can be divided up into four groups: shareholders, employees, taxes and nature. But over the years, more and more has gone to shareholders. And that’s because at one time we thought that that was best for everybody.” Claassen nods: “The shareholder model.” Both agree democracy and capitalism were still in balance shortly after the Second World War, but things started to shift in the eighties. “Suddenly we are feeling hatred toward companies, our trust in them is declining. But why?” the debate moderator asks the duo. Vrijmoeth: “I think because mutual differences between different groups in society and between work and capital have gotten much bigger. That’s when people really started to notice this.”
The FNV researcher also tries to look at the geopolitical interests of countries with a capitalist economy. “Going back to that distribution that’s growing more skewed every day, we could argue that we as a country also contribute to this state of affairs through our borders. These prevent the redistribution of wealth. The low clothing prices here are purely due to people in countries like Bangladesh and India still working very cheaply.” Claassen: “A production restriction imposed by the government is the only way of getting companies to operate within planetary boundaries.” The latter term, planetary boundaries, is quickly becoming everyone’s favorite buzzword: it was mentioned many times in this debate and is of course highly topical given the current ecology and climate crisis.
After the first debate, there’s room for a poem by Wikke Peters, cultural promotor at amateur arts and cultural education organization CKE. She talks about the many Eindhoven residents she spoke to over the past months. Residents who profit way less from the growth of the Brainport than expats or other stakeholders making good money off it. Locals have heard of the Brainport because it’s on local soccer club PSV’s team jerseys. But what it means? Someone guessed it had something to do with organ trade, but that was pretty much it. At the same time, these are exactly the people who are noticing the pressure on the social services as a result of the region’s economic growth. All of the personal portraits are putting a face to the worries. Her poem and message – we mustn’t forget about the man in the street and try to hear and understand everyone who lives in Eindhoven – clearly hit home with those concerned.
The case of Eindhoven
For the second half of the debate, Eva de Bruijn, TU/e alumnus and the current leader of the GroenLinks Eindhoven group, and Sander Heijne, journalist and author (best known for his book Fantoomgroei) join. Heijne describes capitalism as ‘really rather nice’, but De Bruijn doesn’t agree and says she’s definitely hoping for a change after the elections. Heijne doubts this will happen: “Twenty to thirty percent of the population is struggling to keep up. That’s a lot of people, but at the same time not enough to take a stand as a majority. Election results have shown this time and time again.”
De Bruijn wrote the manifesto Groeikramp (in Dutch) about the risks involved in Eindhoven’s rapid growth. In this manifesto – and the debate – she specifically mentions Eindhoven University of Technology. ‘Eindhoven University of Technology, for instance, is risking to be nicknamed ‘ASML Academy’, owing to the close collaboration and the plans – if the city’s up for it – to double the number of students by 2030 in response to the growth of ASML and its suppliers.’ (This ambition has now fallen by the wayside a bit due to lack of funding from The Hague, ed.) “But we have to be careful we don’t get a ‘your wish is our command’ university. The goal of a university should always be to conduct research and to educate people. The close collaboration is illustrated by the fact that the CEO of ASML is also the President of Eindhoven University of Technology’s Supervisory Board. We have to make sure company interest doesn’t get in the way of public interest. Together with Lisa Westerveld I also asked parliamentary questions about this matter.” These questions have yet to be answered.
De Bruijn believes one way of getting Eindhoven residents more involved in the Brainport is by making them Brainport ‘shareholders’. “For example by way of an advisory council, a kind of resident board. But alongside that, we’ll also need the national government to get companies to make more of an effort when it comes to sustainability and the creation of societal value.” Laughing, Heijne adds: “It’s quite interesting to see how the government doesn’t think anything of using its power against civilians. If I throw a soda can on the street and I get caught, I get a fine. But if you’re a steel company shooting all kinds of nasty substances into the air, you can apply for a subsidy. Our government is simply afraid of taking any real action.”
“We have to say goodbye to the idea that we need more growth,” he believes. “We consume because we can, because we’re used to it. But if we’re going to make everything more expensive to combat this, we have to be aware that the ones most affected by this will be the 20 to 30 percent who are already unable to take a stand.” De Bruijn (and some people in the room) see a different solution: a greater circular focus. “This would allow us to stay within planetary boundaries and still have opportunities for industry, just a different type.”
Heijne thinks it may be tricky to suddenly dial down capitalism. “60 percent of households is living in a house they own,” he says. “Residential values have risen so much over the past years, more than any salary. Those people are happy to play along with the capitalist system. That’s why I don’t see any democratic solution to change capitalism: for the majority of the Duch population, it’s working fine.” His point is proven immediately after the event: although a few audience members voice complaints about the bar prices at the closing reception – 8 to 10 euros for a pair of simple drinks – the majority doesn’t seem particularly bothered and ends up staying at the venue well into the night.
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