Tucked away in a side street across from a hip clothing store, a Surinamese restaurant and a marijuana shop selling bongs and cannabis-infused tea, a monument to our global, interconnected economy and our modern way of life is largely ignored by passing tourists, students and locals. It’s no exaggeration to say that modern market capitalism was born on this spot on this month, exactly 415 years ago, when a trading company known as the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie – the United East India Company – was born.
Walk into the silent, empty courtyard of the Dutch East India Company, as it is better-known in English, and you will be taking steps inside the genesis of our modern world. The VOC, as its brand notes on the door, was arguably the world’s first modern multinational company, pioneering the kind of global trade networks that we take for granted today. If we barely bat an eyelash that we have apples from New Zealand at our local grocery store, or spices from India one click away, it’s partly because of the Dutch East India Company’s trading prowess.
The Dutch East India Company drove what has become common to our modern way of life: consumerism. In the process, it also created whole groups of people and regions dependent on exporting goods abroad. In a sense, it lit the fire of modern globalization. The Dutch East India Company also anchored Holland’s 17th-century golden age, when Amsterdam had become the richest city in the world and European intellectuals from Rene Descartes to John Locke flocked to the city.
Amsterdam spawned the 17th-century Dutch enlightenment, which, as author Russell Shorto persuasively argues in his book Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, was a precursor to the enlightenment wave that swept through Europe in the 18th century. That enlightenment, in turn, spawned revolutions against the old order and led ultimately to the creation of a unique experiment in governance: the US. In that sense, the Western world of democracies owes a debt to the Dutch of the 17th century.
Amsterdam had a secret sauce that made it, well, great: state-sanctioned religious tolerance (in an age when that was scarce), innovative and risk-taking entrepreneurs, an incipient individualism, government that invested in trade, and the most sophisticated capital markets known to mankind. (Amsterdam’s stock market also gave us what Warren Buffet called “financial weapons of mass destruction”, derivatives.)
All of this matters 415 years later not purely for academic purposes but because we are, if we believe conservative French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen, at a defining moment in history, when “we are experiencing the end of one world and the birth of a new one.” For Le Pen and others hoping for “the end of one world,” all eyes are on Geert Wilders, the Dutch firebrand anti-Islam populist slated for a strong showing in the parliamentary elections this week.
Wilders has a Trumpian way of dominating the headlines. With provocative tweets and a distinctive mane of bleached blond hair, the leader of the Party for Freedom, or PVV, is riding a wave of anxiety in the Netherlands aimed at political elites, globalisation, migrants and what Wilders derisively calls the “Islamisation” of the country. He has also referred to “Moroccan scum,” and, as the New York Times reports, has been the recipient of financing from US organisations.
Agonised editorials in Europe wonder if famously liberal Netherlands has lost its way or, as this BBC report noted, “What happened to liberal Netherlands?”
Wilders is channeling an anti-immigrant sentiment and suspicion of Islam shared by at least a third of the country, according to Pew Research – albeit maybe not as extreme. In his bombastic and hateful rhetoric, he is, in some senses, an extreme overreaction to famously liberal Netherlands, giving voice to a hinterland (or heartland, depending on your perspective) that sees elites in the capital, the Hague, or cosmopolitan Amsterdam, as out of touch. It has become a familiar story of our era, one that fueled Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the US.
For some two decades, Netherlands, under the guise of multiculturalism, hardly made much of an effort to integrate Muslim and other migrants. Indeed, the phenomenon of “ black schools” – composed mostly of children of migrants – and “white schools” of Dutch natives reflects multiculturalism gone wrong. Dutch political leaders today are more strictly enforcing the integration of migrant families, especially those seeking citizenship.
Like most rabble-rousing populists, Wilders offers simple (and frightening) answers to complex matters. To say that the Islamic faith is worse than the Nazi Party is not only outrageous, but also a great insult to the 78% of Jews of Holland who died under Nazi rule – the highest death rate of European Jewry. Pledging to ban all mosques will incense devout Muslims for sure, but, even more, will alienate the hundreds of thousands of Dutch Muslims who are neither extreme nor particularly devout or mosque-going and are getting along just fine in Dutch society. Identity will once again become a weapon of politics.
In a political season of rising populism, suspicion toward globalization and Muslims, and repudiations of the status quo, the elections in the Netherlands will send a signal to the world about where we are headed next.
A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Post on March 12, 2017.