February 28, 2003

Ik ben een pools meisje

Thursday nights, I go straight from work to my heavily state-subsidised Dutch second language class and don't generally get home until after 10pm. This is not an optimal situation for me. I invariably do better in high intensity language classes and once per week - especially after a full work day - isn't good enough. But, the location is good - a mere three blocks from home - and I only pay €65 for a year's classes.

Second language education has changed some over the years. The curriculum used across Flanders includes a sort of continuing soap opera, told through 20 minute episodes on video at the beginning of each chapter and supplemented with back-story on cassettes and in the printed texts. It is the story of Paolo Sanseverino who is een student economie in Leuven and komt uit Italië and the Belgian friends he meets along the way, Bert Sels marketing manager en een beetje saai, Els Baart die werkt aan de universiteit and her jealous live-in boyfriend Peter Maas. Along the way, we encounter Bert's overbearing American mother Jennifer, the sexually repressed ex-flight attendant Ely (who it appears will soon be getting it on with Bert) and others. The soap is light comedy, and the production values are pretty good for such a small audience.

This is an adult program that emphasises real world contexts and life situations: unemployment, romantic situations, finding an apartment, dealing with doctors, etc. And, it must do this with a strict minimum of vocabulary and structure. The thinking nowadays is that people learn when they are immediately immersed in materials that they can comprehend. The task of learning a new language - which appears so daunting to start with - is much more easily accomplished when there is an ever present sense that things are comprehensible.

In line with this sort of thinking, the class went to see a play in Dutch for anderstaligen called Ik ben een pools meisje (I am a Polish girl.) The play itself was very much in the style of the rest of our curriculum, using puns, simple jokes and overplayed dialogue to enable a sense of full comprehension that may not actually translate into fluency in daily life.

Ik ben een pools meisje. Mijn vader komt uit Canada. Mijn moeder komt uit Italië. I heb zeven broers. Anek, Erek, Janek, Tadek, Davek, Sevek... en Zhusjka. Ik heb ook zussen. Vierentachtig!

Maar, ik woon nu hier. Zonder vader uit Canada. Zonder moeder uit Italië. Zonder hond. Ik heb geen hond. Ik hou niet van dieren. Ik hou van mensen. Maar mensen houden niet van mij. Waarom niet?

I am a Polish girl. My father is Canadian. My mother is Italian. I have seven brothers. Anek, Erek, Janek, Tadek, Davek, Sevek... and Zhushka. I also have sisters. Eighty-four!

But, I live here now. Without my Canadian father. Without my Italian mother. Without a dog. I have no dog. I don't like pets. I like people. But people don't like me. Why don't they?

In the lobby, the theatre company was selling bright red T-shirts printed with In Nederlands, a.u.b. Ik wil oefnen on the front. In Dutch, please. I need to practice. I considered buying one because this is a huge problem for us migrants in Flanders. Many immigrants here speak English or French, and very nearly all Flemish natives speak one or the other or both. Poor knowledge of Dutch is only a minor barrier for many of us. I have a good job, an apartment, a bank account and a Belgian university diploma and I have all this despite really poor Dutch. The locals just go ahead and speak English or French, without anyone even having to ask.

However, I didn't buy one because I thought last night was not a good time to advertise on the streets of Leuven that I'm an immigrant.

In Belgium, there is a federal election coming up. This is one of the motives for the Belgian state's resistance to war in Iraq. The war is unpopular and people are not going to forget between now and the next election. The election, however, also brings out the loons, and in Flanders that means the Vlaams Blok. "Fascists" if you listen to the local activists.

The far right had a demonstration scheduled for Leuven last night. I knew this because they had posters all over town. What I did not know until two days ago was that, first, the last time they held a pre-election rally in Leuven four years ago, there was a riot, and second, the demonstration was scheduled for the square directly in front of my apartment.

The first sign was the highly visible police presence and the cancellation of bus traffic after 7pm. I've seen and had to deal with the town cops in Leuven. It's hard to feel threatened by them. Whatever the American right may think of a country where the law requires you to possess and carry an ID at all times, Belgium is not a police state. In this town, it's a lot more Mayberry RFD than Nazi stormtroopers.

There were armoured riot vans all over town, concentrated right in front of my door. It was not the town cops who were out last night. It was federal police, with helmets and riot gear. And there were a lot of them. Cops make me nervous and I'm not big on brownshirts either. I was especially unenthused about having a front row seat for a riot in my own living room.

That was what greeted me as I left the play at 10 o'clock and got to my front door.

In the end, I need not have worried. Leuven is not a Vlaams Blok kind of town. The university is the single largest employer in the area, and with the university comes liberal professors and foreign students. The streets are full of off-white and dark skinned people speaking English and French among other things. There are a couple hundred Chinese students alone who've almost set up an alternative set of public facilities for themselves.

The brownshirts actually had to bus in demonstrators and there were certainly no more than 70 of them out there. There were probably as many cops as demonstrators and easily three times as many counter demonstrators. The whole business reminded me of nothing so much as that scene in the Blues Brothers with the Nazi march.

Jake: Hey, what's going on?
Officer: Ah, those bums won their court case so they're marching today.
Jake: What bums?
Officer: The fucking Nazi party.
Elwood: Illinois Nazis...
Jake: I hate Illinois Nazis.
The demonstrators chanted, they sang some patriotic Flemish songs and they marched around. The counter-demonstrators chanted, taunted and used dirty language. Early on it became clear that the police weren't there to protect the public from the demonstrators, they were there to protect the demonstrators from the counter-demonstrators. In an hour or so it was all over without any violence I could see. This was not a major success for the Blok.

What struck me, however, was the dichotomy. Here, on the one hand, is a modern and remarkably sane society which seeks actively to integrate immigrants into economic life, and on the other a group of true believers in a Flemish nation that has only existed in a recognisable form for less than two centuries. As far as I can tell, income is not the thing which distinguishes them, nor the usual trappings of class. Language teachers do not strike me as people with huge incomes by comparison to workmen. The poorest people in Belgium are not the ones who vote Vlaams Blok, they are the immigrants in Brussels and Antwerp. Neither the demonstrators nor the counter-demonstrators nor the liberals who put on plays for foreign students represent the rich or the poor although they all might lay claim to such a status. Unlike America, I am unable to determine with any precision which Belgian parties and which social and political movements represent which classes. (In America it's much simpler. Both parties represent the moneyed class. One merely offers a better return on investment than the other.) Classical Marxist analysis fails me here.

There is a strong temptation to dismiss the Vlaams Blok as just a bunch of buttheads and move on. One could look at this as a "modern" vs. "post-modern" conflict, except that I am just not happy with the result. There is something different going on in these new European nationalist movements.

This brings me into the heavy stuff. Namely Slavoj Zizek, and specifically Zizek talking about Lenin.

[P]erhaps, the ultimate irony of history will be that, in the same way Lenin's vision of the "central bank Socialism" can be properly read only retroactively, from today's World Wide Web, the Soviet Union provided the first model of the developed "post-property" society, of the true "late capitalism" in which the ruling class will be defined by the direct access to the (informational, administrative) means of social power and control and to other material and social privileges: the point will no longer be to own companies, but directly to run them, to have the right to use a private jet, to have access to top health care, etc. - privileges which will be acquired not by property, but by other (educational, managerial, etc.) mechanisms.
One of the ideas I tinker with on and off is this idea advanced by Zizek about the nature of class today or perhaps in the future. Ownership of productive assets these days is a complicated matter. Companies are as often as not owned by retirement funds or other mutual investment plans. Ownership is distributed, even if it is not as widely distributed as one would like. Very rich people tend to spread their assets across a lot of different investments. As the Enron debacle shows - or any investigation of business practices in France or Japan - the good life nowadays is had not by owning assets but by controlling them.

I would like to suggest that this class difference extends beyond the executive suite into other areas of society. Even if the brownshirts and the liberals are not truly distinguished by personal ownership of property, there is a big difference between the two in terms of social power. The ideology of the one is reflected in public institutions, on TV, in the schools and through the vestiges of "political correctness." The language teacher's income may not be hugely larger than the construction foreman's, but one of them enjoys a great deal more respect than the other. And respect sometimes leads to more material privileges.

In Belgium, this struck home with a discussion of "extra-legal benefits" in my Dutch class a few months ago. We were discussing restaurant vocabulary and the professor introduced the word maaltijd, which means more or less meal. She asked if we understood the word and I was the only one who did. So, she looked at me and I replied Ik heb vandaag mijn maaltijdcheques gekregen. I got my meal vouchers today. Belgian meal vouchers are a partially non-taxable benefit. Most people save them up and use them to buy groceries instead of buying restaurant meals. They pay perhaps a third to a half of my grocery bills. People sometimes get company cars, company apartments or frequent flyer benefits from their jobs. All of this can be partially tax free and in Belgium can represent a significant chunk of compensation.

In the US, people often take jobs with lower cash salaries but good benefits instead of jobs with better pay but where services have to be purchased at market prices. Even in the computer industry, I've done that. I worked at a cushy job with full benefits while my wife took contract jobs that paid as much as 50% more but had no benefits. As long as one of us had full medical, the other was covered. The behaviour in Belgium seems quite similar, except that it's not medical benefits that are usually the issue. This kind of extra compensation tends to be attached to professional jobs and reflect positions where workers possess specialised knowledge.

Therefore, it is possible that the far right vs. centre conflict in Belgium has class roots. The more liberal view of Belgian society quite clearly meshes better with the nascent globalism - or at least pan-Europeanism - of the business managers. It is the ideology taught in schools and seen on TV. Its believers tend to be the people already empowered by the existing circumstances and its success is their success. This is the ideology of people who possess specialised skills necessary to society and who exercise power by virtue of the control those skills give them over the means of production.

The people who vote with radical populist movements are the ones who feel disempowered by these same trends. For all the social benefits they receive simply because they live in a social democracy, they do not possess much respect nor have they meaningful social power. They are disempowered by the advance of the other class.

All of this is a something of a caricature, and I'd like to use a less loaded word than "means of production", but if the shoe fits...

All this leads me to a conclusion so contrary to the conventional wisdom that I hesitate to advance it. The class which is able to exercise power through access to specialised knowledge is not the class most likely to advance the cause of classical capitalism. I have a copy of Ian Angell's New Barbarian Manifesto which claims exactly the opposite, that the knowledge class is best served by a social Darwinist sort of extreme capitalism, and nation-states represent little more than pimps for their ill-educated workforce. This sort of thinking also underlies a lot of American rhetoric about "entrepreneurship."

Does social democracy - which appears to be succeeding quite well when you look at it globally and over the last 50 years instead of from an exclusively American perspective over the last two decades - entail a different kind of class structure? Is this sort of thing the wave of the future? Redistributing money and guaranteeing social services does not necessarily redistribute power and can easily reinforce the power of a class that does not need to rely on money explicitly.

Of course, this does not mean - as vulgar Hayekites might claim - that any sort of state intervention in economic affairs leads inevitably to tyranny. Capitalism was also an egalitarian movement by comparison to its predecessors, and it definitely reinforces the power of a particular class. There is nothing wrong in pointing out that rule by one class (or at least by its ideology) would likely be better in many ways than some other option. But, it does compel me to ask if advocating social democracy on the grounds that it undermines class society and promote equality as a whole isn't a non-starter. It does make me wonder if the problem of poorly distributed social power isn't as large a problem as poorly distributed access to resources.

But then, this a lot to get out of a cheesy play and a minor demonstration.

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Posted 2003/02/28 12:33 (Fri) | TrackBack