The last time I was in Holland it was autumn, and occupation fever had broken out. In no other country, except for the United States and Spain, so many squares were taken in so many towns and villages.
I was amazed. I visited occupations in Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Tilburg, Eindhoven. And in my native town of Dordrecht of course.
I felt the blind enthusiasm of a blossoming revolutionary movement, the great feeling that the rules of the game have changed and that everything can be possible. But with a difference. I didn’t get carried away by it this time, because I had seen it all before in Spain. I knew that sooner or later the enthusiasm would inexorably consume itself, and reality would return like the sun after a night of fiesta.
Since then, the rains have come, and the snow. Christmas came by, and new year’s eve. Spring was late, and even though it’s July by now, summer in Holland has only started last week.
During all this time, many of the occupations resisted. But as the long dark season wore on their numbers dwindled, not so much because of the weather, but because of internal turmoil and growing impatience from the authorities.
When I came back, a fortnight ago, the occupations in The Hague and Utrecht still resisted. The remainders of Occupy Amsterdam had been cleared by the police in March.
“Wow,” I thought, “they are still here. I have to pay them a visit soon.”
Next day Occupy Utrecht folded their last tent, and the day after also Occupy Den Haag finally surrendered. It was too late for me to say goodbye. The camps had become a magnet for drug addicts, outcasts and homeless. The few brave indignados who had resisted were finally outnumbered. They didn’t feel safe any more, and they abandoned the square.
So the occupations in Holland withered away, and the image they left is one of a naive bunch of protesters with no clear ideas on any subject, and of shabby downtown campings, potentially dangerous and smelling of dope and alcohol.
Last year, when the general assembly of Puerta del Sol decided to lift the acampada after four weeks of occupation, someone asked me if I agreed. At the time, I didn’t answer. But now, with sufficient hindsight, I can say it was the right decision.
Nevertheless, the Dutch occupations resisted a harsh winter and two of them lasted for almost nine months. It’s a remarkable feat.
I step off the train in Eindhoven. For me this is another little piece of home. And a most interesting place it is. Many western cities have become what they are today because of the multinationals they spawned. Turin and Fiat, Atlanta and Coca-Cola, Detroit and General Motors. But few cities have been so intimately linked to a company as Eindhoven is to Philips.
Quite literally, Philips built this city. So allow me to take you on an infomercial tour to a corner of the Netherlands that proudly presents itself as ‘the smartest region of Europe’. Don’t worry, there is a point to all this. You will see.
It all started off with a good idea. A light bulb, so to speak. It had been the result of many decades of research and the final ‘invention’ is usually credited to Thomas Alva Edison.
If modern copyright custom were in vigour at the time, each of those small advances would have been rigourously patented, and Edison would never have been allowed to create his light bulb.
But the good idea traveled fast and far. In a small village in Brabant, two brothers took it up and started constructing their own bulbs in a country shed. Today, the Philips brothers would be considered pirates, they would be sued out of business by Edison. But back in the closing years of the 19th century the Philips family had no trouble starting up their business, because American patents were not applicable under Dutch legislation.
Without ‘pirates’ like Anton and Gerard Philips, Eindhoven would never have turned from a sleepy Brabant village to the ‘smartest region of Europe’.
So first came the factory, then came the city. Cozy little houses for the blue-collar workers, spacy villas for the management, facilities, parks, swimming pools, sportsclubs etc. Soon the village of Eindhoven swallowed the five villages around her to form a curious star-shaped agglomeration.
During the Great Depression, a company orchard was planted on the outskirts of the city. It was one of many employment projects of the age. Because in the 1930s the reigning economic philosophy on how to counter the crisis was quite the opposite of today’s. More government spending, instead of harsh austerity measures.
The unemployed labour force was harnassed to build works for public use. It caused the debt to increase, but this way the workers would have money to spend. And money needs to keep rolling. As long as it does, so economic guru John Keynes predicted, the economy would continue to grow.
Unfortunately, in the midst of rising political tensions and visceral demagogy, the economic crisis spiraled down to a devastating world war.
The Philips brothers evacuated themselves and many of their directors to the United States and took most of the company’s capital with them. The factories continued to operate under German supervision during the war, and the Philips orchard proved to be very useful. In times of shortages the apples were used to make the infamous rations of Philiprak (‘Philips mash’).
After the war, Philips pioneered its way into various branches of consumer electronics (with mixed results) and Eindhoven continued to be at the center of its global web. But by the end of the century the relationship between the company and the city was radically changing as a result of globalisation.
Manufacturing had been outsourced to low-wage countries, the monumental old factories were being given new residential or commercial use. The city reinvented itself as a place of design and high-tech R&D.
In the midst of this great makeover, the Philips orchard still exists. We had family lunch there the other day. You can eat pancakes with apples straight from the garden. It holds thousands of trees, neatly planted the Dutch way, making maximum use of minimum space. It’s an experimental ground for students of the agrarian university of Wageningen for research into biological ways of extensive farming.
I take a quiet walk there. When the harvesting season comes you can pick as many apples as you can carry for a small fee. And me, I wonder about the whole revolution/evolution issue.
It’s true that many things are very wrong with our way of life, and getting worse. But in a broad perspective, many other things are definitely getting better. So maybe change is happening, very slowly. It’s a matter of economy, sure, but it’s also a matter of social and moral acceptability.
Maybe we will do away with chemical agriculture and industrial animal exploitation. Not only because in the long run it’s unsustainable and unhealthy, but also because people will convince themselves that it’s no longer acceptable.
For ages, until not so long ago, the institution of slavery has been morally acceptable. It was finally abolished not in the least because people became aware that it was wrong. The same thing eventually happened with child labour, with the legal inequality between men and women, between whites and blacks, between gay and straight.
So why shouldn’t this moral awareness slowly extend to the treatment of animals and the earth itself? I have a feeling it’s already happening right now.
Or maybe not. Social awareness doesn’t come by itself. You have to keep pushing it. That’s why it’s a good thing to be a revolutionary, to keep demanding the impossible, always.
In case we don’t succeed, we will at least have shaken things up. Ideas will take root, and with a bit of good luck, history will prove them right.