This book provides an equally revealing and enlightening picture of neoliberalism in the Netherlands ★★★★★


Jelle Zijlstra, president of De Nederlandsche Bank, and politician Joop den Uyl in 1978.Picture ANP

The Netherlands has no neoliberal party; leading liberals like Mark Rutte even deny the existence of neoliberalism. Yet there is growing criticism in politics from left to right of neoliberal thinking, which is said to have dominated politics in our country for decades. IN Neoliberalism – A Dutch History Bram Mellink and Merijn Oudenampsen paint as revealing as the enlightening picture of the networks of officials, entrepreneurs, journalists and scientists who have promoted this way of thinking and helped them to gain power.

Neoliberalism is often seen as an Anglo-Saxon mindset that would have spread from the United States and Britain in the 1980s, after Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power. Mellink and Oudenampsen show that this political thinking in our country has a much longer history dating back to the 1930s. A movement that had great influence but remained invisible to the public because the organization often consisted of informal networks.

An active government

It is not always clear what is meant by ‘neoliberalism’. In our country, this policy was summed up in the motto ‘more market and less government’. Critics of the use of the term neoliberalism point out that our government has not diminished and that bureaucracy has actually grown considerably. The authors argue that it is not so much about the size of the government, but about how it is deployed: Unlike classical liberals, neoliberals believe that only an active government can ensure free market operation.

Mellink and Oudenampsen have nevertheless made the politically hidden visible through smart network analyzes of informal groups from business and science, but also in the civil service and journalism. They show how they managed to make neoliberal politics possible in the established parties and especially the ministries. This accessible book provides a historical overview of the individuals and organizations that ‘conceived, translated and disseminated’ neoliberal ideas in our country, from the 1930s to the beginning of this century.

These networks started during the economic crisis of the 1930s: pioneers who made contact with neoliberals abroad and followed their example of aggressive lobbying, which proved to work poorly in our polder. In the 1950s, they opted for a more informal lobby, and neoliberals were given top positions in the Ministries of Economy and Finance and later in De Nederlandsche Bank (Jelle Zijlstra). After the oil crisis in 1973, their influence grew, even in the ‘left-wing’ Den Uyl cabinet (with Van Agt, Lubbers and Duisenberg).

The authors describe how scientists were connected to these networks, especially economists from Erasmus University Rotterdam, and how they gained access to the media; mainly NRC Handelsblad often mentioned. It is about the influence in think tanks like the Central Planning Bureau and of course in the political parties: CDA (Ruud Lubbers), VVD (Frits Bolkestein), D66 (Hans Wijers) and PvdA (economists like Rick van der Ploeg). In the purple cabinets of Wim Kok, but also of right-wing critics like Pim Fortuyn.

Influential officials

In the Anglo-Saxon world, neoliberalism was pervaded by outspoken economists (Hayek and Friedman) and in polemical think tanks (the British Center for Political Studies or the American Heritage Foundation). In the Netherlands, neoliberal thinking became acceptable because it was depoliticized. By influential officials such as Coen Oort, Lense Koopmans and Ad Geelhoed. People often unknown to the public, who presented the new policy as a technocratic operation.

neoliberalism does not describe a conspiracy, it is not about a group that has taken power. What the book shows is how a complex of ideas can unite people with different interests and lead to great change. How a radical ideology could seize power: ‘It was no longer socialists who wanted to change the world, a motley coalition of economists, businessmen and politicians would break with the status quo’, Mellink and Oudenampsen say.

A lot of research has been done for this book to map networks, also by other researchers, and stakeholders have also been interviewed. A must-read for Mark Rutte – and for anyone who wants to understand more about current politics.

Bram Mellink and Merijn Oudenampsen: Neoliberalism – A Dutch History. Tree; 352 pages; € 29.90.

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