Who can better characterize Anton Zijderveld than Anton Zijderveld himself? In an essay in The green (No. 11, 2001) he called himself a ‘post-Calvinist’, not of the Reformed but of the Reformed variety: Zijderveld, emeritus professor of cultural sociology in Tilburg and Rotterdam, came from a Dutch Reformed teaching family. “What is a Post-Calvinist?” he wondered. He gave this answer: ‘It is one who no longer believes in original sin, predestination and the Pauline doctrine of redemption, but who has suffered a serious psychological blow from this. For example, the post-Calvinist abhors the adjective “pretty” and the associated hedonism. Parties and celebrations are not for him, because after all in this life you have to work, hard work. The post-Calvinist gets restless when he has nothing to do. And he abhors emotionally digging into the soul, nagging authenticity. Especially the flat version that presents itself as ‘being comfortable in your own skin’ is a thorn in his side.’
Since I interviewed colleague Hans Goslinga Zijderveld for Fidelity, now almost a quarter of a century ago. He still flashes through my mind for a moment, with the penetrating look that accompanied this quip: ‘If you’ve written a book, these days they say, ‘I thought it was a fine book’. Ask yourself, “Do you also think it was a good book?” then they look at you blankly. It should all be fun or exciting. On a! Exciting! These are words that fit a culture of fun and ephemeral pleasures, sbs6 and Veronica. The question of truth is completely old-fashioned. There is no longer a ranking of values.’
Zijderveld – a passionate pianist – coined the term ‘staccato culture’ for this phenomenon. Without values that give life a deeper meaning than fun or excitement, he would say, culture takes on the uniformity of a staccator rhythm: flat, one-dimensional, soulless. Everything is starting to look alike, including culture-forming institutions such as newspapers, television companies, schools, political parties, universities and social organisations.
It doesn’t make much difference if you Fidelity or NRC reader, inn-ncrv or bnnvara appearance, vvd or cda votes. Even before the majority of talk shows on television took the form of a ‘talk show’, Zijderveld outlined in 1999 how it is today at the regular tables in the studio: ‘We just talk, it is typical of modernity. You used to say: that guy is crazy. Today it is very normal’. Not that uniformity, but the pluriformity, the difference between one and the other, makes a culture really exciting. The tendency towards uniformity in the staccato culture therefore made Zijderveld ‘desolate’, he said. ‘We pay particular attention to usability, effectiveness and efficiency. Everything must be well organized and everything will be fine. Material meaning, coherence, the value of things is of less and less interest to people.’ As an example, he pointed to his own working environment: ‘Look at the university, it is not badly organised, but the question that is almost never asked is: what do we stand for?’
Together with Jacques van Doorn, Kees Schuyt and Hans Adriaansens, Zijderveld belonged to the generation that gave post-war sociology a public face. It was he who introduced the concept of ‘civil society’ into sociological considerations: the totality of institutions that give society its multifaceted character. In modern, secularized society – Zijderveld called himself an agnostic after his apostasy in the early 1960s – civil society was, according to him, the most important source of morality.
He pointed to Russia as the horrific example of a country where those in power see civil society as subversive and repress as much as possible. In Russia, nothing now stands between the state, the embodiment of power, and the market or the rule of money. Hence Zijderveld’s conclusion: ‘Power and money erode civilization.’ He explained: ‘Civil society is not a residual product, as liberals in particular often believe, but the cultural environment in which people develop their morals and habits and learn the difference between good and evil. It is missing in Russia. The country is therefore a paradise for the mafia.’
Authoritarian regimes such as Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán find a pluriform society particularly difficult because it is less easy to keep under control. It explains their uncompromising policy of repression against civil society, such as Orbán, who make impossible the existence of non-governmental organizations in Hungary.
Zijderveld therefore believed that it was cda, the party of which he was a member until 2009, had to be careful about embracing the ideology of communitarianism, ‘community thinking’, which carries the risk of going too far in relation to pluriformity. “In Europe, with that word, you quickly find yourself in the dark waters of authoritarian regimes,” he said. “Apartheid and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were also forms of common thinking. Community in Europe soon stands for collectivity, for Community. Then it is, taken to the extreme, a crypto-fascist concept, where the starting point is not the individual, but the community.’
Not that he does cda wanted to identify with the dark forces, but he warned that the anti-pluralist streak of this communalism could be attractive to extreme right-wing reactionaries. In 2010 it worked cda coalition cooperation with the extreme right, in the form of Orbán and Putin friend Geert Wilders, but by then Zijderveld had already left the party for a year. Following independent thinkers such as Dorien Pessers and Gabriël van den Brink, he thus joined the growing list of intellectuals who considered themselves a kindred spirit of the ideology of Christian democracy, but were turned off by cda.