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Amsterdam as emancipation machine

Dirk Kloosterboer

10 January 2006 – Amsterdam should stop complaining about immigrants and should not be so obsessed with mixing people with different backgrounds. Rather, people should be given opportunities to improve their situation, argue Leo Platvoet and Maarten van Poelgeest in their book ‘Amsterdam als emancipatiemachine’.

Like many other cities, Amsterdam is concerned about the departure of the middle classes. This concern is rather exaggerated, as Platvoet and Van Poelgeest show. During the past fifteen years, the share of middle incomes among the local population remained constant at about forty percent.

Of course the group itself did not remain constant. People with middle incomes left the city, while others were added to the group. According to the authors, this is exactly what the city should do: constantly give new groups an opportunity to improve their situation.

The city should be seen as an “emancipation machine that absorbs fortune seekers and produces people who have made it”. Forcedly trying to hold on to the middle classes will only disturb this dynamic. It would amount to throwing sand into the gears of the emancipation machine.

At the initiative of the municipality of Rotterdam, a law has recently been passed which will make it possible to ban social assistance recipients from parts of the city. In Amsterdam this option is not being discussed seriously, but a lot of emphasis is put on spreading the underprivileged. This is done among other things by building more expensive houses in the disadvantaged Bijlmer and Amsterdam-West parts of the city.

Platvoet and Van Poelgeest have their doubts about this approach. While spreading sections of the populations may be sensible in specific situations, this will often amount to displacing the problems. It would be better to solve them. This requires investing in public services, ‘in order for the disadvantaged neighbourhood to become an emancipation neighbourhood’.

In this, an open attitude towards immigrants would be in order. “Amsterdam’s image as a libertarian and multicultural city suffers from the hypochondriac complaints about immigrants who are up to no good”. The authors think that the city should welcome people who come to make their fortune. “Not out of resignation or because it is a fact of life, but because it is the life blood for a city that wants to keep doing well”.

The idea of an emancipation machine has a contagious optimism about it, but it is not without consequences. Choices have to be made: “Social mobility is many times more important than attending to the wishes of those who have made it”, write the authors, who have apparently been inspired by the famous city expert Jane Jacobs.

While Platvoet and Van Poelgeest have high expectations of the role of the city as an emancipation machine, they devote little attention to the role of emancipation movements. A number of times they point to the need to develop new forms of social struggle, especially to counter the new social divide, but the emphasis is on what the government can do.

This is in contrast with the situation in some other countries, where a lot is expected of coalitions of trade unions, immigrants’ organisations and other community organisations, which have been able to bring about social change at the local level.

When asked, Platvoet acknowledges that the book focuses on urban dynamics from the point of view of urban development, city planning and integration policies. “But of course people who act are a part of this as well, as individuals or as groups. History teaches us as much; consider for example the role of the workers’ movement or the feminist movement”.

With the elections coming up, many politicians publish books that may get their parties some extra publicity. The book written by Platvoet and Van Poelgeest – both prominent members of the GroenLinks party – will be used during the coming campaign as well. However, ‘Amsterdam als emancipatiemachine’ has more to offer than the average campaign book. This was recognised by mayor Job Cohen, whose new years’ speech was inspired by this book.

Leo Platvoet and Maarten van Poelgeest (2005), Amsterdam als emancipatiemachine. ISBN 90 6868 410 8. 14,90 euro.

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