Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the day: samenleving (society)

Wednesday I cycled to work and looked forward to seeing my favourite tree. Diagonally opposite our institute is the Schenkkade and there is a bridge across a ditch. Vincent van Gogh used to walk here for inspiration at the end of the nineteenth century when he lived in The Hague. 

And nearly half a century ago I used to skate on this canal when the winters were still wintry and frosty. This was also the spot where I fell through the ice after a long skating tour to Leiden and back. My tree was an old weathered friend whom I greeted with respect every time I passed it. An old ritual.

Wednesday I could not believe my eyes, when I saw that they had cut down my tree. The powers that be must have deemed my tree a ‘sta-in-de-weg’ (obstacle). The municipality sacrificed it for progress, improvement and the safety of our society. There was an old bridge that needed to be renovated.

Municipality, GEMEENTE, society, GEMEENSCHAP or SAMENLEVING… they are words indicating an association of persons for some specific purpose.

My favourite philosopher Spinoza (Amsterdam 1632 – The Hague 1677) is right when he states in his Theological-Political Treatise (ed by Jonathan Israel , Cambridge, 2007) that ‘everyone is guided by their own pleasure, and the mind is very often so preoccupied with greed, glory, jealousy, anger, etc. that there is no room for reason.’

It is a truth philosophically acknowledged that no one can be certain of another person’s good faith. That’s why, Spinoza says, we must transfer all the power we possess to a responsible association of persons. We call this association SAMENLEVING or GEMEENSCHAP (society). Society alone should retain the supreme natural right over all things. The right of such a society is best represented by democracy according to the 17th century philosopher.

Spinoza defines democracy as a united gathering of people which collectively has the sovereign right to do all that it has the power to do. Reason tells us that selfish individuals can only survive when they choose to live together under such a democratic contract.

SAMENLEVING can be considered the opposite of this week’s word SELF. My selfish I would never have allowed my old friend the tree to be cut down. Because I am a rational being, however, I transferred my power to society which deemed it necessary. In return for this sacrifice I trust that those who organize society will be good to selfish me, my loved ones and all the other members of our SAMENLEVING.

All in all SAMENLEVING is a delicious word, for nothing beats living together (SAMEN=together and LEVING=living). Like Buffy the office dog and Offie, Jack’s hound, we are mammals who pine away unless we belong to a pack or herd.

Last Saturday the conference of the Dutch linguistic assocation ‘Onze Taal’ (Genootschap Our Language) chose PARTICIPATIESAMENLEVING as the Dutch Word of the Year. Hark what the Dutch have squirted three years after David Cameron coined ‘big society’ (chosen as the English Word of the Year): PARTICIPATIESAMENLEVING (participation society)!

It was our King Willem-Alexander who launched this waster into the public arena. It was not his fault, however. The King’s Speech (his first one, delivered at the opening of parliament on 17 September 2103) was composed by the prime minister and his cronies. Anyway this is what he was ordered to say (see for translation below):

‘Het is onmiskenbaar dat mensen in onze huidige netwerk- en informatiesamenleving mondiger en zelfstandiger zijn dan vroeger. Gecombineerd met de noodzaak om het tekort van de overheid terug te dringen, leidt dit ertoe dat de klassieke verzorgingsstaat langzaam maar zeker verandert in een participatiesamenleving. Van iedereen die dat kan, wordt gevraagd verantwoordelijkheid te nemen voor zijn of haar eigen leven en omgeving.

Wanneer mensen zelf vorm geven aan hun toekomst, voegen zij niet alleen waarde toe aan hun eigen leven, maar ook aan de samenleving als geheel. Zo blijven Nederlanders samen bouwen aan een sterk land van zelfbewuste mensen. Een land met een compacte en krachtige overheid, die ruimte geeft en kansen biedt waar het kan en beschermt als dat nodig is, zodat niemand tussen wal en schip raakt. Elke Nederlander moet de kans krijgen om de veranderingen die ons wachten, in zijn eigen leven in te passen.’

(It is an undeniable reality that in today’s network and information society people are both more assertive and more independent than in the past. This, combined with the need to reduce the budget deficit, means that the classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a participation society. Everyone who is able will be asked to take responsibility for their own lives and immediate surroundings.

When people shape their own futures, they add value not only to their own lives but to society as a whole. In this way, the Dutch people can continue building a strong nation of confident citizens. A nation with a small but strong government which gives people the space they need. Which offers opportunities where possible and protection where necessary, ensuring that no one gets left behind. Everyone in the Netherlands should have the chance to accommodate the changes ahead in their own lives.) 

Why am I so suspicious of PARTICIPATIESAMENLEVING (participation society)? Not because it is a pleonastic figure of speech. All types of societies are participatory associations by definition…

No, I suspect that this long ugly word is a euphemistic figure of speech aimed to promote selfishness and iniquity, putting it mildy.

PARTICIPATIESAMENLEVING sounds learned, positive and maybe even socially endearing (‘Everyone should take responsibility for their own lives and immediate surroundings’). What our government is trying to hide from our ears, however, is: ‘It’s up to you to clean this mess we’re in’.

A small government allowing people to create ‘the space they need’ can be another way of saying: ‘Okay, so our social contract endeth here, be happy, be selfish, because we will now transfer some of the responsibility that you so graciously entrusted to us back to you. Is that what PARTICIPATIESAMENLEVING really means? Time will tell!