COLUMN 112, DECEMBER 1, 2004
(Copyright © 2004 The Blacklisted Journalist)
ON THE ROAD:
HOW COUNTERCULTURE SURVIVES IN AMSTERDAM
as it’s kept, Amsterdam is blessed with a vital underground arts and cultural
community that thrums and vibrates with creativity and intelligence but only
rarely can be seen to intersect with the surface world of popular culture.
The city’s cannabis coffeeshops,
seed stores and psychedelic dispensaries provide visible proof that there’s
something quite different going on here, and its permissive approach to public
sexuality is equally refreshing. But these tendencies are merely the tip of the
metaphoric iceberg with respect to the depth and vastness of Amsterdam’s
Underneath the city’s image as a
picturesque, friendly but a little edgy tourist destination beats its secret
heart, pumping out cutting-edge art and expressive culture that inspires and
informs the level of intelligence and consciousness necessary to sustain urban
life on a human scale—the way it used to be in the United States, way back in
the day before they started to dummy everybody down.
The cultural revolution that
erupted in America and Europe in the 1960s may have sputtered into terminal
stasis by the mid-’70s, but it took root in the consciousness of an entire
generation of Dutch artists, cultural and social activists who simply refused to
give up the struggle to create for themselves a world they could live in.
These young visionaries extended
the oppositional principles and creative social strategies of the cultural
revolution into effective action and developed operational methods for moving
their ideas into the realm of social reality. When their progress was impeded by
the refusal of the established order to embrace innovative forms of social
organization, the cultural warriors banded more closely together, redoubled
their efforts and persisted in their determination to make social change in
As a result, the impact of the cherished ideals of the cultural revolution may be felt in the workings of everyday life in 21st-century Amsterdam, where citizens enjoy universal health care, public welfare for the disenfranchised, extended unemployment benefits and early retirement for the workers, stringent rules for the protection of the working class on the job, price controls and other measures for the protection of the consumer in the marketplace, the operation of an efficient
public transportation system, government funding for a wide range
of arts and cultural activities, unstinting support for the city’s incredible
array of museums and cultural institutions, total decriminalization of the
recreational drug user with a workable system for the licit distribution of
marijuana and psychedelic substances, intelligent regulation of the legal sex
industry and a general sense of tolerance for individual differences and active
concern for the well-being of the entire populace.
Spearheaded by organized labor,
founded in the principles of collective bargaining and social consensus, and
informed by the tenets of the cultural revolution, this national system of
social organization has come to be known as “the Dutch way.” It’s worked
well to serve the needs and aspirations of most of the citizenry and to “take
care of people who have less,” as one worker put it.
But right now “the Dutch way”
is under serious attack by the current government of the Netherlands, a
reactionary right-wing coalition led by the Christian Democrat party. Its
ascension to power two years ago coincided with a sharp and unexpected economic
downtown which the right wing proposes to combat by adopting the American method
of attacking, denigrating, undermining and stripping working people and the
unemployed of hard-won wage gains, comprehensive medical coverage and other
essential benefits and entitlements. So they’re looking to the ugly, inhuman,
socially irresponsible policies of the Bush administration for ways to weasel
out of the Dutch social compact and institute a more “efficient” system that
will better serve the obscenely greedy corporate sector.
But while the great mass of
Americans—dazzled perhaps by the spectacular entertainment media and the
prospect of unlimited product acquisition—have mutely acquiesced to the
insistent corporate demand that they reduce their lives to fit the ever smaller
dimensions dictated by the insatiable profit cravings of their employers, our
Dutch counterparts are beginning to fight back in a big way.
“This is a declaration of war,”
the president of Holland’s biggest trade union federation told the International
Herald Tribune on the eve of the October 3rd anti-government
demonstration that filled Amsterdam from the Museumplein to the Leidseplein with
300,000 angry citizens.
This massive outpouring of
opposition to the government’s plan to reduce taxes, cut government spending,
slash unemployment and disability benefits and push back the retirement age from
55 to 65 followed effective one-day strikes on successive Mondays that shut down
the public transportation systems in Rotterdam and Amsterdam. And the week after
the demo, the railroad union walked off the job for a day, curtailing travel
throughout the country.
The Dutch resistance to the
right-wing attack on their way of life is a hopeful sign indeed. As we see in
America, when people fail to resist they are forced to accept whatever degrading
conditions the bully-boys of the government and its corporate masters wish to
impose upon them.
These right-wing demagogues are
weak, cowardly characters who get over by intimidating the people, propagating
an endless series of Big Lies and bullying the populace into bowing down to
their demands. But when people stand up in resistance and refuse to back down,
the bullies can be forced to turn and run.
That’s why a culture of
resistance is so important to a healthy social order. A culture of resistance in
everyday life, shaped and expressed by the creative imagination and defiant
attitude of committed artists and cultural workers, can form the ideological and
emotional underpinnings for popular movements of resistance to oppressive and
exploitative conditions of every kind.
And a culture of resistance to the
idiocy and reductive intent of the popular entertainment industry—Turn
Off Your TV Set!—can help engender a high level of sensual intelligence
and creative production throughout the entire community.
The culture of resistance in
Amsterdam today is mentally and physically rooted in the raggedy community of
avant-garde artists, musicians, poets, other creative individuals and their
compatriots in poverty who have “squatted” and established residence in
myriad vacated apartments and abandoned buildings all over the city.
Living nearly rent-free, often in
quarters much larger and more desirable than they could otherwise afford to
occupy, the squatters have gained the time and space to concentrate on their
creative pursuits and make any kind of art or social action they might want to.
The squatters’ movement in turn
is rooted in the civic belief that buildings and housing units left unoccupied
tend to be detrimental to urban life and can sap the health and vitality of the
neighborhoods they infest. Thus property owners and real estate speculators are
allowed only one year of vacancy before their space is up for grabs. Once
installed, the squatters may remain in place unless and until paying tenants are
secured or other legitimate uses are approved by the local governing body.
There are squats of all sorts in
Amsterdam, but most intriguing are the communal art squats where sizable groups
of artists and creative associates take over large empty industrial buildings
and make them into places where they can live, work, exhibit and perform to
their hearts’ content. The larger squat communities have established
impressive on-site cafes where exhibits, performances and dances are staged and
food and drink are served to the residents.
I had the pleasure of visiting a
gigantic squatters’ community called ADeM on John Coltrane’s birthday, a
holy day of obligation which falls on September 23rd, for the opening
night of its seventh annual ROBODOCK festival. Housed in a former shipyard on
the waterfront in the western sector of the city, the venerable ADeM collective
was ousted from its previous spot in 1997 when the area it inhabited was slated
ADeM’s fierce resistance to the
threat of displacement ultimately resulted in the city authorities granting them
possession of the abandoned shipyard as their new base of operations. The
initial ROBODOCK festival was staged the following fall in celebration of the
community’s first year on the site.
Entering the ADeM grounds was like
stepping back in time 30 years to the glorious days of the San Francisco Mime
Troupe: free concerts in the parks, rude rustic rock festivals thrown together
on somebody’s farm, the exhilarating theatrical spectacles created by the
Living Theatre, Ken Kesey’s mind-blowing Trips Festivals, the utter
irreverence of the Fugs and the MC5 and the Mothers of Invention, the
all-pervasive spirit of pleasure in the pursuit of sensual experience and
creative expression, and the thrilling vibration of mass communal resistance to
the insane machinations of the established order.
Suddenly here on the Amsterdam
waterfront was a living realization of the hallowed concept of Free Space—a
liberated zone dedicated to creative production in a harmonious communal
environment fully controlled by its inhabitants. This was exactly what we had
dreamed about back in America’s days past, and it was exhilarating to witness
this contemporary manifestation of the revolutionary spirit in action almost
three decades after it had been given up for dead in the United States.
But this is one of the rewards of
prolonged resistance, and it provides compelling testimony to the positive
effect of a culture of resistance that keeps alive the social visions and
humanistic values advanced by the creative artists and cultural warriors who
labor at the very core of modern life to infuse their fellow citizens with the
spirit of intelligence, compassion, imagination, experimentation and discovery.
Sixteen one-hour installments of The John Sinclair Radio
Show, a new internet radio program broadcast live from the cannabis coffeeshops and
cultural centers of Amsterdam during the 2004 Cannabis Cup, can be heard any time at
www.JohnSinclairRadio.com . New programs will be
posted on-line every Monday night at 4:20 pm Eastern Standard Time (10:20 pm Dutch time).
© 2004 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved)
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