The protesting farmers are living in a bubble of unreasonableness, we must not give in to that

Farmers from Achterhoek have closed to train traffic on the railway line between Winterswijk and Zutphen.Statue of Vincent Jannink / ANP

The protesting peasants, who are they at all? How and why did they come to their irreconcilable position? Where did their fanaticism come from? And how do they work? What is their battle plan and where do they really want to go?

Although there are no sharp boundaries, the hard core of the current protest movement can certainly be identified. Ironically, it is the agricultural entrepreneurs who have mostly followed the agricultural policy discourse of recent decades. More than others, they have modeled their companies according to the ideal portrayed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Wageningen University, the agricultural industry and Rabobank.

About this author

Jan Douwe van der Ploeg is Emeritus Professor of Rural Sociology at Wageningen University.

This is reflected in their companies: They are large, highly specialized and highly productive companies, which are constantly expanding and carrying large debts. These companies are also characterized by a high consumption of fossil energy and industrial resources (such as fertilizers, concentrates, medicines) and therefore also by a relatively high environmental pressure. Because of the path they have taken, many of these agricultural entrepreneurs consider themselves ‘the best students in the class’. After all, they did everything that needed to be done, and they did it more and better than many other farmers.

run away

Precisely the ‘others’ had to give way (printing) in order for there to be room for development for the ‘good entrepreneurs’. The latter, they feel, have, so to speak, acquired a birthright. In addition, they must (she has been told several times) ‘give birth to the world’.

It is precisely this group that has become deeply frustrated, if not bitter. Precisely their business model (‘their pride’) increasingly proved to fail at the boundaries of nature and society. It collides with the environment, climate, landscape, biodiversity, but in many places also with the quality of life in the countryside, the quality of food and now also with house construction and infrastructure work elsewhere.

For some of these farmers, this has led to a hardening: to a stubborn defense of the chosen route and the associated sub-interests. They themselves believe that they are right – it is precisely the others who are wrong. They often have no choice: the high debt requires continued growth.

The results of the previous wave of protests are significant in this regard: no forced closures of companies, no restrictions on business growth and no government intervention in business operations (the latter point focused on limiting the protein content of concentrates). In this way, the ‘right’ to continued expansion was secured – at least until further notice.

Account with others

At the same time, the bill was placed with others. For those farmers who are far less or not at all responsible for the nitrogen crisis and young people who are now unable to take over or start a business. They must be soft. Then some are swept along in the radical protest movement.

The hard core has become radicalized as animal activists began occupying stables. Then the first ‘self-defense networks’ emerged. The current government policy has also contributed to radicalization. Activists have learned that it pays to look for and cross borders. They have kind of ‘tasted blood’ and now want the full pound. What certainly also helps is the support from the animal feed industry, the populist parties and the vacillation of the VVD and the CDA.

Just as South African peasants once placed their ox-carts in a circle and shot from there at everything that seemed like a threat, so today’s radical peasants have their own bubble where only their own right counts. The meaning and right to talk about others, the results of scientific research, it is all ignored. People are blind to the absurdities of their own position. Drainage (or reorganization) of agriculture was previously considered a major asset, but now it is taboo. People were never averse to expropriation: it gave a lot of money that one could buy a new and much larger company with elsewhere. Billions are now being made available, but the house is suddenly too small.

And perhaps most conspicuously: It has been known for thirty years that nitrogen emissions can be greatly reduced with a number of well-thought-out adjustments in operations management, so that more money is earned at the same time. In the bubble, however, people are consciously blind to this.

fantasy world

The outlined misjudgment, frustration, anger, and self-created imaginary world constitute an extremely dangerous mix. Especially also by consistently contrasting with the other and the other. Previously, the other was the smaller farmer: he or she had to make room for the self-righteousness of the expanding agricultural entrepreneur. Now the other is a stir for a wide world that includes media, political parties, concerned citizens, environmentalism, bird protection and what not already. They have no understanding of it, they have no right to speak. They can therefore be set aside.

The approach of the Farmers Defense Force is partly based on the previous movement of angry pig farmers, who at the time, led by Wien van den Brink, opposed the reduction of the pig population and did not shy away from violence. Programmatically, this movement revolved around the interests of large, intensive pig farms. But it was made sure to show this. On the contrary: Smaller pig farmers and the weeping peasant wives were pushed forward. For example, pig breeding in public opinion appeared as a victim – a victim of a completely wrong policy. This characteristic turn is now repeated again.

Consistently choosing a continuous increase in scale in agriculture (while ignoring possible alternatives) has created a protest movement where reasonableness is lost – a movement where people think they can force others to accept their own partial interest. Where there is no bending; the others should just burst.

Fortunately, Dutch agriculture actually has an opposite pole: a wide range of agriculture that works in harmony with nature and society. The problem is that this polar opposite has no voice and is not represented. This is where an important socio-political challenge lies. It is precisely the alternative that is available that should be highlighted and actually supported. At the same time, there is no question of giving in to unreasonableness.

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