Blog / 25 November 2016

Celebrate countervailing power!

This is the text of the speech given by Danielle Hirsch on the 'Nacht van de Tegenmacht' (Night of Countervailing Power)

Today, we are celebrating countervailing power, that very diverse area in our society that contains everyone and everything that is not part of the established institutions of government and business.


There is an abundance of symbols representing countervailing power: the pianist in Kiev, the brave Chinese demonstrator who dared stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square armed only with a plastic bag, and the thousands of people who took part in the Occupy movement.


We can feel the effects of countervailing power everywhere in our daily lives. That is different for all of us. Personally, I would not be standing here, if a large Catholic family in Limburg had not offered my mother shelter when the Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940. The family not only saved my mother, who spent the war years posing as their youngest daughter, but also served as a transit house for many Jews fleeing Germany via Limburg.


But the effects of countervailing power can also be seen everywhere in our whole society. We would not have had a public health care system if, a couple of hundred years ago, a group of wealthy ladies had not come together to set up orphanages and to ensure that people received treatment when they were sick. We would not have had 35,000 kilometres of cycle tracks in the Netherlands if there had not been public protests in the 1970s because of the increasing numbers of road deaths. And we would not have had solar panels everywhere if there had not been a very large movement promoting sustainable energy.


These examples show that countervailing power consists not only of protests by a few individuals, but also of many collectivities of people who express their ideas without formal planning and investment.


Countervailing power thus brings society wellbeing and prosperity. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 1998, has researched this extensively. He showed, backed up by hard statistics, that societies that give countervailing power a voice have less hunger, a better-functioning public sector and a more healthy economy. His explanation is simple: criticism and unusual ideas drive development, involve all citizens in their society and, in that way, generate healthy societies.


Countervailing power also gives us hope in the future. In 'This Changes Everything', Naomi Klein honours the countervailing power of thousands of local groups who fight against oil pipelines, offshore havens and coal mines. She sees these hotbeds of resistance as our only hope for restricting climate change. And I think she is right. Especially after the election of Donald Trump, we have to pin our hopes on all those people who challenge established power directly and say "Stop, here and no further!"


We should celebrate countervailing power. Not only because the days are getting darker and shorter and we have to grasp any excuse for a party, but also because countervailing power is under pressure all around the world. In many countries, people who raise their voices in protest against large infrastructural projects are dismissed by the incumbent powers as troublemakers who want to stop development. And, increasingly, countervailing power is met with violence. The hardhanded repression of the peaceful protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the US and the murder of Berta Cáceres at the beginning of the year in Honduras, are only two recent examples.


In the Netherlands, too, space for civil society is getting smaller. People who raise their voices are increasingly branded as troublemakers. Entrepreneurs, bankers and politicians decreasingly involve social movements and potentially critical voices in dialogue and are reducing the capital flows that support many counter-movements. Our Dutch government provides many examples: despite a clear ruling by the court in the climate case, it still refuses to take on its responsibilities and continues to support companies that extract fossil fuels abroad. Or take the response of both NAM, the Shell-and ExxonMobile-owned company that produces gas and oil in the Netherlands, and the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs to the protests against the gas drilling in Groningen: the illusion of a debate is upheld, yet in the end the decisions made behind closed doors determine the outcome.


Tonight, we are celebrating countervailing power. In these times of Trump and Wilders, it is very important for me to emphasize the difference between countervailing power and protest voices. Protest voices (and votes) resist in word and deed those who take decisions, make investments, and have a lot of power and influence over the lives of others. Like countervailing power, protest voices come from both left and right, and challenge the established order. The motivations and political identity are the same.


But there is one big difference. The protest voices that today dominate the media call for hate and discrimination, divide our society and offer no solutions to the problems they observe.


Countervailing power is different: it seeks to connect, not only within like-minded groups, but also with those who think differently, so as to encourage a dialogue in search of improvement. This countervailing power is open to criticism and capable of learning. And countervailing power offers solutions. Solutions to climate change, to make cities liveable, to improve the working conditions of small farmers or textile workers.


On this Night of Countervailing Power, we celebrate all those people who colour outside the lines and work to achieve a better society, with passion and often sticking their necks out. The aim of this night is to put the spotlight on those people who keep countervailing power alive. And this night is an appeal, to ourselves and to everyone who can hear it: cherish that countervailing power, because it is the only way that we can continue to develop towards a sustainable, fair and equal society.


Cheers... and have a great evening!

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