A society on pillars

For a century, Dutch society consisted of identity groups based on religion or ideology. This division was called pillarisation. Religious and ideological groups encompassed several social classes. Social life usually was within your own pillar, and contacts with other people were limited. Each pillar had sports clubs, political parties, unions, newspapers, and broadcasters. Roman Catholics and Protestants also had their own schools and hospitals.

The pillars of Dutch society were Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Socialist, with each about 30% of the population. The Protestants themselves were further divided into smaller identity groups. The remaining 10% of the Dutch were liberal. The Dutch liberals were less organised and opposed pillarisation, but they too had their own political parties, newspapers and broadcasters.

Strong communities are close-knit, have shared norms and values based on ideology or religion, and come with social obligations. The pillar organisations focused exclusively on their own communities. This happened in other places in Europe too. Nowadays, similar models exist in Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Cyprus, Lebanon and Malaysia.

Nevertheless, the same laws applied to everyone. And the curricula of Protestant, Roman Catholic, and public schools were nearly the same as everyone was preparing for the same state exams.

To make pillarisation successful, the overarching identity, for instance, the nation, should be strong, and the intensity of the identity conflict should be low. Western Christianity, which includes both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, features a separation of worldly and religious affairs, so religious beliefs did not conflict with submission to a state.

The Dutch are famous for their tolerance, which was at times close to indifference. The identity groups accepted each other and minded their own affairs. After 1800, there was no civil war in the Netherlands, nor was it close at any time. Leadership was also important. The leaders of the pillars were willing to compromise, and the members merely followed their leaders.

Nevertheless, identity issues dominated Dutch politics from time to time. For instance, on 11 November 1925, the cabinet fell when the Catholic ministers resigned after Parliament accepted an amendment introduced by a small Protestant fraction to eliminate the funding for the Dutch envoy with the Vatican. A Protestant government fraction supported the amendment.

None of the identity groups on its own was able to dominate society. Instead, they had to make deals with each other. On religious issues, Roman Catholics and Protestants often found each other. For instance, they arranged that schools and hospitals could have a religious identity and that the state would fund them like public schools and hospitals. The Socialists were able to make deals on working conditions and social benefits.

Pillarisation in the Netherlands began to take shape at the close of the nineteenth century. One could say that Dutch society was built upon the pillars. They allowed groups with different worldviews to coexist peacefully and work on a common destiny, which was the future of the nation. From the 1960s onwards, the pillars began to lose their meaning.

Pillarisation can be helpful if people believe in a shared destiny, for instance, the nation-state, but do not share a common background. In that case, everyone can live and work together with the people they feel comfortable with. Cultural and religious differences may subside over time. But as long as these identities remain distinct, people can organise themselves accordingly via pillars, and in doing so, avoid conflict.

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