Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A history of the world’s most liberal city (Doubleday 2013, Little Brown 2014)

Russell Shorto is a USer who lived in Amsterdam from 2006 to 2013. This book is something of a love letter to the city that was his adopted home for those years, and a salute to others who have lived there and contributed to the life of the city – Amsterdammers as a whole as well as a number of extraordinary individuals from Renaissance scholar Erasmus and early Enlightenment philosopher Spinoza, to Rembrandt and (briefly) Van Gogh, to Anne Frank (who needs no label) and Roel van Duijn (founder of the Provo movement in the 1960s).

It’s a history built around the central notion that because of its origins as a city built on land reclaimed from water by collective effort and owned individually by its citizens, Amsterdam has always had a strong ethos that values the individual while expecting a degree of cooperation. He contrasts this version of liberalism, both economic and social, with the stark individualism of the US version of liberalism.

Entwined with this concept is the theme of tolerance. Amsterdam’s tolerance, which has been a hallmark of the city for centuries, isn’t necessarily a principled moral stand, but has a stubborn pragmatism to it. When the Holy Roman Emperor issues a ruling that certain unorthodox religious practices were to be outlawed and punished, the Amsterdam authorities imposed punishments like compelling miscreants to process down the main street carrying candles. In our own time, marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands, but the uniquely Dutch concept of gedogen, illegal but tolerated, means that Amsterdam is studded with coffee shops (not to be mistaken for cafes) where you can smoke pot at leisure in a regulated, tax-paying environment.

Shorto doesn’t shy away from the terrible aspects of the Amsterdam story: it’s the city that loosed the notion of a share market on the world; the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded there, to create vast wealth for the city and nation at the expense of devastation at an unbelievable scale in the colonised lands.

The writing is lively and genuinely illuminating. I came away from it having learned a lot about things I already knew a little, and a lot more about things I was ignorant of. I loved reading Erasmus at university decades ago =, for instance, but knew nothing of his troubled childhood. All I have of Spinoza is a line from a Martin Johnston poem (‘Spinoza scratched the core of light’): I’ve got a lot more now. Rembrandt has become a rounded character. The standard history of feudal, mediaeval Europe, has become much more complex in my mind now that I know how differently the Low Countries were organised. I no longer think of the boy who put his finger in the dyke as a Dutch story: it’s an individualistic US story that makes no sense to the Dutch.

And so on.

One thing that stood out for me was the story of the Social Economic Council (Sociaal-Economische Raad, or SER). This was formed in 1950, as part of the Dutch recovery from World War Two and, Shorto writes, ‘has been a feature of the Dutch landscape ever since’:

There is no equivalent of it in the American, British, or most other systems. It is a panel comprising three groups: labour leaders, industry leaders, and experts appointed by the government. On a given topic, the panellists will consult with their constituencies, then convene as a group and hash out the issue until they reach unanimous agreement on how it should be handled. Then they lay their finding before the government. Alexander Rinnooy Kan was the head of the SER from 2006 to 2012. He told me that the government almost always adopts the SER’s position because “it’s not just the position of the members of the council, but of all of their constituencies, whether employers or trade union members. That equals 80 percent of the economy.’

(page 280)

Well, ain’t that a model that allows for a degree of serious deliberation that seems to be missing from our polarised and point-scoring politics in Australia just now (and not just Australia)! Imagine if we had something like that to address issues such as global warming, offshore detention of people seeking asylum, or even an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

8 responses to “Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam

  1. The city where my wife and I in the summer of 1976 had the most fantastic Rijstafel (sp.?) meal – thanks in some senses to the VOC and the Dutch East Indies trading and colonial era; wandering through the nightlife quarter with Dutch friends later the same year – and being stopped by the water police while rowing towards a coffee shop guided by the same local friend – and not having my passport with me due to fears of dropping it into the Amstel – having been stopped because a neighbour had observed her friend’s rowboat stolen by shady characters – one of our number the daughter of said neighbour – Neighbourhood Watch in action – all amicably resolved? Visiting Anne Frank’s House several times. And yes, the great Humanist scholar Erasmus who is said to have visited the Ellsworth property of his Cambridge mate John Watson during time spent visiting Cambridge (around 1519?) a place owned by one of my cousins about 10 miles outside the university town for the past 40 years (coincidentally where it is said that the Revd Awdry wrote the first in his Thomas the Tank Engine series as WWII was drawing to a close when he was the Vicar). Thanks for the memories aroused!

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  2. Excellent review, Jonathan. And an excellent book too. Have you also read Shorto’s The Island at the Centre of the World?

    All the best, to Penny too, from the record-breaking 37-degree Amsterdam.

    Richard

    ________________________________

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  3. It is a lovely city. And they make a beautiful blend of tea:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t drunk their tea, but I have nothing but fond memories of Amsterdam. Judging by this book that’s true of Russell Shorto as well, even though he does seem to imply that his marriage ended while he was there

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