Economy? It’s the identity stupid!
(Reading time: 5 minutes)
Frank Ottenhoff
22 November 2016

The victory of Donald Trump a surprise? How to interpret his victory? Well, let’s go back to the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells in his information age triology (1997). The great polarity of this time according to him: the Self and the Net. Or to say it in another way: how to keep your own identity (Self) in the the world of the interNet (globalization). And the world of neoliberalism I would add now. ‘Soul Searching’.

Nations lost track of their soul and are looking for their identity in this world with open borders. A world in which multinationals seem to have more influence than national governments just because of these open borders and the ideology of neoliberalism. A lot of people (not only the low educated) feel themselves the victim of globalization and neoliberalism, the precariat. It seems to be a world in which only the ruling class seems to profit.

Lost identity

A few years ago I made the documentary ‘A Life in Hungary’ about the history of Hungary. While making this documentary I experienced that this country was trying to recover her soul again. In this respect it is not too difficult to explain what Viktor Orbán is doing in Hungary. In my view Hungary lost her identity in the communistic era. Hungarians were not allowed to express their own culture. This was even more severe than in the Soviet Union. And in my view a majority of Hungarians want to recover and highlight Hungary’s identity again.

The Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich (2015 Nobel Prize) writes down beautiful stories of what people in the streets of Russia are telling, experiencing and thinking. These stories tell you that after the fall of the Berlin wall Russia was a kind of Wild West, in a state of chaos. If you’ve read these stories it is easier to understand why Putin tries to make the Russians proud of themselves again. And to strengthen the Russian identity.

Cherish your soul and connect

The main character in my documentary about the history of Hungary was Klári, a 92 years old Hungarian woman with an aristocratic background. For me it was an amazing experience to discover that she during communism never lost her own soul and identity. This made her resilient and gave her the capability to survive. During all political and social ups and downs of her country in the last century she kept her identity while staying in touch with her enemies(!). A strategy diplomats know very well. She included others and always prepared nice food when you visited her. She always made you feel welcome. She was connected.

Klári never lost her own soul and identity. She was inclusive.
Picture from my documentary ‘A Life in Hungary‘ (Frank Ottenhoff).
It’s the identity stupid!

And now Trump is elected. Where does he stand for? Some basic values: men are superior to women and white people are superior to non-whites (like I am). These are the values of the white Christian evangelicals. Trump seems to exclude others. America lost her soul and seems to regress to the values of the 1950’s. Trump’s political agenda: ‘America first‘. Soul searching?

In his History of the Present Timothy Garton Ash tells stories about the former Yugoslavia. He raises the question if we can learn something from the dramatic Yugoslavian war. Maybe the single lesson is that a nation should develop her own identity first before being able to cooperate with other nations. In fact this is the same philosophy Stephen Covey expresses in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. First ‘know thyself’. Only then you will be able to synergize with others. So first know your Self before coorporating in the Net. It’s the economy? No, it’s the identity stupid!

Face the facts and understand

We should take the developments and the populists in the USA, Russia, Hungary, Poland, France, Turkey and also in the Netherlands (Wilders) very seriously. I am not a fan of mister Trump but it is a challenge to first face the facts and understand what is happening before judging.

Understanding can prevent aggression, at least this is the advice of Susan Neiman and what the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum told in the lecture I attended a few years ago in Amsterdam. And she will be in the Netherlands again on December 12 to give a lecture on Anger and Forgiveness. An interesting theme in this time in which anger seems to prevail. Keep the conversation going with your opponents.

‘Both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’

Are there other ways to balance the Self and the Net? To withdraw ourselves behind our walls will not be the solution. Do we see opportunities to act ‘both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’? Will we be able to solve the nowadays paradoxes like combining Self respect and the cooperation in the Net? By keeping our identity ánd be inclusive like Klári did?

Globalisation and neo-liberalism diminished the Dutch welfare state. An example of a solution to combine national welfare (Self) and acting across borders (Net) is the introduction of a basic income. It will provide us with a safety net in this volatile world (Rutger Bregman in his Utopia for Realists). It gives the stability to be flexible in the labor market.

What to do to develop a balanced society (and prevent war)?  We should acknowledge that people need an identity. And an own identity means borders (Paul Scheffer). And borders are partially exclusive. But we also should keep the dialogue and cooperation across borders. And that’s inclusion. ‘Both/and’ instead of ‘either/or’. The border as a semipermeable membrane. 

‘Both/and’ also means finding a balance between emotions (post modern) and ratio (modern), between stability (e.g. basic income to prevent a precariat) and flexibility (to profit form each other because the world trade is no zero sum game). Facing the future means solving paradoxes (the art of paradoxical life by Ivo Brughmans).


Maybe there is some hope. In one way or the other Trump means change and that might be better then stability (Zizek). And probably he will deal with Putin in a less moral and more pragmatic way which will make our world a bit saver. I hope the result will be a good balance between the Self and the Net.

Stay in touch
Within a few days I will meet an good Hungarian friend of mine. He supports Viktor Orbán, the current Prime Minister of Hungary. My friend made me understand the developments in his country. We don’t always agree on political issues but he as an Hungarian and me as an Indo are great friends. Let’s stay in touch. Egészségedre!
To change the way of working of organizations, teams and individuals. That’s what I am doing together with my colleagues of WoW-consult. Info: I am also a filmmaker and I made a documentary about Hungary.