How neoliberalism and globalization created the populist revolt in the West

Summary: Here is an excerpt from one of the most powerful explanations I have seen for the role neoliberalism and globalization as drivers of populism in the West. Our political future cannot be seen without understanding this. {First of two articles today.}

Map of global neoliberalism

Here is one of the most illuminating essays I have read in a long time. It links the rise of populism — so inexplicable to liberals — to the ideology of neoliberalism that has unleashed giant multinational corporations, allowing them to grow without restraint and gain power by playing nation against nation and worker against worker. It is long but worthwhile reading. Here is the conclusion. Read the full essay!

Conclusion to “Somerdale to Skarbimierz

By James Meek in the London Review of Books, 20 April 2017.

“True, the optimistic version of the story goes, the EU was wrong to allow Poland to offer Cadbury a subsidy to move {its factory from Britain}. But in the long run, in Europe as a whole, everyone benefits. Eastern Europe gets richer and catches up with Western Europe; instead of 400 million people working and shopping and 100 million people working and queuing, you have 500 million people working and shopping. A bigger market, greater prosperity for all, a peaceful commonwealth, warplanes into chocolate.

“The chief of the many flaws in this version is that at both ends of the Somerdale-Skarbimierz journey, the new jobs are worse than the old Somerdale ones. Even supposing all the redundant Somerdale workers, and their children, found similar low-skilled jobs, they would never be as well-paid as they were at Somerdale, and, crucially, wouldn’t have the same generous final salary pensions.

“Some of the Somerdale workers’ children, no doubt, will enter the higher-wage higher-skill world of the professional tech class, but the flipside of Matt Cross’s optimism is that those jobs will be few, and the zero-hours army many. The outflow of old-style manufacturing jobs, with good pay, conditions and pensions, couldn’t be matched by any foreseeable inflow. ‘People at the lower end of the workforce,’ Cross said, ‘start to lose their engagement in the workforce and the jobs they can get are very temporary jobs, minimum wage jobs, the Sports Direct-type model.’

The lifestyle you want is out of stock

“‘They weren’t our jobs,’ Silsbury told me, explaining why, in spite of the good redundancy offer, he’d been ready to fight for Somerdale. ‘We were just the keepers of those jobs. We needed to hand them down to our children and our children’s children.’ Nicholls said he’d been able to retire at 57 and live comfortably, without working, on his Cadbury’s pension. He has a caravan in Dorset; he goes fishing; he visits National Trust properties.

“Shareholder capitalism’s race to the bottom means that the generations of non-graduates who come after him – ‘there’s nothing wrong with someone who hasn’t got the ability to be a thinker’ – face precarious decades of low-wage warehouse work, followed by poverty on the state pension. Nicholls started out as a trainee chef; now his son is one. But his son is 32. He earns just above the minimum wage and has no Cadbury’s to move to. Nicholls’s daughter works for the RSPCA. ‘She’ll never get a big pension, so that’s where she’ll lose out. She’ll always be like she is now, just managing.’

Thatcher says There is No Alternative for you
Thatcher: “There is no alternative ” to neoliberalism.

“‘What we had, if you stuck with it, you saw an end game. Now there’s no end game. You keep your head above water but the rewards, at the end, don’t come through. Once Thatcher started her game and sold off our houses, our kids are in private rented property, and that seems to go up every year, and wages don’t. It’s going to be a just-managing society. In our generation, the state pension is like a top-up. We are going to have a generation going back to living on the state pension, like the 1930s and 1940s. Do we really want to go back there?’

“At Mondelez in Skarbimierz, where casualisation, cost-cutting and fears of being undercut by cheaper labour elsewhere prevail, the target the workers are theoretically aiming for, economic parity with Western Europe, is disappearing from view. The equilibrium, in other words, when the Poles catch up with the Britons, will see a European economy that is, overall, much bigger, but where working-class Britons will have fallen back, and working-class Poles will never enjoy the security and prosperity of their vanished British counterparts in what now seems a mid-20th-century golden age.”

——————- Read the full article at the London Review of Books——————-


Neoliberalism unleashed multinational corporations. The result for most people in the West has been stagnation of incomes and decreased hope of better lives for the young. Meek tells that not in the fashionable abstract clinical fashion of Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein, so beloved by the upper class professionals — but as a ground-level view of a specific town, of specific people. As tales of people do, it winds back and forth to the conclusions described above.

Liberal and Left parties ignore such stories at their peril, risking loss of the working class to the Right.

James Meek

About the author

James Meek was born in London, grew up in Scotland, in the 1990s lived in Russia and Ukraine (becoming The Guardian’s Moscow bureau chief), and since 1999 lives in London. In 2003 Meeks  followed the invading American armies to Baghdad. He was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year in 2004 in Britain’s Press Awards for his reporting on Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. In 2015

He published his first short stories while a student at Edinburgh University in the 1980s. He has written many novels including McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), Last Orders (1992), Drivetime (1995), The Museum Of Doubt (2000), The People’s Act of Love (2005), We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008), The Heart Broke In (2012), and Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else (2014 — winner of the Orwell Prize in 2015).

For more information see his full bio here and his Wikipedia entry. See his website, his articles at The Guardian, and his articles and reviews at the London Review of Books.

I recommend adding the LRB to your reading list!

London Review of Books
Available at Amazon.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about populism, about neoliberalism, about globalization, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these…

  1. Globalization and free trade: wonders of a past era, now enemies of America?
  2. Why the Left is missing the rising populist movement.
  3. Liberals look at Trump and populism, but see only their prejudices.
  4. Populism arises amidst workers abandoned by the Left, seeking allies.
  5. A Harvard Professor explains the populist revolt against immigration & globalization.
  6. Before Trump, top economist Joseph Stiglitz warned about globalization.
  7. An anthropologist reminds us why Trump rose & how populism will survive his crash.
  8. Populism is reshaping the West. Here’s what we can expect to get.

Books about the people vs. neoliberalism and globalization.

"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.
A Brief History of Neoliberalism
Available at Amazon.

12 thoughts on “How neoliberalism and globalization created the populist revolt in the West”

  1. In Chile, the world’s first neo-liberalism laboratory (thanks to Pinochet) we surely know about this. First it was the student’s revolt in 2006 and 2011 and now people are protesting against the pension system, which is awful. But frankly, and this is what I wanted to ask you, how can this be changed? The system took root in almost every corner of the world, it seems so powerful and vast that it looks impossible to beat. Which is depressing, specially for my generation (almost 30) as we start thinking about having kids and how their future will be

    1. Particularly heinous is the connection of virtue to income/job, so that for many people trying to explore any other alternative system leaves them at risk of being a “bad” person in the eyes of others. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, within neoliberalism a person has to risk belonging/esteem (not being a “low class” person) to pursue the self-actualization (the next step up) which might allow them to change things they don’t like about the system.

      This tension creates an engine for exploitation since due to the system you never get the self-actualization that “higher” class folks do, and you blame yourself for not getting it, and there is no way to escape the rat trap without denouncing it altogether, which leaves you struggling on an even lower rung of the ladder (security).

      Since neoliberalism has progressively sapped the security rung for profit over the last 30-40 years, that risk/reward payoff has gotten less and less risky, hence the global cry of inchoate rage over the last two or three years. They’re mad as hell and operating off pure instinct since the complexity of the situation is beyond most lucidity.

      1. Observer,

        “Particularly heinous is the connection of virtue to income/job,”

        OK, that’s an aspect of Western thinking (bourgeois morality) that I agree with. Otherwise the system becomes clogged with parasites.

        Perhaps this will not become a problem in the future, when robots take over most production and produce an adequate basic income for all. We’re not there now.

    2. Fran,

      You go to the heart of the question. Diagnosis is useless without prescription. The cure for governance problems is simple, but always difficult. We the people have the responsibility to govern ourselves. We have the power to do so if we stand together and act with even a small degree of wisdom. Separate we are weak, vulnerable to the many predators who seek to exploit us.

      This is nature. We are no different in this respect than a single buffalo or horse on the great plains.

      Developing solutions — ways to mobilize and unify a people — has been one of the great tasks of history, and a great many methods have been found. See some suggestions here: Reforming America: steps to new politics.

    3. Pardon, my emotional biases are showing, I really should have said something like “the sole source of virtue” being related to having income or a job, and I should have better defined “income or a job” more specifically as “white collar service-industry job”. I had the thought today that modern identity focused neoliberals are not too far removed from many 3rd Great Awakening progressives in that way, with the pursuit of virtue and piety being an end in and of itself and a method of class identification. “Hard work”, like an Irish famine road (or an unpaid internship, or suborning oneself to whatever unregulated app du jour), or posturing the right set of fashionable beliefs (far removed from the many actual, legitimate sources of minority grievances) being necessary to justify charity or sympathy.

      1. Observer,

        “the sole source of virtue” being related to having income or a job, and I should have better defined “income or a job” more specifically as “white collar service-industry job”. ”

        Now I agree with you 100%. These beliefs are deeply embedded in Western thought. Money = virtue goes back (at least) to the Old Testament, where personal wealth shows God’s favor. Needless to say, this belief has often been popular among the prosperous.

        The superior virtue of those that work with their minds rather than their hands goes back (at least) to Greece (and later, Rome). Manual labor was for the low, esp slaves. Despising the peons is almost a constant in history. It’s often the basis for the elites’ despising populism (why should peons think for themselves, rather than listen to and obey their betters?).

        Our past lives with us, through us.

  2. Thanks. I think my biggest hope actually lies in history: we threw Pinochet out of power by democratic means, which at the time looked impossible. It took 15 years of underground grassroots movements, political parties rearranging and lots of protests (for an entertaining look into the 88′ plebiscite, I recommend watching the movie “No” by Pablo Larraín).
    But unlike that case, and unlike 1988, this time the change must be global; the unrest we have here in Chile looks very similar to what’s happening all around the Western world. What you propose must be done world-wide, a huge task. If in America looks difficult, imagine the whole world!

    As you say, the system wants us to be separated, to suspect of our neighbor, our co-worker, the people next to us in the subway. It wants to destroy the sense of community. In my country, that was done not only by installing neo-liberalism, but first with the dictatorship itself, which destroyed communities in the most literal of senses, and ripped apart the social structure that – although simple and provincial, was rooted in communities – existed until 1973. Neo-liberalism finished the job after the dictatorship ended.
    I do have hope that my generation – at least what I see here – has started to notice that the problem lies in the system itself, rather than in external forces (like immigration, which we do have a lot of from other Latin American countries). I do hope what I see here translates to other people in my age group around the Western world.

    For example, the student’s revolt of 2011 started like that, a special interest group, but quickly developed into huge protests against the system itself, against privatization, against neo-liberalism. What came after that were several young congressmen, young mayors, and most importantly, a new political party that is actually challenging the establishment. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, something DID result from these protests.

    The problem is, as it is elsewhere, that the majority of people won’t vote, because they don’t trust the system anymore. They think that voting is a way to validate it! With large abstention, the traditional Right has the road paved to win the elections again this year, with the same president that 5 years ago proved to be completely unfit for the task, and actually used the position to become even richer.

    So I get it. We need to create communities again, we need to recruit people, to create new political parties, etc. But it looks like a long, long road if we can’t convince people that the fight is worth fighting, that we need to be a true society again and not a group of individuals that only care for themselves and their families, and sod the rest.

  3. Now Main Street’s whitewashed windows and vacant stores/
    Seems like there ain’t nobody wants to come down here no more/
    They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks/
    Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back/
    To your hometown.

    -Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA (1984)

    1. Bill,

      Thanks for posting that reminder “The Boss” that we are locked into a long game, running for decades, to reshape America. With no end yet in sight, let alone a happy ending.

      But America is ours to hold or lose. It is our responsibility. It is all about our choices.

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