The roots of populism

Neoliberalism and working-class lives

Brian Elliott
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How are we to understand the recent rise of populism in Britain and beyond? In this book, philosopher Brian Elliott traces the roots of contemporary populism back to the waves of intensified globalization and deindustrialization that began in the 1970s and early 1980s. This period of our political history witnessed a radical transformation of democratic party politics, where the potential for organized labour to influence high-level politics was diminished. The Reagan–Thatcher era brought about a neoliberal reconfiguration of the democratic state that weakened or destroyed traditional sources of working-class social and cultural capital. In the UK, the Labour Party was transformed through a ‘Third Way’ agenda under the leadership of Tony Blair. The long-term consequence of this has been an inexorable undermining of working-class support for the party and a notable drift towards Conservative-led anti-European Union sentiment. Populism, in the UK and elsewhere, should not simply be attributed to increasing nationalism, nativism and xenophobia among the working-class electorate. It also gives voice to a desire to make the political class more directly accountable to the people it is meant to serve. At the same time, the populist wave is a reaction to a decades-long denigration of working-class lives and culture. Charting seminal episodes in the rise of the British working class in light of recent sociological and political analyses of the nature of work, the analysis offered in this book grants to contemporary populism a deeper and more coherent meaning.

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