Progressive responses to populism: A Polanyian critique of liberal discourse

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This article explores the recent rise of populist politics from the perspective of Karl Polanyi's theory of the ‘double movement’. It firstly introduces Polanyi's understanding of interwar populism, and relates this to his broader critique of liberal economic thought. This framework is then used to analyse three prominent explanations for populism which emerged in the wake of the UK's 2016 EU referendum: globalisation; cultural reaction; and social media. I show how each of these explanations exogenise s contemporary populist movements, narrating them as something external to the liberal economic restructuring pursued globally since the 1980s. Failing to diagnose adequately the causes of contemporary populist movements, which lie in this utopian attempt to treat labour as a commodity, they cannot support an intellectually coherent progressive response to Brexit. Finally, I outline a political agenda centred on labour de‐commodification, which could directly address populist grievances and reclaim the discourse of ‘taking back control’ for the left.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)570-578
Number of pages9
JournalPolitical Quarterly
Issue number4
Early online date13 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2017


  • populism
  • Brexit
  • commodification
  • labour
  • Karl Polanyi


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