Andrew Urie | 8 April 2021
Nadav Eyal’s book Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization (2021) is a hefty tome that provides a kaleidoscopic, information-packed journalistic analysis of the international backlash against neoliberal globalization that has surged in recent years. An Israeli journalist with a Left-progressive background, Eyal demonstrates his key strength via his ability to eschew monocausal explanations in favour of appreciating the complex international array of dilemmas, inequalities, and struggles now disrupting the Washington Consensus-style neoliberal globalization policies that began to develop during the early 1980s. This is not a book that one turns to for specific proposals to the problems that it outlines, but for those looking for an evidence-based “on the ground” account of the multifarious dilemmas now disrupting and dividing our international society, this is a book beyond compare.
Recounting his time spent pursuing a Master’s degree in Global Politics at the London School of Economics around 2007-2008, Eyal, a lawyer by training, alludes to what differentiated him from many of his classmates. Having then already worked as a journalist, Eyal emphasizes his propensity for breadth rather than specialization, noting, “I was less expert than my classmates about matters like international trade policy or foreign direct investment” (23). As events would turn out, this would be a blessing in disguise given that the financial crash of 2008 would take many economists, political scientists, policy wonks, and international relations “experts” by complete surprise. As Eyal notes, the crash “was one of those instances in which our textbooks became obsolete as we read them, their theories proven invalid as soon as they were put to the test” (24): “As the crisis smashed models and refuted the pronouncements of pundits, we were forced to question what we thought was certain” (24).
While the 2008 crash was the essential death blow that confirmed the rot at the core of neoliberal globalization and kicked populist crusades against it into formation with progressive movements like Occupy and reactionary movements like the US Tea Party, Eyal dates widespread discontent with neoliberal globalization back to the horrific events of 9/11: “We are living in the initial aftermath of 9/11. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on American soil were an act of war by fundamentalists against the universal vision that the US represented” (13). In pointing this out, however, Eyal, as a Left-progressive Israeli, is not interested in uncritically championing American global hegemony or upholding Samuel P. Huntington-style “clash of civilizations” arguments.
As Eyal views matters, neoliberal globalization is a radically inequitable system that has created all sorts of economic, cultural-political, and sociotechnological divisions throughout the world, thereby drawing a rough divide between those who hold continued hope for international collaboration and progress and those who now reject such notions outright:
The energy of the revolt against globalization is being harnessed by old and new opponents of progress. Their ambition is not to address the grievances stemming from an unsustainable global system, but only to use them as a decoy. Populist-racist politicians, anti-science charlatans, Bakuninite anarchists, fundamentalists, virtual communities on social networks, totalitarian ideologues, neo-Luddites, and the votaries of conspiracy theories – they are all on the march. (15)
Thus, as Eyal cautions, 9/11 was the beginning of our current global predicament, which is not determined by clashes between religions but rather between ideas and values with regard to whether globalization, in its present neoliberal form, is a boon or a nightmare: “On one side are those who believe that the world is moving slowly toward cultural and political integration, and on the other are those for whom such a prospect is a nightmare, and who are willing to fight to ensure that it never happens” (13).
Revolt’s greatest strength and greatest weakness alike resides in its somewhat impressionistic, vignette-style structure, which sees Eyal engage in assorted meditations on his travels throughout the world, which have brought him into contact with a diverse array of people that include earnest Trump-supporting Pennsylvania coal miners, Greek anarchists, German neo-Nazis, and Syrian refugees on the move from Greece to Germany. Similar to Steven Pinker, author of the recent international bestseller Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), Eyal is a man who values evidence, and he marshals considerable data points throughout his book to justify his coverage of various events. Unlike Pinker, however, he is much more willing to acknowledge the limitations of absolute faith in grand Enlightenment notions or, cue Jean-Francois Lyotard, “metanarratives” of capital-P “Progress,” for as he stresses, he is by no means advocating a “deterministic notion of the linear improvement of human societies” (414). The end result is a book that brilliantly outlines the complex array of problems that the geopolitical community now faces, albeit in a somewhat random fashion that never concludes with a specific set of proposals to build a more just international society.
Citing the data supporting contemporary globalization, Eyal points to how people have been lifted out of abject poverty in former so-called “Third World” nations with global child mortality rates declining and global literacy rates soaring (12). Nonetheless, despite these commendable gains, globalization, while undeniably bringing employment opportunities to former “Third World” nations and enriching the lives of many people there, has had a different effect in Western nations. Here, neoliberal economic policies have benefited the wealthy and the professional upper-middle-classes at the general expense of the middle and lower-middle classes, who have experienced wage stagnation and increasing precarity for roughly the past forty years. Factor into this matter the decades of bad Western foreign policy in the Middle East that have produced immense cultural-political rifts, wars, and a recent migrant crisis, and you have the recipe for a perfect storm. In particular, we have tormented migrants fleeing to Western nations in search of a better life, only to be viewed with hostility by many working-class Western residents, often themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants, who cast their cultural xenophobia and economic anxieties about wage reduction and increased competition for jobs onto these desperate newcomers.
Troublingly, the grim reality is that some of these lower-tier Western workers are not entirely wrong with respect to their economic fears when it comes to the short-term, for as Eyal demonstrates, “there are indeed studies that show that an expansion of the labour force pushes down wages among workers who lack anything other than basic skills” (300). This latter issue is, of course, not just pertinent to displaced Middle Eastern migrants but also to the Mexican border issue, which Trump campaigned against in his reactionary, rhetoric-fuelled faux-populist rants. These matters have fueled reactionary movements like Brexit and Trumpism, which have sought solutions by regressively attempting to “wind back the clock” by returning to a mythologized past rather than acknowledging geopolitical complexity and boldly seeking a new politics suitable to the times. Tragically, the desperate migrants and immigrants and the anxious Western workers are themselves all victims here, who have been, albeit in differing ways, abused by the effects of neoliberal globalization, which America in particular shares considerable responsibility for fomenting and globally promulgating.
Added to all of these factors is, of course, the following key issue that few people, whether they be politicians, policy wonks, or average citizens, seem willing to directly acknowledge or confront: The current system of neoliberal globalization is unsustainable in the long term. This has nothing to do with misinformed concerns about international overpopulation, which, Africa aside, Eyal demonstrates are based on complete misinformation given that the world will soon actually be facing an underpopulation crisis that will stem from declining birth rates emanating from socioeconomic duress: “While since 1914 the human population has grown by about 6 billion, the trend will break by the end of the current century” (242). No, this is because the very socioeconomic infrastructure of neoliberal globalization is based upon severe environmental degradation. As Eyal notes, “Glaciers are melting, species are going extinct, coral reefs are bleaching, sea level is rising, desertification is advancing. Half of the world’s topsoil has disappeared in the past 150 years as a result of modern farming methods; we grow 95 percent of the world’s food on what remains” (424).
If there is a discernible problem in Eyal’s overall delineation of the events he chronicles, it emanates from his conflicted discussions of populism and nationalism. With respect to the former, Eyal essentially labels populism as a negative force and fails to convey how it can assume both progressive (e.g., Bernie Sanders) and reactionary (e.g., Donald Trump and Brexit) hues. With respect to nationalism, he clearly struggles somewhat by generally depicting it as a negative ideology while, paradoxically enough, also being a staunch critic of contemporary globalization. It is here that I think that Eyal, in this otherwise brilliant book, gets somewhat lost.
With respect to the rising populist energies of various hues throughout the world, I would argue that they actually herald a potential cure for the present disease of neoliberal globalization. My caveat, of course, would be to point out that these energies must be directly addressed by activists, politicians, policymakers, academics, and concerned journalists, who share the collective responsibility for separating progressive populist desires from reactionary populist appeals that are based on misinformation, hate, and fear-mongering (Urie). Ironically enough, Eyal gestures towards this in the following passage, though he never seems to realize that what he is actually acknowledging here is the strength that can be gained from channeling populist energies towards progressive aims:
The challenge is clear then. It means not only finding new and imaginative ways to reform a globalized world but also nourishing the motivation to do so. It means harnessing the energy of revolt and directing it toward reform. The liberal order and the globalization to which it gave birth need a new narrative that is realistic and that is not afraid to refashion the mainstream in a radical way. (437)
Indeed, if rising populism throughout the world conveys anything, it is that the current reigning system of neoliberal globalization is deeply corrupt and unsustainable.
This, then, takes us to the vexed tension between nationalism and globalization, which Eyal comes closest to addressing in the following passage: “The claim that patriotism is irreconcilable with universal interests presents a manifestly false dichotomy. The international community must provide the means for nations to survive and flourish in a complex globalized world and avoid becoming failed states” (437). Clearly, there can be such a thing as “positive nationalism,” provided it is of an inclusive, multicultural, cosmopolitan variety as exemplified by the recent history of the Canadian nation-state, which – acknowledged warts and all – has largely managed to avoid the insidious scourge of reactionary populist nationalism that has plagued America and other nations throughout the international community in recent years.
With this in mind, it seems that what Eyal is actually advocating for without fully articulating is a reinvented system of internationalism appropriate to the twenty-first century, which would provide nation-states with the flexibility to mediate between local-national concerns and larger international imperatives via “glocalistic” initiatives. The ostensible goal here would be to design a new international system, ideally via a socialistic global green New Deal backed by America and other empowered nations, which would seek to end foreign wars and conflicts, rebuild failed states, and allow for all participating nations to collaborate in international affairs while glocally maintaining a reasonable degree of autonomy and choice when it comes to pursuing their domestic affairs. This, it seems to me, is what Eyal actually desires, even though he never quite comes out and formally articulates it.
To borrow from Matthew Arnold’s poem “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse” (1855), we are currently “Wandering between two worlds, one dead / The other powerless to be born.” As Eyal eloquently writes in his concluding lines to Revolt, “The aim is not to preserve the home that the previous age built but to replace it with a better, more viable one. It’s on us” (440). If Eyal never quite defines what this world will look like, how it will function, and – most importantly of all – how we might get there as an international society, this is a minor issue with what is an otherwise exemplary book, which is surely one of the finest explorations of the confirmed failure of neoliberal globalization that I have read in the past decade.
Andrew Urie is an independent interdisciplinary scholar and writer who recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University (Canada). His dissertation,Turning Japanese: Japanization Anxiety, Japan-Bashing, and Reactionary White American Heteropatriarchy in Reagan-Bush Era Hollywood Cinema, was nominated for York's Best Dissertation Prize. He specializes in American Studies and British Cultural Studies, and he has published in Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy; Fast Capitalism; Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 1900 to Present; PopMatters; The Bluffs Monitor; Pop Culture and Theology; the quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north; American Studies Blog; Athabasca University's Canadian Writers site; Popula; Journal of Contemporary Drama in English; London School of Economics Blog; American Studies Journal (forthcoming); and U.S. Studies Online (forthcoming).
Works Cited and Consulted
Arnold, Matthew. “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse.” 1835. Web. Poetry Foundation.
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Eyal, Nadav. Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization. Trans. Haim
Watzman. New York: HarperCollins, 2021. Print.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.
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Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans.
Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minnesota Press: University of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and
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Urie, Andrew. “Review Essay: The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism by
Thomas Frank.” London School of Economics Blogs. 2021. Web. 24 Mar. 2021.