How Neoliberalism Gave Us Brexit and Trump

Revenge of the Rich: The Neoliberal Revolution in Britain and New Zealand

by Austin Mitchell

Canterbury University Press (2017)

Book Review

Revenge of the Rich, by British economist Austin Mitchell, describes how the neoliberal revolutions of Margaret Thatcher and New Zealand finance minister Roger Douglas virtually gutted the economies of the UK and New Zealand. The result has been years of declining or negative growth rates, virtual destruction of manufacturing, massive job loss, wage stagnation and higher deficits and overseas borrowing.*

As an article of faith, neoliberals maintain that mass layoffs of public service workers will reduce government deficits. The reality, as Mitchell ably demonstrates, is the exact opposite. When you lay off 400,000 public servants (as David Cameron did between 2010 and 2016), they quit paying taxes and increase government costs by claiming unemployment and other benefits.

Britain’s EU Membership: Setting the Stage

According to Mitchell, Britain’s decision to join the EU in 1973 set the stage for the neoliberal revolution that subsequently occurred in both countries. EU membership forced Britain to end their special trading relationship with New Zealand (an other Commonwealth countries), resulting in significant economic decline in both countries. Neoliberal trade liberalization was meant to stem these losses. Instead the loss of tariff and other import protections quickly destroyed manufacturing in both countries.

New Zealand, which was fortunate in having agricultural exports to fall back on, succeeded in developing alternative trade relationships with Australia, China and other Asian countries. Nonetheless, thanks to their 1980s neoliberal experiment, New Zealand has one of the highest levels of foreign ownership (of land, homes and companies) in the developed world. It also has the highest house prices, the second highest prison population and extremely high child poverty levels (1/3 of Kiwi children grow up in poverty). Meanwhile it’s failure to provide jobs for young adults means a sizeable proportion leave New Zealand permanently for other developed countries.

Brexit and Trump: The People Rebel

Mitchell describes the rise of left and right wing extremist groups in Europe, the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as a direct popular reaction to the immense human misery caused by neoliberal policies. In New Zealand the 1996 citizens referendum adopting proportional representation was a direct reaction against both major parties (Labour and National) advancing neoliberal policies.

At this point, the traditionally pro-corporate International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have both come out against austerity and similar “deflationary” neoliberal policies. Instead they argue strongly for increased stimulus (public) spending to stabilize the world’s developed economies.


*Similar effects under American neoliberals Reagan, Bush Sr and Jr, Clinton and Obama inflicted similar damage on the US.

In New Zealand We Call It Rogernomics

roger douglasRoger Douglas, from Wikimedia

(The 7th of 8 posts about my new life in New Zealand)

In brief, the policies introduced by Minister of Finance Sir Roger Douglas in the 1980s included the rapid elimination of import tariffs that protected New Zealand farmers and manufacturers; rapid privatization of state owned industries (most ended up under foreign ownership);  stringent anti-union legislation; and substantial cuts in social welfare benefits. With the abolition of import controls, New Zealand companies struggled to compete against cheap imported goods from Asia. This resulted in multiple plant closures, massive layoffs and more than a decade of unrelenting hardship for communities that relied on these industries.

The 1984 reforms also resulted in seven years of continuous economic stagnation, during which the New Zealand economy shrank by 1% in contrast with an average 20% growth in other OECD countries.

The Mass Exodus of Generations X and Y

The most enduring harm stemming from the 1984 reforms is the staggering loss of human capital that continues to this day. At present approximately one million Kiwis – representing one quarter New Zealand’s current population of four million – live overseas.

As I wrote previously, the massive sell-off of both state-owned and private companies to foreign owners has translated into a chronic accounts deficit (negative balance of trade), as profits and dividends disappear overseas. To compensate for this steady loss of wealth, New Zealand, under pressure to increase exports, entered into “free trade” treaties that forced them to reduce tariffs and quotas even more. This led to the shut down of even more factories, which had no hope of competing with overseas companies that paid sweat shop wages to third world workers.

The Student Loan Debacle

In my view, the most damaging neoliberal reform of the 1980s was the decision to replace government subsidized tertiary education (which until recently was standard in most European countries) with a student loan scheme. While lumbering young people with student loan debt can prove problematic for large, broad-based economies like US and Britain, the policy has proved absolutely disastrous for New Zealand. Repaying a student loan is extremely difficult on the low salaries Kiwi professionals earn. Thus a third or more of new college graduates to emigrate. In my view, this continual hemorrhage of human capital is a major reason New Zealand remains near the bottom of OECD countries for economic growth, productivity and salaries.

At present approximately one-third of medical students leave New Zealand following graduation. Many really have no choice, strapped with giant student loan repayments while simultaneously looking to buy a home and start a family. Their only hope of managing this massive financial stress is to seek work in Australia or the UK, where they can command a 20-30% higher salary than here in New Zealand. And once they buy a home and their kids start school, they very rarely return.

A recent study estimated 37% of new NZ teachers leave New Zealand schools within the first three years. In addition to doctors and teachers, New Zealand also loses a large proportion of the nurses, physiotherapists, social workers, audiologists and other health professionals they train – as well as engineers, urban planners and veterinarians, who are also on New Zealand Immigration’s critical skills shortage list.

New Zealand’s Neoliberal Transportation Policy

Other really destructive neoliberal policies New Zealand enacted in the eighties and nineties relate to public transportation: 1) the privatization of New Zealand railways (leading to the immediate shutdown of all but four routes) and 2) the dismantling of local public transportation systems. Both have resulted in extreme reliance on private automobiles and foreign oil, the second biggest culprit in our accounts deficit.

New Zealand, which still has a predominantly rural population (only 1/3 of Kiwis live in major cities), has also been extremely slow in implementing rational growth management strategies. For all these reasons, it holds the embarrassing honor of the highest rate of car ownership in the world.