GaWC Research Bulletin 461

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This Research Bulletin has been published in L’Espace Politique [Online], 32 | 2017-2.


Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper


The New Political Geography of Corporate Globalization

P.J. Taylor*


Rokkan’s electoral mobilization and cleavage model of class-based politics within countries is being undermined by contemporary globalization. A new geography of planetary urbanization has developed in which the key spatial dimension is degrees of metropolitanization between cities. This is illustrated using the results of the UK referendum on EU membership. It is shown that across the UK, irrespective of the level of support to stay, the larger and more central cities within the regions and nations of the country have higher support vote percentages than their lesser city neighbours. The conclusion is that in the aftermath of the failure of ‘trickle-down economics’, there is now a similar breakdown of ‘trickle down politics’.


Introduction: planetary urbanization as the landscape of corporate globalization

Electorally, 2016 will be remembered as a year of immense change, a time of multiply surprises in quite different contexts that appear, nonetheless, to be linked. The UK referendum and the US presidential election are the two stand out cases of this political disruption which appears to be about successful mobilization of the politically disaffected, sometimes described as being ‘left behind’. The purpose of this essay is to provide a political geography interpretation to use as a device for exploring further electoral changes that lay ahead.

Before I begin this task it is necessary to understand what are the electoral politics that are being disrupted. I will use Stein Rokkan’s (1970) model of political cleavages and mobilizations; this focused upon European party systems but can be loosely extended to other countries and regions (Taylor and Johnston 1979). Two dimensions of political conflict are identified, core-periphery differences generating identity politics and a functional dimension generating class politics. The ‘generating’ is the political practice of mobilizing support by parties claiming to represent identities and classes. Political party systems vary across counties because these two dimensions interact in different ways historically, but the basic pattern consists of a right-left class politics with vestiges of identity politics often accommodated in the centre. This was how electoral politics operated in the second half of the twentieth century, and it produced predictable electoral geographies from country to country (Taylor and Johnston 1979). This is the electoral process that appears to be unraveling in 2016.

To seriously disrupt a politics that has been a hundred years in the making suggests the influence of changes far broader than electoral process per se.  I introduce two key global processes that I propose as undergirding the current electoral disruption. First and foremost the twenty first century has seen the eruption of an accentuated globalization that I call corporate globalization. This is generally termed ‘neo-liberal’ globalization based upon the state policies that have enabled its growth but I think it is time to call it by where the power shift lies: the rise of myriad large corporations across all regions of the world. Corporate power has combined with states (for instance by funding candidates and parties, including ‘state capture’ in poorer countries) and has even transcended state power as signaled by the World Trade Organization and subsequent trade deals as a sort of Declaration of Corporate Rights to supersede the old-fashioned Declaration of Human Rights. Corporations have become insidious across all aspects of life, their deployment of ‘big data’ means they have moved beyond Braudel’s (1982)  ‘capitalist’ and ‘commerce’ levels of human activity to penetrate his ‘structures of everyday life’ (Taylor 2017). This is an historically unprecedented level of power whose consequences are perforce unknown.

But we can glimpse the geography of corporate globalization; it is planetary urbanization (Brenner 2014). This second key global process consists of the pervasiveness of urban demand worldwide so that all the Earth’s environment is being reproduced as ‘urbanized space’. This ranges beyond the usual ‘urban’ to the Pacific Ocean’s seascapes of plastic waste and the stratosphere’s clutter of space debris plus, more generally, anthropogenic climate change (Taylor, 2016; Taylor et al 2017). In this argument there is no ‘rural’ in opposition to ‘urban’, we are all urban now in one integrated web. This relates to Rokkan’s model in that in his core-periphery dimension the rural featured prominently in the periphery category and in political mobilizations. In addition planetary globalization also challenges Sassen’s (1991) global city concept, its use by Castells (1996) in his global network society, and its extension into a world city network (Taylor (2004). These studies pick up the worldwide economic centralization that accompanies corporate globalization but keep the urban process, either place or flow, unexamined as a mechanism of unquenchable urban demand. Corporations are quintessentially creatures of cities, their job is to satisfy and build human consumption, collectively using every part of the world. In doing this work they use the global urban space in very many different and divergent ways.

In this essay I will focus on the centralizing tendency in planetary urbanization as captured by the concept of metropolitan implying a superior realm of urban. I have chosen this terminology partly because of a fruitful historical analogy: ‘metropolitan’ in the medieval European world indicated the pinnacle of religious power, in the modern global world it indicates the pinnacle of corporate power. But I will not be focusing on place by identifying ‘metropolitan cities’ (aka global cities?) because urbanization does not work in this bounded way. To be sure cities as administrative areas are bounded but this is but the tip of a huge urban iceberg: the authority of mayors ends at the ‘city boundary’ but the power of cities is planetary. I follow Jacobs (1969) and Castells (1996) in treating cities as ‘process’; they are constituted by myriad activities generating multiple progressions that are agglomeration and connectivity. I call this city-ness; it is what makes urbanization so powerful. In this argument, the concept of metropolitan is not a euphemism for ‘leading cities’ but rather a part of city-ness, to be found in varying degrees across different cities. This is to treat a specific process of metropolitanization rather than seek out places as metropolises. This is important because major corporations, especially banks, may often be associated with the leading ‘global cities’ but their power is much, much more pervasive as planetary urbanization.

Preliminaries out of the way, the essay consists of two main parts. In the next section I provide a framework of the dynamics of electoral politics using a little noticed Jacobs (1969) intervention into understanding politics through cities. This is followed by an application of these ideas to the UK’s EU referendum. In many ways this voting exercise is an ideal case study for two related reasons: (i) by its very nature it is a ballot in which political parties do not appear; but (ii) all the main parliamentary parties recommended voting the same way. In other words, it could be framed as a perfect invitation to create a political disruption - to vote against all the mainstream political parties with just one cross! In short concluding comments the wider implications of the case study findings are discussed.

The dynamics of electoral politics

Political change in the Rokkan model of party systems is treated through mobilization of support that produces a relatively smooth development to variegated outcomes centred on class politics. Here I add another dimension of change based upon a materialist reality of capitalism that cuts across class differences.

One thing both critics and supporters of capitalism agree upon is its innate dynamism. The most well-known expression of this feature is Schumpeter’s concept of ‘creative destruction’, the obverse of the traditional aristocratic ‘stewardship’.  Such necessary destruction derives from the cyclical nature of capitalism whereby production of new innovations replaces existing production making the latter redundant and therefore expendable. Jacobs (1969, 247-51) brings this practice to the fore in her dynamic interpretation of politics. She develops a basic theory of economic development as new work replacing old work within cities. The implication of this is a politics pitting people dependent on old work (both capital and labour) versus likewise for new work. And this cross-class politics will be cyclical, coming to ahead when boom times start to operate and economic transformation marginalizes ‘traditional’ industries and services.

This politics of dynamics is arrayed against class politics in Table 1. Rokkan’s mobilizations have largely taken place in the top row relating to on-cycle work. Initially the interests of capital and the interests of labour were converted into an electoral politics as ‘national versus socialist’ and ‘liberal versus democracy’ conflicts evolved into pro-market and pro-welfare mobilizations. That this political framing has lasted about a century is testament to the mobilization efforts of the successful parties over several cycles of change often deploying ideas of ‘progress’ to defuse the pains of change. Remember that in the table the dynamics means that the listed ‘current losers’ were ‘previous winners’. But current losers in these cycles do regularly appear in this politics as intermittent alternative mobilizations. Table 1 lists the two classic examples whose names have endured: the Poujadists in the 1950s post-war boom and the Luddites in the early nineteenth century. The latter predate modern electoral politics but latterly trade unions are frequently portrayed as ‘Luddites’ when representing the interests of ‘old work’ workers.

Table 1 Class and dynamics in electoral politics

That modern political party systems have been able to ride economic cycles to create a reasonable degree of continuity is largely down to the geography of mobilizations and class. Although electoral politics is premised on individual decision-making, mobilizations do not operate evenly; support for parties is increased where the interests it represents are predominant. This is called the neighbourhood effect which means, for instance, that working class individuals are more likely to vote for Labour or Social Democrat or Socialist or Communist parties (depending on the mobilization within a state) in places with largely working class populations than similar individuals living in more middle class places (Taylor and Johnston 1979, 221-69). In other words there is a collective dimension to elections that involves loyalties built and reproduced in places. It is this powerful geographical mechanism that has enabled the persistence of a class electoral politics through economic cycles.

My thesis is that corporation globalization is undermining Rokkan’s party systems in three fundamental ways. First and generally, through its transnational operations it has finally enabled capital to begin to destroy what had come to be known as the ‘labour aristocracy’, the privileged labour interest in richer countries of the world that had benefited from Rokkan’s class politics. In effect this has decoupled economic growth from economic well-being reflected in increasing material inequalities (Alderson and Nielson 2003) with important effects within and between states (Korzeniewicz and Moran 2009) that Wallerstein (1984) long ago related to urbanization. The question that now arises: economic growth for whom and where? Second and specifically, the unprecedented burst of innovations associated with the new network society has accentuated the dynamics side of Table 1 sparking off the current myriad  ‘losers’ and making them available for mobilization as a large political force. And because the geography of winners and losers under corporate globalization is a particular urban centralization – metropolitanization - there is the potential for mega-neighbourhood effects to aid the alternative political mobilization away from places favoured by corporate globalization. This is different from Rokkan’s mobilization of the periphery because the latter was viewed as primarily rural, today we have a new intra-urban mobilization possibility within planetary urbanization. And then Brexit occurred, providing a case study to test my thesis.

Inviting political disruption: British metropolitanization in the EU referendum

To operationalize the modern use of term metropolitan I treat it as referring to an urban process that is particularly associated with larger and more important cities. Thus metropolitanization has a cultural dimension: certain urban dwellers are presumed to enjoy a ‘metropolitan life’ that is in some sense more sophisticated than that experienced by those outside these important cities. Treating metropolitanization as just one particular collection of practices within the cacophony of processes that constitute modern cities, it follows that cities can be compared in terms of their different degrees of metropolitan process. Thus in the UK we understand London to be more metropolitan than Manchester without declaring Manchester to be lacking this particular urban process. In fact London was the only English ‘region’ to record a majority yes vote, as campaigned for by the mainstream parties. For this electoral case study I consider varying degrees of metropolitan process across Britain’s main cities beyond this distinctive metropolitan London result.

From my perspective the EU referendum results are a raw material, a massive source of information on a specific behaviour of over 30 million people who were able to express themselves in a simple dichotomous manner, Remain or Leave. The Remain side ran a campaign based upon an array of experts – political, economic, social, cultural, international elites – that was very, very impressive (from President Obama to David Beckham) and proved very, very ineffectual (starting as strong favourites and finishing as clear losers). The key-point is that these elites, and modern elites in general, are archetypal metropolitan citizens. They live a metropolitan lifestyle par excellence, separate from the multitude and subject to both awe and anger. The referendum gave voters the opportunity to cast judgment on their evident superiority complex.

The geography of the voting was initially viewed in a familiar English ‘north v.s south’ frame (an early tweet of a Remainer simply asked ‘Where is Sunderland?’) but this soon gave way to more nuanced regional interpretation once it became clear that all English regions outside London had voted to Leave with the two English midland regions actually recording the strongest out vote. This regional geography approach to viewing the voting reflected the way in which the Electoral Commission announced the results by local authority area within standard English regions and within Scotland and Wales. (Voting in Northern Ireland was simply reported for the whole province and is not considered further here.) This region/nation frame is clearly significant and I keep it for my urban analysis. Taking my cue from London as Britain’s core metropolitan city with Remain majority, I explore the notion of the Remain % vote reflecting metropolitanization across other British cities.

Metropolitan suggests difference between a ‘sophisticated’ urban centre enveloped by an ‘unsophisticated’ urban. Therefore to discern this process cities should be described within the context of their region/nation. In Table 2 the Remain% vote for 40 British cities is listed alongside each city’s region/nation Remain% vote. The difference between these two votes is computed and the city listing ordered accordingly. It is suggested here that the gap between city and its region/nation is an indication of how metropolitan a city is. Put crudely, it shows where voters were more amenable to the warning lessons from ‘experts’, and could identify with various regional, national and global elites, compared to their region/nation compatriots. I interpret this as indicating different levels of metropolitanization amongst the cities.

Table 2 Voting in British cities in the EU referendum


Percentages relate total number of votes cast; regions are English standard regions plus the other three ‘nations’ – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

1. Cities in the South East region are italicized
2. Core cities are emboldened

The results produce a mixture of idiosyncratic features and clear tendencies. The top three ranked cities – Cambridge, Oxford and Brighton - are in a class of their own in their very high difference results and, in their diverse ways, can be considered outliers of London’s metropolitan process. The clearest tendency in the results is to be found with the ten core cities (originally eight from English regions latterly joined by Cardiff and Glasgow) highlighted in the table and whose voting all show high degrees of metropolitanization; they fill ten of the next 15 rankings. This contrasts with the South East region (enveloping London, the region has no ‘core cities’) italicized in the table, whose cities, after Oxford and Brighton, are arrayed evenly across the whole list (ranks 11, 22, 28, 32 and 36). But the metropolitanization effect is best seen within regions/nations where there are many clear and distinctive differences. For example, within the two nations both Edinburgh and Glasgow rank above Aberdeen and Dundee, as does Cardiff above Swansea. Across England there are many pairs of cities that show a similar pattern. Some obvious English contrasts are between Newcastle and Sunderland, Leeds and Bradford, Sheffield and Hull, Liverpool and Warrington, Manchester and Wigan, Nottingham and Derby, Birmingham and Coventry, Norwich and Ipswich, Bristol and Swindon, Southampton and Portsmouth, and Exeter and Plymouth. In all these pairings the first city has the higher difference score in the table and is generally more central to its region, and larger, than the second city, all key features of metropolitanization.

This simple urban analysis reveals an interesting glimpse at a difficult process to pin down. The results provide a credible listing of the metropolitanization of British cities. And it shows a contrast to the historical standard party class mobilization à la Rokkan because large erstwhile radical cities (for instance, ‘Red Glasgow’, ‘Militant Liverpool’, Sheffield’s ‘Socialist Republic’) are now more enmeshed in metropolitanization in opposition to the actual British majority ‘revolt against elites’. There can be no clearer indication that this is clear disruption: a new and different electoral geography of voting wherein it is large cities as well as London that are out of sync.

Conclusion: neither trickle-down economics nor trickle-down politics

The surprise victory of Donald Trump in the American Presidential Election has elicited comparison with the Brexit surprise result. Both were ‘surprises’ because polling organizations schooled in standard party political contests could not predict beyond their ken. This applies to the US election because although Trump was the official Republican candidate, he fought as much against the Republican establishment as he did against his Democrat rival. He mobilized voters because he was not a continuity candidate in the American party system plus he overtly allied his appeal to the Brexit result. More generally, this US disruption is a consequence of what Packer (2013) had previously identified as the ‘unwinding’ of American politics and economics.

But this is much more than an Anglo-Saxon political tryst. I have traced the conditions for such results back to corporate globalization and a resulting planetary urbanization. The consequent privileging of urban spaces in metropolitanization is certainly not country specific. It seems that the failure of trickle-down economics (the separation of economic growth from economic well-being) is being replicated with this new failure of trickle-down politics (the demise of mainstream party politics). Does the British EU referendum foretell an emerging political geography world of ‘superior’ metropolitan oases where global elites and their urban fellow travellers will be constantly bemused by ‘irrational’ decisions made by their fellow citizens voting the ‘wrong way’? This dearth of social reflexivity is epitomized by current defenders of the EU in the wake of Brexit. Every time I see a person defending the EU, especially President Jean-Claude Juncker the sweet dealmaker with corporations, their image seems to transmogrify into a puzzled Marie Antoinette. It seems too many people are still waiting for those cakes.


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Brenner, N. (2014) Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. Berlin: Jovis

Castells, M. (1996) The Rise of Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Taylor, P. J., O’Brien, G. and O’Keefe, P. (2017) ‘Anthropogenic Climate Change is Urban not Modern: Towards an Alternate Critical Urban Geography’

Wallerstein, I. (1984) ‘Cities in socialist theory and capitalist praxis’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 8, 64-72.


* Peter J. Taylor, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 29th January 2018

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in L’Espace Politique, 32 | 2017-2