Technological changes are having a profound impact on the way we go about our daily lives. Digital innovations have already changed the way we earn, learn, shop and play. Collectively, as a fourth industrial revolution, they are changing the geography of production and the contours of work. But in the end, social and political actions – in the form of rules, norms and policies – will determine how the future unfolds.
In this respect, the digital revolution has the misfortune of unfolding in a neo-liberal era. Over the last four decades, a mixture of financial chicanery, unrestrained corporate power and economic austerity has shredded the social contract that emerged after the Second World War and replaced it with a different set of rules, norms and policies, at the national, regional and international levels. This has enabled capital – whether tangible or intangible, long-term or short-term, industrial or financial – to escape from regulatory oversight, expand into new areas of profit-making and restrict the influence of policymakers over how business is done.
The digital revolution has the misfortune of unfolding in a neo-liberal era
This agenda has co-opted a vision of an interconnected digital world, free from artificial boundaries to the flow of information, lending a sense of technological euphoria to a belief in its own inevitability and immutability. Big business has responded by turning the mining and processing of data into a rent-seeking cornucopia.
Recent events – beginning with the financial crisis, through the sluggish recovery that has followed, to the fake news and data privacy scandals now grabbing headlines – have forced policymakers to face the inequities and imbalances produced by this agenda. Governments have begun to acknowledge the need to fill regulatory deficits that harm the public, to provide stronger safety nets for those adversely affected by technological progress and to invest in the skills needed for a 21st-century workforce. But so far, actions have spoken more softly than words.
Despite the talk, this is neither a brave nor a new world. The globalization era before 1914 was also one of dramatic technological changes as telegraph cables, railroads and steamships sped up and shrank the world; it was also a world of unchecked monopoly power, financial speculation, booms and busts, and rising inequality. Mark Twain castigated a “Gilded Age” of obscene private wealth, endemic political corruption and widespread social squalor; and, not unlike today’s digital overlords, the railroad entrepreneurs of yesteryear were master manipulators of financial innovations, pricing techniques and political connections that boosted their profits even as they harmed business rivals and the public alike.
As the growing imbalances and tensions of contemporary globalization play out, the multilateral trading system is being stretched to its limit
And much like today, the new communication technologies of the nineteenth century helped capital to reconfigure the global economy. Many commentators wistfully describe this as a “free trade” era, evoking David Ricardo’s idea of comparative advantage to suggest that even technological laggards were better off specializing in what they did best and opening up to international trade. Here was a comforting win–win narrative for a winner-takes-most world, and an article of faith for the globalist cause, which led John Maynard Keynes, in his General Theory, to draw parallels with the Holy Inquisition.
In reality, international trade in the late 19th century was managed through an unholy mixture of colonial controls in the periphery and rising tariffs in the emerging core, often, as in the case of the United States, pushed to very high levels. But like today, talk of free trade provided a useful cover for the unhindered movement of capital and an accompanying set of rules – the gold standard, repressive labor laws, balanced budgets – that disciplined government spending and kept the costs of doing business in check.
As the growing imbalances and tensions of contemporary globalization play out in an increasingly financialized and digitalized world, the multilateral trading system is being stretched to its limit. Uncomfortable parallels with the 1930s have been quickly drawn. But if there is one lesson to take from the interwar years, it is that talking up free trade against a backdrop of austerity and widespread political mistrust will not hold the center as things fall apart. And simply pledging to leave no one behind while appealing to the goodwill of corporations or the better angels of the super-rich are, at best, hopeful pleas for a more civic world and, at worst, willful attempts to deflect from serious discussion of the real factors driving growing inequality, indebtedness and insecurity.
There is an urgent need to rethink the multilateral system, if the digital age is to deliver on its promise
The response cannot be to retreat into some mythical vision of national exceptionalism, or to sit back and hope that a wave of digital exuberance will wash these problems away. There is, rather, an urgent need to rethink the multilateral system, if the digital age is to deliver on its promise.
In the absence of a progressive narrative and bold leadership, it is no surprise that the interregnum, as Antonio Gramsci would have predicted, is exhibiting disturbing signs of political morbidity. Finding the right narrative will be no easy task. For the moment, we might do best to recall the words of Mary Shelley – whose monstrous creation, Frankenstein, celebrating 200 years this year, has lost none of its power to evoke our fear of and fascination with technological progress – “the beginning is always today.”
Richard Kozul-Wright is the director of the Division on Globalization and Development Strategies at the United Nations Conference on Trade and development UNCTAD
He is the main author of the Trade and Development Report 2018.