The Fourth Industrial Revolution

T Vijayendra

With every crisis capital tries to restructure itself. Many old industries collapse and new ones with newer technology replace them. The latest avatar of capitalism calls itself the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This time it has not happened in one big capitalist country. It is transnational and is being promoted at the highest levels of the global capitalist elite. Leading the charge is the World Economic Forum (WEF), a club of the world’s richest businessmen and investors. The WEF, based in Switzerland, is an international NGO, founded in 1971 by the economist Klaus Schwab. Mostly funded by its 1,000 member companies as well as public subsidies, it views its own mission as "improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas."

The Forum dogmatically argues that a globalised world should be governed by a self-selected coalition of multinational corporations, governments and civil society organisations (CSOs), which it expresses through its initiatives like the "Great Reset" and the "Global Redesign".

But, what exactly is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’? The following is taken from an article by Sajai Jose, titled ‘When the Fourth Industrial Revolution Comes Knocking.’

“The origin of the term itself can be traced back to a 2013 initiative by the German government known as ‘Industrie 4.0’. It was a strategic policy bid to harness the rapid convergence of digital technologies, manufacturing processes, logistics and human systems to build ‘smart factories’ or ‘cyber-physical production systems,’ with the stated purpose of preserving Germany’s global manufacturing dominance well into the 21st century.

However, this factory-centric understanding of new technologies obscure their true significance, says Schwab, who describes this shift as an Industrial Revolution in its own right. According to this view, the First Industrial Revolution, starting from the 1750s, used steam power to mechanise production; the Second advanced this by using electric power to scale up production in the beginning of the 20th century; while the Third deployed electronics and IT to automate production. Now, he says, a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the information revolution that has been occurring since the last century”.

Schwab describes it as being “characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” However, unlike previous industrial revolutions, it is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent,” writes Schwab, and it is leading to “a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Schwab identifies a set of emerging technologies that are driving this change, including Artificial Intelligence, robotics, Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

Since this technological shift in production is “disrupting almost every industry in every country,” it also entails a paradigm shift in terms of logistics, trade and exchange, which Schwab calls ‘Globalisation 4.0’. It refers to new frameworks for international cooperation that he says are needed to manage and adapt to the unprecedented pace and breadth of technological change unleashed by Industry 4.0. Announcing the theme of the WEF’s 2019 meeting as “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Schwab declared, “Ready or not, a new world is upon us.”

On 10 October 2016, the WEF announced the opening of its new Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. In October 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) opened its ‘Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in India’ to work in collaboration with the Government of India. Part of a network of such centres being set up across the world, it is located in Navi Mumbai, and was unveiled by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The WEF has offices in New York, Tokyo and Beijing.

WEF has roped in the UN for its project. It engages with national governments by asking them to promote public-private initiatives. It tries to use the world’s scientific and engineering knowledge to promote its agenda. China will play a major role in this shift because of its manufacturing capacities and its control over rare earths. In 2017, the WEF conclave in Davos attracted considerable attention when, for the first time, a head of state from the People's Republic of China was present at the alpine resort.

The current pandemic is a trigger for the launch of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has been on the cards since the 2008 meltdown. The medical-industrial complex has earned billions of dollars in a short span of two years, making a killing from selling protective gear, medicines, vaccines etc. The lockdown has also killed a lot of the present industries, paving the way for newer Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. Working from home has increased the sale of smart phones and computers enormously. Millions of school children are using smart phones for online learning. E-commerce and home deliveries have come of age. People are buying furniture, refrigerators and even cars online! Meanwhile, millions of people have lost jobs and hunger is looming on the horizon.

While climate change is the mega crisis facing humanity, in the present moment, it is the growing hunger crisis triggered by the lockdowns that is the most immediate challenge.

Malnutrition and famine are closely related. During a famine those people die who are already suffering from malnutrition. If food is available then malnutrition can be addressed and people need not die. In today’s world there is enough food available. It was so even during the 1943 Bengal famine when a very large number of people died. So why do people die in a famine? It is because they are unable to pay for food.

Dr Binayak Sen has written extensively on the relation between malnutrition and famine. Here is what he says:

“People need to be conscious of what constitutes a famine and what can be done about it. The “sudden collapse into starvation” is only the final phase of a famine. Famine is not marked by the death of the victims. There is a number of social, economic and political signs that mark a famine which we fail to recognise. The World Health Organisation states that any community with 40 percent of its population having a body mass index (BMI) less than 18.5 is in a state of famine. Child malnutrition is already a known fact with around 44 per cent of deaths under 5 years is due to malnutrition, but adult malnutrition is also widespread especially in the poorer sections of society. Anyone with BMI less than 18.5 is said to suffer from chronic energy deficiency or hunger. Data from the National Nutritional Monitoring Bureau (NNMB) states 37 per cent of adults in the country have a BMI of less than 18.5. This percentage goes higher among weaker sections. In some tribal regions, around 40 per cent of men and 49 per cent of women have BMI less than 18.5. By implication, it means large areas of India are famine affected. Not only is there a deficit in consumption of food grains but also that the deficit is increasing. This state of widespread ongoing famine coexists with an abundance of food with national granaries overflowing.”

The project of the proletariat is consciousness driven and requires a change of mindset from individualism of capitalist society to a collective consciousness. So, it is a difficult project.

For a more conscious project, different things will happen in different areas depending on its history of people’s mobilisation. In countries which are strong centres of capitalism the governments will make only cosmetic changes but any real change will be prevented from occurring. Typically these are the countries which have nuclear weapons and nuclear power. But there are also other countries; for example, Australia. In these countries local actions like Transition Town will be important.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are countries like Cuba and some countries in Latin America and smaller countries in Europe where people are conscious and have progressive governments.

In reality, halfway measures occur in those areas where capital is weak and the situation is desperate. Good leadership can make a lot of difference. In India, the North East States and Kerala might see some good activity. And may be some remote regions which are not rich in minerals, people may be left to fend for themselves and will survive. In rest of the country, only local initiatives offer any hope for achieving good results. 

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022