I didn’t expect anything worthwhile to emerge from the World Economic Forum (WEF), which ended in Davos, Switzerland, last weekend. I was not disappointed. The focus was supposed to have been on what the WEF called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
But this term refers merely to the maturation of the third such revolution that began with the development of the integrated circuit, the microchip. This followed the first “revolution” based on the power of water and steam, and then the great surge provided by electrical power that gave rise to the assembly line-era known as Fordism.
Each of the first two revolutions resulted in fears of massive job losses, but opened up new, different work prospects.
Today, for example, in most developed economies, service industries account for more labour than manufacturing does. This historical fact seemed to blind most mainstream economists to the reality of the consequences of the newest technology.
Only now, with the consequences of overcapacity and production evident, and with the lunatic extension of credit having apparently run its course, has there been any acknowledgment that the world may be facing the most serious economic and social crisis in history.
But rather than tackle this issue head-on, supporters of the current system concentrate instead on the promises of increased productivity and efficiency, with an occasional nod to the possibility of job losses. And most of the labour movement is no better. Like the employer class, labour appears to be stuck in a mind-set that belongs to the start of the 20th century, if not earlier.
So when trade unions merely demand that jobs be retained in the face of the march of automation, this is, at best, a futile exercise. They can – and should – be putting forward alternative measures to carry out their fundamental role: to protect jobs, wages and conditions.
Today, millions of workers, with varying degrees of skill, are being replaced by machines that require fewer but generally highly skilled workers to operate and maintain them.
Upskilling is, therefore, the call to fill the estimated 59 000 highly skilled job vacancies in South Africa. But at the same time, there are more than 7 million unemployed people in the country, so 59 000 fewer would be largely meaningless.
And skills are no guarantee that you won’t lose out to automation. It is just a matter of time, given the exponential growth, especially of technologies employing artificial intelligence, that practically all human activity may be carried out by machines.
So what should be done? First, it is essential to recognise that these developments have the potential to free humanity from drudgery – and poverty – but only if they are under true democratic control and serve the interests of humanity. This would require changes in the political system.
As a result, it seems vital to dump the five-yearly democratic charade that plays out when citizens place crosses on a ballot and so, individually, hand over collective power to a political elite. Using modern communications technology, it should be feasible to make elected representatives wholly accountable to, and recallable by, the electors.
That would be a good start.