Sharing the pie? The fourth industrial revolution and the sharing/platform economy: Distributive justice implications

Rasul Bakhsh Rais


The modern era we live in today has witnessed rapid industrial and technological transformations that in consequence have greatly reshaped the economies, lifestyles and the larger social world within which we interact. The way we live, the way we think and the things we consume—some of the aspects of culture—are path dependent. Whether this path is taken as a conscious and planned decision or it is a spin-off effect of new forms of economy and technological innovation, its consequences for human behaviour, political ideas and politics can be immense. I take a liberalist position on politics being instrument to what we dream as our future, which resources we mobilize to achieve our objectives and how we distribute the rewards fairly and justly. Therefore, the modern economic systems we work in and the technologies we consume are not an accident of history, but an outcome of decisions the major players and actors shaping the global and national economies take. Since politics is a purposive act, those interested in political economy would investigate questions of ends and whether or not, and how the rewards are distributed within the society and across the borders in the larger global world.

Globalization, no matter what perspective you take on it, and the technologies driving it are not independent of the intentions and interests of the powerful players at the world stage. Investments in research and development, science and technology both in public and private sectors are manifestations of national purposes and the profit motives of the corporations. Underneath all of this is the critical factor of dominant ideas and ideology—capitalism at large, and the neo-liberal order with its focus on the market forces, capital, privatization, limited government and lesser regulation. The “triumph” of liberalism and its celebration in the dominant policy making circles in the western world and intellectual hegemony in the academia seems to have squeezed spaces for alternative view and thinking. With technological innovation, efficiency in production and introduction of new products, even altering the consumer behaviour in many significant ways to market new products and services, the value of people and importance of distributive justice have diminished. Rather, they seem to be missing in both the intellectual and policy conversation.

The fourth industrial revolution that seems to be shaping up promises new economy, offers new business models by presenting smarter tools and devices carries with it many opportunities and challenges with it. Rather, its impact on everything from government to people, businesses to market, culture to national and global security is likely to be at a scale and in scope never seen before; on a greater, and even unprecedented level than the previous three revolutions. Since the first industrial revolution and capitalist mode of production, efficiency, cost reduction and integration of supply and demand in the marketplace have been the driving ideas behind the industrial economies. The emerging fourth industrial revolution rests on the same concepts but with a significant difference in speed, wider and rapid spread beyond the developed world and the impact it is going to have on every aspect of economy, politics and society.

The technological revolution has the potential to cause systemic and structural changes that require “comprehensive and integrated” response from all stakeholders, the governments, businesses, academia the civil society and international institutions (Schwab 2016). Inequality and inequity associated with the market economy is not something new, and we know how sentiments of unfairness generate troubles when larger and critical sections of the population become disillusioned. Compared with any other eras of modern history, disruptions in the labour market around the world are likely to be more, extensive and intensive. Joblessness, work force dislocations due to the new dynamics, sinking of old and rising of new business and varying impact on income levels are some of the trends we have already observed resulting from the fourth revolution. As the revolution is full of promise and opportunities the challenges it presents are monumental. On the one hand, we may see rising income level, new job opportunities and innovative business enterprises, on the other bigger gaps in levels of income The basic argument of this chapter is that creation of wealth through the combination of new technologies, capital and innovation may generate new levels of prosperity, but the gains may not be distributed fairly and equitably within the nations and across the globe. The disparities of income may be wider, losers in greater numbers and the beneficiaries in minority, but capable of raking in rewards at much larger scale than in the past. It is quite possible that the combination of factors of production and the traditional role of the capital may change. Fuelled by the energy of fourth revolution, the dynamics of the economies may promise greater rewards for talent, expert and scientific entrepreneurs than any other factor. The issue of distributive justice may gain fresh impetus, steam new social movements and imperil stability of the existing social and political orders.

Firstly, the chapter explains the fourth industrial revolution and the salient trends unfolding for the past many years. Secondly, it examines several manifestations of the sharing or platform economy. Thirdly, it analyses the disruptive potential of the revolution and the economy it is spanning and why distributive justice—sharing the pie is an important and relevant issue in mitigating the negative effects of the revolution. Finally, political challenges emanating from the neo-liberal order and the winner-takes-all attitude are discussed. The kind of politics the leaders and the nations choose will make social and economic transitions smooth or troublesome. While the acceptance of distributive justice as a policy tool may aid the efforts to accept and absorb new innovations and reconcile conflicting interests and resistance to it may generate political storms, social? and invite trouble from the critical sections of the populations entertaining a feeling of having been left out.

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