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The Future of International Politics in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

picture of the european parliament, representing the global political outlook because of the fourth industrial revolution

Discover How Technology Will Shape the Future of Economics, Politics and Society:

The future of politics in the world is closely intertwined with the Fourth Industrial Revolution we are witnessing. It is beneficial to recap how significant the current industrial transformation is before going into the reasons behind this crucial relationship and the two major scenarios that are eminent for the coming years:

The Fourth Industrial Revolution or “Industry 4.0” can be defined as the fusion and the proliferation of emerging technology developments in industries varying from artificial intelligence to renewable energy. The vigour and influence of these technologies gets multiplied by the rapidly burgeoning connectivity between billions of people through enhanced mobility and the ease of accessing the growing nexus of data and knowledge. The further assumption of Industry 4.0 technologies in the world will allow large populations to bypass current structural constraints and leapfrog into greater efficiency in energy use and value production.

If harnessed effectively and allocated for the public good, these changes will significantly improve global income levels, quality of life and even gender equality within populations due to increased mobility and democratization of occupational platforms. Rapid technological developments are also bound to bring unemployment to people involved in industries getting phased out for human labour, such as transport and logistics. How will these phased out people respond and how profound will this be upon the realm of politics?

The answer is inherently a complex one, yet is indeed becoming more apparent by the day:

We have entered a rather tumultuous era, especially in the last few years, which is widely getting referred to as the “backlash against globalization“. This backlash, arguably, is indeed not necessarily caused by globalist ideologies – but more due to the transforming industrial system.

The resentment precipitated within the segments of society who are on the losing end of the ongoing transformation is channelled towards other scapegoats caught within, most prominently open immigration and liberal trade policies.

A recent report on Bloomberg exploring the roots of rising far right movements explores a vivid illustration of this phenomenon:

“The city of Rotterdam boasts Europe’s biggest port, which is dependent upon the globalized economy for its success and 130,000 jobs. And yet, this North Sea gateway to the world is also the birthplace of the anti-globalization, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam movement… ‘Robotisation is taking our jobs,’ said the leader of the labor union that represents Rotterdam’s port. ‘Dockers won’t vote for Wilders because they’re racist – they aren’t. They’ll vote for him because they’re angry’”.

The current clash of the emerging industrial revolution and widespread resentment brings us to two avenues where global politics may take:

  1. We could be in for a seemingly everlasting, or at least a decades long, rise and dominance of populist parties, as long as they are unchallenged with an alternative plan that works. Uninterruptedly, the populist factions could continue to blame immigrants or other margins of society for the issues technology essentially causes.
  2. The currently emerging populist politics, instead of gaining further ground, could experience a fallout or a significantly softening transformation soon, where the proposed protectionist economic policies fail and the actors which push for them will be phased out themselves. In this case, the transformation of further technologies could be argued to have “cleared them out” of the global political scene: by first bringing them into power but then exposing the flaws of their proposed policies – making way for another wave of enhanced multilateralism, liberal trade and immigration policies, hence strengthened globalization.

The first scenario is built upon the assumption that the anti-trade and pro-domestic-industry rhetoric (e.g. Trump digs coal) could be employed sustainably by the populist factions, while being able to achieve economic growth and enhanced welfare. However, if such “closing off” and “back-to-the-roots” policies are thoroughly implemented in the developed world for the sake of short-term popularity in certain segments of the population, the only winners would turn out to be competing nations and regions elsewhere — those who continue to capitalise on the competitiveness that free and open economies bring about (e.g. East Asia).

In actuality, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is an ongoing universal phenomenon and cannot be stopped in its tracks. Hence, a feasible way for these populist political figures to endure is for them to adopt a more rational approach of embracing the transformation of economic activity in the 21st Century— and not to impede the exchange of goods, services, labour and ideas through protectionist and fear-mongering narratives. This, in turn, would require a much more open-minded approach regarding their policy making. Once the practical need for open borders (in most senses) is realised by policy makers, as the second scenario foresees, this could result in a gradual “clearing out” of the anti-globalist resentment.

Simply being exposed due to failing economic policies, however, does not guarantee a “clearing-out” of such ideologies. The resentment which brought about populism in the first place must be addressed and fixed in order for such a progress to be achieved — or else a vicious cycle of stagnant economics and the toxic political scene would uninterruptedly continue. To avoid such a phenomenon to drag on, the benefits of technological improvement must be allocated as fairly and effectively as possible among the general public.

An example proposed by many scholars, and thought-leaders such as Elon Musk, is to adopt a basic income scheme — where the public simply get handed cash for doing nothing. As much as it can be assumed to be an attractive option for the public, the picture is not clear.

Elon Musk (Founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors) Quote on Universal Basic Income

During 2013, Switzerland held a referendum on whether or not to incorporate the concept of basic income in the Federal constitution. The measure did not pass, with 76.9% voting against basic income. The basic income proponents skip one subtle reality: people do not simply want crude cash — they tend to seek fulfilment through employment opportunities. Basic income is arguably just a shortcut attempt that negates the roots of inequality within a society — hence more case studies and pilots will need to be tested before deciding if this could be a solution to distribute the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Nevertheless, there are two other methods which could be applied by policy makers to create more winners in society from technological development and then mobilise them within the political realm. The first is enhanced and flexible job training for all. As an example, Denmark’s rather progressive union system brings together the employers, government and unions. The firms and unions get together to identify immediate and future skills required in their industries and through collective-bargaining agreements, they enshrine rights to paid leave for training.

Similarly, in Singapore citizens are given a S$500 credit that could be used for training courses provided by 500 approved providers, including universities and MOOCs. Technology, in this case, is not a source of job loss but the very opposite: Virtual and augmented reality effectively improve such training schemes. Big data technologies offer more personalised and laser focused education. Social media platforms such as LinkedIn make it easier to connect people of differing levels of knowledge, while Coursera allows peer-to-peer teaching and mentoring across the globe.

Building upon the success of the inclusive and future-minded approach of flexible training for the public, these “winners” from the technological transformation must be politically mobilised. Voter turnouts are unfortunately in serious decline and as low as 20% within the youth in certain parts of the Western Hemisphere. The youth, quite characteristically, are indeed progressive voters, generally opting for political actors who stand by liberal policy making. A possible measure could be enhanced online voting — essentially bringing the ballot box to anyone with a smartphone by using secure blockchain technolgy. The bolstered involvement of the youth through similar methods are bound to bring about the phasing out process of the out of date populist policies through embracing the benefits that the emerging industrial revolution will create.

Linking the future of politics to technological development may at first glance seem as an attempt to associate two distinct avenues of the general society. However, the ability to create and utilize “the tool” — a rather basic appellation of technology — was always fundamental to how “homo sapiens” transformed throughout the centuries and what became of it now. Advancements of “the tool” advanced history itself, gaining momentum and exponential growth as the “tools” became more complex, powerful and widespread. Technology, therefore, despite being relatively less apparent, is an unmistakably profound driver of political transformation — and arguably the most exciting area to watch to have an insight on what the future could hold in store for us.

Also be sure to read ‘Future Leadership – Globe’s Most Critical Issue?

About the author



Onat Kibaroglu is a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore and a weekly contributor at the Global Times in Shanghai, one of the largest newspaper establishments in the PRC. At the time of writing he is working part-time at a Public Affairs & Relations consulting agency “Hume Brophy” at their Asian HQ in Singapore.



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