What exactly is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ the catchphrase that has been doing the rounds in business, tech and policy circles, which in recent years has been actively popularized by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF)? The origin of the term 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 obscures 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 mechanize 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 second half of the last century.
Schwab describes the Fourth Industrial Revolution as being “characterized 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 commerce, 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 let loose 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.”
The end of employment?
The implications of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are huge, and especially so for countries that have large populations. Take, for example, the all-too-crucial matter of employment, which will be directly hit by ‘smart’ automation, a central feature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Here’s what some of the major studies of automation have to say on its potential impact on jobs:
The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report (titled ‘Digital Dividends,’ but with no hint of irony) makes some alarming projections, estimating that 69 per cent of Indian jobs, 77 per cent of Chinese jobs, 47 per cent of US jobs, and an average of 57 per cent of jobs in OECD countries could be replaced by automated processes and robots.
The WEF’s ‘The Future of Jobs’ report, which comes out annually, surveyed 12 key industries in 2018, and found that an average of 71% of the total task hours were performed by humans, compared to 29% by machines. The report forecasts that in just a span of four years (by 2022), this will change to 58% task hours performed by humans, versus 42% by machines. A 2017 McKinsey study found that “50% of current work activities are technically automatable by adapting currently demonstrable technologies.” The study estimates that between 400-800 million jobs could be displaced by automation by 2030.
Lists of jobs that could disappear entirely due to automation in the next ten years feature not only predictable ones such as manufacturing workers, cashiers and bank tellers, but also telemarketers, stock traders and travel agents. More surprisingly, construction workers and waiters, and even traditional occupations such as farmers and soldiers, too, are among those endangered. Since automation is being implemented more rapidly and at a far greater a scale in industrialized countries, it will also seriously impact labor emigration globally, with huge implications for the world’s migrant workers, who are overwhelmingly blue collar and hail from the Third World. In short, the consequences of such rapid scaling up of automation are unthinkable, especially after the massive loss of jobs globally in the post-lockdown scenario.
The 2020 edition of the WEF’s jobs report admits that, “automation, in tandem with the Covid-19 recession, is creating a ‘double-disruption’ scenario for workers,” the dual impact of which is likely to exacerbate inequality “in the absence of proactive efforts.” Automation enthusiasts claim that it will also create many new jobs, which will compensate for jobs lost, but offer no firm basis for such optimism. The truth is that all the rhetoric about ‘improved efficiencies’ cannot obscure the central and unavoidable fact about automation: that its purpose is to reduce, if not replace altogether, the role of human labor in production. What’s more, the impact on employment is only one among many wide-ranging disruptions and impacts that Industry 4.0 is bound to unleash.
A top-down ‘revolution’
In ‘Beware of the Bot,’ one of the few critical studies of Industry 4.0 to appear yet, author Britt Baatjes questions the very notion of an industrial ‘revolution.’ “Indeed, some don’t consider them revolutions at all, because the majority of people have not been the beneficiaries of these so-called revolutions because of the economic system in which they occur. They have dehumanized production, alienated workers and taken people further and further away from their vocations. And, coupled with this, the natural world has suffered irreconcilably. Indeed, the first three industrial revolutions have caused many of our current environmental problems and contributed to the ecological crisis. The ‘revolutions’ have simply shaped and reproduced capitalism in various ways and always favored the rich,” she writes.
In his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class, the British historian E.P. Thompson described the social havoc wreaked by the Industrial Revolution in 18th century England: “The process of industrialization is necessarily painful. It must involve the erosion of traditional patterns of life. But it was carried through with exceptional violence in Britain… The experience of immiseration came upon them (the working class) in a hundred different forms; for the field laborer, the loss of his common rights and the vestiges of village democracy; for the artisan, the loss of his craftsman’s status; for the weaver, the loss of livelihood and of independence; for the child, the loss of work and play in the home; for many groups of workers whose real earnings improved, the loss of security, leisure and the deterioration of the urban environment.”
Anger against these changes was so widespread that it led to frequent and extensive protests, and eventually, insurrection. Known as the Luddite uprising, it had thrown all of Britain into turmoil from 1811 to 1816. Recounting it in the context of Industry 4.0, Rohan D’Souza writes, “Multitudes of skilled weavers and artisans whose livelihoods were eliminated by textile factories and industrial machinery were in ferocious rebellion and their desperate ‘machine-smashing’ run was finally put down only by the military. Allegedly, at one point, more British soldiers were fighting the Luddites than the numbers deployed against Napoleon Bonaparte’s army in Europe.”
Today, as humanity stares at yet another top-down ‘revolution’ conceived and implemented unilaterally by financial and technocratic elites who are not accountable to the public, it is important to remember this historical record. Especially when its proponents themselves admit that it will be far more disruptive than before, owing to the much greater scale and speed at which it is implemented. Incredible as it may seem, despite conceding that it will lead to unpredictable consequences, and despite the fact that the world is reeling from the biggest ever unemployment crisis in recent history, the WEF has only stepped up its efforts to accelerate automation and Industry 4.0 in the post-lockdown scenario. However, their agenda goes way beyond that of promoting technological advancement at any cost; this becomes apparent if we take a closer look at their ambitious ‘Great Reset’ initiative.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), a ‘non-profit’ based in Geneva, states its mission as being “committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” Over the years, the annual WEF meeting held at Davos-Klosters, a Swiss mountain resort, has emerged as the world’s most prestigious gathering for its financial, technological and political elites.
The list of attendees for Davos 2020 (the 2021 edition was held virtually due to the pandemic) reads like no other; counting in it just about every major head of state from Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, heads of major multilateral organizations, some of the world’s biggest investors, representatives of major banking firms, leading lights from the worlds of economics, technology and law, as well as top executives of Fortune 500 companies, all of which, incidentally, are official partners of the WEF. In a display of the WEF’s global reach, the event was accompanied by virtual events in 430 cities across the world, pulling in thousands more attendees.
Later that year, even as the world reeled from a series of unprecedented shocks in the form of Covid-19, the lockdowns and the resultant social and economic crises, the WEF stepped into the vacuum and confusion to announce its ‘Great Reset’ initiative, the single most decisive, concrete and ambitious attempt by any organisation to shape the contours of the post-lockdown world.
What’s so great about The Great Reset?
Officially, the WEF describes the Great Reset as “a commitment to jointly and urgently build the foundations of our economic and social system for a more fair, sustainable and resilient future.” On the surface, surely, this seems like a commendable attempt to give direction and focus to the world in a time of chaos, and that is the vision articulated by the WEF, which held its 2021 summit on the theme of the Great Reset. According to the WEF, in a world beset by an array of economic, social and environmental challenges, “The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that our old systems are not fit any more for the 21st century. We have to restore a functioning system of smart global cooperation structured to address the challenges of the next 50 years.” He called for the world to “act jointly and swiftly to revamp all aspects of our societies and economies, from education to social contracts and working conditions. Every country, from the United States to China, must participate, and every industry, from oil and gas to tech, must be transformed. In short, we need a “Great Reset” of capitalism.”
Echoing these sentiments, Prince Charles, who announced the event along with Schwab, said, “In order to secure our future and to prosper, we need to evolve our economic model and put people and planet at the heart of global value creation.” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, chimed in, “The Great Reset is a welcome recognition that this human tragedy must be a wake-up call. We must build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global changes we face.”
The Great Reset in theory
The Great Reset has been described as a “massively funded, desperately ambitious, internationally coordinated project led by some of the biggest multinational corporations and financial players on the planet and carried out by cooperating state bodies and NGOs.” It proposes a radical and total transformation of the global economy and its production, distribution and governance systems; but goes further, seeking to ‘reset’ every sector from health to education, agriculture to nature conservation; in sum, nearly every aspect of life on the planet.
Here is how Schwab, who has personally conceptualised the Great Reset, and has even published a book on it explaining his ideas, describes its three main components:
Stakeholder economy: The first component consists of government policies that would steer the market toward “fairer outcomes”, ultimately to build a “stakeholder economy.” This calls for, among other things, improved government coordination (for example, in tax, regulatory, and fiscal policy), new rules governing intellectual property, trade, and competition, and reforms that promote more equitable outcomes, such as wealth taxes.Shared goals: The second component of the Great Reset agenda is to ensure that investments advance shared goals that benefit the world at large. Among other things, this calls for the ambitious economic-stimulus plans announced by most major countries, as well as investments from private entities and pension funds, to be used to build a new, “socially equitable and environmentally sustainable global economy” that works in the long term.Technology governance: The third stated priority of the Great Reset is to manage and direct the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ so that its disruptive impacts are minimized, and its benefits maximized. Among other things, the WEF calls for greater collaboration between governments, corporations, universities, research institutions etc., to achieve this.
In many ways, this rhetoric is indistinguishable from the language of bland do-goodism found in the proceedings of the United Nations or reports by international NGOs. But beyond rhetoric, what does the Great Reset have in store for the world, at least, as its originators would have it? How is the Great Reset to work itself out in the real world, in terms of policy changes and institutional and structural shifts?
The Great Reset in action
The WEF’s high profile but exclusive annual Davos event, now the top draw for political and policy leaders around the globe, is the most significant conduit through which the organization influences policy worldwide. The intense media buzz it creates around these events also plays a huge role in influencing the general public with the ideas that WEF wants to promote. At the moment, the WEF is actively injecting the idea of a ‘Great Reset’ into the mainstream through slickly produced video features and podcasts targeting the general public, apart from some major features in such favored outlets as The Economist and Time magazine. In fact, Time’s special issue on Davos 2020 was produced in partnership with the World Economic Forum (not coincidentally, Time’s owner Marc Benioff sits on the WEF board).
The WEF is also increasingly playing a hands-on role when it comes to the implementation of its agenda through a range of ‘strategic partnerships’ and affiliate programs such as the New Vision for Agriculture (NVA), Global Shapers, Young Global Leaders and UpLink Platform, which cover not just manufacturing and trade, but every field from governance to food production to education to healthcare. A particularly ambitious effort is the WEF’sFourthIndustrial Revolution Network, started to promote Industry 4.0-firendly policies, which has opened centers in 13 countries, with more to come. The Network explicitly defines its mission as to “co-design, test and refine governance protocols and policy frameworks” that enable Industry 4.0.
The Great Reheat?
Schwab’s book outlining his vision of the Great Reset has been touted as “the first policy book on the Covid crisis globally.” But, this claim brings up the obvious question; how was it possible for a proposal, which comprehensively deals with just about every aspect of governance and the economy, to be published as early as June 2020, when the pandemic itself hit the world only three months earlier? As it turns out, Schwab’s Great Reset book is actually a much-reheated dish, recycling the same agenda the WEF has been championing for decades. Of special interest among these is a 600-page report released as part of the WEF’s ‘Global Redesign Initiative,’ organized along with the United Nations in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and described as “the most comprehensive proposal for re-designing global governance since the formulation of the U.N.”
All of the WEF’s proposals have more or less the same official line: a radical transformation of global systems in line with new technological, political and environmental realities. What is not mentioned is that technocrats such as Schwab have conceived this transformation exclusively on behalf of the plutocrats that sponsor the WEF. It is to be executed top-down, ignoring democratic norms and bypassing the parliament and other public institutions; a process the WEF euphemistically calls ‘public-private partnership,’ which has taken its most aggressive form yet in the Great Reset.
Corporate capture of global governance
The true significance of the Great Reset cannot be understood without knowing the history and agenda of its originator. The WEF started life in 1971 as the European Management Forum, the brainchild of Schwab, then a business professor at the University of Geneva. It later broadened its invitee list to include political leaders and its agenda to include “resolving international conflicts.” Afterwards, it introduced a membership system for the world’s 1,000 leading companies, and in 1987, changed its name to the ‘World Economic Forum.’
Even though it claims, by way of a disclaimer, to be “independent, impartial and not tied to any special interests,” the fact is that WEF is the special interest in the world today. The premier mouthpiece and conduit for global financial, corporate and technological elites, it’s a central player in a tightly-knit web of privately funded mega ‘non-profits’, ‘think tanks’ and assorted lobbying organizations through which they seek to shape policies and events to their advantage. It can be argued that the Davos events have almost become a de facto world parliament, especially in the last decade or so, competing with the UN General Assembly meetings in the influence and prestige they command.
Not content to project itself as a kind of faux-U.N. for plutocrats, in 2019 the WEF went one step ahead and signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to officially partner with the U.N. The move was widely condemned by hundreds of leading civil society organizations, who denounced it as “corporate capture of global governance,” which they said “delegitimizes the U.N. and weakens the role of states in global decision-making.” Furthermore, they point out that the agreement grants transnational corporations (not coincidentally, all WEF members) preferential access to the UN System, at the expense of states and public interest actors. A key component of the agreement are public-private partnerships to globally deliver public goods in many fields, including education, financing, climate change, and health. One commentator recalled how the WEF’s Global Redesign Initiative report had “recommended a sort of public-private United “Nations” – something that has now been formalized in this MoU.” The WEF calls itself “the international organization for public-private cooperation.” As it turns out, their use of the definite article ‘the’ is more significant than it appears.
What the critics say
On the surface, the Great Reset presents itself as a plan by the world’s ‘enlightened capitalists’ to reform an out-of-control capitalism that chases profits at the cost of people and the planet. In the process, it promises to solve the most pressing challenges faced by humanity, from inequality to discrimination, from climate change to social unrest. But, the critics aren’t buying any of it. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, thinks of the Great Reset as “not a serious effort to actually solve the crises it describes,” but yet another attempt by the Davos class to pose as saviors of the world while advancing their interests. “All kinds of dangerous ideas are lurking under its wide brim, from a reckless push toward more automation in the midst of a joblessness crisis, to the steady move to normalize mass surveillance and biometric tracking tools,” she wrote recently.
Food sovereignty activist and author Vandana Shiva goes a step further, saying that it’s about the WEF’s corporate backers “controlling as many elements of planetary life as they possibly can – from the digital data humans produce to each morsel of food we eat. The Great Reset is about maintaining and empowering a corporate extraction machine and the private ownership of life.”
German investigative journalist Norbert Häring, who calls the WEF “the club of the world’s richest people and the largest nature-destroying corporations,” views the Great Reset as one of the biggest social engineering exercises of all time. “The feeling that something is going terribly wrong and that a reset is really necessary is very widespread in society. Thus, for those who benefit most from the current situation, there is an urgent need to control the discussion. And this is exactly what the Great Reset is for,” he says.
Moscow-based political analyst Andrew Korybko echoes this view, saying that the Great Reset “is not a “conspiracy theory,” but simply a strategy for capitalizing on the prevailing chaotic conditions of the contemporary world to advance prior plans that might not have been popular under other conditions.”
The critics’ fears are justified, given the WEF’s track record. The Great Reset is its global playbook for the post-Covid world, which, in the guise of reforming capitalism, seeks a greater role for capitalism in the world. It is, but yet another attempt – perhaps the most ambitious till date – at the corporate capture of global governance, and what’s left of the global commons. Backed as it is by the full weight of some of the world’s most powerful financial interests and technology players, the Great Reset is more than a theoretical construct or a techno-fantasy woven on the magic mountain of Davos. Given the evident compliance of political and policy elites to this agenda, it very much has the power to remake the world in its image.
Resisting the reset
However, the neo-liberal takeover of the world is meeting unexpected resistance in India where new legislation opening up agriculture to corporate players have led to massive protests by farmers’ unions and other allied groups. The first major popular protest since the Covid outbreak, it echoes ongoing mass mobilizations against the neo-liberal order elsewhere, and most notably in Latin America.
Analysts like Korybko view the Modi government’s new farm bills as advancing that same neoliberal agenda, which he says has found its latest expression in the Great Reset. In an article titled ‘Indian farmers are rising up against Modi’s ‘Great Reset’ he recently wrote, “The farmers know what’s in store for them if they fail in their efforts to get the government to reverse this policy, which is why they’re rising up against the “Great Reset.”
American analyst F. William Engdahl traces the new farm laws directly to Davos, calling them “a direct result of several years’ effort of the World Economic Forum and its New Vision for Agriculture (NVA) initiative,” which he says has relentlessly pushed a corporate model of farming in Africa, Latin America and Asia in the last decade. He further writes, “India is the last bastion where global agribusiness has been unable to dominate the production of food. For the WEF’s Great Reset, India’s traditional farm and food system must be broken. Its smallholder family farmers must be forced to sell to large agribusiness conglomerates and regional or state-level protections for those farmers eliminated. It will be ‘sustainable,’ not for the small farmers, but rather the giant agribusiness groups.”
This view is corroborated by a detailed recent investigation by the Caravan magazine, which exposed the farm bills as nothing but an effort to “remake India’s agricultural economy for large private players.” It identifies the many private players set to gain from the move, the biggest beneficiary being the corporate house known to be the closest to the Modi regime, the Adani Group (whose chairman Gautam Adani is an ‘Agenda Contributor’ to Davos, and whose agribusiness subsidiary Adani Wilmar is part of the WEF’s NVA India Business Council).
Initiatives like the NVA offer clear proof – if proof is still needed – for global capital’s relentless expansion into new turf in search of greater profits, and the role of ‘front organizations’ like the WEF in enabling this. Whether in the form of the Great Reset or in some other name, the fact remains that the mega corporations, investment funds and ‘non-profits’ fattened on four decades of neoliberalism are well placed to turn every crisis into an opportunity for themselves. If anything, the present calamity has only emboldened them. Even as the world is disoriented by the pandemic and the economic shocks of the lockdowns, its billionaire elites have made windfall gains, growing richer by an astonishing 10.1 trillion dollars in the first six months of the crisis.
It follows naturally that as long as the crisis lasts, it will be used as cover to push through the Great Reset’s relentlessly expansionist agenda. In India though, the eruption of massive protests against the Modi government’s farm bills have put an unexpected spoke in its wheel. Perhaps history will mark the ongoing struggle of Indian farmers as not just the largest protest against corporate takeover in the country’s history, but the first major uprising against neo-liberalism in the post-pandemic world. Indeed, it could very well turn out to be the first wave of consequence in a global tide of resistance to come.
Sajai Jose is a freelance researcher and journalist based in Kerala, India. His chief area of interest is the interface between ecology, economy, politics, culture and ethics. He was also the editor of Ecologise, a website that curated content on ‘The 21st century’s converging crises and alternative pathways.’ The website is no longer updated, but is available as an archive (www.ecologise.in). He has also translated a Malayalam novella, published in English as Requiem for the Living (2013, OUP).
Some of the images used for this article have been taken from open online sources.
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