A New Progressive Era

BERLIN — 3 July 2017

Digital economy: growth, prosperity and social security in a high-risk, high-opportunity era

3rd July 2017

This afternoon’s session on the digital economy begins with the critical question of whether the progressive left should aim to emulate and advance the successes of digital economy, or focus more on protecting citizens from the negative excesses of this developing sector.

The digital economy is still seen as a threat by the centre left, particularly with regard to its impact on the world of work. The growing ‘gig economy’ prompts fears over weakening workers’ rights, while the acceleration of automation and rapid developments in artificial intelligence pose a spectre of significant job losses.

But advanced digital technology and a growing digital sector also provides opportunities to modernise and improve our social welfare systems, as well as opening up new opportunities for work in developing industries. So, of course, progressives will need to be multi-faceted in their approach to the challenge.

Looking at services like Lyft and Uber, isn’t there a possibility to create these platforms as worker-owned cooperatives? Professor Stephen Silvia thinks so. It would be more palatable to the unions: a central argument against such services is the significantly limited protections and rights drivers have.

Reiner Hoffmann, president of the German Trade Union Confederation, agrees that what can be achieved in the future of the digital economy is unknown. We do not have a secure idea of what this economy will look like, but as old jobs are lost, there is no doubt new ones will be created. Trade unions as part of progressive movements must not just be voices of alarm, but active participants in ensuring the economy and labour market of the future work for the many.

Anousheh Karvar argues that it is not just the digital economy that is a considerable, disruptive transition and trend occurring in the industrial world. Geography, population change, investment and consumer habits are all driving forces of change in the labour market, with just as much significance.

Startups and technology companies get away with a lot. They are seen within the public mind as being exciting, innovative, and ‘doing good’, according to Laura Dornheim. Holding them to account is crucial, especially the Googles, Facebooks and Ubers of the world. They are not small startups anymore. They cannot hide behind a veil of good perceptions to allow cultures of sexism or tax avoidance to be nurtured and grow unchecked.

Integrating technology with healthcare is an example of enormous potential for the digital economy to contribute to positive social change. But it is paired with considerable risk. It does mean the replacement of jobs with automated methods. Jonathan Ashworth, UK Labour MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Health, looks to Brexit to offer analysis of people’s attitudes, either directly or indirectly, to technological automation. The backlash against the status quo in areas of Britain that backed leaving the EU was often a response from voters who felt their communities were not sharing in the dividends of a technologically advancing world, paired with the reduction of ample, secure work.