The fourth industrial revolution will further marginalise the subaltern
The fourth industrial revolution promises to transform the entire economic structure as we know it. By changing the economic basis of social organisations, technological revolutions fundamentally transform the entire social structure. In India, apart from economic classes, we also have caste and the intricate web of relations between castes. In simple terms, castes are endogamous social groups organised around hereditary professions.Even though hereditary professions are breaking down in the past few decades, there still exists a strong correlation between the caste and broad professional category with forward castes concentrated in the upper echelons of the value chain in the production process while backward castes are at the lower end.
And as the old village economy melts away in the face of urban-industrialisation, many of these caste-based professions have become obsolete, already throwing millions of people into a crisis of survival. Since India has failed to invest in social goods like health and education, these sections of society have been unable to move to different professions ,which require educational capital. This lies at the root of the “late convergence stall” in India. Late convergence stall refers to the phenomenon of a late comer being unable to make the jump to a higher-income status and remaining stuck in the low-income category. One of the main reasons is the increasing technological divide between countries and the inability of the late comers to bridge the gap by investing in human capital. It is extremely difficult to train an illiterate and unskilled workforce to handle new hi-tech production processes.
The problem is daunting in India. The advent of the modern capitalist economy under the colonial rule and acceleration of the industrialisation after independence reinforced the economic and social distance between castes. The backward castes stayed where they were while forward/dominant castes leapfrogged into the modern economy due to higher social and educational capital. The difference between them was now overlaid with the urban-rural divide as well as with the divide between high-productivity modern and low-productivity traditional sectors of the economy. This process exaggerated the intercaste inequality far beyond what was possible in the rural-agrarian economy where all the castes shared the same, albeit an unequal, space.
Now Artificial Intelligence and the fourth industrial revolution may herald another phase where those with requisite skills due to the higher social and educational capital can further move up the economic value chain under the new structure of production leaving those at the bottom further behind. This can lead to mass social antagonism and unrest, which can potentially become a breeding ground for radical and anarchist ideologies and groups. Already the old stable permanent jobs are disappearing, which so far have been the most crucial and, for some castes, the only way up the socioeconomic ladder. The new economic reality demands more flexibility, technological skills and creative thinking for which a large section of the marginalised castes is unequipped. The technological disruptions also demand frequent retraining, which involves an economic cost that might be unaffordable for those who are already marginalised.
But the political discourse in India, especially of the champions of social justice, remains oblivious to these developments. There is no focus on how to train the subaltern for the new economic structure or how to ensure social security when permanent jobs can no longer be guaranteed. What we fail to understand is that rhetoric is no substitute for a policy roadmap. And it is time that we start demanding it from our politicians. What is the reason that in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, political parties ruling for decades in the name of the subaltern and social justice failed to invest in quality health and education?
What India needs is a new political discourse which locates social justice in ensuring universal health and education, skill development, easy market-entry for entrepreneurs from the subaltern castes, and next-generation social security delinked from the job and place of work. What we need is a fundamental rethinking of our social and economic future. Twentieth century ideologies and discourse can no longer work.
Abhinav Prakash Singh is an assistant professor at SRCC, Delhi University
The views expressed are personal