The G20, Two Protests, and an Impoverished Digital Future

By January 14, 2019Blog

After attending the G20 Argentina summit with a team from Global Policy, Alex Kirby-Reynolds writes that policymakers need to consider the true costs of new digital technologies, including their impact on inequality and the fuelling of the flames of the far-right.

In Buenos Aires on the 2nd of December, after waiting 10 minutes while two of his assistants adjusted, readjusted and again readjusted the French and European flags to make sure that they were exactly even for the cameras, Emanuel Macron began his press conference. Speaking to the world’s media following this years’ G20 summit the French President declarealex blogd that he would not be answering questions on the subject of the Gilet Jaunes and the protests that were going on back in Paris. After being asked twice further, being invited to give his interpretation of the protests, he eventually relented to say that while he understood that many of the French public were unhappy, this did not make violence and the destruction of private property acceptable, and that the full weight of the law would come down on those responsible.


A week later in London, Tommy Robinson attempted to re-launch himself as the symbolic leader of UKIP, spearheading a ‘Brexit Betrayal’ march that was reported as gather upwards of 3000 people. Followed by banners reading #freetommy and “Jo Cox False Flag”, Robinson has styled himself as a global man of the people. In doing so, is pictured by followers as speaking out against the injustices of the ‘deep state’ and the world’s elite – often, an unsubtle anti-Semitic reference to George Soros and the Open Democracy Foundation – against the marginalised white working class. Having significant numbers of supporters across Europe and the US – where he has amassed considerable financial backing through the work of conservative organisers who perpetuate the fantasy that the London and the UK ‘have fallen [to Islam]’ – Robinson’s has made him into a popular figure. His public Facebook page has double the followers of Theresa May’s, and this provides him with a revenue stream and a platform to whip up a frenzy about migration through creating a fear of ‘Islamic invasion’.


Voices unexpected and unheard

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Common causes between these two protests can be identified in the statements of Pamela Anderson, who recently tweeted “I despise violence… but what is the violence of all these people and burned luxury cars, compared to the structural violence of the French – and global – elites”. Anderson has recently come out in support of the yellow vests and interprets the movement as a call for a new social justice order, whereby citizens are treated with dignity and to a fair share of wealth and income. The difference between ‘Brexit Betrayal’ and the Gilet Jaunes, however, is that the UK far right have had far greater success in taking ownership of the national discontent that has been brought on by structural violence. In France, meanwhile, attempts by Le Pen and le Front National to tell the story of the people’s anger have been drowned out.


While Macron did not wish to discuss the inequality at the heart of his fuel tax – with the issue not being his attempts to reduce environmental harm, but placing the burden of doing so upon those already struggling – at least he was willing to host a public press conference. Theresa May, on the other hand, was not, and instead did not allow anyone who wasn’t pre-and-privately-selected to attend her conference. At 9 minutes in total, hers’ was the shortest by far at the summit, and the online livestream ended before the first question had finished being asked.


G20 futures, going for growth

Had Anderson read the summit communiqué, or seen May’s talk upon her triumphant return to parliament, then she might have been pleasantly surprised. In both places, it was announced that the world leaders would be taking very seriously the notion of building an economy that everyone can benefit from. Unfortunately however, despite these pretences to the contrary, she would have found her concerns given little attention. Digital technologies and ‘the 4th industrial revolution’ (automation, A.I, and more generally digitally mediated production/consumption) comprised one of the main topics of discussion at the summit, and while a lot of noise was made over the need to take seriously the challenges that this change will bring, the list of policy options drawn up tell a very different story.

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In attempting to forecast the most likely scenario, Sherpas and economic ministers have severely underestimated possible social changes, expecting the only difficulty worth creating specific policy for being the need to provide vocational education opportunities across full lifespans so that the labour force can be suitably responsive to the fast evolving needs of the digital economies. Their assumption is that, if people need higher skills for new jobs, this will entail that they are paid higher wages. Thus, their prediction: that short term hardships will engender long term prosperity if smaller businesses and citizens are given the support to utilise these technologies.


In a toxic prioritisation of growth, G20 officials have ignored the following issues: (a) that new technology consistently increases income inequality both nationally and globally; (b) that digital technologies are increasing the precariousness of work, and eroding workers’ rights; and (c) that we need large net reductions in global production and consumption levels – not increases – in order for our economic activities to be environmentally sustainable. These are the political issues that need the G20’s serious attention, not whether the needs of capital accumulation are met.


Digital barrens

We are in a moment, globally, where the inequities of globalisation are being increasingly railed against. In some places – such as in France, with its particular histories of resistance – this has led to popular protests against the injustices of the economic system. In many other places however, welfare chauvinism has led to attacks against migrants and those seeking asylum. Unless there is sufficient political will put into developing economies that effectively use technology to meet the needs of all people and the planet, then people like Tommy Robinson will not be following Pamela Anderson and protesting about being let down by global inequality and barriers to human flourishing, but instead will lash out that Theresa May and her hostile environment are not sufficiently authoritarian.