Contributed by David Barker, one of the UK’s first internet entrepreneurs, founder of The Centrist Party and author of ‘#eSociety: In the Digital Age, No One Should Be Left Behind’.
“Now we are entering the fourth industrial revolution, where networks confront hierarchies and the rise of the ‘gig’ economy…”. This statement isn’t new to many of us who see the present as an exciting opportunity to re-shape our world for the greater good, with technology empowering people to access opportunities that were not previously possible.
However, what is surprising to me is that it was said in London at an event to commemorate Karl Marx’s birth, and stated by the shadow chancellor of the exchequer for The Labour Party. He then went on to say that Marxism is a force for change today and one of the biggest influences on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for everyone having their opinions and ideas for change, whether they are individuals or political parties, especially in a world where so many have been left behind and where no-one has yet discovered the holy grail for the perfect system that can balance government, business and civil society. Indeed, it was witnessing the impact of predatory capitalism that led me to exit my internet company in 2004 and go on a journey to find new ways to fix the ‘broken system’, so that everyone can prosper in the digital age.
What struck me the most about the shadow chancellor’s statement is that we seem to keep falling back on people or systems designed for the first industrial revolution or earlier, whether they are Karl Marx, Machiavellian, or Adam Smith. It seems to me we have enough evidence of nation states implementing these philosophies that shows we need a new way. The digital age enables people from all over the world to be connected. Can we not co-design a new system together? A system that doesn’t just work for the few, nor just for the many, but for everyone.
Indeed, the world has certainly changed so much since the first industrial revolution. For example, today the gig economy has opened the door for so many citizens to be empowered — thriving on being self-employed and having access to markets to trade in that were previously closed or difficult to sell into. Technology has played a huge part in enabling this market access to take place. However, the problem is that too many roles in the gig economy are low paid whilst generating significant profits for the company accessing the gig workforce, or for the owners of the apps and networks enabling the gig economy to take place.
The negative impact of this is taking us to a critical crossroads — for some, exacerbating the call to roll back to state ownership and labour to be fully employed, and for others, including myself, that we must proceed seeking a balance where citizens can enjoy the empowering freedom of a gig economy which should enable higher income for its workers.
How can we achieve this outcome? First of all, we need a movement of like-minded people coming together with knowledge on the fourth industrial revolution to share their experiences and testimonies in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities and society at large. The good news is that this has already started and I am very encouraged by the work of organisations such as the Fourth Group and Global Citizen.
What is also important is that we can’t just be a movement calling on politicians to do things differently. I feel we must also train ourselves and stand in elections as councillors and politicians. I’m personally guilty of living a life expecting others to deal with the world of politics — career politicians as we call them. We still need career politicians too, it’s just that we need a blend of people and skillsets in all levels of society if we are going to usher in a new age of politics to maximise the potential of the fourth industrial revolution, and beyond.
To usher in this change we all need to play a part. For me, I felt I couldn’t ask others to get involved if I didn’t get involved myself to help. Taking a step into politics can feel daunting, it was for me when I first contemplated this reality in 2015. To help, I joined a part-time course ‘Leadership in Public Life’, which was 11 days in total spread over 8 months, 5 Saturdays and 3 weekends, so I could easily fit into my work commitments. The course enabled me to meet councillors, secretaries of state, EU officials and visit the United Nations and on the program, were people of all ages and from all walks of life — including students, self-employed, employees and entrepreneurs. This really reinforced my belief that anyone can take this step.
Then, it’s just about taking a step forward and standing for change. It doesn’t matter if you get elected or not the first time,
The key is to have a platform to share your views and build your experience of the current system.
However, you can’t change a system where you don’t understand both the positive and the negative, which often simply occurs just through the law of unintended consequences.
In 2017, I stood 3 times in UK elections — as a local councillor and then as an Alderman in Portsoken in the Square Mile, City of London, and as an MP in Tower Hamlets. Regardless of the type of election, the focus was the same: calling for an end to poverty and unemployment, and for business and enterprise to be the hero of the story — creatively establishing jobs with fair pay for gig workers and their respective suppliers.
I have ideas for local council and central government policies based on my own experience that I could use to advise on what is needed — however, I don’t believe it’s possible for one individual to define a blueprint for the modern age, or any age. This brings me back to where this article started — a call to acknowledge the past thinkers but also to evolve from them, both capitalists and Marxists. Let’s stand and work together to define a new way for governments, businesses, and civil society to work together to create a common ground where all citizens are truly empowered, enterprising with equality of opportunity for all.
This is what I call the eSociety. A society where all people can thrive whether as employees, workers in the gig economy or as entrepreneurs creating companies that grow, create jobs and healthy profits for investors in a way that is encouraged and applauded by society. To do so will take time, but I keep a positive outlook knowing there are millions of us already out there working to make it happen.
David was one of the UK’s first internet entrepreneurs in 1994. He exited his tech company in 2004 with a vision to tackle some of the global systemic barriers that hold many people behind in unemployment and poverty.
What happened next is now published in his book: #eSociety: In the Digital Age, No One Should Be Left Behind. Today, David is a social entrepreneur using tech for social good, including platforms such as Placer, and a political entrepreneur co-creating new approaches to participation in politics, including creating The Centrist Party.