European politicians have to deal with the consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, writes Romanian analyst Radu Magdin. If they fail, our deepest democratic fears could become reality.
At a time of massive uncertainty, the world — and especially the West — has the difficult task of putting together a robust answer to the actions of political challengers, of emboldened anti-democrats and illiberals. This entails defending what is worth preserving and changing what voters consider to be broken. The contours of a new social contract, as an obvious attempt to adapt to the new landscape brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, should be an important topic of the European elections in May.
Turmoil at home kept both US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron from attending the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, but the US and France should be on board in finding global solutions to the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Should governments not be interested enough in preparing the future, our deepest democratic fears could become reality.
We need a new social contract
In the business world, the disruptors and innovators are admired. In politics, it's a bit of a different story: the challengers are somehow perceived with apprehension, especially since the centrist, mainstream political leaders have trouble connecting an inspirational approach with the prosaic act of governing. Look at the predicament Europe's most recent political "wunderkind" — Emmanuel Macron — is facing and contrast it with the persistent threat of the populists, who incessantly seek to reinvent themselves and broaden their message. We are caught in a game of Russian roulette, and with every set of elections in which the social contract is not being overhauled, our democratic states are becoming weaker. Slowly but surely, we lose the antibodies that allowed so much progress in the 20th century.
The dark forces are actively searching for a way to break through. Their chances of success are still quite low at the moment, but they keep rising. The herculean task is matching disruption with inclusiveness and putting both at the heart of the new social contract. Too little has been done to rebuild this foundation of our democratic arrangement.
Complacency will no longer do. A few basic principles should be taken into account by all those who attended Davos and by politicians preparing to run in the European elections in May.
Putting the economy in the service of communities
Globalization 4.0. does not work for everyone. Although the aggregate numbers could indicate a positive outcome, a more fine-grained approach reveals a great degree of heterogeneity. It is paradoxical: We talk so much about inequality, but our conceptual tools are still blinded by the idea of the average.
Understanding the disruptive potential of those left behind — the so-called losers of globalization — is key. The economy, be it national or global, does not function independently of politics. The idea that elites can perpetually frame citizens so that they can buy into all kinds of scenarios against their interests has been disproven by reality. Putting the economy in the service of our communities will be one of the essential themes of our democracies.
There is still a troubling inability to understand the future of work and the connection between work and meaning in life. With automation, and the processes it has triggered, what alternatives are available for those most likely to become the victims of this evolution? How do we make sure that there is still a place for them in our increasingly atomised and judgemental societies?
Social safety nets encourage innovation
We should stop preparing people for yesterday's jobs. This is not about one skill or another — it is very likely that in 20 years they will be obsolete — but about learning resilience and adaptation. By creating true safety nets, we should encourage people to take risks and rekindle their connection with innovation.
Finally, a fair and inclusive discussion about the funding of a new social contract is long overdue. Fiscal optimization and inequality have become a burden for democracy and this has to be acknowledged in fora bringing together national and local governments, corporations, citizens and representatives of the third sector. It would be helpful to switch to the post-WWII mode, to that kind of understanding of the political, social, and economic dynamics that in the end made the free market preachers swallow the pill of a robust welfare system. Otherwise, the internal troubles of our democratic societies will only increase the global competition and the fearful uncertainty that surrounds us.
Radu Magdin is a Romanian analyst and consultant. He worked as an honorary adviser to the Romanian prime minister (2014-2015) and also advised the Moldovan prime minister (2016-2017). Between 2007 and 2012, he worked in Brussels with the European Parliament, EurActiv and Google. He is a Forbes Romania Trendsetter and a NATO Emerging Leader with the Atlantic Council of the United States.