The First Industrial Revolution happened as a result of mechanisation and humans harvesting the power of water and steam. The Second industrial revolution was characterised by electricity, mass production and assembly lines. The Third industrial revolution came about as a result of computers and the desire to automate different processes.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, this revolution has started taking hold in retail stores and other manufacturing industries and is quickly spreading beyond. The machinery in manufacturing plants is controlled by artificial intelligence and automated bots. Everything is being melded together through digital connection. Appliances, cars and security systems can now communicate with each other.
It is argued that this “revolution” is a way to advance the quality of life, by reducing the dangerousness and unhealthy hard labour through introducing computers and machines. It presents itself as a solution to most societal problems, and to the mass production of resources.
However, each of these revolutions brought about unprecedented, paradoxical changes in the way people lived especially poor people in the context of South Africa “Black people”. Many jobs became extinct, many people lost their lives due to the climate change resulting in floods and cyclones and inequality widens.
The Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky raised the contradiction of technological and scientific development under capitalism. Trotsky argues:
“Technology and science have their own logic—the logic of the cognition of nature and the mastering of it in the interests of man. But technology and science develop not in a vacuum but in human society, which consists of classes. The ruling class, the possessing class, controls technology and through it controls nature. Technology in itself cannot be called either militaristic or pacifistic. In a society in which the ruling class is militaristic, technology is in the service of militarism.”
—“Radio, Science, Technology, and Society,” March 1926
This new revolution puts us in a situation where we question the future of employment in South Africa. South Africa being a capitalist state, it is without any doubt that this new development of technology will speak to capitalist interest. The main interest of Capitalists is the value added by the exploitation of the worker’s unpaid labour and the value that this adds to the commodity they produce or the services they deliver, along with a market of consumers who can afford to buy them.
Karl Marx himself first grappled with capitalism’s internal contradictions sometime between the first and second industrial revolutions. Marx observed that capitalists paid workers less than the value of their labour in order to make a profit. When expressed cumulatively, it meant workers would be unable to afford the very goods they produced in the first place.
As a result, capitalists turned to issuing government and worker debt, thereby kicking the contradictions down the road. With emergence of the Fourth industrial revolution the similar contradictions become more evident, for companies to be able to compete with each other under capitalism, they will find it as a viable solution to reduce labour costs and replacing workers with machines and robots in order to generate profit.
Most of employment in South Africa comes in the form of unskilled labour, i.e. the cashiers in the retails shops, the security guards and domestic workers. This emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will hit hard on South Africa considering the fact that South Africa is rated amongst the highest unemployment rate in the world. The increase in unemployment due to many workers being replaced by machines will mean that people will not have money to buy goods that are produced by the machines. The Greek finance minister sums it up this way:
“Think about all of the gadgets that it creates, the technologies. Just very briefly imagine for a moment that this technological innovation, artificial intelligence, robots, moves in a manner in which it is moving, but even faster. Very soon, you’re going to have robots producing everything. Now, the robots do not want to consume that which they produce. And the rest of humanity is not going to have money to buy it. So, capitalism is going to have a massive crisis, simply because it will have a humongous capacity to produce stuff, and no capacity to consume it, which is already what we are observing”
(Democracy now, 2018)
A German Socialist Philosopher Friedrich Engels in his 1891 Introduction to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital argues:
“The division of society into a small, excessively rich class and a large, property less class of wage-workers results in a society suffocating from its own super-abundance, while the great majority of its members are scarcely, or even not at all, protected from extreme want. This state of affairs becomes daily more absurd and – more unnecessary. It must be abolished, it can be abolished.”
The only solution is still the same as the one that was given by Marx and Engel during the first and the second Industrial revolution which is the abolishment of capitalism and a socialist society in which the world wealth is owned by the workers who created it and planned so that society as a whole can benefit.
Capitalism did not survive the previous revolutions without experiencing challenges, it survived through looting the assets of the colonial countries and utilizing their workers as an inexhaustible wellspring of shabby work. However what makes this revolution a different one from previous one is that it does not only affect industrial workers but also those who identify themselves as the “middle class”.
All these factors would cause the capitalist system to collapse. Crises would follow each other more and more quickly and the position of the working class would permanently deteriorate due to poverty and unemployment. What Marx predicted is slowly becoming evident in South Africa, the unemployed people will suffer as the result of this new development until the moment that the tension would become untenable. Then it would be time for a revolution.