Democracy in the 21st century
Since 2016, there has been a surge in interest in the future of liberal democracy in the light of recent shocks to the system.
Beyond discussions of populism, fake news and the regulation of the digital agora, however, there are several longer-term trends that stand to affect the nature and viability of democracy.
Fabian Futures’ first project will explore the different ways these factors might interact, reaching preliminary conclusions about the possible futures democrats should be most optimistic and most worried about – and how current decisions stand to affect their likelihood.
Factors we intend to examine include:
- AI, big data and machine learning
- Climate change and the end of growth
- Population ageing
- Automation and the shifting nature of work
- Data and platform capitalism
- Global and national shifts in inequality
We are particularly interested in exploring the following angles:
The role and relevance of the state
Left-wing governments have long struggled with the diffculties of implementing economic interventionist policies in an increasingly globalised world. Applications of new digital technologies such as big data and machine learning now look poised to further threaten the efficacy of state interventions and regulatory regimes. In a world where markets, social interactions and the flow of information is increasingly governed by algorithms, how can states hope to understand (let alone regulate) the effects they are having? And what do the ambitions of tech companies like Google and Amazon to eventually use their platforms to provide public services mean for the state: Should governments try and beat these companies at their own game, embracing the idea of ‘government as a platform’, or try and resist? If the latter, how can governments hope to regulate companies whose activities are opaque and whose operations straddle continents?
Work, power and the relationship between labour and capital
Automation, the ageing population and (in the shorter term) the casualisation of labour all stand to lead to significant changes to the nature of work over the coming decades. For the left (a movement that originated as the voice of organised labour), these changes will have huge implications and raise some pressing questions: How does labour retain power in relation to capital in a world of increasingly isolated, sporadic work – let alone in one in which automation radically reduces demand for human workers? What might the use of ubiquitous surveillance, big data and genomics to monitor and select employees mean for workers’ rights, and what could be done about it? Under what circumstances might population ageing lead to an explosion in the size of the labour market, and what would the consequences of this be?
Elections, decisions and accountability
There is currently no shortage of discussion about the effects of digital technology on democracy. In addition to conversations about trolls, fake news, echo chambers and data powered voter targeting, there are also numerous questions about how new technologies might affect the background conditions of democracy: What might happen to electoral processes in a world in which we are all accustomed to delegating difficult decisions to AI? How might the mechanics of the surveillance economy undermine equality and fair democratic discussion? And is it sensible or even achievable to try and keep the political domain as analogue as possible? There is also a series of fascinating debates about how to bring the public voice into decisions about controversial new technologies. One particularly important but underrdiscussed topic concerns the challenges morally pluralist democracies could face when deciding tough questions about the ethical standards programmed into AI.