Fragment of the future

Published On: August 29, 2019 01:25 AM NPT By: Bimal Pratap Shah

If Nepal is to avoid the dystopian future and revive its economy, it will have to revisit Democratic Socialism prescribed by BP Koirala

People love Karl Marx for his coruscating classics The Communist Manifesto and Das Capital.  The former he co-authored with Frederic Engels in 1848 formed the basis for the communist movement around the world. They argue capitalism will inevitably self-destruct to be replaced by socialism. The latter, published in 1867, explores the origins, development, and inner workings of the capitalist system, but also extols socialism. Now, well into the 21st century, The Fragment of Machines, other of his lesser-known scholarship is getting wider recognition especially with the dawn of Artificial Intelligence (AI). 

The first and the second Industrial Revolutions created a favorable environment to launch communist revolutions in the West. The newly introduced factory system designed to maximize profits forced the “industrial proletariat” into underpaid, unsafe, and unhealthy working conditions. Marx believed these unjust circumstances faced by the urban poor would eventually bring the crisis of capitalism—an economic and political system based on competition in the market in which wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. He warned if the capitalist system failed to amend this error, the working-class, to avoid getting pushed further into extreme destitution, would be forced to organize and overthrow the excessively exploitative system. He also postulated that the communist system would push humanity toward an enlightened era where production for the common good of humanity would win over profit maximization. 

Marx’s ideas did trigger communist revolutions in many parts of the world but failed to enlighten humanity. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia was inspired by Marx’s revolutionary idea of class struggle. Vladimir Lenin led the revolution and ended the Romanov dynasty’s rule establishing a proletariat government. The Bolsheviks later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.  Lenin, however, believed in putting authority in the hands of a small group within the party to maintain order. This practice conflicted with Marx’s vision of post-proletarian revolution governance framework.

Marx advocated for democratically electing leaders through elections but paying them no more than an average worker’s wage. Lenin was often criticized for his autocratic conducts, but he always argued that his dictatorial system was still democratic calling it Democratic Centralism. In reality, all policies, plans, and programs were enforced top-down without consulting the masses. This dysfunctional set up ultimately crashed the mighty Soviet Union in 1991 and the world celebrated capitalism’s victory.

Missing the opportunity 
After the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, Nepal was to transition to capitalism, but even with good intentions, the people that were put on the driver’s seat did not have adequate experience and knowledge to implement neo-liberal economic policies.  The hit-or-miss governance and planning created a massive economic divide between the haves and the have-nots, creating a ripe environment for the proletarian revolution. On the brighter side, neo-liberal economic policies fostered many private schools, hospitals, media outlets, and banks increasing the general public’s access to good education, healthcare, free press and credit. 

Marx’s vision of a communist system in which high levels of industrial production that ensured a good standard of living for the entire population became a reality to some extent only in China. After Jana Andolan II in 2006, Nepali people had high hopes of reaching the degree of Chinese efficiency and prosperity, but the left-wing trade unionism had already collapsed many factories and businesses that would have created huge employment opportunities. Instead, the revolutionary leaders became neo-bourgeois, living an extremely lavish lifestyle, while proletariats were forced to migrate to the Middle-East seeking employment opportunities. It seems the revolutionary leaders sold wolf tickets. 

The Communist Manifesto is rather inapposite, but Marx’s The Fragment of Machines published in 1973 is becoming meaningful. It predicts capitalism would ail once machines replace human labor. He said, “Once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the… automatic system of machinery… set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.” 

He was razzed for his insight for more than a century, but now with the arrival of AI, people are revisiting his thesis. 

The fourth Industrial Revolution powered by AI will disrupt every industry creating a huge gap between “low-skill/low-pay” and “high-skill/high-pay” segments. If nation-states fail to make adequate preparation, mass unemployment will be the new normal when machines replace humans in the job market, potentially creating political instability. 

Marx’s idea that capitalism would one day be replaced by a vastly more humane system of production and distribution is slowing taking center stage in many prestigious academic and social forums. According to AI analyst Tim Gordon, “AI-driven concentration of economic power accompanied by the desperation of the jobless could spark a revolution against capital-owning techno-elite.” He warns that state-controlled algorithms might outstrip market discipline necessary to produce a better lifestyle for the working class. The thing that is even more vexing is the fact that techno elites like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Baidu, Alibaba will be able to prescribe what they think is apposite for people.  

Socialism and Nepal 
Socialism is again gaining legitimacy because communism has failed and capitalism has started showing cracks. Socialism, however, is not new to Nepal. Both King Mahendra and Bishweswar Prasad Koirala were from the socialist school of thought. The former established the Panchayat system similar to Lenin’s Democratic Centralism, while the latter believed in Democratic Socialism, enjoyed by people in the ultra-prosperous Scandinavian nations. The Panchayat system collapsed in 1990 leaving Nepal as one of the least developed countries in the world because multiparty democracy was missing part of the equation. As a result, the system was not able to re-calibrate itself with the changing times. 

Had King Mahendra been alive, he might have sensed the coming geopolitical shift and realized that nationalism alone is not enough to develop a country.  If he realized that he would probably make necessary changes in the 80s. Unfortunately, his successors and hard-line ‘Pancha’ leaders of that time were too discombobulated to see the coming disruption. In fact, the system had become so despotic in the 80s that even members of the royal family were not safe from its tyrannical conducts. Prince Dhirendra was stripped of his title and had to live in a self-imposed exile mainly because he had taken sincere steps to empower the marginalized section of the society. 

If Nepal is to dodge the dystopian future and revive the torpid economy, it will have to revisit Democratic Socialism prescribed by Koirala, but enrich it for the 21st century. Time has shown that communist-style Democratic Centrism does not work and for capitalism to run like a well-oiled machine, the building blocks of democracy like the rule of law, strong functional institution, strong civil society, and properly functioning private sector have to be in place.  

The government leadership has to understand that a nation has to start securing high marks in indexes of universal human rights, e-governance, innovation, press freedom, human capital, economic complexity, open government, world values, global open data, climate change performance, global university ranking, shadow economies, world competitiveness ranking, world risk index, network readiness, global energy architecture performance, and financial development index.

It is so for Nepal as well. 


Shah is the author of “Democracy 4.0: Reimagining Governance in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”


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