By Fr Cedric Prakash SJ
This year the World Day of Social Justice (February 20) is being observed in extremely trying times all over the world. The first signs and cases of the pandemic had already gripped parts of the world in December 2019; but it was not until after the middle of February 2020 did the seriousness of situation actually set in.
Governments everywhere, UN agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO), went into a frenzy. The concerted effort was not only to stop the deaths, to contain the pandemic COVID-19 but also to find effective preventives and cures to address what is regarded as the deadliest virus to hit humankind in recent times.
In a matter of time nations and cities were locked down; international and domestic travel was stopped; factories offices, educational institutions closed. All normal routine life which most took for granted – was either woefully disrupted or came to a grinding halt. Economies, particularly of the poorer nations, were shattered.
For almost a year now a ‘new normal’ began to emerge: it is called ‘work from home’ (WFH); in short, it meant you needed to have a digital device: be it a computer or a smart phone and of course, a good, stable internet connectivity. So, millions of people found some solace in this; students had online classes, discussions and even official meetings took place over webinars.
A whole range of challenges and social concerns thus emerged due to this latest form of work: what about those whose lives and livelihoods are centred on daily physical presence: workers on a building construction site or for that matter, a street hawker? What about those who cannot afford to buy one of these sophisticated gadgets or who do not have access to good internet connectivity?
Whilst the pandemic created the environments of remote working by digital platforms, it also caused a digital divide as there were several factors that detrimentally influenced labour opportunities. It is appropriate then that the theme chosen for World Day of Social Justice is ‘A Call for Social Justice in the Digital Economy’, with a view to address the challenges and concerns.
The introduction to the theme states:
“The digital economy is transforming the world of work. Over the past decade, expansion in broadband connectivity, cloud computing, and data have led to the proliferation of digital platforms, which have penetrated several sectors of the economy and societies. “Since early 2020, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to remote working arrangements and allowed for the continuation of many business activities, further reinforcing the growth and impact of the digital economy. “The crisis has also laid bare and exacerbated the growing digital divide within, between and across developed and developing countries, particularly in terms of the availability, affordability and use of information ICTs and access to the internet, deepening existing inequalities”.
The hi-tech elite will surely point out to the many positives in a digital economy; one can surely go on ‘ad nauseam’ highlighting some of the benefits accrued because of the digital platforms to this modern age.
Unfortunately, an objective and a more dispassionate look into reality, will clearly show the negative impact the digital economy has on millions of people: the casual workers, the migrant workers, the small entrepreneurs and other subalterns who have suffered immensely this past year. They have all fallen victims to newer forms of injustice which though not very visible, are as brutal and oppressive as the more traditional and obvious ones.
The ordinary labourer is the most affected by the digital economy. One of the most pathetic sights on the TV screens and the print media was to see pictures of migrant workers from several of the big cities walking back to their homes in the rural areas, in the height of the pandemic. Many of them, for want of public transportation had to trudge back miles because of the lockdown.
The urban informal sector was badly hit everywhere. These were ordinary men and women, for whom digital platforms means absolutely nothing. Their work is of a physical nature, most of them are location-based, earn a daily wage, live frugally and save a little for their families who in most cases, live in rural areas.
Millions of workers lost their jobs overnight; even on their return, in some states like UP and Gujarat they had to agree to new policies with longer hours of work, with lesser wages and without access to a trade union. The three labour codes, which are blatantly anti-worker, was shoved down by an uncaring Government and their crony capitalist friends during the pandemic.
In his pathbreaking Encyclical of 1891, ‘Rerum Novarum’, Pope Leo XIII wrote:
“When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor has no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State”.
One hundred years later, in 1991, later (now Saint) John Paul II in his encyclical ‘Centesimus Annus’ said:
“Justice will never be fully attained unless people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity for showing kindness and a chance for greater enrichment”.
Last May, Pope Francis spoke very strongly about the plight of the migrant workers saying:
“I want to defend all exploited workers and I invite everyone to turn the crisis (the pandemic) into an occasion where the dignity of the person and the dignity of work can be put back at the centre of things.”
Fifty years ago, the 1971 Synod of Bishops on ‘Justice in the World’ ushered in a watershed moment for the Church. The Synodal document stated:
“In the face of the present-day situation of the world, marked as it is by the grave sin of injustice, we recognize both our responsibility and our inability to overcome it by our own strength. Such a situation urges us to listen with a humble and open heart to the word of God, as he shows us new paths toward action in the cause of justice in the world.”
A call so painfully relevant today.
An objective and a more dispassionate look into reality, will clearly show the negative impact the digital economy has on millions of people. Another dimension which needs to be addressed where digital economy is concerned is called ‘digital fascism’. We are experiencing a painful explosion of this fascism in India in the recent past. It is a fascism which spews hate, is divisive in nature and keeps large sections of the population in a state of impoverishment and with the denial of human rights.
In an excellent analytical article in the popular online portal ‘Counterpunch’ (February 18, 2021) entitled ‘What Is Digital Fascism?’, authors Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms write:
“Compared to the classical type, digital fascism may well be furnished with the greatest propaganda machine the world has ever seen – the Internet. Unlike, classical fascism which used printed newspapers and radio, digital fascism transmits its hate messages through the Internet…“
“…Digital fascism thrives on political half-truths, bull shit, accidental misinformation, deliberate disinformation, apocalyptic end-of-the-white-race delusions, rumours, innuendo, hate campaigns, falsehoods, crank palaver, and, of course, the infamous conspiracy theories which in reality have never been ‘theories’ but are conspiracy fantasies”.
‘Digital fascists’ are able to plant fabricated yet incriminating ‘evidence’ in the computers of human rights defenders and dissenters. This has been meticulously revealed in the explosive report recently released by Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts-based digital forensic company.Arsenal has found that malware was used to insert incriminating letters and other documents into the computer of Rona Wilson, a prisoners’ rights activist. Wilson is one of the 16 incarcerated in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case. It goes without saying that similar ‘evidence’ is also planted in the computers of the others.
Then we have the other cases of environmental activist Disha Ravi and others who apparently used a ‘tool-kit’ in tandem with Greta Thunberg, suddenly the ‘godified’ media is all in a frenzy with all kinds of allegations of sedition, anti-national activities and so on.
Fascists are also very selective the so-called celebrities who vociferously posted protest tweets prior to 2014 when the UPA government was in power against the petrol hike at that time- does not dare protest when the price of fuel has reached an all time high of Rs 100 per litre and at a time when the global prices have plummeted rock-bottom.
Klikauer and Simms underline this saying:
“So far the conflict lies between an open society with free speech at its core, on the one side, and a closed one where right-wing extremists to use the same online platforms to destroy it. These fanatics replace them with anti-democratic and above race-based media remains unsolved. But how this comes about remains an unsolved mystery.“
“Perhaps, it is just as Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once said, ‘It will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.’ Today, it seems that democracy will give its deadly enemies (digital fascists) the means (e.g., Facebook) which these fascists will use to destroy democracy. Unfortunately, this is no joke”.
The digital economy has therefore thrown up a plethora of justice related issues; a similar reality emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution. What happens to those for whom digital platforms make no sense? For many it is not about possessing a mobile phone but if that gadget can earn them their daily wage. What about those who are selectively targeted by digital fascists?
The UN hopes that this year’s commemoration of World Day of Social Justice would support
“…efforts by the international community to search for solutions to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication, the promotion of full employment and decent work, universal social protection, gender equality and access to social well-being and justice for all. “Consequently, it aims at fostering dialogue with member States and relevant UN institutions and other stakeholders on actions needed to overcome the digital divide, provide decent work opportunities, and protect labour and human rights in the modern era of digital technologies”.
To make this lofty ideal a reality, will certainly need not only a political will but the active collaboration and commitment of all people of goodwill. Given the sad reality that in India and in some other countries of the world fascism is on the rise, the one question which needs to be put and answered on World Day of Social Justice: Is there social justice in the digital economy?
*Human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer