Social justice in a digital age - new ideas for a more ‘digital’ capitalism

The spread of digital technology is generating both new opportunities and new expressions of social ills, from employment insecurity to monopoly power. A new collaborative JRF project – led by James Plunkett – will examine these issues in depth and explore the arguments and ideas we might need to advance social justice in this highly uncertain era.

As cost-of-living pressures have mounted over recent months, JRF has focused much of our time and attention this year on pressing the Government to act to protect those on a low income. We were really pleased that the Chancellor listened to the calls that we made, alongside many others, for emergency financial support. That is the urgent work of addressing the immediate effects of poverty. At the same time, we believe it’s vital to also create space to explore the deeper tides and forces which shape the nature of disadvantage and injustice today – as well as to search for sources of hope and direction about the future.

There are few bigger, or more profound, trends to grapple with than the spread of digital technologies, whose tentacles extend ever further into our economy, society and everyday lives. It is plausible to argue that we are in the midst of a significant shift in the nature of capitalism itself, on a par perhaps with the emergence of mass-production, industrial capitalism a century ago. These changes, some still for now only at the frontier edges of our economy, have already thrown up new ‘social evils’ – from new forms of employment insecurity associated with ‘platform work’ to the concentration of power among big tech monopolies. At the same time, digital technology also holds new possibilities for supporting social change, by enabling people to connect, organise and assert their voice and interests in new ways.

A new JRF project for a new conversation

To interrogate these issues further – and stimulate a broader and deeper conversation – I’m delighted to share news of an exciting and important new project we are hosting at JRF. ‘Social justice in a digital age’ will be led by James Plunkett, author of ‘End State – 9 Ways Society is Broken and How We Can Fix It’. James is one of the most original and creative thinkers on the spread of digital technology and its implications for social justice, as well as bringing huge experience of policy making from inside and outside government.

The aim of the project is to get under the skin of digital capitalism, to identify the new forms of social and economic injustices it is giving rise to – and then to consider the kinds of ideas and innovations likely to be needed in response. The work will look for lessons from how Western societies responded to the emergence of industrial capitalism from the Victorian era to the birth of the post-War welfare state. And will aim to consider how laws, regulations, institutional arrangements, forms of collective organisation, state support and so on are likely to need updating in response to the character and logic of digital capitalism.

Running across the next six months, this will not be a traditional policy project. Instead, it will be built around longer-form writing – in search of new arguments and ideas to help understand what’s going on in society and chart a new course forward – combined with convening, dialogue and drawing on a diverse range of perspectives. In leading the work, James will be connecting with a wide range of people thinking about and taking action on issues of social justice that emerge from, or engage with, digital technology. In his Medium blog, he sets out more of his thinking on how the work will progress.

Supporting ideas-led work

The 20th century settlement to govern industrial capitalism, regulate markets and offer collective protection from economic risks did not emerge overnight (and was, in any case, never perfect or complete). It grew instead, messily and unpredictably, from decades of argument, experimentation, popular mobilisation and political action. We are going to need all of these ingredients of change again in the years ahead, to tame the excesses of digital technology and to harness its huge potential. We hope that ‘Social justice in a digital age’ is a project which makes an important contribution to this daunting but vital task.

Finally, this project is an example of the kind of ideas-led work we want to support and make space for at JRF; combining deep and original thinking with a belief that powerful ideas emerge from dialogue, convening and pluralism. And then connecting those ideas to opportunities for social change, through campaigning, policy influencing, experimentation and space to imagine and start to bring about a different future.