Utopia for Realists: And how we can get there By Rutger Bregman

About Rutger Bregman:

Rutger C. Bregman is a Dutch popular historian and author. He has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics, including Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, which has been translated into thirty-two languages. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC. He has been described by The Guardian as the “Dutch wunderkind of new ideas” and by TED Talks as “one of Europe’s most prominent young thinkers”. His TED Talk, “Poverty Isn’t a Lack of Character; It’s a Lack of Cash”, was chosen by TED curator Chris Anderson as one of the top ten of 2017. (Source: Wiki)

Utopia for Realists – A Summary

Utopia for Realists opens with exploring the need for utopian thinking, of dreaming. Bregman takes a longview of human history and outlines how ‘where 84% of the world’s population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decade later, it is under 10%’. Considering how basic needs, survival and safety were the major concerns through the past, utopian thinking during those times evoked the ‘land of plenty’ – an escape from earthly suffering. His contention is that in many ways, the world we live in now embodies that idea of the ‘land of plenty’. He clarifies that this is no manner implies that the present world is utopian, very far from it. “According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gazes on the furthest horizon and rehoist sails, “Progress is the realisation of utopias”, he wrote.”, says Bregman. The question that he puts at the heart of his book is: when faced with a world where survival and safety have been addressed to some extent, how do we look to the future? What are the ideas that define the new utopia? He writes, “We need a new lodestar, a new map of the world that once again includes a distant, uncharted continent – “utopia”.”

In his interview with Ezra Klein, Bregman points out that, Every utopian vision starts with the injustices of today.” Taking this approach Bregman walks us through ideas that he thinks might be central to the utopia of our times. He begins with the disclaimer: “This book isn’t an attempt to predit the future. It’s an attempt to unlock the future. To fling open the windows of our minds.”

Chapter 2, 3 and 4 chart the path to one of the core ideas in the book – universal basic income. Bregman argues for the idea by sharing the research on various field based projects that have tried distribution of basic income and their outcomes across various countries. He says that all of the research proves that basic income for all works to improve holistic well-being and pull people out of the poverty trap. Examples from Canada and several African nations showed improvements across various parameters such as reductions in malnutrition, truancy, crime, school attendance, maternal health etc. Children especially benefited from it, leading to increase in age of marriage and detering child labour.

The primary challenge to this policy, Bregman outlines, comes from how we frame the poor as lazy and stupid. This approach he feels isn’t a war on poverty but on the poor. He outlines how this belief is an extreme fallacy based more on faulty ideology and class distance rather than evidence. He additionally shares how contexts are extremely powerful and can seriously influence behaviour. He shares ‘scarcity mentality’ research which shows how being poor makes people focus more on the immediate, making it difficult to plan. The approach to universal basic income challenges this incorrect framing of the poor and instead puts the choice in the hands of the poor. It holds that the “real experts on what poor people need are the poor people themselves”. Fighting poverty, he adds, has great benefits. By taking away insecurity and scarcity thinking, one adds to the mental bandwidth of people to improve child rearing, have better health, be more productive and more. He backs this with making alongside a strong case for how fighting inequality is not only good for our communities and conscience but also for our wallets i.e. these are policy decisions which are economically viable.

Chapter 5 studies the rise of the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of progress a nation is making. He traces the birth of the concept in times of war and financial difficulties where it showed itself very useful in understanding the basic financial standing of the country. He points to how underneath the framework, to calculate GDP “numerous data points have to be linked together and hundreds of wholly subjective choices made regarding what to count and what to ignore”. It doesn’t, for example, take into account things such as community service, clean air, health of people, huge swath of unpaid labour; it instead profits from disasters, environmental pollution and human suffering on the other hand. He argues that for the world we live in we need to look at new metrics and formats to understand progress: “What we need is a dashboard complete with an array of indicators to track things that make life worthwhile – money and growth, obviously, but also community service, jobs, knowledge, social cohesion.”

Bregman begins Chapter 6, 7 and 8 on our work lives by sharing how many prominent thinkers of the early 1900s were convinced that by another century, we would be awash with time for leisure. John Stuart Mills actively spoke for the curbing of the workweek, “there would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress, as much room for improving the art of living”. Yet Industrial Revolution which propelled explosive economic growth has brought the exact opposite of leisure. The growth has translated into a rise in consumerism and far less time for leisure. He points to experiments conducted by Ford and Kellogg in their factories where they reduced working days and hours and found a drastic increase in productivity. Additionally, the extra time was allotted to children, to play, garden, read and more; citizens had more time for civic activities. “Countries with the shortest workweeks also have the largest number of volunteers and the most social capital”, he writes. Bregman also makes a strong case for the need for quality and meaningful work for all, steering away from a host of ‘bullshit’ jobs that have grown around us, those that are more invested in shifting wealth instead of creating it. He asks how people engaging in vital work like doctors, garbage pickers etc are undervalued and underpaid within our current system while those such as bankers are often paid much more. Bregman points out that, “In the end its not market or technology that decides what has real value, but society.” Hence, the need to rethink how we contemplate and restructure our education and work policies to reflect the world that caters to everyone’s wellbeing.

Another important shift which Bregman points to concerning the future of work, is the increasing automation of not only physical labour but also knowledge based labour – ‘the second machine age’. He advocates that just “as we adapted to the First Machine Age through revolution in education and welfare, so the Second Machine Age calls for drastic measures. Measures like a shorter workweek and universal basic income”. Otherwise, he warns, trends of deep inequality, poor income redistribution might lead to chaos and conflict.

In Chapter 9 Bregman begins with introducing and sharing the concept of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) based research and emphasises the need for approaching development from the perspective of evidence rather than ‘ ideology, ignorance and inertia’, calling it an approach that teaches us how ‘to be an idealist without becoming ideological’. He also begins to argue for the idea of ‘open borders’ in this chapter, pointing to how the estimated economic outcomes of an open border outweigh the benefits of development aid by leaps and bounds. He points out that it was only with the World Wars that borders became sacrosanct and tight. In the era of globalisation, only 3% of the world’s population lives outside their country of birth whereas we allow goods, services and stocks to criss-cross the globe. He writes, “In the twenty-first century, the real elite are those born not in the right family or the right class but in the right country”. He categorically breaks down and counters the ideas that have come to define the rationale behind closed borders: that immigrants are terrorists, they are criminals, lazy, they will undermine social cohesion, they’ll take our jobs, will lower wages, they won’t go back. Bregman shares research and argues that none of these statements have roots in facts. He writes: “Humans didn’t evolve by staying in one place. Wanderlust is in our blood. (…) migration has time and again proven to be one of the most powerful drivers of progress

In Chapter 10 and the epilogue, Bregman asks the question that looms heavy over the book: Is it really possible? He gives the example of how the Mont Pelerin Society, under the guidance of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek were able to upturn the legacy and approach of John Maynard Keynes and bring about a neo-liberal wave. He also shares how advocating for his ideas made him realise that “my so called lack of realism had little to do with actual flaws in my reasoning. Calling my ideas ‘unrealistic’ was simply a shorthand way of saying they didn’t fit the status quo.” Yet even as he gets this feedback, countries are already beginning to overturn this status quo and experiment with ideas such as universal basic income. He ends by saying, “If we want to change the world, we need to be unrealistic, unreasonable, and impossible. Remember those who called for the abolition of slavery, for suffrage for women, and for same-sex marriages were also once branded lunatics. Until history proved them right”.

Further readings:

Discussion themes and questions:

  • What are the utopian ideas that you are familiar with? How have they expressed themselves in the world around you?
  • Looking at your own life and community, which ideas shared by the author appeal to you and why? Which ideas do not appeal to you and why?
  • Examining your life and your community, what would be some utopian ideas that you would like to see expressed in the years to come?