Rutger Bregman: the Dutch historian who rocked Davos and unearthed the real Lord of the Flies

The Guardian, by Jonathan Freedland
10th May 2020

The historian offers a hopeful view of human nature in his latest book, Humankind. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

For most authors, now is the very worst time to bring out a book. The shops are closed; the festival circuit has migrated to Zoom; there’s a plague to compete with. But for Rutger Bregman, this might just be the perfect moment to publish Humankind, a sweeping survey of human existence which argues that, despite all our obvious flaws, most people are basically good.

A book whose subtitle is “A Hopeful History” should be welcome at a time when people are gagging for cheering news. It fits the mood too, appearing just as neighbours are helping neighbours, people are clapping for carers, and humans the world over are cooperating to save each other’s lives. What’s more, as some are talking of a radical fresh start once we emerge from this crisis, a 1945-style new settlement, Humankind offers a roadmap for how we might organise ourselves very differently.

At the very least, the book has all the right ingredients to be a hit. With luminous endorsements from a raft of big names, from Yuval Noah Harari to Stephen Fry; an almost indecently readable style; and a vast sweep, taking in history, archaeology, psychology, biology, economics, anthropology and much more, it’d be no surprise if it proved to be the Sapiens of 2020.

Fame would not be wholly unfamiliar to Bregman, who recently turned 32. He briefly became an online sensation at Davos last year when he turned on his audience, condemning the absurdity of the rich taking 1,500 private jets to hear David Attenborough warn of the climate crisis and, above all, their failure to pay their taxes or even to mention the word. He said he felt as if he were “at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water”.

He had already made waves with his book Utopia for Realists, a call for a universal basic income or UBI: an idea once dismissed as absurd, but which seems positively mainstream now that the UK government is paying 80% of the wages of all those furloughed by the virus crisis.

Humankind is a logical sequel to that earlier work. “In that book, I collected a lot of evidence that this [UBI] idea could actually work,” he tells me in a Zoom call from the home he shares with his photographer wife in Holland. It argued “that you could actually give people free money and they wouldn’t waste it on drugs or alcohol; you know, they would actually come up with wonderful ideas and maybe start a new business or move to a different job”. Once he started promoting the book, he found himself, usually within minutes, discussing something much larger than the mechanics of UBI: he was debating human nature itself.

He needed to persuade doubters that human beings were not fundamentally selfish, lazy or worse. The trouble was, those doubters included him. Sure, he was drawn to progressive ideas such as UBI or participatory democracy – through which local communities draw up, say, a budget by sitting in a room, thrashing it out and reaching a consensus – but these ideas relied on a very different, benign view of human nature, and “I didn’t really buy this view”. Most of what Bregman had read pointed in the other direction. To resolve that tension he started reading further, and the result, nearly six years later, is Humankind.

The book declares that political debate for centuries has turned on a critical argument about human nature. In one corner stands Thomas Hobbes, insisting that, left to their own devices, people will turn on each other in a “war of all against all”: they need the institutions of civilisation to restrain their otherwise base instincts. In the other corner stands Jean-Jacques Rousseau, countering “that man is naturally good, and that it is from these institutions alone that men become wicked”.

Bregman charts how Hobbes won the argument. Society and its key institutions –schools, companies, prisons – have been designed based on a set of bleak assumptions about human nature. But, Bregman says, the scientific evidence suggests those assumptions are badly flawed, that as a species we’ve been getting ourselves wrong for far too long.

This is where he has most fun, methodically dismantling some of the best-known nuggets of sociological and psychological conventional wisdom. Bregman considers the famous Milgram experiments – which purported to reveal that regular US citizens were willing to administer fatal electric shocks to strangers, so long as they were ordered to do so by a figure of authority – exposing that study’s deep methodological flaws. Did the people of Easter Island really turn on each other in a brutal war that descended into cannibalism? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Gloomy assessments of humankind … the 1963 film adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.
Gloomy assessments of humankind … the 1963 film adaptation of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies. Photograph: Ronald Grant

Stone by stone, Bregman breaks up the foundations that underpin much of our understanding of ourselves as callous, uncaring creatures hiding beneath a veneer of civilisation. That understanding has acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, he says: if people expect the worst of each other, they’ll get it. He can cite the experiments that show even lab rats behave worse when their handlers assume they’ll behave badly. Our true nature is to be kind, caring and cooperative, he argues. We used to be like that – and we can be again.

It’s surely not a coincidence that Bregman’s father is a Protestant minister. (His mother is a special needs teacher.) Humankind is the story of a fall from grace. Back when we were hunter-gatherers, we roamed peacefully in the Garden of Eden; then we enclosed a square of land, called it our own, invented property and settled down to defend it, wars began and our innocence was lost. Somehow, we have to find our way back to the Garden. Admittedly, that’s my summary of the book, but there’s even a section called The Other Cheek. Bregman may say he’s an atheist, but this is an intensely Christian work, isn’t it?

He laughs and admits: “In many ways, it is. I couldn’t help myself, writing the epilogue, thinking about what the rules for life could be if you held this [benign] view of human nature. I found myself quoting the Sermon on the Mount over and over again.” He remembers being a student and losing interest in the traditional questions of dogma – does God exist, did Jesus die for our sins – and being more interested in the effect religious belief has on believers. “Back then there were all these books being published by famous atheist writers like [Richard] Dawkins and [Sam] Harris, with subtitles like ‘How Religion Poisons Everything’. And I was like, you guys have got to meet my parents. This is clearly wrong.” As for his father, the priest: “People often say that I followed in his footsteps, that I’m just a secular version.” 

The argument he makes is compelling, not least his suggestion that gloomy assessments of humankind such as William Golding’s or Milgram’s flourished in the postwar era, as the world tried to make sense of the Holocaust. One section of the book is titled “After Auschwitz”. Which brings us to the biggest roadblock in the way of his argument. How to square the notion that humans are fundamentally good with a long and continuing history of humanmade horror, exemplified by the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews, including more than a million children? Bregman does an admirable job debunking those post-Holocaust experiments and theories, but the Holocaust itself still stands there, implacable and unmoving.

He has thought about it hard, noting that people are only really capable of doing dreadful things once they are physically distant from each other (and the book has fascinating stats on soldiers’ recurrent refusal to shoot at the enemy, a pattern going back centuries). But what about the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing squads that murdered an estimated 1.3 million Jews up close? Those men had established “psychological distance” from their victims, Bregman says, after exposure to years of Nazi propaganda. That might account for the German gunmen, but what about their collaborators in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine, people who’d had far less such exposure?

Bregman cites evidence that the motivation of perpetrators was often rooted in qualities we’d ordinarily admire: loyalty to their fellow soldiers, for example. He notes how the friendliness that sets humans apart – he calls our species “Homo Puppy” – has a dark side, because empathy with “us” can turn to murderous hostility to “not us”. “Our secret superpower” is our friendliness and ability to cooperate, he says, and yet “we’re also the cruellest of species”. But surely, that latter statement fatally undermines his thesis?

“I would emphasise that I’m not actually saying that people are good. The title of the book in Dutch is De Meeste Mensen Deugen, which is ‘Most People Are Deugen’, with deugen a word that you cannot translate. It’s sort of like ‘pretty decent deep down’ or ‘good after all’.” Later he refers to human destructiveness in these terms: “We’re not born to do this, but we’re capable of it.”

We talk about his age, and whether it takes the confidence of youth to write a book so bold and broad in its assertions, and to be willing to take on his elders: it includes repeated swipes at giants in the genre such as Harari, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker. (Bregman admits: “I was jealous of Sapiens.”) He says he has been lucky to be free of the specialisation demanded by academia, working instead for the much-admired Dutch journal De Correspondent, which gave him the freedom to pursue whatever interested him. It also meant he was not required to write news, which he thinks is as harmful to our minds as sugar is to our bodies, constantly focusing on the exceptional, which means the negative. But yes, he concedes, maybe the fact that he has few ties – no children yet – played a part. Besides, “I think that often the best work that people do is when they’re young, right?”

So does his confidence extend to this current moment? Is a reshaping of society towards cooperation and equality, at work, at school, in prison and in politics on its way? He says he doesn’t know, though he was struck by a recent and much-discussed Financial Times editorial calling for redistribution, UBI and wealth taxes. He’s been heartened by the “explosion of cooperation and altruism and people organising stuff from the bottom up” in response to the pandemic. But he says the crucial thing is that the left is ready when the immediate crisis passes, that its ideas are the ones “lying around” waiting to be picked up. Among those close to the top of the pile will, surely, be his.