Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman – review
The Guardian, by Will Hutton
This is a book with one compelling proposition for which you can forgive the rest. It is utopian visions that have driven humanity forwards. It was the hope we could fly, conquer disease, motorise transport, build communities of the faithful, discover virgin land or live in permanent peace that has propelled men and women to take the risks and obsess about the new that, while not creating the utopia of which they dreamed, has at least got us some of the way. Celebrate the grip that utopia has on our imagination. It is the author of progress.
Medieval idealists imagined a land of plenty – Cockaigne – where rivers ran with wine, everyone was equal and partied and drank all their lives. The trouble with today’s liberals – witness Hillary Clinton or any of Labour’s recent past or present leadership – is that they have lost any comparable vision, however far-fetched or unrealistic. Utopia has become the preserve of the right. It is Mr Trump and Mr Farage who dream of a world of America and Britain first, revelling in low taxes and little or no state, liberated from the dark forces of the UN, World Trade Organisation and the EU.
The liberal left, declares Rutger Bregman, a 28-year-old Dutch historian, has no comparable vision. Working family tax credits or spending 0.7% of GDP on aid simply don’t cut it. Liberals can hardly inspire themselves, let alone the electorate. Gone is a belief in socialism, science, great international institutions or even a willingness to experiment with new ways of living.
But if this is the book’s big insight, much of the rest fluctuates from the genuinely challenging to politically correct tosh. My biggest beef is the idea that increasingly grips liberal thinkers desperate for anything radical – the concept of a universal income for all. Financially, behaviourally and organisationally bonkers, this idea is gaining traction on the bien pensant left. The proposition is that because a rogue capitalism is going to automate away most of our jobs, human wellbeing can only be assured by everyone receiving a universal basic income.
Apart from the fact that human needs are infinite, so that today’s predictions of the end of work will prove as awry as those of previous centuries, a universal basic income is no more likely to succeed than communism. Behavioural psychology confirms what even the young Marx, a basic income-for-all sceptic, knew in his bones: we humans believe that reward should follow proportionate effort. It is our just desert. Trying to reconfigure our core hard wiring so we don’t object to anyone anywhere getting a guaranteed income for no better reason than they are alive could only be devised by a fifth columnist anxious to consign liberalism to oblivion. Bregman himself worries in the book – his candour is refreshing – that he could be wrong, but dismisses the anxiety. He was right to be worried.
But his joyful dissection of much of the purposeless work thrown up by modern “bullshit” capitalism hits home. As he argues, too many of today’s jobs are ephemera, creating little or no value and making their holders despair, and if they ceased there would be little or no discernible fall in our living standards. “Work”, in terms of executing a craft or attempting to make the world a better place, is becoming the preserve of too few. How much better if we recognised the fact and opted for leisure? Alternatively, and much more realistically, how about creating more purposed companies and more purposed work? There is more than enough to do.
The third plank of Bregman’s utopia, on top of an impossibilist universal minimum income and an unlikely 15-hour week, is a world of open borders. The best help we can give the poor in the less developed world is to give them unfettered access to our land of plenty, he argues, so they can bootstrap themselves upwards, making both them and us wealthier. I understand that open borders and being welcoming to strangers is a great statement of common humanity – and that immigration is an economic benefit. But no society on earth can welcome unlimited numbers of strangers, keen to enjoy the benefits of whatever civilisation, without having made a contribution to it. Human beings believe that dues should be paid. Far better to manage our borders and let in as many immigrants as we can rather than open them indiscriminately.
So what about other utopias if those offered by Bregman are pie in the sky? Why not try to inject some moral purpose into today’s capitalism? Couldn’t ordinary people band together into newly legitimate trade unions to insist on better and more rewarding work? And how about creating a union of neighbouring states on our continent? We could call it the European Union. You may not dream the same dreams as Bregman – but he invites you to take dreaming seriously. For that alone, this book is worth a read.