Book Review – Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

By: Bradley Lineker

Review: Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), trans. Elizabeth Manton. ISBN: 9781408890264. Price: £16.99

Introduction

Utopianism has long been discredited in political thinking. According to theorists like Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, the pursuit of perfection has invariably ended in tyranny, disaster, and death. Yet, on the first page of Rutger Bregman’s[1] new book, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, there is a quotation by Oscar Wilde: ‘progress is the realisation of utopias’,[2] which asks us to think otherwise.

Bregman’s purpose, he tells us, is to ‘unlock the future. To fling open the windows of our mind’,[3] to get us to think not only about the world in different ways, but also about what we want it to look like. The book’s broad argument is relatively simple: previous utopias have only been blueprints about how the world should be, and not what it could be; a journey planned out to the minute and metre instead of relying just on a compass bearing. ‘And I do mean horizons in the plural[,]’ Bregman tells us, ‘conflicting utopias are the lifeblood of democracy[.]’[4] This isn’t a new argument. However, it is precisely the lack of utopian thinking that has stopped our politics from imagining different possibilities; according to Bregman, life and society have become schematized. It is the things that structure our society and political culture that Bregman is seeking to deconstruct, so to create space for new and alternative thinking. In this way, the book offers a snapshot of market liberalism; depicting it not as the well-oiled system that it pretends to be, but as an uneven cobbled-together mass of contradictory ideas and forces.

On this account alone, the book is remarkably successful in getting its reader to rethink stock ideas and phenomena. It particularly shines when considered as a well-packaged, and eminently readable, alternative think-tank digest. This is not to say that all Bregman’s positions are completely sound – plenty of work remains to be done on these areas – but that’s not necessarily the purpose of the book: the point is to get people thinking. This is a book about ideas and the aim of this review is to offer an open-handed discussion about the things that have been presented. Therefore, the first half of the review will assess the book as it is, breaking down the book’s core arguments into three thematic areas before the second half offers some points of discussion.

The Book’s Structure

The book is broken down into 11 breezy chapters (including the epilogue), of about 30 pages each. These cover a variety of topics, ranging from the support of universal basic income, to the absurdity of measuring by GDP, then on to the nature of employment in the post-capitalist world, before finally outlining how ideas can change the world. The translation from the original Dutch is close-to-perfect, and the prose is breezy, warm and accessible.

A word of note, though, the book has been designed to be a flowing external commentary of the work of other researchers in the areas Bregman has chosen to cover, and should not be read as anything else. It is also western-centric, which Bregman openly acknowledges. In fact, only the ninth chapter deals with the world ‘outside the gates of the land of plenty’[5] in any meaningful way, and, even then, it’s a loose chapter on the pitfalls of international development and the international border system.

Basic Income

Basic Income perhaps represents, more than anything else, the flagship of Bregman’s work so far – indeed he tells us that someone once called him ‘Mr Basic Income’[6] – so this idea unsurprisingly constitutes the first third of the book. Bregman outlines several examples about the utility and logic behind basic income, the most important being the ‘Mincome’ experiment, where in the 1970s people in the Canadian province of Manitoba were given ‘free’ cash instead of benefit entitlements. Through these examples, Bregman not only compellingly demonstrates their effectiveness but also addresses several of the key concerns around the utility of basic income. For instance, ‘people are concerned that if there was a basic income, then people would stop working, but in the Mincome experience the opposite seemed to happen.’[7] According to Bregman, this is attributed to three basic premises: (1) people often know what’s best for themselves,[8] (2) people want to succeed[9] and, (3) free from the mental demands of poverty (the ‘scarcity mentality’[10]), people make better decisions. He situates the debate over poor relief as to whether a life without poverty is ‘a privilege you have to work for, [or] … a right we all deserve.’[11] However, instead of letting his argument rest on moralism, he says that such a policy ‘meets the left’s demands for equality and the right’s demands for a smaller state’,[12] as it eliminates the need for a vast, weighty welfare system predicated on ‘control and humiliation.’[13] Such a tactic – of appealing to both sides of the political spectrum – is a signature of Bregman’s attempt throughout the book to bring together blocks of political opinion and point them in new directions – and it’s very welcome. In sum, Bregman’s arguments for basic income are well-considered, skilfully-constructed and offer a compelling avenue of debate on policy-making moving forwards.

 

 

Economic Measuring, Jobs and the Second Machine Age

The next third of the book looks at general economic measuring, jobs and his proposed 15-hour week. Bregman is right to criticize the current structure and timetable of the modern workforce,[14] however his proposed remedy isn’t entirely persuasive. The current timetabling of work arguably arose from the factory floor, and while Bregman does touch on this, he doesn’t do a good enough job of demonstrating how this was a method for a particular moment in time. Much the same as his treatment of GDP,[15] it may have been beneficial to show how current working patterns are also the result of fulfilling past needs – so to better persuade the unconvinced reader that they are outdated. Instead of this diagnosis, then, more attention is given to Bregman’s prescription, which consists of a 15-hour working week.[16] While he shows that, logically, shorter working weeks aren’t necessarily less productive, and they would undoubtedly lead to benefits to overall health and happiness, more is needed to reconfigure established traditions, such as a clear demonstration of the total redundancy of the current status quo. Seen next to the ready-packaged-policy of basic income, it is hard to see immediate uptake for a 15-hour week. This is particularly true, he argues, when governments are much more likely, for example, to make ‘labour costs, such as healthcare benefits … paid per employee rather than per hour.’[17]

However, his arguments about the need move beyond GDP as a measurement of a how a country are doing are compelling. For instance, a CEO who ‘recklessly hawks mortgages’ adds more to the GDP than a ‘school packed with teachers.’[18] Indeed, as he states ‘if I were the GDP, [the] ideal citizen would be a compulsive gambler with cancer who’s going through a drawn-out divorce that he copes with by popping fistfuls of Prozac and being berserk on black Friday.’[19] One of his more powerful sections is his argument on the ways we gauge profitability: as we don’t measure the long-term benefits of good education, we picture state services as a continual drain on our resources, and not something that rightfully should grow with our economy.[20] In a word, we don’t consider education as the investment that it should be seen as. Therefore, in his eyes, we need a ‘dashboard of indicators’ that include money and growth, but also a sense of community, service, the nature of jobs being created, pursuit of knowledge, social cohesion and free time.[21] While Bregman’s arguments are well put forward throughout this section, he doesn’t go far enough with these ideas. The dominance of GDP as a measurement of a state’s health says so much about the relationship between the state and businesses which the author, unfortunately, doesn’t explore.

World Without Borders and Education

There is a rhythmic progression to this book, in that it moves from almost-policy (Basic Income) to over-the-horizon ideas (the 15-hour working week), to the truly utopian – a world without borders. Bregman tells us that ‘borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history’.[22] He outlines a number of moral[23] and economic arguments[24] about the benefits of a world without borders and even conducts a six-page deconstruction of the usual arguments against migration,[25] but it would take a brave political leader in today’s climate to turn this into policy. But, as Bregman says, the point is to create new avenues of thinking and alternative utopias.

However, of greater interest, one of Bregman’s more interesting and incisive sections, on education, is slightly hidden away in a chapter entitled ‘why is doesn’t pay to be a banker’. Echoing recent trends of analysis, Bregman rigorously outlines how corporate culture has channeled ‘thousands of bright minds … to increase profits instead of find[ing] the cure for cancer.’[26] In particular, he argues that tax cuts in Reagan-era America spurred bright graduates to go into finance, rather than teaching or engineering.[27] Furthermore, he argues that all the big debates in education are about format or delivery, ‘education is presented as a lubricant to help you glide more effortlessly through life.’[28] Instead of looking at values, or addressing the problems in our societies that need solving, our education systems focuses on competencies. Alternatively, according to Bregman, we should be asking ‘which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030?’ This would give them a platform to create new futures, rather than carry on the same tired patterns of today.[29] It is these sections that the book particularly shines, and it is a pity that there aren’t more of them.

Points of Discussion: the need for narrative?

Overton’s window, as Bregman tells us, is a theoretical device that depicts political positions that are popular with voters versus those that are unpopular. He then goes on to state that populism has shifted the window to the right, skewing what we typically consider to be the political centre ground.[30] In a world where the internet has only made people cling ever more tenaciously to their beliefs,[31] how do ‘new ideas defeat old ones’?[32] Bregman doesn’t offer many answers here, as his account only looks to describe the problem as he sees it and to offer new avenues of debate. Inescapably, the failure of today’s progressive politics is more than just lacking a utopia to aspire to – there is a need to construct a coherent, easy-to-digest, narrative for why the world (and our societies) are the ways they are.

Part of an answer to this question lies with identity, something else the book doesn’t directly address. For a long time, left-wing movements across Europe refused to engage in the ‘dirty’ debate of national identity, and this abdication has provided right-wing movements with unquestioned authority and legitimacy in dictating what is best for a country – and what isn’t. George Orwell famously wrote, for instance, for the need of socialism in the UK to consider the intrinsic nature of Britishness as a positive force, before it could become successful as a project.[33] Indeed, in an interview about the book, Bregman himself says: ‘We associate nationalism as [an] inward-looking [ideology], which is about protecting what you already have. In the ‘90s there was this notion of the Netherlands being a ‘guide-country’, being the most tolerant on earth. You can feel patriotic on entirely progressive ideas.’[34] This is perhaps best shown with the United Kingdom post-Brexit, as it faces a breakdown in the ways that people self-identify as British or English/Scottish/Welsh/Northern Irish, European or non-European. The question isn’t whether progressive politics comes to terms with national identity, but how.

A key theme running throughout the book is the debate between free trade and protectionism, which has gathered renewed relevance since the election of President Donald Trump and Brexit. The fascinating subtext beneath this ongoing debate is, unfortunately, only hinted at by Bregman in his epilogue,[35] as it has typically been the forces of the right that have generally reaped the biggest rewards from the rapid expansion of free trade and open markets; yet, the ‘alternative-right’ as they are called in the US, or ‘Brexiteers’ in the UK, have reaped the rejection of these principles, to form a new right-wing populism with a protectionist outlook. Bregman’s contribution here is to point out that the left lost the trial of strength against the neo-liberalism of Reagan and Thatcher, and now is losing the battle of ideas against the protectionism of Trump and Brexit.

Here, as the author hints at earlier in the text,[36] the neo-liberal project has been grossly negligent in creating the programmes needed to balance out the effects of free trade. As Bregman says, the coal miners, steel workers, and car manufacturers have been neglected for generations, and whole stretches of Europe are now in a ‘post-industrial’ malaise. This is why protectionist alternatives look so appealing after all, even if they make less sense in today’s world. Such a narrative is simple and easy to understand – so what is the progressive alternative narrative of why things are the way they are? A state-based programme of redistribution is certainly a good starting point, but in order for people to support it as policy, it needs packaging in an equally potent narrative. As Bregman tells us, after all, people typically vote ‘less by their perceptions about their own lives than by their conceptions of society’.[37]

An alternative way to frame these ongoing debates is changing how a state sees its role in the lives of its citizens: treating them as people to be nurtured, rather than as things to be managed and controlled. Bregman himself shadows this approach when he references the economic debate between Keynes and Hayek/Friedman. If we take basic income as an example, such joined-up thinking within the state – not of management, but of development – would help avoid the pitfalls of state involvement that we have seen elsewhere. If we look at the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) a few generations after the initial idealists set it up in 1948, we have a bloated system that is chronically mismanaged, underfunded and under-planned-for (where is systematic government planning for higher education bursaries for doctors and nurses, for example?), under-appreciated by its users, and which desperately needs renewal (not replacement, mind you). It is possible that such a fate would befall basic income if the same joined-up thinking that is lacking in regard to the NHS, wasn’t developed in conjunction with it.

Conclusion 

This is a book that does have flaws. With hindsight, and taking nothing away from what Bregman puts forward, it may have been prudent to begin with the financial crisis, how the chosen strategy after 2008 was, as he paraphrases, like ‘standing at Chernobyl and seeing they’ve restarted the reactor but still have the same old management.’[38] As Bregman implies, this decision wasn’t because of cognitive dissonance, but that there weren’t enough different ideas to lead change.[39] This is the single most compelling part of his rationale for the need for alternative political thinking, yet it is buried away in the tenth chapter. Framing the book in this way would have led to a stronger discussion of the rejection of ‘technocratic’[40] politics by many people in the form of Trump and Brexit, and then to what needs to be done to address this. That being said, Bregman is correct in saying that the left is always the strongest when speaking from a position of hope[41] and this is missing from their narratives at the moment. By packaging these ideas within a utopian framework – as he does – it certainly generates the type of approach that needs to be taken.

As stated many times through this review, this book does not contain all the answers – and it never has any pretensions to do so. ‘Utopias’, or so Bregman tells us, ‘offer no ready-made answers, let alone solutions. But they do ask the right questions.’[42] The same could be said of this book. It achieves its aim of creating new avenues of debate, encouraging the reader to think past certain established orthodoxies. Yet, as Bregman himself intimates at the end of his epilogue, there is so much more left to be done before such new progressive politics achieve the critical mass to become a credible alternative to what we see today.


Bradley is currently a fully-funded doctoral candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. He has extensive experience working as a consulting research analyst with the UN, DFID, and the private sector, on areas ranging from Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Kenya, Somalia, and Syria. Bradley is currently using this experience to base his PhD research, which examines the nature of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan. He has also written on neo-patrimonial networks in the Angolan civil war, state-capture in Mozambique, and the concept of liberty during the French Revolution.


Notes:

[1] Among other things, Rutger Bregman is a historian and works as a journalist for De Correspondent, The Guardian and The New York Times.

[2] Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (London: Bloomsbury, 2017). Translated by Elizabeth Manton. Title page.

[3] Ibid. Page 11

[4] Ibid. Page 21

[5] This is the title of the ninth chapter

[6] Ibid. Page 238

[7] Ibid. Page 37

[8] Ibid. Page 32

[9] Ibid. Page 44

[10] Ibid. Page 57

[11] Ibid. Page 97

[12] Ibid. Page 45

[13] Ibid. Page 44

[14] Ibid. Page 127-133

[15] Ibid. Page 116

[16] Ibid. Page 142-143

[17] Ibid. Page 148

[18] Ibid. Page 107

[19] Ibid. Page 105-106

[20] Ibid. Page 121

[21] Ibid. Page 123

[22] Ibid. Page 217

[23] Ibid. Page 220

[24] Ibid. Page 216

[25] Ibid. Page 221-227

[26] Ibid. Page 167

[27] Ibid. Page 168-169

[28] Ibid. Page 170

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid. Page 254

[31] Bregman, Utopia for Realists. Page 234-236.

[32] Ibid. Page 239

[33] Orwell, George, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, The Complete Works of George Orwell, Volume 12, A Patriot After All 1940-1941 (Secker and Warburg 1986-7) pg. 393

[34] Bregman, ‘Capitalism will always create bullshit jobs’: Owen Jones meets Rutger Bregman. Interview, 9th March 2017. Available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsutNKH7KiE

[35] Bregman, Utopia for Realists. Page 225

[36] Ibid. Page 46

[37] Ibid. Page 240

[38] Joris Luyendijk as cited in Bregman, Utopia for Realists. Page 243

[39] Bregman, Utopia for Realists. Page 243

[40] Ibid. Page 248/249

[41] Ibid. Page 261

[42] Ibid. Page 14


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