Utopia for Realists

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman makes a compelling case for money for nothing.

By review

Utopia for Realists is an accessible, modern read that makes a case for some pretty dramatic shifts in global economic policy without the baggage that usually weighs down that kind of talk. It reminds you of the freedom and hope that can come from embracing sensible new ideas that just happen to have radical implications. 

So what is this utopia?
In a nutshell… Universal Basic Income (UBI), a 15-hour workweek, and open borders.

Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World by Rutger Bregman, 2017

Bregman doesn’t suggest that capitalism or our current systems are inherently evil. In some ways and compared to the past, we are living in a paradise with much less violence and better health than centuries past… not to mention fast food, sugary sweets, free love, and plastic surgery. Our current systems brought us a lot of good along with a lot of stuff that seemed good at the time. However, it’s all kinda going off the rails and most people feel things are getting worse, not better. Our past goals now seem short-sighted or fraught with severe unintended consequences. The free market is not as neutral and “free” as it was made out to be. So instead of doubling down on our own destruction, Bregman suggests setting a new vision.

He first goes into UBI. UBI is a monthly or yearly check from the government to everyone with no strings attached. While some think “of course!” others might wonder why we would possibly do that. Bregman’s answer would be because it’s way less expensive and more effective than the alternatives. The alternatives being prison, expensive social programs that seek to address all of poor people’s problems (except them not having enough money), and “big government” earmarked aid programs with a lot of requirements and monitoring. We seem to prefer micromanaged and condescending attempts at aid or reform that kill people’s spirit and exacerbate the social problems associated with poverty. He argues for just giving out money instead. But wouldn’t this lead to no one ever working again? And the end of civilization as we know it? Well, that just hasn’t happened when implemented so far in as diverse places as Alaska, N. Carolina, Africa, Canada and London. Infact, they’ve worked out pretty well. We also need to think ahead if the trend towards automation continues. This is a big reason tech companies support UBI. Who are they going to sell stuff to if their robots take everyone’s jobs?

Hand in hand with the sustenance of UBI, he argues for a 15-hour workweek. Capitalism has gamed our society into creating tons of bullshit jobs that don’t serve anyone, don’t create real value, aren’t meaningful and are simply used to subsidize the real work people actually need or want to do. They take up valuable time that’s often better spent taking care of a family member, helping the community, learning new skills, or working on a passion project – work more in line with that of a healthy, functioning society. Those putting in a ton of hours find their productivity decrease and errors rise as they become more burned out and sleep-deprived. It also contributes to unemployment as fewer people cover more roles. It is also a major factor in gender income inequality as women are denied advancement for covering a larger share of home and family responsibilities. He argues, “it’s time for a new labor movement. One that fights not only for more jobs and higher wages, but more importantly for work that has intrinsic value.”

The open borders idea was something I had not thought about, but he makes some interesting points. The biggest factor in determining financial status or inequality is which country you’re in. To truly address this, there would need to be more freedom to move around. In practice, people don’t move from their homelands that often and even when the do they are much more likely to move back home given the opportunity. As with his previous proposals, Bregman counters popular fears about accepting immigrants (they’re terrorists! criminals! and/or lazy!) with studies showing the opposite. He also notes the immense expense and lack of ROI in foreign aid.

Bregman generally presented the loss of human involvement in work as neutral or even positive. Let robots do the work as long as we all can benefit. He also seemed to note the growing monopolies of large corporations and their concentration of wealth and power with some resignation. These are areas I personally have more utopian aspirations about but he either didn’t want to go there yet or felt these developments were inevitable.

While Bregman sustains an optimistic, determined spirit throughout the book, he reveals some of his frustrations in the epilogue – which are largely with liberals. Though seemingly a natural fit for these approaches, he finds them lacking lately for bold vision. Bregman clearly does not side with any Trump policies but recognizes the desire people have to be with a winner who’s setting the agenda as opposed to losers reacting to it. It’s similar to the awe he expresses earlier in the book for mid-20th century neoliberals for having the determination to go after a crazy vision and realize it to such an extant that we now just think it’s reality. This triumph of spirit over ideology or morality is a human aspect lost on those he calls “underdog socialists” who seem uncomfortable with power. He laments, “Sadly, the underdog socialist has forgotten that the story of the left ought to be a narrative of hope and progress. By that I don’t mean a narrative that only excites a few hipsters who get their kicks philosophizing about “post-capitalism” or “intersectionality” after reading some long-winded tome. The greatest sin of the academic left is that it has become fundamentally aristocratic, writing in bizarre jargon that makes simple matters dizzyingly complex. If you can’t explain your ideal to a fairly intelligent twelve-year-old, after all, it’s probably your own fault. What we need is a narrative that speaks to millions of ordinary people.”

There aren’t a lot of specifics on the “how” utopia is implemented other than changes in (re)distribution. Clearly that wasn’t Bregman’s focus and perhaps would be putting the cart before the horse. Though implementation details are crucial and I believe more alternatives for our current privately-owned monopolistic behemoths are needed, Utopia for Realists put a lot of new possibilities on the table in a straightforward way. Anything that introduces economic alternatives to more people that emphasizes quality of life over quantity of personal profit is great. His final advice is “realize that there are more people out there like you” and “don’t let anyone tell you what’s what” to which I can only add… ok then, let’s do this!

originally posted on thenewconstructivist.org

Last modified: July 23, 2020

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