Review: Rutger Bregman’s “Utopia for Realists”

by Miles Raymer

Utopia for Realists

Just when I think the world is about to explode into a flaming ball of shit, someone like Rutger Bregman comes along to convince me that there’s still hope. Utopia for Realists excited me in the same way that Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now did almost exactly one year ago. These books aren’t similar in style or methodology, nor do I think Bregman and Pinker would necessarily agree on the state of the world and the best ways to make it better. But both texts are infused with an energetic optimism––a zeal for being real about where we are and where we still need to go––that motivates and empowers me to keep striving for my own utopian dreams.

I discovered Rutger Bregman by way of this excellent interview from Intelligence Squared. I was immediately drawn to his unabashed advocacy for ideas such as universal basic income, a shorter workweek, and a radical rethinking of how we structure human labor. These are transformative positions that I’ve been engaging with for some years, but only recently have I noticed them gaining mainstream notoriety. Bregman, it turns out, is one of the main reasons for this––a service for which this little book blogger is extremely grateful.

Utopia for Realists is an electrifying work of futurism. In terms of readability, it is the single best book I’ve come across for introducing people to this niche of thinking––the best-ideas-you’ve-never-heard-of-or-just-thought-were-crazy approach. In ten highly-entertaining and endnote-peppered chapters, Bregman lays out his case for why the modern status quo is hobbling human potential and what we should do to change that. Each section presents its own particular argument, but the overall message can be summed up as a clarion call to institute planet-wide redistribution mechanisms to create fairer, safer, and more prosperous societies. Bold and sweeping action, Bregman suggests, is the surest way to propel 21st-century civilization to new experiential and ethical heights.

To begin, Bregman characterizes contemporary humanity as suffering from a small-minded failure of collective imagination––one that persists despite the fact that we spent the last few centuries creating a “Land of Plenty” of which previous generations could only dream:

The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing this rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead. There’s no new dream to replace it because we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got. (10-1)

Optimism and pessimism have become synonymous with consumer confidence or the lack thereof. Radical ideas about a different world have become almost literally unthinkable. The expectations of what we as a society can achieve have been dramatically eroded, leaving us with the cold, hard truth that without utopia, all that remains is technocracy. Politics has been watered down to problem management. Voters swing back and forth not because the parties are so different, but because it’s barely possible to tell them apart, and what now separates right from left is a percentage point or two on the income tax rate. (15)

As a response to this predicament, Bregman urges readers to commit themselves to expansive and ambitious ideals:

True progress begins with something no knowledge economy can produce: wisdom about what it means to live well. We have to do what great thinkers like John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, and John Maynard Keynes were already advocating for 100 years ago: to “value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.” We have to direct our minds to the future. To stop consuming our own discontent through polls and relentlessly bad-news media. To consider alternatives and form new collectives. To transcend this confining zeitgeist and recognize our shared idealism. (19-20)

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016, I became temporarily allergic to this kind of “think big” radicalism. Better, I thought, to double down on the status quo in hopes of softening the impact of the runaway Trump train. And while I still bristle at flippant talk of “revolution” or “changing everything,” the last couple years have brought me back to some ideas that fueled my late teens and early twenties––lofty notions about true value, meaningful labor, and a desire to revise my methods for flourishing in the 21st century. Bregman got to me at the right time.

So, what are these “utopian ideas” that will supposedly save us? The first and most important of Bregman’s propositions couldn’t be simpler: Just give people money. This idea, which is usually floated using the label of Universal Basic Income (UBI), involves direct cash transfers from national governments to their citizens. No cumbersome qualification process or bureaucracy invading your life to make sure you’re spending the “right way”––just a regular flow of funds to your bank account to use as you see fit. “The great thing about money,” Bregman quips, “is that people can use it to buy things they need instead of things that self-appointed experts think they need” (32).

Bregman dives into the research on cash transfer programs, revealing that they are far more successful than other safety net programs when it comes to alleviating poverty. Confronting the constant worry and hardship that poverty inflicts, poor folks can become consumed by a “scarcity mentality,” causing them to make inefficacious but understandable decisions that most people would make under similar conditions (57). Bregman eviscerates the harmful myth that poor people are simply lazy and undeserving of aid because of some intrinsic flaw, and also demonstrates that cash transfers boost career investment in disadvantaged populations: “When the poor receive no-strings cash they actually tend to work harder” (32). This advocacy for Earth’s most vulnerable denizens is damned inspiring and completely necessary in a globalized age when “our societies have never been more dependent on one another” (183).

Bregman also does heroic work by calling out Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a ludicrous method for measuring economic success. GDP––an obscure economic metric that was rejected by its inventor as an appropriate gauge for national prosperity––obfuscates the fact that modern capitalist powerhouses not only ignore the struggles of citizens and environmental degradation, but often profit from them. Bregman explains:

Besides being blind to lots of good things, the GDP also benefits from all manner of human suffering. Gridlock, drug abuse, adultery? Goldmines for gas stations, rehab centers, and divorce attorneys. If you were the GDP, your 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 going berserk on Black Friday. Environmental pollution even does double duty: One company makes a mint by cutting corners while another is paid to clean up the mess. By contrast, a centuries-old tree doesn’t count until you chop it down and sell it as lumber. Mental illness, obesity, pollution, crime––in terms of GDP, the more the better. (105-6)

There is no perfect or comprehensive way of measuring economic gains and losses, and we should admit this while also seeking better metrics than the lousy ones that have dominated in recent decades. Bregman also reminds us that “Some things in life, like music, resist all attempts at greater efficiency. While we can produce coffee machines faster and more cheaply, a violinist can’t pick up the pace without spoiling the tune” (119).

Equally important is Bregman’s analysis of our failure to intelligently spend our most precious resource: time. He decries the culture of overwork that pervades wealthy societies, showing how miserable it makes us and lamenting our unwillingness to leverage our fabulous technology and capital to free everyone up to enjoy more leisure. Recounting some key anecdotes from labor’s history of chipping away at the workweek over the last century, Bregman wants us to keep this momentum going:

There are strong indications that in a modern knowledge economy, even forty hours a week is too much. Research suggests that someone who is constantly drawing on their creative abilities can, on average, be productive for no more than six hours a day. It’s no coincidence that the world’s wealthy countries, those with a large creative class and highly educated populations, have also shaved the most time off their workweeks. (141)

While we should collectively strive for a culture in which everyone works less, we should also get real about the actual value that certain vocations bring to the table. Bregman offers a useful framing by drawing a distinction between workers who create wealth (e.g. farmers, scientists, teachers, builders, garbage collectors) and ones who merely shift it around (e.g. bankers, lawyers, accountants, bureaucrats):

Bizarrely, it’s precisely the jobs that shift money around––creating next to nothing of tangible value––that net the best salaries. It’s a fascinating, paradoxical state of affairs. How is it possible that all those agents of prosperity––the teachers, the police officers, the nurses––are paid so poorly, while the unimportant, superfluous, and even destructive shifters do so well? (156, emphasis his)

It’s not that we should abolish the jobs of “shifters,” but rather that they should take a pay cut in accordance with their modest value. On the flip side, people who create wealth––who do the hard work of bolstering society’s intellectual, social, and physical infrastructures––need a raise that rewards them according to their immense value. This would provide a much-needed update to the job market’s choice architecture, nudging our best minds toward labor that actually matters.

The last main element of Bregman’s agenda––open borders––is perhaps his most radical, and also the one with which I am the least familiar. I’ve never read anyone who made a strong case for open borders, but Bregman’s is both surprising and convincing. National borders, in his view, are artifacts of modernity that constitute “the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history” on a globalized planet that is “wide open for everything but people” (216-7). Instead of spending billions on imperfect border security that endangers citizens and foreigners alike, Bregman would have us open the gates to the Land of Plenty. This would constitute a much more compassionate and prosperous approach to global politics, and could be implemented with reasonable accountability measures for immigrants:

Overall, the net value of immigrants is almost wholly positive. In countries like Hungary, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom, they even bring in more tax revenue per household than the native population. Still not reassured? Countries could also decide not to give immigrants the right to government assistance, or not until after a minimum number of years, or not until they’ve paid, say, $50,000 in taxes. And you could set up similar parameters if you’re concerned they form a political threat or won’t integrate. You can create language and culture tests. You can withhold the right to vote. And you can send them back if they don’t find a job. Unfair? Perhaps so. Yet isn’t the alternative of keeping people out altogether exponentially more unfair? (226-7)

I find this line of reasoning difficult to disagree with, at least in the absence of the extreme circumstances discussed below.

As I’m sure you can tell if you’ve made it this far, I really liked this book and think Bregman is a smart guy with his heart in the right place. However, Utopia for Realists has a few significant blindspots that merit mentioning. First, although the book is stocked with encouraging and actionable policies, Bregman doesn’t offer much guidance regarding coalition-building or political strategy. Implementing just one of his recommendations (let alone all of them) will require seismic changes in political power structures across the globe, and while I think he has a great understanding of the desired destination, his slogan for how to get there boils down to “Ideas can change the world!”––almost verbatim the title of his last chapter. Bregman’s not wrong, but he’s only half right; I don’t think ideas alone can change the world, and that crucial piece of the puzzle is missing here. Fortunately for Americans, there is at least one candidate with UBI at the center of his platform running for President in 2020, so we needn’t depend solely on the power of our ideas to move in this direction.

The second problem with Utopia for Realists is that it all but ignores the looming, omnipresent problem of climate change. Bregman gestures vaguely toward some ways his proposed policies might ameliorate climate change, but never devotes any serious time to the subject. Worse still, he doesn’t even consider the possible ways his ideas could either contribute negatively to climate change or go awry because of the climate crisis. The two most obvious examples involve consumption and mass migration. In the absence of radical and widespread changes in our methods for manufacturing, packaging, transporting, selling, and consuming products, increasing the purchasing power of the world’s population through cash transfer programs could supercharge our already-supercharged carbon footprint. Also, I think Bregman’s argument for open borders becomes decidedly less persuasive when whole swaths of the planet become uninhabitable and some 8 or 9 billion people start scrambling for cooler climes.

Finally, although Bregman is appropriately critical of his fellow liberals at times, he also dabbles in the anti-rational rhetoric that is all too common on the left these days. For example:

If it is true that ideas don’t change things gradually but in fits and starts––in shocks––then the basic premise of our democracy, our journalism, and our education is all wrong. It would mean, in essence, that the Enlightenment model of how people change their opinions––through information-gathering and reasoned deliberation––is really a buttress for the status quo. It would mean that those who swear by rationality, nuance, and compromise fail to grasp how ideas govern the world. (240)

Here, Bregman blends fact and falsehood into an unsavory stew. It’s true that the “rational actor” model of human behavior is spurious, and it’s also true that moments of shock can have an outsized influence on world events. However, these truths coexist with another truth: People also gather information, deliberate a lot, and change their minds––sometimes in defense of the status quo, and sometimes not. Rationality, nuance, and compromise are not the only games in town, but they still serve as agents of incremental change, most importantly as preparatory exercises for choosing one course of action over another when the shit hits the fan.

Bregman also sinks into anti-rational whimsy in his closing remarks:

Don’t let anyone tell you what’s what. 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 marriage were also once branded lunatics. Until history proved them right. (263-4)

This is an unbecoming sendoff for a book titled Utopia for Realists, and again we are subjected to an unsettling mixture of sense and nonsense. Bregman is of course correct that the humanist heroes of history have been granted the moral high ground in retrospect, and in fact had it all along. However, those noble folks had the high ground precisely because their views were more reasonable than the prevailing views of their time. Their work––arduous, unforgiving, sometimes deadly––was not the work of unrealistic, unreasonable, or impossible people. It was the work of people who understood the true meaning of rationality better than most others around them.

This objection may seem merely semantic, but I actually think it’s worth harping on for a moment longer. Directives such as “Don’t let anyone tell you what’s what” and “We need to be unrealistic,” despite being forceful and romantic, actually undermine Bregman’s position. Bregman is not a crazy person; he’s an informed, educated man trying to get us to see that ideas often dismissed as crazy are actually worth considering. But encouraging people to shrug or scoff when the world tells them they’re being unreasonable is not the way to recruit the people who can actually summon utopian ideals into reality. It’s a recipe for disaster on both sides of the political spectrum, and everywhere in between. It leaves the door open for charlatans and idiots to walk right in and insist that their unreasonable ideas deserve equal consideration with all the others. Why not solve global poverty through the power of manifesting, eh, Mr. Bregman? Why not give everyone healing crystals instead of healthcare? Why not curb the advance of autism by abolishing vaccines? Why not end inequality by sending an elite unit of commandos to eliminate the wealth-hoarding Illuminati?

To counteract this inevitable dynamic, we must always strive to be on the side of reason, most of all when confronting those who would mischaracterize our reasonable ideas as unreasonable. And even that’s not enough. In addition to devoting ourselves to reasonable positions and actions, we must also heed the most important mantra of all: I might be wrong. You can’t do either of those things if you’re immune to criticism and flaunt your irrationality like a badge of honor.

Okay, I think the reasonable thing to do now is stop ranting about the importance of being reasonable. On the whole, Utopia for Realists is an awesome book. I will especially utilize it as a default recommendation for folks who are trying to formulate a responsible but non-traditional political identity, as well as a reminder that radicalism becomes less dangerous and more palatable when coupled with research and (mostly) good thinking.

Rating: 8/10