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‘Utopia for Realists?’ - a review

‘If we can get enough people to read this, the world will start to become a better place’. High praise indeed. But can the book live up to it?

The first thing you notice about Utopia for Realists is just how seriously it has been endorsed. On the front cover and inside sleeve you’ll find quotes from luminaries including acclaimed social theorist, Zygmunt Bauman and Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker. This is before you even get to Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level, or Philippe Van Parijs, grandfather of basic income thinking. Wilkinson, whose 2009 book on the ill-effects of inequality did more to put inequality on the map than even Thomas Piketty’s Capital, describes it as ‘Brilliant’, adding ‘If we can get enough people to read this, the world will start to become a better place’. High praise indeed. But can the book live up to it?

It hinges on four core theses: three utopian policy-ideals and one overarching principle. The latter, simply put, is that ideas can change the world. ‘Never forget’,  Bregman argues, ‘that people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people’. The task for any progressive, then, is to make the un-thinkable thinkable and to bring the horizon of a better future constantly back into view.

In this, as in much else, Bregman is inspired by the ‘enemy’ as much as he is by his allies. The book’s entire last chapter is devoted to re-telling the story of the rise of Neoliberalism. This is because Bregman knows that however awful and life-denying that philosophy may be, its architects were nevertheless brilliant organisers and ingenious strategists. They realised before anyone else that ‘what matters most in the pursuit of social change is whose ideas are lying around when crisis strikes’. Now, he argues, it’s up to us to be just as well organised and to ensure that our ideas are the ones at hand when the world next comes tumbling down. ‘Free money for everyone’. At first it sounds mad.

What are his big ideas? The first is Universal Basic Income (UBI) – ‘free money for everyone’. At first it sounds mad. But one of Bregman’s great strengths is to present his ideas and the evidence for them in such a way as to make them sound not only not mad but in fact downright sensible.

He begins with a powerful story. In 2009, a homelessness charity experimented with giving 13 rough sleepers ‘free money’ on the logic that doing so might be cheaper than the aggregate of police expenses, court costs and social services. They gave each man £3000, attached absolutely no conditions, and simply asked, ‘What do you think you need?’ Surely they drank the money away and ended up back under a bridge? Not a chance. After a year and a half, seven had a roof over their heads, two were about to move into an apartment, and all had taken steps toward solvency and personal growth. What’s more, this came at a cost of £300,000 less than the alternative.

The morals of this story, as indeed of the entire UBI discussion, are twofold. First, people aren’t idiots. First, people aren’t idiots. Yes it’s true that they – we – struggle when we’re poor and often make bad decisions under the strain of poverty. But the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this changes when you give people a solid financial floor. In a nutshell, security breeds flourishing, just as scarcity breeds its opposite. So if you want to see people thrive, give them the autonomy and dignity that derive from having enough to make ends meet. Second, do so without strings attached, because ‘free money’ is more efficient and effective than any of the alternatives. Whether we’re talking about benefits and sanctions in the west, or aid and charity in the rest of the world, simply dolling out dollars costs less and achieves more than any other social protection measure.

What of Bregman’s second big idea? This is the 15-hour week. He opens his discussion by taking us back to one of the great capitalist thinkers of the last century – John Maynard Keynes. Keynes believed that capitalism’s productivity would lead to a working week of no longer than 15 hours. By 2030, he thought, machines would be so sophisticated and society so well organised that most human time would be dedicated to the good life of loving and learning. So what happened? In simple terms, we traded time for stuff. In simple terms, we traded time for stuff. Bregman says the rise of hyper-consumerism meant that instead of harnessing productivity in order to spend less time more efficiently producing what we need, we chose instead to spend more time more effectively producing stuff we waste. And as a result, we’re now all stuck in ‘bullshit jobs’ that pay for things we neither want nor need.

Does that sound stupid and unjust? To Bregman it does. Which is why he thinks that the twin battles against waste-of-time work and rampant consumerism represent the major progressive struggles of our time. In order to win, he believes, we need to do two things. First, legally reduce the length of the working week, forcing us all to share existing work more widely and giving us all more time off. Second, re-align our incentive structures through a reform of the tax code. In 1970, twice as many male Harvard grads opted for a life of research over banking. Two decades later and the Reagan tax reforms had reversed that ratio. Now, as we all know, ‘the best and brightest’ routinely waste their (and our) time working for banks, management consultancies or law firms. So why not switch things around so that the whiz kids on Wall Street can go back to becoming teachers, inventors and engineers?

What of Bregman’s third utopian goal? This, arguably, is the most profoundly revolutionary: open borders. Bregman observes that the single most important factor determining a person’s health, wealth, life expectancy or education level is not how hard they work or where they’ve studied, but rather where they were born and which passport they have. ‘An average American earns nearly three times as much for the same work as a Bolivian, even when they are of the same skill level, age and sex. With a comparable Nigerian, the difference is a factor of 8.5 – and that’s adjusted for purchasing power in the two countries’. Think about that for a minute: it’s like apartheid on a global scale. It’s like apartheid on a global scale. And as Bregman rightly observes, it’s neither just nor fair.

But beyond righteous moral outrage, Bregman also makes a brilliant case that it is grossly economically inefficient. For all the billions of dollars of ‘development assistance’ that have flowed through (corrupt) national coffers or international NGOs, we are now no more sure than we were 60 years ago that aid actually works. By contrast, almost all economists agree that open borders and free mobility for workers (instead of just for capital) would raise gross worldwide product by between 67% and 172%. Effectively, Bregman observes, ‘this would make the whole world twice as rich’, and it would raise the income of our average Nigerian by no fewer than $22,000 a year.

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Let me confess at this point that I too am a committed utopian. I have written many times about the importance of utopian thinking and even co-edit the utopian strand at Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. I’m therefore very inclined to agree with Bregman’s proposals and am delighted to see them attracting so much attention. But this does not mean that I’m blindly un-critical. And there are a couple of gaps in the book that I’d like to highlight before finishing on its numerous strengths.

First, and perhaps understandably, Bregman is a little light on how exactly we progressives can win. By this, I do not mean to repeat the tired, reactionary mantra that ‘It might sound lovely in principle, but it’s hardly practical, is it?’ Bregman gives plenty of detail on the practicalities and I’m confident that he’s right. Rather, what’s missing is a worked-out theory of who exactly the enemy is and thus of what our struggle should look like. There is, for example, no consideration of who benefits from the status quo, of the class power underpinning the rise of consumerism, or of the subjugating and subordinating effects of having everyone stuck in bullshit jobs. Indeed, it’s almost as if Bregman’s optimism of the will blinds him to the power factions that benefit from our living lesser lives. And that’s a shame, because if we’re going to organise for a better world, we need to know who we’re organising against. We need to know who we’re organising against.

Relatedly, I find myself questioning Bregman’s stance towards capitalism. Like Marx, it’s clear that he’s awed by capital’s productive power and convinced that only capital could have brought us to this contemporary Land of Plenty. But unlike Marx, I’m not sure he agrees on the necessity of transcending capital as part of the struggle for a better future. And this leaves me asking: if we’re not going to subordinate production and distribution to democratic control, will we ever really be able to ensure basic income and less work for all?

Similar questions arise over the state. Marx, of course, famously thought the state would wither away during the springtime of communism. Which evidently proved optimistic. But reading Bregman I wonder whether he suffers from similar over-optimism: how, for example, can we can open all the borders without eventually replacing countries with a global government? And if we don’t have a global government, what measures can we take to ensure that migrants moving to countries with a basic income don’t end up living as a denizen underclass? Can we open all the borders without eventually replacing countries with a global government?

These questions notwithstanding, Utopia for Realists is an excellent contribution to the politically imperative utopian literature. It deserves to be read alongside Kathi Weeks’ The Problem with Work or Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. It is fabulously well-researched and engagingly well-written. It’s also extremely accessible. One of Bregman’s real qualities is to write about the revolutionary as if it were run-of-the-mill. This matter-of-fact style drives home just how obvious it should be that in our age of plenty no-one should be going hungry, no-one working too hard, and no-one dying at the border. This brings me to my final point: Bregman writes not for the converted but for the sceptical-with-a-heart. His intended audience are not young activists but precisely the everyday middle classes whose votes and pessimism will need to be conquered if ever our societies are to move beyond their current impasse. And for this, perhaps more than anything else, his book deserves to be added to the utopian canon that was inaugurated five centuries ago by Thomas More.

Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists is released in the UK on April 19, 2016.

About the author

Neil Howard is an academic activist based at the Institute of Development Policy and Management at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on unfree labour, and on the workings of the policy establishment as it seeks to respond. Follow him on twitter @NeilPHoward.

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