As I recently wrote in my review of Doughnut Economics, an entire literary market – largely of the left-wing variety – has sprung up to capitalise on the post-economic crash confusion left in the wake of 2008. Academics, journalists and politicians are all racking their brains for big answers to even-bigger questions, praying that confounded consumers will lap it all up over the Waterstones counter (or Amazon’s). Most will flounder, but there is one which I cannot help but recommend – a book so good that I really do think everyone with even the mildest of interests in politics and society should read it.
Join me, as we journey to Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists.
The first thing you should know about Utopia for Realists is that it is unabashedly, well, utopian. Bregman makes clear throughout that the ideas he proposes (a universal basic income, a 15-hour working week and global open borders) will be regarded by most as infeasible and impossible. What is so attractive about the prose, however, is the awareness that utopianism is not enough to persuade people on its own – which is why it is marketed to realists. Almost every page is densely packed with evidence and examples of the proposed policies, gradually compounding the sense that they are not utopian at all.
Did you know that President Richard Nixon was *this* close to signing a universal basic income into law in the ’70s? Or that many UBI trials have been wildly successful, limiting income insecurity with a negligible impact on employment? What about how John Maynard Keynes, one of the most important economists of the 20th Century, believed that in today’s world a dramatically shortened working week would be a reality? What of the evidence that open borders, like free trade, can actually enhance economic prosperity?
You most likely didn’t. Bregman even goes to pains to bust the myths of all the above (including, in some cases, falsified and/or inaccurate evidence), whilst pointing out that he may be predisposed to search for the evidence which already supports his ideas. Utopia for Realists is not a book for the ideologically self-indulgent, for those with no possibility of ever changing their minds – it is written to persuade, which Bregman achieves with remarkable skill.
My main issue with the book comes from the fact that, once one strips away the flourishes of rhetoric, there are certain practicalities (or realism’s, rather) that pain the policies, which Bregman doesn’t necessarily address. A universal basic income and a 15-hour working week hinge on dramatic increases in automation which may not come to fruition for some time. It’s certainly true that automation does exist and we just don’t think about it (self-checkouts and vending machines, for example), but we’re a long ways off from the kind which will create mass unemployment. And what of the tensions which arise from high-scale immigration? Bregman’s pro-immigration case is refreshing, given that the entire discourse is relegated to negativity (which harms debate), but the culture clashes which can arise would be extrapolated significantly if borders were flung open across the globe. How do we avert this?
Then there are the practicalities of shortening the working week. It’s common sense that well-rested people produce better work, but for some industries (chiefly hospitality and retail) which must operate 24/7, the seams are already tearing. My long-standing concern of such policies is that they are the preserve of white-collar workers, who are much more able to take time off than the barmen, binmen and shop floor workers of the world.
At its heart, though, I don’t think Utopia for Realists is a book just for those interested in UBI or any of that sort. It need not be a book for left-wing people, either. Rather, it’s a book for anyone who wants to change the future. We spend too much time thinking that the future is fixed and that we simply have to prepare for it, forgetting that humans are active agents in the story of the world, perfectly able to create the future we want. There is very little that is concrete and sacrosanct about our planet, which we tend to forget.
Even worse, the brightest amongst us are working on “making people click more ads,” not trying to bring us closer to utopia. It is a malleable term, designed to be a destination always in the distance, but we seem to have given up even trying to sail the ship. Regardless of your politics, we could all do with a bit of optimism and a bit of reassurance that, actually, the future is what we make of it, and many things we now treat as common sense – education, democracy, not enslaving people – were once thought impossible utopianism.
Until they happened.