Rutger Bregman: Utopia for Realists

December 23, 2020

     Here was a really interesting and thought-provoking book that I also found really annoying. The author’s flippant tone and peppering of a would-be serious text with lots of throwaway facts, combined with the current habit or necessity for chopping everything up into short gobbets to fit with our reduced attention-spans, did not get me off to a good start.

He presents a series of perspectives on our world, all of which call for serious consideration. Things are so much better now than they were in the past (he says), but is the current situation the best we can do? Bregman finds today dystopian, and I have to agree; he’s shaping up his main argument, which is our lack of vision, and again, I find myself in agreement.

Universal Basic Income is quite thoroughly explored and documented, and would surely have been a considerable help during the current pandemic, had it already been in place. But more money for everyone will drive more growth and more consumption, with all the negative consequences. Similarly his deconstruction of the myth of GDP as a measure of progress is much-needed but again he reveals himself over-enamoured of the great technological leaps forward of recent years as if they are value and effect-free.

He does acknowledge that economic growth has resulted in more stuff, rather than more leisure time, but again the ecological destructiveness of this key point is glossed over, as is the major significance of the effect of women being drawn into the workforce over the past half-century. While I am fully in favour of the right of anyone and everyone to work and develop a career, the way in which the system has silently ensured that it now takes two working adults to keep a family going – yes I am aware of sweeping generalisation here, but the main idea is true – and we have mostly silently accepted this in exchange for extra shiny-shiny, the implications of this major transformation for the future of the planet merit some reflection, surely?

I liked it when he got on to the fact that the best-paid jobs don’t actually create anything of value, but merely shunt money around (whilst skimming off a sizeable percentage and trousering it, not that Bregman mentions this too loudly). Automation has created a surplus of labour at the bottom of the social pile, driving wages down: again, we have seen the effect of this all too clearly during the pandemic.

Bregman’s most astonishing assertion is that world poverty would be ended by the complete opening of all borders to people and migration. I am not in a position to challenge his data, which I’m sure is valid: again, the cost is more stuff, more consumption, more pollution…

My main gripes were the simplistic approach, in the pop-science and pop-philosophy mode currently fashionable, and Bregman’s almost total lack of recognition of the environmental and climate implications for any of his basically growth-based, ‘capitalism-taming’ approach. At the same time, I am forced to recognise my own intellectual snobbery here: all these ideas do need much wider dissemination and consideration. But the hectic pace of the book allows no real time for sober reflection.

I found Bregman’s analysis of issues very interesting. Many, if not most people would accept it and would probably welcome the changes he moots. But – and here is the crux – most people don’t have the time or the inclination to read such a book, modify their thinking and still less, act on it. So we are again in the position we often find ourselves in at the end of a utopian novel: the place is wonderful, I’d like to be there, live there, but how the hell do I actually get there? The transition is the issue to crack: how do you overcome the resistance of the powerful and murderous vested interests who would oppose change? In Ursula Le Guin’s marvellous novel The Dispossessed, the Annaresti have to leave their planet (conveniently there is a habitable moon close by) in order to build their alternative society…

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