11 min read

Reflections on... Utopia for Realists

Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. You can find the book here or here, and a summary here. I sadly couldn't find an audiobook version.

"Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter working week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots."
- Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

We've explored the negative sentiment toward utopianism, ways to counteract it, and considerations to keep in mind to ensure we don't make the same mistakes in constructing our own vision of an ideal future. Through all of this, the theme of realism - presenting a vision that seems attainable - emerges as a driver of success. Today then I explore a book whose title could not be more apt: Utopia for Realists.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian and author who was dubbed ‘The Dutch wunderkind of new ideas’ by The Guardian. Utopia for Realists (2017) and his more recent book Humankind (2020) were both New York Times Bestsellers. He went viral twice within a month in 2019 for telling billionaires at Davos to pay their fair share of tax, and for a fiery exchange with Tucker Carlson. He's our kind of guy.

The book shares how the negative attitudes towards utopianism both are born out of the state of our society, and reinforce its lack of progress. He agrees that we have the necessary conditions for eutopia today and importantly asks what would be necessary to make it a reality. I evaluate whether we should include his main policy proposals in our strategy for achieving eutopia, suggest what might still be missing, and reflect on what Bregman implies about the mission of WFW?.

Societal Malaise

Bregman and others assert that society has fallen into a malaise, that optimism of the future is at a low point, and trending ever-downwards. "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 a technocracy." writes Bregman. Writer Kevin Kelly characterises this state as one where "no one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously". Bregman suggests that "to ask someone in the middle ages, we are living in utopia now the problem is a lack of vision is toward the utopia is that we should be moving to".

In Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams partly characterise this as a failure of progressive political leaders:

“Meanwhile, in the halls of academia the utopian impulse has been castigated as naive and futile. Browbeaten by decades of failure, the left has consistently retreated from its traditionally grand ambitions. To give but one example: whereas the 1970s saw radical feminism and queer manifestos calling for a fundamentally new society, by the 1990s these had been reduced to a more moderate identity politics; and by the 2000s discussions were dominated by even milder demands to have same-sex marriage recognised and for women to have equal opportunities to become CEOs"

These thinkers align on the theory that capitalism brought society a long way, but that the returns have diminished and its structural dominance is impeding the visualisation and implementation of a new and better social structure. Bregman writes that "it is capitalism that opened the gates to the Land of Plenty, but capitalism alone cannot sustain it". He closes saying "critical to the idea of utopia is the concept of living well. So much of the discontent in modern society can be attributed to a lack of understanding of how to live well, and a misguided, following of capitalism."

Policy Recommendations

So what does he recommend we do? The majority of the book concerns specific policy recommendations that Bregman believes could be implemented today and would move us into eutopia. Here I evaluate the main recommendations in order of least to most radical, or perhaps politically tenable.

Implement Universal Basic Income

One of the earliest ideas of utopia was simply a world without poverty. Similar to Karnolfsky's 'least radical' utopian visions, eradicating poverty is a discrete change that nobody would seemingly disagree with. It's curious then why we haven't done this, since we have a proven policy tool to make it happen - Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is the idea that every member of society is entitled to a minimum income each year paid by the government. Choosing to work would lead to earnings above this level, but the government payment would soon be made redundant through progressive taxation. Chapter 2 of the book cites all of the studies you could need to validate this claim but one example is the MIT study that shows that giving poor people money boosts home ownership, leads to a lasting rise in incomes, and improves childhood nutrition. The reason for this is context and mental bandwidth. This research has shown that those in poverty lack mental bandwidth which is the limiting factor that causes them to make “dumb“ decisions, equivalent to a drop in 13 IQ points. Bregman shows how interventions like financial education are, at best, pointless. It’s like teaching someone to swim and throwing them in the middle of the ocean. You haven’t changed the context.

UBI is a policy manifestation of our value of greater equality. It is the clear path towards the greater equality we wish for in our vision of eutopia. Inequality is correlated with virtually all factors of the social unrest index, thought largely because of the 'status affect', the idea that if I’m visibly poorer than you then I use a lot of my mental bandwidth trying to overcome this status imbalance. Inequality of wealth/income and inequality of opportunity are inextricably linked, and "as long as inequality continues to rise, the gross domestic mental bandwidth will continue to contract."

Why haven't we implemented such a policy yet? Culturally there are deep rooted beliefs that everyone ought to work, stemming back to the biblical principle that "“those unwilling to work will not get to eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10)" and beyond. Practically, policy proposals are often held up due to lack of funding, or rather politicians lack of will or incentive to raise taxes to fund such a scheme, despite the evidence that such schemes are self-funding. As this dynamic seems unlikely to change in the short term, Bregman and many esteemed economists have recommended funding the program initially by taxing capital rather than income. I will save a deep analysis of the idea for a separate article - but here I will say that I agree with the idea, if only because in a post-work world we won't have income to tax. We will need to tax capital - aka 'the robots' - to have any government funding at all, and will need massively redistributive policies - aka UBI - if we are to avoid living in a two-tier dystopian society.

Shorten the Working Week

There is a rich history of people predicting a fall and working hours with increased prosperity. Indeed, working less has been proven to improve stress, life satisfaction, climate change, productivity, safety/accidents, gender and age equality. Yet we are working more than ever. Capitalist and consumerist pressure since the 80's have duped most of society to work more in pursuit of more 'stuff' rather than work less and enjoy the leisure. This was largely driven by elites stoking fears that a population with much free time would devolve into boredom, idleness, immorality, and crime. Or possibly revolution.

Bregman recommends shortening the 'standard' work week from 40 to 15 hours, though it's unclear who this recommendation is directed at. He provides the evidence to convince organisational leaders to implement these policies, and there is a growing movement around this. The government of Iceland experimented with policies shortening the work week to 36 hours. Despite the success of the pilots they have not been written into law. It is also in part targeted at individuals, with the 'quiet quitting' and 'lying flat' movements early indications there is popular support for such a shift.

Replace GDP

The GDP measure doesn’t account for a number of things deemed valuable to society and in fact drives capitalism and bad outcomes through the well known management dynamic of 'what gets measured gets managed'. A family that cooks their own meals takes walks after dinner and spends the evening talking that is valued less than a family that outsource is the parenting to the consumerism economy. Bobby Kennedy said that GNP - effectively the same measure as GDP - “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. GDP was invented in 1934 and rose to prominence for its effectiveness in wartime, when it makes sense to produce as many tanks, weapons, and bullets as possible. It makes sense to pollute as much as you need and to lower quality of life in the name of something bigger, namely winning the war. It does not make sense to keep using this metric in times of peace, yet it has maintained its role as the primary metric we judge societal progress all these years later. Bregman diagnoses that "governing by numbers is the last resort of a country that no longer knows what it wants, a country with no vision of utopia".

It is also seen to be the primary driver behind the epidemic of 'bullshit jobs', a term coined by David Graeber defined as "paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence". He believes that rather than productivity gains crating the 15-hour work week, capitalism created 'bullshit jobs'. Bregman find the source of this trend, "a study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants". This phenomenon has only gotten worse over the decades since. "When you’re obsessed with efficiency and productivity, it’s difficult to see the real value of education and care. Which is why so many politicians and taxpayers alike see only costs. They don’t realize that the richer a country becomes the more it should be spending on teachers and doctors". Instead, he writes, "we live in a world where the going rule seems to be that the more vital your occupation (cleaning, nursing, teaching), the lower you rate in the GDP."

The two examples Bregman shares illustrate this point perfectly. When garbagemen in New York City went on strike, the city became almost unliveable within a week, meaning their demands for higher pay were met very quickly. Conversely when Irish Bankers went on strike in 1960, pundits thought that “life in Ireland would come to a standstill. First cash supplies would dry up, then trade would stagnate, and finally unemployment would explode". In reality, nothing happened. There was no adverse effect on the economy for 6 months, with a lot of local pubs stepping in to keep the economy liquid.

The question is whether a new single metric to replace GDP could help reverse the trend of bullshit jobs and consumerism, and align a country to a utopian ideal. Could we take all the components of what makes for a good considered life, and turn them into a metric to measure? For example, if you took all the inputs to the social progress index, weighted them according to the preferences of a country, and use that as a single guiding metric? How might that change a country's behaviour? What if it caught on globally? It is worth us adding to our research agenda and exploring further.

Open Borders

If UBI is the best tool for tackling national inequality, open borders - free, unfettered immigration - is the best tool for international inequality. "In a world of insane inequality, migration is the most powerful tool for fighting poverty". In fact, open borders could double the net income of the planet, and the World Bank estimates that "if all the developed countries would let in just 3% more immigrants, the world’s poor would have $305 billion more to spend". Through blocking individual's access to fundamental rights in our countries, Bregman believes that "borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history."

Sadly it is this discrimination that prevents this idea gaining political traction. High quality research has dispelled myths associated with all the main concerns with immigration: it has shown no increase in terrorism, criminality, or laziness, and no detrimental impact on social cohesion or wages. Yet these problems persist and migrants are blamed because it is politically easier than accepting the true cause of these problems - the neglect of diverse communities. Abascal and Baldassarri, authors of one of the studies, conclude that “it is not the diversity of a community that undermines trust, but rather the disadvantages that people in diverse communities face". Pushing for incrementally improved immigration policies is worthwhile, and this evidence builds our confidence that a global society should be a component of our ideal future vision, but maybe more than anything this shows that randomised control trials and the scientific method are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for eutopia.

What's Missing?

Bregman's brilliance is in his collating and presenting the vast evidence to prove that these policies are good for society. However as we've seen, this is not sufficient for implementation. They are in fact broadly popular policy recommendations, but we know that policy makers and business leaders are not swayed by evidence and popular opinion alone. If they were, the US would: pass gun control, derestrict abortion, legalise marijuana use, increase the minimum wage, raise taxes on the rich, and a whole host of other policies that would be deemed incrementally utopian. Sadly we're given no guidance on how to persuade those with power beyond building a popular movement on these ideas.

It highlights why pragmatism is such an important value for our movement to make change happen much faster. Bregman writes that "utopias offer no ready-made answers, let alone solutions. But they do ask the right questions". That's true, but eutopias do. For something to be believable one must be able to see the path from now to then, from here to there. Thankfully Bregman does provide some guidance on how to channel our pragmatism.

How to Change the World

Bregman's implementation approach, and why he doesn't further explore the practicalities of persuading policy makers, is that he believes the role of utopian thinkers is to be unreasonable and unrelenting in the development and pursuit of new ideas. He believes ideas need to be public and not too niche to shift the Overton window of acceptable policy. He shares the example of the experiment where the the test subject was much more likely to avoid groupthink and give the truthful answer in a room of false answers when just one other person had gone against the 'fake' perceived wisdom.

His implied rationale for not pushing for change is that history shows that movements are 'pulled' out of moments of crisis. Lenin famously said that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen." We merely need to have the appropriate ideas and necessary Overton window for them to be adopted at these critical times. One example is how economist Milton Friedman’s thoughts in the 60s and 70s was the precursor to Thatcher and Reaganism, itself born out of the perceived 'crisis' of the UK and USA losing their global predominance. Indeed Friedman said that “it is the duty of thinkers to keep offering alternatives, ideas that seem politically impossible today, may one day become politically inevitable” and that “only a crisis, actual or perceived produces real change… When that crisis occurs the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Bregman laments what he calls 'underdog socialism' - that the establishment has captured 'reason' leaving progressivism and socialism with heart and emotion - for failing to provide these progressive ideas in recent past. "The underdog socialists’ biggest problem isn’t that they’re wrong. Their biggest problem is that they are dull. Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell, nor even any language to convey it in." writes Bregman. Similar to the assessment of Inventing the Future touched on above, he believes the "academic left" have lost the vision and the language to craft a language "that speaks to millions of ordinary people.” He concludes that what is lacking most of all - and what is central to the thesis for WFW? - is a positive orientation to fixing society's ills. "Anti-privatization, anti-establishment, anti-austerity. Given everything that they’re against, one is left to wonder, what are underdog socialists actually for?"

He acknowledges how hard this will be in the face of the negative attitude toward utopian thinking and a lacklustre platform of recent progressive thinkers. He recommends developing a thick skin and sticking out for the long haul - as I've expressed I am prepared for with WFW?. "It could easily take a generation" Bregman writes "before new ideas prevail. For this very reason, we need thinkers who not only are patient, but also have the courage to be utopian." That's what I hope I, and WFW?, can be.

Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on this article, or leave a comment below.