Image credit: Tom Evans
With prophetic dystopian novels seeing a surge in sales, is it really Orwell and Atwood that we should be studying in order to best understand our current political predicaments? Where are the answers, the new ideas and visions to offer us hope?
Into this rather bleak chasm appears Rutger Bregman, the 28-year-old Dutch journalist and author of Utopia for Realists, a book that has caused something of a stir in his native Netherlands and is now gaining attention here in the UK and across the continent. So, can Bregman’s utopia offer us any cause for optimism?
Discussing his book Utopia for Realists at a Festival of Ideas event in Waterstones on 9 March 2017, chair and festival director Andrew Kelly gave us a quick introduction to Bregman’s manifesto. This can be boiled down three central ideas: give all citizens an unconditional basic income, reduce the working week to 15 hours, thirdly – and probably the most utopian of all – a widespread enactment of open borders.
For many, 2016 felt like a disastrous and depressing year in politics, so what cause is there for optimism? Bregman disagrees with this pessimistic starting point. He points out that we’re in a much better place than we were in the past – the big lesson of history is that everything was worse, he says, and we’re living in an age of unprecedented prosperity. Much of this perceived negativity is driven by the news cycle, he argues, “the problem with news is it’s always about exceptions… how the world isn’t working”.
Perhaps the most immediately realist of his ideas, and the one which dominated much of the discussion, was Universal Basic Income. For those unfamiliar, basic income can be described essentially as free cash; an unconditional income paid by the state. Everyone from the homeless to the obscenely wealthy receive the same amount. As outlandish as this might initially seem, it is an idea that has been around since Thomas More’s own Utopia (1516) and has had some level of support of those on both the left and right of the political spectrum for decades (President Nixon arguably came the closest to implementing such a program). As a result of Bregman’s influence, the idea is being trialed in his home city of Utrecht and a number of other Dutch cities. Now Finland is trialing the idea with the unemployed and the Scottish cities of Glasgow and Fife have also expressed an interest in trialing a form of basic income. Clearly there’s some momentum behind this idea.
But surely, some may argue, if you give people free money they will simply sit around at home doing nothing. Who would bother to collect our rubbish or clean our hospitals? Bregman responds to this by pointing to a wealth of studies that demonstrate the opposite effect. Basic income, he argues, will also create a rebalancing of wages based on a job’s actual value and necessity to society. Rubbish needs to be collected and those collecting it will be rewarded with a higher salary proportional to its importance. This is also set against the consensus prediction that a high percentage of existing jobs will eventually cease to be necessary in the face of increasingly sophisticated automation.
Basic income is certainly a compelling idea, and with some momentum behind it, does he think it is now inevitable? Bregman is far from complacent – if history has taught is anything, he says, it is that nothing is inevitable and nothing is simply given – if basic income is to be realised, it must be fought for.
Basic income has been a policy of the Green Party for several years and Bregman amusingly recounts a recent meeting with a Bristol Green Party officer, who modestly suggests that “maybe we should be starting to talk about this a bit more”.
Bregman speaks in a remarkably relaxed manner that is both disarming and authoritative; he has a knack of making radical ideas sound utterly obvious and commonsensical, despite being so starkly against the grain of current trends. This is due in part to the wealth of evidence that he is able to calmly reel-off in response to any interrogation of his ideas, but it’s also because he delivers all of this with a persuasive combination of wit and confidence.
Another of Bregman’s central beliefs is reducing the working week to just 15 hours. While this will certainly be an attractive proposition for many (the UK works the longest hours in Europe), one may ask: how will our economy cope with such a drastic drop in productivity? Once again he draws on his wealth of evidence and studies to support this position, making some convincing points in the process. He argues that, in fact, the effect on productivity would be minimal; that a happy workforce is more effective than an exhausted one; that such a reduction would have a positive environmental impact and that in many jobs long working hours are simply not necessary. The definition of ‘work’ needs a complete re-think, Bregman argues.
The final idea to be explored is open borders – his stance is certainly counter to the current direction of nationalism and isolationism, so how realistic is it? This is definitely one for the more distant future, he seems to admit. He asks us to imagine being a historian in the year 2200: looking back, what was the greatest cause of global inequality? He argues that borders will be seen as one of the biggest injustices, if not the biggest. While he’s a little foggy on detail (perhaps understandably, there’s no real evidence to draw upon), the overall proposition is one that will no doubt be widely discussed in years to come.
When listening to Bregman, you don’t have to be completely convinced of every idea in order to come away feeling optimistic. At the very least, he persuades us that things can change – that things don’t have to be as they are. Much of the way the world is structured is not natural, he argues – it can be different. And that alone is cause for optimism.