Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

My book notes on Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists.

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Can big, new ideas get accepted and change the world? That’s the question Rutger Bregman poses at the end of his book Utopia for Realists with. It’s an important question. Because the ideas he introduces earlier in the book are definitely big. And new for many of us – even if not original. 

Bregman’s answer to the question is, Yes. But it’s not easy. It takes time. And ideas have to have the groundwork laid for them. Then, critically, it usually takes a crisis for radical new ideas to be considered. World views don’t change until the pressure becomes so intense that they have to.

A crisis is not enough in and of itself though. If the groundwork for new ideas haven’t been laid when a crisis comes, people don’t think there’s any viable alternative. Hence, even a crisis as big as the 2008 financial crisis, did not lead to any radical reforms. People didn’t think there was any other way.

Bregman’s book is his contribution so that when the next crisis inevitably comes, there are some alternatives this time. His ideas may seem radical right now, but most big ideas seem that way at first. 

The ideas

What are some of the ideas he proposes? Universal basis income for starters. The welfare state, he says, is from a bygone era when breadwinners were all men. And people stayed in the same job their whole lives. It all too often traps people. Giving everyone a basic income would bring greater freedom and opportunity to all. 

And the evidence suggests that giving people free money works. The homeless turn their lives around. Those in poverty find a way out. More than that, it saves money as people become less dependent on the state.

Why hasn’t universal income taken off so far? Bregman argues it’s because we’ve separated people into two types of poor. Deserving and non-deserving. We’ve made the absence of poverty something you have to work for rather than a right everyone deserves.

Another idea Bregman argues for is an alternative to GDP as a measure of a country’s health. A more diverse dashboard with multiple indicators would be a better alternative. 

He proposes a shorter working week too. For years – up until the Eighties – working hours were reducing. But that’s stopped. Governments and companies aren’t pushing this forward any more. Working less, says Bregman, solves lots of problems. These range from stress to climate change. All told, working less would be good for productivity, good for well-being, and good for the planet.

Bregman makes the case too that many jobs today are ‘bullshit jobs’. Jobs that shift wealth rather than create wealth. We value wealth shifters like bankers more than those who truly add something to our world. Teachers, engineers, researchers are the real wealth creators. Sadly, the brightest people in the world are being payed a fortune by Facebook and their ilk to make people click on links more. What a waste.

The last idea I’ll mention here is Bregman’s proposal that opening borders will be the best means of tackling poverty and inequality. Development aid has minimal impact. Experts estimate the world would be twice as rich with open borders. Throughout history, migration has been one of the most consistent drivers of progress. The very opposite to this is happening right now. But it will only increase global poverty and inequality.

In truth, I haven’t decided what I think about all these ideas yet. I’m sure many of you will have strong views on plenty of them. But I don’t think it’s a bad idea to be prodded to think differently and consider other approaches. And, who knows, when another crisis comes along, some of them might just be in the right place at the right time.

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