Utopia for Realists is a book by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. Originally written as a series of articles in Dutch, the book has been published in several languages.

The book starts with highlighting the benefits of free trade and globalization in terms of economic prosperity and social progress in the last 200 years: life expectancies, technological advances, military conflicts at historic lows, unprecedented levels of wealth …Then, Bregman presents the flaws within the existing deregulated neoliberal economic model, such as :  

  • Raising inequalities : He is in line with the ideas of Thomas Picketty (cf. Capital & ideology book review)
  • Wages not reflecting the value of the work: Bregman cites the social effects of strikes of bankers in Ireland and garbage men in New York City in the 60s and 70s. In the latter case, the city was on its knees after few days of strike, while in Ireland, the country continued to function normally over several months during the strike.
  • “Bullshit” jobs: Bregman cites David Graeber’s work on the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs. Bregman mentions that 37% of British workers believe that their jobs are worthless and have no value to society
  • Gross domestic product: GDP is criticized as a popular indicator to measure economic progress.

Finally, the author proposes three recommendations (utopia) to rebuilt modern society and promote a more productive and equitable life:

  • A universal and unconditional basic income paid to everybody
  • A short working week of fifteen hours
  • Open borders worldwide with the free movement of citizens between all states

First utopia: A universal and unconditional basic income paid to everybody

The most developed of three ideas is the proposal for a universal basic income (UBI). Bregman’s underlying point is that poverty reduction pays for itself, socially and economically. Indeed, simply giving people free money, leads to reductions in crime and health problems, to improved school performance, to better mental health and to economic growth. Rather than discouraging work, UBI would instead enable people to seek jobs with true opportunities for growth and advancement.

Second utopia: A short working week of fifteen hours

In 1930, Keynes predicted that we would be working 15 hours a week by 2030. Since the 1980s, economic growth has translated, however, into more working hours instead of more leisure leading to stress and overwork, which actually reduces productivity.

According to Bregman, working less reduces stress, ecological footprint, inequality and unemployment, among others. It also fits with the needs of an aging population.  What is more, Bregman argues that a shorter working week is needed to deal with the erosion of jobs caused by automation.

Third utopia: Open borders worldwide with the free movement of citizens between all states

This is the definitely the most utopian proposal. Bregman argues that open borders could wipe out all poverty and raise everybody in Africa above poverty line. Open borders for people would make the world as a whole roughly twice as rich and would boost global wealth by roughly 65 trillion US dollars

It looks great but many questions remain without clear answers …

Most of the book focuses on “the why” and “the what” and less and on “the how”. In addition, Bregman’s concepts are presented from a very Western-centric standpoint and are not challenged from developing countries perspectives. Below are some question that I think the book did not address clearly:

  • Is UBI affordable for all countries?
  • Is UBI on the top of other government welfare programs / cash benefits or it is rather a substitute?
  • What is in the increase in the tax rates to fund UBI? Will it be acceptable?
  • Is free movement possible with only some countries applying UBI? Can we really expect a country’s taxpayers to give a UBI to anyone who chooses to move there?
  • Can rich countries accommodate millions of immigrants in a short period of time when free movement is put in place?
  • Is it true that many people would like to work less (and earn less) in a society of consumerism?
  • Is the fifteen hours workweek compulsory? If so, how to enforce it?

Quotes from “Utopia for Realists”

  • “If you can’t explain your ideal to a fairly intelligent twelve-year-old, after all, it’s probably your own fault. What we need is a narrative that speaks to millions of ordinary people.”
  • “Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity”
  • “A culture that encourages us to spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need, in order to impress people we can’t stand. Then we go and cry on a therapist shoulder. That’s the dystopia we live in today”
  • “Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history“
  • “In the twenty-first century, the real elite are those born not in the right family or the right class but in the right country.”
  • “But the real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better.”
  • “The idea that the GDP still serves as an accurate gauge of social welfare is one of the most widespread myths of our times. Even politicians who fight over everything else can always agree that the GDP must grow”

2 thoughts on “Book review : Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

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