Books

Rutger Bregman
Utopia for Realists

In the 1890s, William Lane, an Anglo-American trade unionist, writer and dreamer, made his utopia in Paraguay. His “New Australia” colony started with about 230 enthusiasts for a socialist, agrarian lifestyle and ended, after many schisms, with Lane retreating to a conventional life in New Zealand.

Fifty years earlier, Unitarian minister George Ripley had established his utopia at Brook Farm in rural Massachusetts. After five years of communal farming, wood-chopping, milking, debt and disease, it folded. Only the benevolent British industrialist Robert Owen, some two decades earlier, had anything remotely resembling success, with his settlements in Scotland and Indiana. His utopias at least established the principles of the eight-hour day, universal education for children, housing for workers and paid holidays.

It’s been downhill from there for the idea of utopia, as 20th-century ideologies made for worse models. Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and arguably Hitler all had their own absolutist concepts of utopia, where people’s minds would bend with as much compliance as their backs. People wouldn’t simply follow orders, they would believe in them.

But what if we built utopias in a more piecemeal way, retaining individual policies that are radical enough but without making them part of a sweeping social transformation? And what if the agents of utopia were not dreamers but schemers – such as Richard Nixon? That’s right, the Unites States president reviled as reactionary was almost the midwife of a universal basic income.

As Dutch historian Rutger Bregman sets out in Utopia for Realists, in 1969 Nixon wanted to expand his predecessor’s war on poverty, guaranteeing a family of four about $US1600 a year – hardly generous even then but a floor under the poverty many Americans suffered. Nixon loved Randolph Churchill’s idea of “Tory men and liberal policies” changing the world. But when he agreed to call his policy “workfare” – mutual obligation – it collapsed. The left saw it as exploitative, the right as big government. But underlining Nixon’s thinking – and Bregman’s book – is the realisation that decent work is becoming rarer as technology takes over.

Bregman quotes a 2013 Oxford University study showing that within decades, 47 per cent of US jobs and 54 per cent of European jobs will be replaced by machines. There are simply not enough gigs as “social media strategists” to take up the slack, let alone satisfy workers, who in the main want to make a contribution and earn a decent living.

That raises Bregman’s next utopian proposal – more meaningful jobs. Meaningful work and the good life are not necessarily the preserve of prestigious, high-salaried professions. Two famous strikes provide a pointed reminder. In 1968, New York’s garbage collectors went on strike, sick of bureaucrats, businessmen and citizens who “treat us like dirt”, as one worker put it. Two days later, the rubbish piled up; a week later, New York was a rat-infested slum. The garbos won.

In the 1970s, Ireland’s bankers went on strike. They were still out six months later and Ireland’s economy had grown without them. The Irish pub became the centre of exchange, mutual trust the currency.

Not everyone can or should be a garbo but, Bregman argues, far fewer should be bankers, hedge fund managers and advertising executives.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review survey of 12,000 executives and professionals found 50 per cent felt their jobs had “no meaning or significance”. But an education and tax system that nudges smart mathematicians and biologists, for example, towards scientific and medical research, rather than careers as short-term traders or app designers, would help. As that unlikely sage of Silicon Valley, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, said of our misplaced priorities: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” And as Bregman himself observes, “If the post-war era gave us fabulous inventions like the washing machine, the refrigerator, the space shuttle, and the pill, lately it’s been slightly improved iterations of the same phone we bought a couple years ago.”

So if technology eliminates the mundane jobs, and morality the pointless ones, what do we do with the vast pool of unemployed workers? Along with a universal basic income, Bregman joins a long line of eminent thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to John Stuart Mill to John Maynard Keynes in urging a shorter, shared working week. His proposal is utopian but hardly radical, given that uber capitalists and industrialists such as Kellogg and Ford had implemented such working hours and saw their productivity rise. In 1956, Nixon – again – urged the four-day week.

In 1974, when inflation and strikes compelled the British government to introduce a three-day week, a 40 per cent cut in working time led to production losses of … 6 per cent. “They had trouble believing their eyes,” Bregman writes of the officials who calculated the losses that year. In this case, utopia is common sense.

Bregman is far less persuasive with his argument for open borders. His data seems compelling: the poorest American is still in the richest 15 per cent of the global population, although it is arguably much harder to be poor in a high cost-of-living society. And that 62 people are richer than $US3.5 billion is truly obscene.

But while open borders do not mean a deluge of terrorists, criminals and indolent will flood the West, they do create a brain and labour drain from poor countries to wealthy ones. Open borders leave behind the elderly, the sick and the poor. When the middle and skilled working classes flee, corruption and dictatorship thrive.

Nor does Bregman address the enormous pressure on resources and infrastructure, such as farmland, water, housing and hospitals, when countries are overwhelmed with unlimited immigration. And frankly, most democracies today would have trouble getting the consent of their people for such a proposal.

On this issue, Bregman the realistic utopian becomes the naive dreamer – less Franklin, Mill, Keynes or Nixon and more Lane and Ripley.  PT

Bloomsbury, 336pp, $21.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: PT