Utopia For Realists is one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring books I have read in a long time.
It’s written by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. That name may sound familiar. That’s because he went viral at the World Economic Forum for deriding billionaires over their lack of commitment to raising taxes to help eradicate poverty.
In this book, Bregman offers three ideas that will help transform society and move us toward a utopia.
A universal basic income, a fifteen-hour workweek and open borders.
I know what you’re thinking, these ideas sound very pie in the sky and they do. But, Bregman rightly states that ideas such as the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights were considered crazy at one point.
His arguments are convincing and he uses a lot of studies and data to back up his claims. Utopia For Realists is an invigorating read, and as someone that considers themselves a progressive, it was an important one at a time when the movement is not making much headway.
As with many books on utopia, these ideas may seem fanciful, open borders will be a tricky one to implement for example, by no means are they impossible.
The basic premise of the book is that things can, and should, be better. In a world of increasing inequality and ecological damage, it might be time to heed Bregman’s ideas to build a better world.
Table of Contents
Utopia For Realists summary
Takeaway 1 – Is It Possible to pay everyone a basic income?
One of the most popular ideas of the 21st century is a universal basic income (UBI). This would see everyone in society, regardless of their wage or status, receive a monthly payment from the government.
It could be $1,000 a month, or $2,000 a month depending on who implements it, but it has grown in popularity recently. Especially since the Coronavirus pandemic.
The idea has been knocked back by many, who state that UBI would encourage people to become lazy and neglect to work. To counter this, Bregman refers to several small-scale experiments where UBI was implemented.
In Dauphin, Canada, a small town guaranteed each of its 13,000 residents $19,000 a year. The experiment lasted for four years and once it had ended, statistics showed that hospitalizations decreased by 9% while educational attainment increased.
Implementing UBI on a much larger scale is a much tougher proposition than in one town, but the studies from it that have been implemented are promising.
What’s fascinating is how Bregman explains that UBI was almost implemented in the United States in 1971 under President Nixon.
The law was being debated by Congress but was killed off by ideologues within his administration before it could become law.
Had it been passed, we would have had a clearer indication of whether UBI is a solution for the future or a pie-in-the-sky idea doomed to fail.
Takeaway 2 – A shorter working week?
The typical working week is 40 hours. In some jobs that can be more. When I worked in construction in New Zealand, it was more like 50 hours a week.
But the difference between an office job and construction is big. I found I wasn’t doing much for the majority of the day in an office. Whereas, you’re always doing something in construction.
One of the ideas Bregman proposes in Utopia For Realists is a 15-hour week. This may sound ridiculous but there is some thought behind it. It was originally proposed by John Maynard Keynes, who reasons that we would all be working 15-hour weeks now due to the fruits of capitalism.
Well, it’s not turned out that way.
Instead of working less, we’re often working more. In a wider variety of jobs than ever before. The anthropologist David Graeber described them as Bullshit Jobs, in his fascinating book.
Bregman proposes that with the automation of any jobs through robots and artificial intelligence, a lot of these ‘bullshit jobs’, will be brushed away. Think of marketing, office administration and public relations.
The solution is to introduce UBI and work less. This would free up more time to work on what matters to us and engage with our family and friends.
Bregman sums up the world we live in as such:
“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’s shoulder. That’s the dystopia we live in today.“
A 15-hour workweek may not be implemented in the near future, but after the Coronavirus pandemic, it could become more viable down the road.
A four-day workweek is certainly possible, as we’ve learnt the value of more time with our families and time to ourselves.
Takeaway 3 – Open borders could boost income around the world
The most utopian of Bregman’s ideas is that of a world of open borders. The idea of there being no borders between any countries is hard to envision.
Attitudes towards immigration and migrants have hardened since the 2008 financial crash. It may seem crazy to even suggest such a policy. Yet, it does have some merit.
Before the First World War, borders were mostly lines on paper. Passports were rare and countries that issued them were considered uncivilised.
It’s only recently that we’ve decided to erect borders to people and trade. For the majority of human existence, borders were porous. There is evidence to suggest open borders may be better from an economic perspective.
One argument he outlines is international aid. The following quote highlights his thinking:
“The Western world spends $134.8 billion a year, $11.2 billion a month, $4,274 a second on foreign development aid. Over the past fifty years, that brings us to a grand total of almost $5 trillion.”
This is an insane amount of money that it could be argued, hasn’t made as much difference as it should have.
Bregman argues that instead of spending an exorbitant amount of money, we could open borders and spread prosperity this way.
He cites an economist at the University of Washington who argues that “open borders would boost the income of an average Angolan by about $10,000 a year, and of a Nigerian by $22,000 annually.”
If you’ve read The Shock Doctrine, you’ll understand how easily capital, goods and services can crisscross the globe, but for people, it’s much harder.
The European Union has freedom of movement between its member states and Australia and New Zealand operate free movement between citizens of their countries, otherwise, it’s a rarity.
It may seem a fanciful prospect, but opening our borders instead of closing them, could be a path to a more prosperous and fairer future.
Utopia For Realists review
This Utopia For Realists summary has got into the three main proposals from Rutger Bregman’s thought-provoking book.
The word Utopia comes from the short story of the same name by Thomas More. In it, he describes a fictional island idyllic in nature and far removed from the mundanity of 16th-century Britain.
The world Bregman envisions is markedly different from the one More did, but the premise is the same. As good as the world is now, it could be better.
I’m sure many people will have their doubts about the validity of some of these ideas, but you only have to look back through history to see how once radical ideas, that we now consider normal, were once deemed reckless or irresponsible.
UBI is a policy that has a lot of plus points and one I can see being introduced in the near future. With automation likely to hit the workplace hard, it may be the best way to protect the income of those most at threat.
A 15-hour work week and open borders are harder to envision, although not impossible. As I said before, I think a move to a 4-day workweek is possible, and maybe the hours will slowly decrease from thereon.
Open borders are the idea that will be the hardest to implement and convince people of the benefit. Brexit and the rise of Trump are examples of this, as people voted to ‘take back control’ and erect stronger borders.
I think a more likely possibility is the emergence of blocs where you can move freely. We see this already with the European Union, and Mercosur, the South American trading bloc, is moving in this direction too.
Whether you think Bregman’s ideas are visionary or unachievable, there’s no doubt his book is a fascinating read that will make you think and question what’s possible in the future.
Who should read Utopia For Realists?
If you’re a progressive, this is a book you will love. Liberals come under fire, as do conservatives, so although I think you should read the book, you may not agree with everything in it!
If you’re interested in politics and what The Future of Humanity might look like in this arena, Utopia For Realists is worth reading.
The ideas presented in the book are radical, but all new ideas were radical at some point. Anyone that considers themselves radical, will enjoy the book.