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Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

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“…there’s another form of politics that is much more important. I’m talking about Politics with a capital P, one that’s not about rules, but about revolution. Not about the art of the possible, but about making the impossible inevitable...Where politics acts to reaffirm the status quo, Politics breaks free.”

I have to admit that I stopped watching the news quite a while ago. I will have a bit of a glance at the headlines in the mornings over my cup of tea, but to actually sit down and watch a traditional news broadcast is an activity that is far more depressing that my current state of anxiety can handle. We’re led to believe that the “news” is full of the important information that we need to be aware of to be a fully engaged member of society. If you don’t watch the news, you’re ill-informed, and probably a bit shallow. But why is all the important information that needs to be shared always so goddam negative? I know there are actually many terrible things happening in the world at the moment, but you know what? There’s also a lot of good things happening all the time. You wouldn’t guess it from watching any randomly-selected news broadcast… for an hour or so you can feast on disasters, crimes, and scandals, con-artists, murders, and rapes, unfeeling world leaders, melting polar ice-caps, giant plastic islands floating in the ocean, protests (or lack thereof) against the inhuman things the government is doing in our name… if you’re watching a commercial station in Melbourne, half of that time will be spent reporting on a ridiculous game where grown men wear short shorts and leap on each other in order to catch what is referred to as a football, but typically gets handled more often than kicked.

But honestly, watching the news makes me feel as though the world is about to end. It also makes me feel very, very hopeless and helpless.

So when I was perusing the selection of books available to purchase at the recent TedX Sydney conference, Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman caught my eye. The blurb on the back says that Bregman “shows that we can construct a society with visionary ideas that are, in fact, wholly implementable. Every milestone of civilisation – from the end of slavery to the beginning of democracy – was once considered a utopian fantasy.” That’s true. I guess at the height of power of the cotton plantations in America’s deep South, it was almost impossible to imagine that the practice of slavery could ever be abolished. It was so ingrained in their way of life that any other suggestion would have seemed ludicrous to many people. I read a fair bit of dystopian fiction, but I decided that I needed a bit of utopia in my life. I want to believe that the world can and will be better. It might seem bleak now, but then so did many points in human existence that are now relegated to the pages of history.

The book starts off on a very promising note that felt immediately comforting. I’ll be up-front right here and tell you that no, I have not fact-checked this book. Bremen does quote quite a lot of statistics and so far, I’m simply trusting that what he says is correct. Probably terribly naive I know, but let’s just hope for the best for now, shall we? As I said, Utopia for Realists starts off on a very comforting note, with Bregman explaining how much better off we are today than even just 200 years ago.

He points out how, for most of history, most people were “poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly.” He then goes on to explain that “In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful. Where 84% of the world’s population still lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.”

It’s true. Compared to the Middle Ages, and even Victorian times, wealth is much more evenly spread. Yes, today’s wealthy are obscenely wealthy compared to the poor, but this has always been the case. Instead, look at what the “average person” has these days compared to in the past. “These days, there are more people suffering from obesity worldwide than from hunger. In Western Europe, the murder rate is forty times lower, on average, than in the Middle Ages…Worldwide, life expectancy grew from sixty-four years in 1990 to seventy in 2012 – more than double what it was in 1900…The share of the world population that survives on fewer than 2,000 calories a day has dropped from 51% in 1965 to 3% in 2005. More than 2.1 billion people finally got access to clean drinking water between 1990 and 2012.”

This is just a sample of the reassuring statistics that Bregman throws at us during the opening of this book. And I’m fully aware that I’m probably only able to be comforted by them because I’m living in a state of extreme privilege. Knowing that there are now only 3% of people living on fewer than 2,000 calories a day is not comforting if you are one of the 3%. Still, I take heart because it shows that things can get better. Perhaps not fast enough for that 3%, but at the very least things are heading in the right direction.

During the course of Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets up impressive arguments for a Universal Basic Income, and a shorter work week as the vehicles by which we can eradicate poverty and make people happier and healthier. He shows that such systems, whilst seemingly fanciful and extravagant to most people today, would actually save governments money. Experiments with basic income programs show that they can have such benefits as students staying in school longer, decreasing hospitalisations, as well as reducing domestic violence and mental health complaints. It would seem that we have the power to eradicate poverty right now, but we’re too cynical, un-trusting (and possibly just mean) to do so.  As Professor Evelyn Forget of the University of Manitoba says, “The political right is afraid people will stop working, and the left doesn’t trust them to make their own choices.”

As well as providing the finances and time to free people to make their own choices and live their lives in a way that is more true to themselves and their communities, Bregman calls for us to measure the success of our nations by a new method:

“Every era needs its own figures. In the eighteenth century, they concerned the size of the harvest. In the nineteenth century, the radius of the rail network, the number of factories, and the volume of coal mining. And in the twentieth, industrial mass production within the boundaries of the nation-state. But today it’s no longer possible to express our prosperity in simple dollars, pounds, or euros. From healthcare to education, from journalism to finance, we’re all still fixated on “efficiency” and “gains,” as though society were nothing but one big production line. But it’s precisely in a service-based economy that simple quantitative targets fail.”

He argues that when people are no longer in a situation where they are worried where their next meal is coming from, or the roof over their head, their mental bandwidth is freed up enough to become involved in the community, making life richer and happier for everyone. However, it is precisely this kind of success that is not measurable by current methods that are obsessed with productivity and efficiency.

Our society is valuing the wrong things. Most jobs today are ridiculous constructs of the current society we’re living in, and not real occupations that are producing or performing something necessary for life. Bregman points out that most jobs are involved with shifting wealth around, rather than creating it and it’s the people performing these tasks that are being paid the best salaries. So bankers, lawyers, advertisers, who produce nothing of tangible value, are earning so much more than farmers, teachers, and nurses, who are actually providing services that are vital for life itself.

“If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible, and it makes your head spin. Imagine how different things might be if our generation’s best and brightest were to double down on the greatest challenges of our times. Climate change, for example, and the aging population, and inequality...Now that would be real innovation.”

Clearly, I could go on quoting this book all day, but instead I think you should read it for yourself. These are ideas that we need to spread. You may not agree with everything Bregman has to say, but in order for new ways of thinking to become possible, rather than fanciful, we need to talk about them. To actually consider different ways of being. We need to dream of Utopia.