The first thing you notice about Utopia for Realists, the new book that argues that money should be free and a 15-hour work week sounds about right, is its tone. Writer Rutger Bregman is cheerful, optimistic, imaginative, welcoming, funny and economical – the opposite of most of our political books, which tend to be fulminating, accusatory, combative and narrow-minded, and all of these things across far too many pages.
Bregman is Dutch, which will be a strike against him on these shores, and then there is the matter of his politics, which seem designed to infuriate the entire spectrum of current American thought. He is for open borders, which will make him an Antichrist to the Trump right, and he speaks warmly of neoliberalism, which will make Sanders liberals cringe.
At the same time, the entire thesis of his book seems aimed at the tepid incrementalism of mainstream Democrats, who reflexively dismiss all big ideas as “politically unrealistic” and the work of “purity testers.” He will have few natural allies on this side of the Atlantic, which may be one of the reasons his international bestseller hasn’t been reviewed in very many of our major newspapers yet.
But Bregman’s book is both a fun read and a breath of fresh air to anyone who lived through the ghastly experience of last year’s presidential election season, which turned into an angry referendum on the relentless narrowness of American politics.
Utopia for Realists is a book that argues, with humor and sympathy, that we’ve all suffered from forgetting how to dream of a better world. “We inhabit a world of managers and technocrats,” he writes. “Political decisions are presented as a matter of exigency – as neutral and objective events, as though there were no other choice.”
American writers continually made the mistake of trying to understand the upheavals of last year in terms of the usual left-right explanations of the world, instead of looking at more basic criteria. People everywhere were depressed and bored out of their minds. They craved something new. Polls consistently showed that people in both parties were unhappy with their choices and wanted a new direction, almost irrespective of what that direction was.
People wanted big ideas and big dreams, but Democrats and Republicans both have been trained to imagine the future not as a better place, but one filled with horror and destruction. On the right, the fantasy future is overrun by benefit-devouring immigrants with scabies, while for the left the next decades are a hellscape filled with toxic greenhouse gases and overfished oceans.
What I saw on the campaign trail last year was an electorate so desperate for big dreams that they turned to lost paradises of the past.
Donald Trump promised to build walls to reverse the onslaught of multiculturalism and send us back to a Fifties nirvana that never existed – he literally promised Happy Days and even had Scott Baio as an opening-day convention speaker.
For Democrats, meanwhile, the most exciting future was presented by a septuagenarian socialist reintroducing the New Deal to young voters. Even a mildly radical idea like free college aroused not just derision but anger among “responsible” thinkers in both of the major parties and in the punditocracy, ostensibly the place where we play with ideas in this country.
Bregman argues that we are where we are because a century of bummerific experiences with utopian ideas – fascism, communism, Nazism, to name a few – have left us imagining that “dreams have a way of turning into nightmares” and that “utopia is a dystopia.” This has left us with a world where “politics has been watered down to problem management” and “radical ideas about a different world have become literally unthinkable.”
Even liberalism, Bregman argues, has become pessimistic, an ideology that is “all but hollowed out,” with young people trained to “just be yourself” and “do your thing.” That’s probably an overstatement and a cliché. But there’s probably also some truth to the idea that a lot of the controversies about safe spaces are the end result of a new emphasis on trying to make the individual feel maximally safe and accepted within the larger context of a world we’ve unconsciously come to accept as essentially unchangeable.
Government, too, Bregman argues, has mostly given up trying to make a better world, and has instead focused on policing it better. “If you’re not following the blueprint of a docile, content citizen,” he writes, “the powers that be are happy to whip you into shape” – with control, surveillance, repression.
The welfare state is where Bregman sees the ultimate perversion of the utopian instinct. It’s become “a grotesque pact between left and right,” in which conservatives have spent a generation making sure people getting aid are punished and villainized as lazy and work-averse, while progressives have used public assistance as a way to lever more control over the lives of poor people who aren’t trusted to make the right life choices. Anyone who has covered the way the remains of the welfare bureaucracy works knows this is true, that we have made receiving any kind of aid to keep yourself or your children alive a humiliating, intrusive experience, one that invites an army of inspectors into your home, who examine everything from how many toothbrushes you have in your bathroom to whether your Facebook page shows you’re spending your time wisely.
Bregman thinks we should just give people money, no questions asked, and let them sort it out. His prescriptions are humorously simple. He quotes economist Charles Kenny, who notes “the reason poor people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.” And he tells the fascinating true story of that time that Richard Nixon – Richard Nixon! – tried to implement a law guaranteeing a basic family income for all Americans.
The story is one of those classic absurdist tales of history. Nixon’s brain led him to this idea by means of some bizarre accident – he apparently thought “Tory men and liberal policies” are what “changed the world,” and saw the plan as the ultimate marriage of conservative and progressive politics, something that would make his name ring out forever: Richard Nixon, guarantor of universal dignity.
But of course aides who hated the idea (including one who was an Ayn Rand fan) pushed him away from the plan, and it morphed into yet another plan to castigate the lazy poor by forcing them to work. Later in the Seventies, the idea vanished altogether thanks to another classic political reason – a typo, which mistakenly showed that experiments in this area revealed a 50 percent higher divorce rate, which naturally led men to worry that guaranteeing women a basic income would leave them with no reason to stay home. Years later it turned out that basic income experiments had shown no impact on the divorce rate.
One of the reasons the welfare state is so unpopular in America is because every aid program ends up being income-dependent. You can’t qualify for aid here until you’re poor enough, but we treat the poor as work-averse parasites with bad judgment who have to be monitored round-the-clock. But studies abroad show that the countries with the most universal programs are the most successful and engender the least hostility. “Basically,” Bregman writes, “people are more open to solidarity if it benefits them personally.”
Bregman’s basic ideas are pretty simple. He thinks (and many scientists agree with him) that if you give people a basic income with no strings attached, they will make better decisions, work more, cost the state less in the areas of things like health care and incarceration, and be happier and feel less humiliated, scared, and insecure. He quotes Woody Allen, who pointed out that “money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”
He also argues pretty forcefully that working longer hours makes us less productive and also more unhappy. At some point in the arc of industrialized countries, we end up working more and more hours just so we can acquire more and more stuff we don’t need. More relaxing, less working and consuming – that’s where we should be looking. So he proposes a 15-hour work week. I’m sure people here will hate the idea.
And who knows, maybe none of it works in practice. But what’s so interesting about modern America is our hostility to the mere idea of trying to create an easier and happier life. We’re a country that was once rich with social experimentation, from the Shaker colonies to Brook Farm to Oneida to New Harmony to the Fourierist experiments to the Octagon community of vegetarians to a long list of others, many of them amusingly crazy, who tried to use the accident of plenty as an excuse to build a better way to live.
Now we don’t really even try, and mostly just scream at each other on the Internet. That doesn’t seem like it will get us there. Maybe free money and a three-hour work day won’t, either, but it sure seems like it would be more fun to try.