I’m reading… “Utopia for Realists: and How We Can Get There” by Rutger Bregman

Do you live in “utopia”? Looking back on the last two years of pandemic I can’t imagine that there are many of us leaping to a positive answer to that one.

Now imagine you are living 200 years ago and picture a time in the future when:

“billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, healthy and occasionally even beautiful. Where 84% of the world’s population still lived in poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

Is this “utopia”?

Numbers, despite the meaning behind them, rarely communicate the full story. Bregman describes where we are now not as “utopia” but as the “Land of Plenty”:

“According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehost the sails. “Progress is the realization of Utopias,” he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing in the rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead. There’s no dream to replace it because we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

In Utopia for Realists Bregman seeks to paint that “better world than the one we’ve got” to sail to – not as some kind of mythical unachievable state, but by outlining a set of ideas that are just there on that far horizon.

What are these grand ideas? That would be giving too much away, but they are very interesting.

The ideas that are there on that far horizon have all been widely tested, some have even been implemented in some countries, and yet all of them would be regarded as counterintuitive, even counter-logical by most people. (I’m continuing my run of books that tell me I’m wrong.)

In the UK, where I live, welfare is a constant political battleground. Just this week the deficiencies in the existing system have been brought into stark relief by stories of an elderly woman riding the bus to stay warm at a time of escalating living costs. Yet others argue that we can’t afford to do any more. Bregman has a big idea for that. Bregman’s approach to this problem is certainly radical.

We live in a time when work is going through a massive upheaval. Many people have spent the last two years working from home and now the bosses are seeking a return to “normal” office life. Vast numbers of people are dreading the idea of returning to a place which sapped them of energy and required them to sit in long queues on motorways for no apparent reason. Personally, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing people saying “working from home”, while putting the “working” in air-quotes, as if somehow the many hours that people have been putting in aren’t real work. Bregman has a radical, yet tested, idea for that, and no it’s not better hybrid working.

(hybrid working is another term I dislike, it maintains the suggestion that working in an office is somehow better than working from home when for many roles the office is the least productive place for people.)

You might recognise the “Land of Plenty” but there are hundreds of millions of people who wouldn’t. They are still living on less than a dollar a day. The global community has spent billions of dollars trying to overcome this problem, Bregman puts the figure at $11.2 billion a month, or $5 trillion over the last 50 years. Yet poverty is still a massive problem and, according to Bregman, no-one really knows whether this development money has made a difference. Again, Bregman has an idea for this problem, and it’s probably not what you were expecting it to be. Another idea that is very timely and massively counter-cultural to many global governments, to the current British government certainly.

This book is titled “Utopia for Realists: and how we can get there”, having the ideas is only a small part of the challenge. Implementing the ideas is the greater part.

In the epilogue to the book Bregman writes:

“For the last time, then: how do we make utopia real? How do we take these ideas and implement them?

The path from the ideal to the real is one that never ceases to fascinate me”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

He concludes with some advice to the realists and an encouragement that “more people are hungry for change”. I hope so.

This book is, in many ways, a prequal to I’m reading…”Human kind” by Rutger Bregman which uses many of the same ideas but focussed more on the personal aspects of change. We need both personal and political change if we are going to move towards that “far horizon”.

Header Image: This is Loughrigg Tarn, it’s within driving distance of my home and is a fabulous place for a swim. In the background are the Langdale fells.

One thought on “I’m reading… “Utopia for Realists: and How We Can Get There” by Rutger Bregman”

  1. I read it when it came out and generally liked the main arguments and proposals. I actually topped my kids earnings up to provide a kind of UBI when they were teenagers/undergraduates and now they are all well above that so I don’t need to, although I did for one of them during the early days of lockdown. They know however that should the need arise, I will provide a UBI for them. As you well know, I also worked a short week and noticed that I got most things done, with a lot less hours and I really don’t like those high paid money shuffling jobs! What disappointed me was that none of these things seem remotely close to a utopian vision, they are just practical, economically justifiable policies that we could do now. I think Margaret Atwood is doing some more interesting work on utopian visions of the world, my dreams are a lot more ambitious!

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