'We have no vision of where to go next.'
On the cover of his latest book, Utopia For Realists, it states "An idea whose time has come". As precocious as it sounds, Bregman is on to something.
The book presents a concise hand guide to the ires of capitalism and a vision of how we can move forward, rather than to the left or right as the traditional political framework dictates. He admits he doesn’t have all the answers but the fresh perspective Bregman offers is beginning to seriously take hold. Already a best-selling author in his home country of the Netherlands and considered an overnight sensation, Bregman supports the idea that everyone should be paid a minimum income, regardless of status or worth. An idea already supported many tech figureheads, from Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk. Bregman solidifies his status as poster child of European liberal progress but as we face the uncertainties of the future, is this the thinker we need or just another theorist with some big dreams?
“It’s a crisis of the imagination”
I think that what we are facing now is the greatest existential crisis in the history of humankind. Would you agree that this is an existential crisis or that essentially something isn’t working, which you also alluded to in your book?
It’s a crisis of the imagination, so as I talked about in the book, I wouldn’t necessarily say that we don’t have it good, actually if you look at many of the metrics, from health, wealth, intelligence or people going to school, it’s probably the best time in all human history. We’ve never been as rich, as healthy or as smart as we are now. Extreme poverty was at 84% in 1920 and now it’s at under 20%.
The work of Hans Rosling is very evident in your work.
Yeah I love him. I was very sad that he recently passed away. But I think it’s very important to take that evidence seriously. There are many people on the Left who are very uncomfortable with that; you know China wasn’t doing very well in the 1960s and then they opened up their markets and 600 million people got out of extreme poverty, and I’m not too embarrassed to acknowledge that.
The problem of today is not that we don’t have it good but that we have no vision of where to go next, what the new utopian dreams could be. I’ve always loved this quote by Oscar Wilde that I start the book with actually, that “progress is the realisation of Utopias”. So if we want more than just the next iPhone we need to start thinking a bit bigger.
We use so many descriptive words about the way we live, from autocracy to socialism etc. But no one actually wrote a rulebook on how these ideas are to be implemented, it has just evolved over time; movements and ideas are more quasi-evolutionary wins. Would you agree that we don’t necessarily live in what people describe as democracy for example, that it is just a patchwork?
In some ways we need to go back to the original meanings of these terms. For example, what has the goal of capitalism been all along? I think throughout the 20th Century, from John Maynard Keynes to Isaac Asimov, it was quite clear, the goal of the future is boredom, full unemployment. But then, what we have seen since the 1980s is a lot of jobs starting to arise that don’t really need to exist.
We are constantly underestimating capitalism’s extraordinary ability to come up with new bullshit jobs, and that could go on for quite a while. I think that basic income is much more than just another policy, it’s a complete rethink of what work actually is that will have quite radical effects. For the first time in human history, everyone will have the power to say no to a job they don’t want, which will mean that people with lower incomes will have much more bargaining power, wages will have to rise…it will be a radical redistribution of power.
What I’m getting at is that humans have an inability to cope with existentialism. We have people that come up with policies and ideas but I don’t think we are really dealing with the psycho-social aspects?
Well the age old question is ‘what is the meaning of life?’ For decades we have been given the answer that the meaning of life is to contribute something, to create something of value. How you do that is another question and the answer is to work, work, work.
You must agree that every milestone of civilisation was once a utopian fantasy; democracy, equal rights for men and women, the end of slavery, I mean, we’ve achieved some pretty big things in the past. It starts with small experiments and that spreads. What you need is a vision of where you want to go, and also an idea of what you want to do tomorrow.
Do you think work is how we can contribute and give meaning to life?
No, absolutely not. I think that’s where the crisis you are referring to comes from. The problem is, if more and more people have paid jobs that are not very significant, while there is this huge amount of unpaid work, caring for our kids and the elderly, we’ve lost the grain of society. Just think about all the volunteer work we do that doesn’t add to GDP. We need more of that, so that’s what I mean that we need to rethink what ‘work’ actually is.
We need to drop the fallacy that you need to work for your money, and that’s where the principle of universal basic income comes in, is that it’s not something you should earn first, it’s just a basic right as a citizen of your country. That’s why I think it’s not just another policy, it’s really quite a radical aim.
“I think that the history of capitalism is much more about cooperation.”
One of the things that capitalism does so well is this hyper-competitiveness – we are all basically put against each other in a very small space. Again, it’s an evolutionary process; he who earns most wins.
I would disagree; I think that the history of capitalism is much more about cooperation. If you look at the past 100 years, they have been the biggest years of innovations, which have been almost all funded by governments. The iPhone is my favourite example, and Mariana Mazzucato, the brilliant Italian economist wrote about this, every single element of the iPhone that makes it a smart phone rather than a stupid phone is funded by government research. The internet, mobile technology, GPS, touch screen… I mean Apple is great at making ads for its products and it’s great at design but it’s not a breakthrough technology company, that’s what the government is doing, what the American military and huge European grants have given us. The thing is that the government never gets anything back from all these companies. So this is about huge corporations. I think that we actually overemphasise the fact that we are a competitive species.
But that’s exactly what I’m saying, if you look at Apple they have these violently unethical tax practices and are still set on having this huge monopoly in the market.
Yeah sure and that doesn’t have to be that way. But maybe that’s a different subject, you can interview Marian Mazzucato about that. I think what my point is, is that underlying all of my ideas in my book is a different vision of human nature. Maybe this is because we watch the news all the time – the news is always about exceptions, things that go wrong, like corruption, crises, and terrorism. It’s not really about what’s going right every day because that’s really boring. If you watch a lot of news at the end of the day you will know exactly how the world is not working and you will have a really bleak vision of human nature.
I think that in this free market world we are in the most hyper-competitive stage ever, and America probably has a lot to answer for that. Countries are measuring themselves up against each other, as are businesses, Fortune 500, GDP etc. And so I want to be part of that myself as I am a business owner, I don’t want to be made redundant or aspects of my business to be made redundant. So how should people learn to deal with this, to process it?
That’s a good question. What I think has happened, and I think American history is a great example here, is that for decades, both the Democrats and the Republicans believed in something called a ‘win-win’. The Republicans said that if the rich get richer, the poor benefit as well. The Democrats said, ‘Well we don’t believe in that, but if we have great government programmes and if we get all the homeless off the streets and eradicate poverty, then the rich will benefit as well because we will have a much more civilised nation’.
Almost all the ideas in my book are win-win ideas. For example, the eradication of poverty, it’s just cheaper and better for everyone. One study estimated that the cost of child poverty at the moment is around $500 billion each year whereas it would cost about $175 billion to just eradicate poverty completely.
If it is so easy, because obviously $175 billion isn’t that much in comparison to the GDP of some countries, why has it not already been done?
I think that, when it comes to ideas, the problem is not technical or economic in nature; we’ve got the research and the means, we could do it tomorrow. The blockade is really ideological. We have this ideology about work and wanting to contribute. That’s what I emphasise in the book is that if we rethink what work is and if we start to think about a life without poverty, not as a privilege but as a right, or if we see it as venture capital that we all deserve.
I struggle with the understanding that we live in this all-encompassing description of democracy or capitalism. I think that, with what we’ve been told, and that’s the irony of what you are saying, we are being brainwashed to evolve into something we’re not.
That’s a good point, and democracy is a great example. I’m from the Netherlands and when I hear people talking about what you call ‘democracy’ here in the UK… I mean, this House of Lords that are like grandpas that no one elected, what’s it doing there? And then you pretty much have to choose between two political parties, whereas I have more than 30 to choose from.
Would you say that you’re a fan of thinkers like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, these very involved left wing thinkers?
I mean, you can’t not admire them, but I wouldn’t say that I am writing in their tradition. In The Shock Doctrine, Klein has this metaphor that neo-liberalism advances by giving people shocks, basically using crisis to advance. She thinks that the poor and all the people who suffer from this are just shocked and become apathetic so they can’t resist anymore. That’s a very bleak image of what actually happens.
The one thing that the Left and Right can agree on nowadays is that humans are basically lazy, not very strong and have to be pushed into jobs. The Left doesn’t trust them to make their own decisions, the Right wants to make decisions for them as well, to push them into jobs etc.
“We’re a story-telling species.”
So here’s the double-edged sword that we face with universal basic income: what if it backfires and you give everyone this money, and they end up having too much time, they work on themselves and they don’t like what they see?
I think there are two things. What would change, for example the point on education, nowadays it’s mostly about getting people into another bullshit job as fast as possible, to earn as much as possible. We tell our kids that they should make sure they get a well-paid job, not to study the arts, to do something useful. If kids knew that they could fall back on a basic income they would start making different choices, education would be about preparing you for life and not just the job market.
The other answer I have for you is that if we look at countries right now with shorter or longer working weeks, it is actually the countries with the shorter working weeks that have the most social capital, the most volunteer work, the most theatre and event goers and the least television watched.
I’m quite optimistic that, as I write in the book, if we have more time we can do more.
I can’t get round the fact that while universal basic income is a nice idea, and I’m sure it will be implemented, it will be by blunt force because we won’t have a choice.
As a historian, I think it’s important to emphasise the possibilities and that there are no laws of history. At the end of the 1960s under Nixon everyone believed that there was going to be some form of basic income implemented and it didn’t happen, due to a bizarre set of coincidences. It could have easily gone the other way but it didn’t. I’m not an optimist, I’m not a pessimist, I’m into possibilities– it can go either way. There’s Tyler Cowen, you might have heard about him, he’s an American economist who has written a lot of very pessimistic books about the future of the US, and what he thinks is that it may well be that in the future 80% of the population might have free WiFi and good enough food, cheap housing, but that’s about it and 80% of the population will basically have a job that’s about making the rich feel good about themselves. That’s a possibility as well, that’s imaginable, there’s no moral that says ‘And now we are going to introduce universal basic income!’ you have to fight for these ideas.
We’re pretty docile aren’t we? We just like stories.
Yeah, we’re a story-telling species.
Would you agree that universal basic income is just another story we tell ourselves?
Obviously. But it’s a story with a lot of good evidence behind it. I mean, if you go all the way back to Karl Marx with the Communist manifesto and Capital, he always used the language of science to convince people of those ideas. I believe in facts and evidence but it’s not always enough because underlying all these facts are values, always ideas that might not necessarily be true but that you need to make explicit. What happened in the 1990s is that we sort of forgot that, and thought that economic growth was just a neutral thing, that the way we define progress is neutral, this is just the way things are.
Karl Marx had this great line somewhere in his work that the goal of socialism is not to solve the problems of life, but to be able to face them, to start living, and we’ll find out that it is actually really difficult to live a good life. I think that will forever be the case – we will always have to keep finding meaning in new things, in religion, in our relationships etc. but now there are so many people stuck in bullshit jobs they don’t care about, people stuck in poverty, people who don’t even get to live the life that might be worth living. There is so much ambition, talent and potential that is just wasted and that is what my book is about.
Rutger Bregman’s ‘Utopia For Realists’ is out now through Bloomsbury Publishing.