Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman review: A brilliantly written and unorthodox page-turner

Bergman's new bestselling book, which proposes new ideas for creating a better society, has tapped into a void in politics, in which nobody is painting a picture of the kind of world we want to live in

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The Independent Culture

Rutger Bregman’s new book isn’t traditional bestseller material. Packed full of case studies, graphs and complex ideas – you might expect it to appeal to a small niche of people who are actively involved in politics, but instead it’s created quite a storm here in Britain. 

In case you haven’t heard Bregman on the radio, seen him on TV or read one of the many reviews of Utopia for Realists here’s the thrust of his argument: humans have moved forwards a lot in the last two centuries but we’re now stalling. In response to soaring inequality, stubbornly high levels of poverty and very long working hours, Bregman puts forward bold proposals for creating a better society. 

There’s clearly no single explanation for Utopia for Realists finding its way onto the bestseller list, but there are certainly some obvious factors at play. For starters, it’s a brilliantly written page-turner. It goes into serious depth, without ever feeling dense, as it weaves its way through the challenges we face and onto proposals for doing things differently. 

Many others have written about the basic income – the proposal to give every citizen a non-means tested payment from the state – but very few have done so in such a compelling way as Bregman. He cites and explains numerous examples where providing people with state provision has set them free. From a homeless project in right-wing Utah, which gave people free apartments, to the Speenhamland System of 18th century England; his use of real life illustrations of the potential for a basic income is deeply persuasive.

But it isn’t just his writing style or use of case studies which has made Bregman’s book take off as it has – it’s also tapped into something big happening in politics: the rise of right-wing populism and the consistent failure of the left to paint a picture of the kind of world we want to live in. Three stories really struck me last week as I read Utopia for Realists. The first was that child poverty in Britain is now at four million – back to 2010 levels – and the second was the continued rise in zero hours jobs. We have an economy that functions in some traditional sense (it’s growing a little) but leaves young people at the bottom of a ladder with rungs so far apart that they stand little chance of climbing. And we have a jobs market that’s changing beyond recognition. As Bregman points out so well the left simply haven’t been offering a vision of how we’d do things differently – instead finding ourselves trapped in a period of what he calls “underdog socialism”, where we accept the premise of the mainstream debate and fail to put forward serious alternatives. There are, of course, reasons for underdog socialism to have thrived. When the Government is attempting to hack away at the welfare state and deregulate the entire economy it’s hard not to be in defensive mode. But Bregman is right to call progressives out – and he echoes Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in his calls for us to move away from what they call “folk politics” and demand what some might call the impossible.

This is where the third story comes in: the recent election in Bregman’s home country of the Netherlands. The big story there, unwritten by much of the media, was a huge surge in support for a green/left offering a bold vision of a different kind of country. They were looking to the future – and providing a serious counterweight to the politics of hate championed by Gert Wilders.

Of course demanding the seemingly impossible is made a lot easier with hard evidence and what’s lacking from Bregman’s analysis is a rigorous economic account of how we might pay for a basic income and a shorter working week. He’s right to point out that poverty costs the economy billions, and that overworked employees are inefficient – but a detailed appendix on how a country might change its tax system to pay for such policies would have been useful.

Thankfully work on the costs of different basic income schemes is being done elsewhere. The University of Bath’s paper on the subject sheds useful light on the price of paying everyone a basic income– and thinktanks like Compass and the RSA are pushing ahead with research in the area too. The best way to model such a scheme would, of course, be for the Government to conduct its own pilot – something I’ve been pressing them to do – but such a move seems way off for now.

There’s no doubt that Bregman is a savvy operator. In his latest tour promoting his book he used right-wing language to sell his basic income proposals: “It’s just a floor in the income distribution. Everyone will have the means to take risks. That’s what capitalism is all about.” He might be right to think that a right-wing frame for basic income will help sell it, but we must also be very wary that some on the right would like to use the idea to undermine the welfare state – and that his language could, therefore, be risky. Only by setting the payments at a high enough level, and guaranteeing additional help for those who need it, can we ensure that it’s not hijacked.  A successful basic income should be, by its nature, taking us away from consumerist capitalism – not propping it up. 

Bregman’s book adds to a growing list of compelling accounts in favour of radically restructuring our economy. From Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything there is a wealth of literature out there making the case for bolder, bigger left-wing politics. It’s now time to put this practice into reality. As Bregman points out, the Left failed to make gains in 2008 despite a global crisis of capitalism and, as he says, it will take both the courage to be utopian, and a good sense of timing too, to ensure that at the next opportunity we don’t “hear the clock strike midnight and find ourselves just sitting around, empty-handed, waiting for an extraterrestrial salvation that will never come”.

Rutger Bregman’s ‘Utopia for Realists’ is published by Bloomsbury, £15.29. Caroline Lucas is co-leader of the Green Party

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