Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

After watching a podcast featuring Rutger Bregman, I wanted to follow up on some of his works. It’s rare to find someone who champions a positive vision of the future that’s vastly different than today. And that’s one of the key points in his book, Utopia for Realists (2016).

Bregman points out that there is a lack of a “future utopia” in the hyper-developed, hyper-connected nations of the 21st century. For much of human history, life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” You can take a peek at Gapminder to have a better idea about how far we’ve come in developed nations, but some of the trends that really stick out to me are:

In a lot of ways, the 21st century is profoundedly wealthy and quality of life is as high as it’s ever been.

But Bregman points out, “the future is bleak.” Bleak in the sense that it seems we’ve arrived at utopia and have no idea where to go next. Bleak in that the increases of wealth have also brought increases in inequality.

He goes on to argue that, of course, the future does not have to become dystopian. With some (what seems today) insanely progressive policies, we could live in a future that is much more wealthy and equitable. Specifically, he proposes:

  • universal basic income
  • redistribution of work such that there is a 15-hour work week
  • open borders between all countries

Bregman points to robust evidence for why these policies would work, and all the potential positives they could bring to humanity. And not only does he have the evidence to back it up, but the English translation was written in such direct and simple language that I think most people would understand the case being presented.

What strikes me most about the book, however, isn’t the specific policy proposals or the evidence. It’s that Bregman accurately points out that there’s no positive vision for what the future could be like.

Today, MAGA chants and Brexit signal a growing body of people who believe that we can turn back time to when things were better. It’s unclear to me that there’s a way to go back to the past, and even if we could institute policies that ‘brought us back’ the question still remains – back to what? How far back do we go in world history? What time was better than today, and in what ways?

Bregman is one of the few voices I’ve found that’s been able to amplify a better version of today; a version of today that isn’t a re-hashed version of some imaginary “Golden Era.” Instead, he’s willing to face reality and imagine a better future based on what we think is possible now.

I recommend even skimming the book to get a taste of this kind of thinking. Far too many people are being crushed by the day-to-day to remember what it’s like to dream for a better tomorrow.