Book Review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman (English translation by Elizabeth Manton, 2017)

Utopia is a book of ideals, though Bregman would disagree; an idealist is, after all, enemy to the realist. But Bregman argues for his ideals with recent and historical case studies, facts and figures, peer-reviewed journal articles, and a 48 page list of references that ought to put many in the news media to shame. Bregman says that humanity hasn’t had a utopia to strive for in a long time. Our political leaders, for all their differences, might as well be bickering over the same status quo, with only minor nuances. Recent US elections lend weight to this observation. Utopia for Realists inspires a new future for the world and its leaders to strive towards.

So what does Bregman’s utopia look like? A 15 hour workweek, Basic Income for all, and open borders, with the aim of increasing leisure time, disposable income, Gross Worldwide Product, and opportunities for all of us to do . . .well, whatever! In Bregman’s utopia people are paid according to their contribution to society’s wellbeing, and not necessarily how well they serve the rich few. Bullshit Jobs are eliminated or automated for more soul-satisfying work, paid or otherwise. We no longer judge each other by how long or “hard” we work, or what we own, and we have come to accept a once and age-old truth: that more leisure time – time to do the things we like, love, and the things that make us curious – is what we all want, and have always wanted.

Bregman argues his case methodically and entertainingly. At times I felt I was reading a cheap thriller with non-stop action sequences and cliff-hanger chapter endings. Utopia is easy to read, and for all its economic and historical references, is not burdened with jargon or high-brow theories. It’s obvious that this was Bregman’s purpose; to create a book that inspires and invigorates all, from the working (wo)man to the politician.

Yet the book’s accessibility might also be its biggest drawback. The fact of the matter is, despite Bregman’s claim, this isn’t a blueprint for a utopia. There are goals and destinations, yes, but the road map is missing. Bregman says that change must come from the top-down, from leaders (not the same as politicians) and policies. But how? The idea of implementing an open border policy alone is enough to overwhelm any group of policy makers, to say nothing of the sociocultural integration of people from different counties, its impact on tax collection, resource allocation, and export and imports. Since the books isn’t supposed to be bogged down in jargon and details, it leaves major questions to be answered, especially for readers who might not have the proper historical or economic background to figure out the details for themselves. For example, Bregman says that an open border policy (anyone can go and work anywhere) would “[raise] everybody in Africa above our Western poverty line, and in the process put a few extra months’ salary in our pockets too.” He goes on to quote figures of exactly how much everyone would benefit from open borders . . .and that’s it! Now I’ve taken a few courses in Micro and Macro, and read Freakonomics (thank you very much). I know this doesn’t make me an economist, but the jump from ‘open borders’ to making the “whole world twice as rich,” is beyond my mental models, so I have to imagine the average person would struggle with this leap as well.

Utopia’s purpose is not to get into the grit of how and why; Bregman acknowledges as much. But details are important. Good intentions for a better future – ideals – are not enough. This is probably one of the biggest criticisms, I imagine, that conservative and right-leaning folk would have against Bregman’s book. His ideals echo loudly of socialist/Marxist philosophies, which have been traditionally criticised for being unable to transform good intentions into practical plans.

Despite these limitations, I still believe Bregman’s Utopia is worth picking up and reading. If such a future is possible in our lifetime, I don’t know what kind of loon wouldn’t want to work for it. Bregman has tried to provide the moral, academic, and economic justifications to turn the ideals in Utopia into reality. As for the nit and grits, I believe humanity’s creativity for problem-solving is only limited by the problems we want to solve. We dreamt of walking on the moon long before we figured out how to make it happen. If people buy into Bregman’s utopia, we’ll figure out how to make it a reality.

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