Tweak­ing cap­i­tal­ism for the 21st cen­tury

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Most writ­ers on utopia tend to take a ‘‘two cheers’’ ap­proach to the sub­ject. Utopias are all well in the­ory, it is said, but at­tempts to put them into prac­tice are bound to end in dis­as­ter. The po­lit­i­cal ex­per­i­ments of the 20th cen­tury tell us all we need to know: utopias should be re­garded not as se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ven­tions but as a kind of so­cial poetry.

There is some­thing to be said for this at­ti­tude but, taken to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion, it de­nies utopia, and utopian writ­ing, its driv­ing philo­soph­i­cal im­pe­tus, which emerges from a pro­found dis­sat­is­fac­tion with so­ci­ety and a deep de­sire to change it.

It’s all very well to re­flect that utopias are apt to de­gen­er­ate into dystopias, and even that there is some­thing re­pel­lent about the idea of a per­fect so­ci­ety per se. But what’s the point of a hy­poth­e­sis if you’re not go­ing to de­sign an ex­per­i­ment to test it?

In Utopia for Re­al­ists, Dutch au­thor Rut­ger Breg­man takes a prag­matic at­ti­tude. In fact, his utopia is barely one at all if by ‘‘utopia’’ we mean an al­ter­na­tive so­ci­ety along the lines of Thomas More’s is­land. It is far more in the spirit of Charles Fourier and Mar­quis de Con­dorcet, ‘‘utopian’’ writ­ers who sought to har­ness rea­son and sci­ence in the cause of an im­proved and im­prov­ing polity. It asks us to think prac­ti­cally about the prob­lems we face and how our so­ci­ety might be re­designed to ame­lio­rate them.

Breg­man’s is not a utopia based on work. Like Paul Ma­son in Post­cap­i­tal­ism, he un­der­stands that in­creas­ing au­toma­tion is un­likely to cre­ate a new stra­tum of labour thick enough to ab­sorb the un­em­ployed and un­derem­ployed dis­placed by robots.

In­deed the com­ing jobo­ca­lypse un­der­writes two of his main rec­om­men­da­tions: a univer­sal ba­sic in­come and a rad­i­cally short­ened work­ing week. Nei­ther is a new idea: the no­tion of a ba­sic in­come goes back to Thomas More him­self. But for Breg­man, as for others, both are newly rel­e­vant.

On univer­sal ba­sic in­come, a scheme whereby all ci­ti­zens would re­ceive an un­con­di­tional flat-rate sum from the state, he takes his lead from Guy Stand­ing ( The Pre­cariat) in demon­strat­ing that ‘‘free money’’ is not a gate­way to feck­less­ness, as eco­nomic ‘‘ra­tio­nal­ists’’ are apt to ar­gue, but a sure way to al­le­vi­ate poverty and en­cour­age ‘‘en­ter­prise’’ (where en­ter­prise is de­fined in broader terms than sim­ply the abil­ity to make money).

He tells the story of a Bri­tish char­ity that handed 13 rough sleep­ers about $5000 each in 2009. Af­ter 18 months, seven had homes, two were about to move into apart­ments, and all had taken steps to­wards sol­vency.

More­over the cost of the orig­i­nal in­ter­ven­tion was far less than it would have been — in terms of ben­e­fits, polic­ing and so on — if the sub­jects had been left to them­selves.

Breg­man is sim­i­larly prag­matic when it comes to the ques­tion of the work­ing week. Here he takes his cue from what must be one of the worst pre­dic­tions of all time: John May­nard Keynes’s as­ser­tion, in 1930, that by 2030 machines would be so so­phis­ti­cated that peo­ple would be work­ing 15 hours a week. Keynes, of course, vastly un­der­es­ti­mated cap­i­tal­ism’s abil­ity to mon­e­tise ar­eas of hu­man ex­is­tence that were not pre­vi­ously mon­e­tised, not to men­tion its abil­ity to cre­ate ‘‘bull­shit jobs’’.

In any case, Breg­man makes a num­ber of rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing a le­gal re­duc­tion to the work­ing week and a tax regime push­ing peo­ple to­wards more so­cially im­por­tant work — away from bank­ing, say, and into re­search.

There are other rec­om­men­da­tions, too — open borders is a key one — and though all are set out in a but­ton­hol­ing style and with flashes of sar­donic wit (‘‘there’s al­most no coun­try on earth where the Amer­i­can Dream is less likely

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.