Tweaking capitalism for the 21st century
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