• Leah Quinn

Waking up the left: Utopia for Realists is calling us out

Utopia for Realists (2018)

I’m getting more and more into non-fiction lately which is weird for someone who significantly prefers fantasy over reality.

And you know who else prefers fantasy over reality? The left.

Obviously, I am talking the political left-wing of whom ordinarily I am a big fan. Morality-conscious politics is my jam. But recently, Rutger Bregman, author of Utopia for Realists, has been spilling tea all over the place about the state of our world’s political and economic future. In a world of Donald Trump, Brexit and mass xenophobia, Bregman calls for a new liberal utopia with a universal basic income, a fifteen-hour working week, higher taxes and open borders. He argues that these some-might-say radical changes to the way we all live are the most effective ways to battle international inequality. But to do that - the left needs to wake up.

“Turn off the TV, look around you and organise.”

I don’t pretend to know anything about economics. I’m a words girl, but I love politics and I love people who speak with passion about something they believe in - and can convince me that maybe I should believe in it too.

Recently, Bregman went viral after calling out the hypocrisy of billionaires at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Bregman heavily implied that, while these billionaires discuss their latest philanthropic adventures in a bid to improve the lot of working people, they go quiet when someone mentions tax:

“1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet. I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice… but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance [and] of the rich not paying their fair share.”

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to talk about water… We’ve got to talk about taxes; all the rest is bullshit in my opinion!”

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Bregman tells Anushka Asthana that he understands why people see him as radical and confrontational, but with the state of the world right now – with mass economic inequality and climate change looming – “it is simply irresponsible to be a centrist.”

Bregman believes that we need radical change but also emphasises that historically, almost every change we have had has been considered radical whether it was the abolition of slavery, women achieving the vote or the removal of children from the workforce. Now, these changes are standard, average, obvious. But once, they were radical.

While Bregman massively criticises the raging capitalists of the world, he doesn’t give the left an easy time either and honestly, I think that’s more important. Pre-schoolers get told to love thy neighbour and the left (and me; I’m guilty) love to jump on the morality bandwagon and scream that the right wing hates the poor and the disabled and women and … but ultimately, who wins if we discuss things like that? We need a logical, researched response to not only solve the issues which continually arise in our world but restructure our world in a way that those problems no longer exist. He compares it to modern medicine which is largely more concerned with treating a problem when it arises rather than preventing it in the first place. We need prevention; we need change. In Bregman’s words, “stupid philanthropy schemes” will only numb the issue.

I talk about research and you’re probably waiting for some so here we go:

“London, May 2009 – An experiment is under way. Its subjects: thirteen homeless men… Between the police expenses, court costs, and social services, these thirteen troublemakers have racked up a bill estimated at £400,000 per year. From now on, these rough sleepers will receive free money.”

Madness, right? Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about wanting to help those in need; I’ll give money and food to homeless people if they ask me. I’ll sit and have a chat with them when I’m drunk on a night out (and have, often). But give a homeless person £3,000 in spending money, as this study did, and the cynic in me would imagine they’d splash it on immediate things – maybe drugs, maybe food, maybe alcohol. (Honestly, I wouldn’t blame them – living on the streets must be both excruciatingly difficult and overwhelmingly boring – why wouldn’t you want a distraction from reality?)

But what do these thirteen men do?

They’re thrifty, they’re sensible and they use the money for life-altering experiences. One man, Simon, had been a heroin addict for twenty years. But given the £3,000, Simon got clean and started taking gardening classes.

In fact, eighteen months after the experiment, seven of the thirteen men had a roof over their heads and all thirteen had taken steps towards solvency and personal growth.

That’s amazing. If that doesn’t restore your faith in humanity, I don’t know what will. With this and an encyclopaedia’s worth of research, Bregman debunks that old theory that poor people are bad with money. No, they’re not.

Poor people lack money; that is all.

On the flip-side, I don’t know how I feel about Bregman’s fifteen-hour work week. As a recent uni grad and impatient please let my adult life start sort of person, I want to work right now. More than anything else currently in my life, my ambitions fuel me. Maybe that’s the Devil Wears Prada in me talking but, fifteen hours? Really?

I’m all for a healthy work/life balance and God knows few people manage to achieve that. In Japan, overwork is such a massive problem that Japanese workers fall asleep on commuter trains, in offices and just about everywhere. It’s got a name: inemuri. Rather than in the UK where falling asleep at work will probably get you sacked, in Japan, it’s a sign of diligence and hard work. To me, it’s a sign of an unhealthy cultural norm.

But Bregman’s theory that our society is heading towards a culture of leisure isn’t an entirely new idea.

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a lecture in Madrid. Keynes believed that, by 2030, we’ll be working just fifteen hours a week. Well, it’s 2019 and I can’t imagine us turning off our work phones, ditching the emails and practising mindfulness quite to that extent just yet.

A century and a half earlier, Benjamin Franklin had predicted that four hours of work a day would eventually suffice and British philosopher John Stuart Mill criticised what he called ‘the gospel of work’. He believed modern technology (which in the 1800s obviously didn’t refer to the Siri and Cortana that we think of today) would reduce the time people spend in work. Instead, he believed, people should use their time to cultivate ‘the Art of Living’.

Ultimately, Bregman talks a lot of sense. The research and statistics behind his arguments are mind-boggling and put morality-preachers like me to shame. We can want to fix the world as much as we want but, if we’re going about it without considering the economic impact of certain approaches, we may as well not be preaching at all.

With Bregman’s research-based argument, we might actually get a little bit closer to the utopia we’ve been aiming for.

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