Rutger Bregman: It’s time to think utopian

Claudia Cahalane

Rutger Bregman is reimagining utopia. The 28-year-old Dutch historian and author says we have all the ideas we need, including the 15-hour work week, open borders and a universal basic income

What’s your vision of utopia for realists?

When we think of progress these days we only really think of technology. We don’t really think of the social ways we could change things. We lack radical vision. The bigger idea of my book, Utopia for Realists, is that we need to relearn how to think utopian. I propose ideas for real progress such as the universal basic income, the 15-hour working week and open borders. They’re old ideas, but I try to breathe new life into them.

What inspires and motivates you?

Ideas throughout history. The 15-hour work week is an old concept that goes back to economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946). As a historian I was looking at the fact that in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the left and the right believed that the working week would continue to shrink with things like automation, and we would all be left working out the big question of how to live a good life. But in today’s labour market we struggle with work-related burnout and depression. I also wondered why we still have poverty in rich countries.

What would a society with a 15-hour working week look like?

For some of us the line is blurred between work and what we love, so our lives wouldn’t change much. But for many, there is a clear distinction between what’s work and the rest of life. A poll last year in the UK asked people whether they found their jobs meaningful – 37 per cent said no. I think we need to work less in certain jobs in order to do more of what matters and what is meaningful and important to society, such as caring and volunteering.

What is the role of the universal income in your utopia?

It’s about eradicating poverty. It’s about real positive freedom, about being given the means to actually get up and do something that you love, that matters, without being worried about paying rent.


Could a universal basic income work?

It’s due to be trialled in 20 cities in the Netherlands from January 2017, as well as in Finland and Canada.

In the 1970s, a fascinating universal basic income experiment started in Dauphin, Canada. It raised 1,000 families above the poverty level. An army of researchers descended on the town to monitor the effects. But a few years later, a conservative government pulled the plug before any analysis.

More than 25 years later, Canadian economist Evelyn Forget accessed the archives and discovered it had been a huge success: kids performed better at school, demand for healthcare dropped, and people were able to spend more time on things that mattered.

It also didn’t reduce the motivation to work. In fact, mental health improved and shame decreased.

US president Richard Nixon even came close to introducing it in the 70s, but was dissuaded.

How would open borders help?

By far the most effective tool we have for fighting poverty is migration. When 60 per cent of income is dependent on where you’re born, borders are the biggest source of injustice in the world. Research from the World Bank shows that if richer countries allowed in three per cent more migrants, this would do more than three times as much as all development aid combined.

The world is wide open for everything but people; globally, a huge amount of human talent and potential is being wasted. Seven different studies have shown that, depending on the level of movement in the global labour market, the estimated growth in ‘gross worldwide product’ would be in the range of 67 per cent to 172 per cent. Effectively, open borders would make the whole world twice as rich and pull more people out of poverty.

How can people be convinced of this?

The problem is we base our worldview nowadays on the media. Most people in western countries are pretty happy individually, but when asked about their country they say it’s all going downhill. The news is almost always pessimistic. It’s about the exceptions, not about the banality of the good, not the many tiny acts of kindness that happen every day.

Do we need more positive news?

We need journalists to tell new stories about our world. In the Netherlands there were more people volunteering to help refugees than there were refugees. My sister called me to say she was on a waiting list to help. But the media isn’t interested in this.

The journalism platform I work for, The Correspondent, tries to look much more at structural trends instead of the exceptions. I think it all starts with thinking differently, talking differently: journalists have a huge responsibility.

Rutger Bregman is the author of four books, including Utopia for Realists

Photography by Ilvy Njiokiktjien

  • disqus_t2mh2DoJXt

    “borders are the biggest source of injustice in the world.”

    without borders mass murderers, rapists, terrorists, and drug dealers are all free to move unchecked. in the real world borders are necessary to keep us safe.

  • disqus_t2mh2DoJXt

    “Research from the World Bank shows that if richer countries allowed in
    three per cent more migrants, this would do more than three times as
    much as all development aid combined.”

    What would it do culturally,economically, and environmentally to the host country in question?

  • Merrlyn Marko

    I don’t know if open borders wouldn’t create an inundation of immigrants – but that’s happening now anyway, and unethical people are making mounds of money helping them.

    And t2mh2doJXT – you sounded like Donald Trump. *squinting* Is that you Donald?

  • disqus_t2mh2DoJXt

    Merryln wakey wakey. The world doesn’t revolve around america, and last time I checked donald trump was in america.
    I’m not that into american politics so I’m not sure which of my comments sounded like him and why.

  • Oliver Rieger

    Could you please cite the studies Rutger Bregman is referring to? Thanks!

  • AssHat900

    Burn 85% of the worlds poor to warm the rich. Problem solved.

  • Louie Ablett

    I though that was funny, but when I saw you’d liked your own comment, urgh well sorry mate but you’re a bit of a dick

  • Louie Ablett

    Border control is our current method of policing these people, sure, but there’s other ways of regulating rapists and DDs

  • Louie Ablett

    The entire world would be different, more legislation in countries would be more similar, cultures would be remixed, the concept of pure races and cultures which divide the world would be nigh nonexistant

  • disqus_t2mh2DoJXt

    Why shouldn’t there be border control? Rutger Bregram is stating that these people once free, should be able to move unregulated without background checks and will not reoffend.

  • disqus_t2mh2DoJXt

    The world would be different, but not for the better. Far from it. Migration from war torn countries with poor human rights, attitudes to women, gays, other religions would be disproportionately high in the west. Risk of increased pollution, with more traffic on the roads.With an already aging population, a sudden influx of people would add to the pressure already on hospitals,schools, police force. Lack of decent affordable housing for the native population, and limited space to build more. Pressure on agriculture to keep up the demand of food, resulting in more imports. More food miles. High risk of more genocide/terror attacks. I’m very happy with my culture and would not like to see it remixed.

  • Stephen Stillwell

    They are all, and more, listed in the wiki article

  • AssHat900

    Us rich people pay ourselves with your tears. Upvotes are no different.

  • Louie Ablett

    I’m jujst saying that if we opened borders, which as you point out are good places to stop and regulate offenders, we could reimagine border checks so instead of relying on borders (which seperate the world), we could stop offenders when they refuelled for petrol, bought things at shops, or got on a plane. Obviously stopping people everytime they bought a magazine would be tedious, cost a lot and be a waste of time. But certainly people could check your papers whgen you got on a public plane, ferry or were aprehended by a police officer

  • rideforever

    The Western world is much richer than the rest of the world.
    What happens when you open the borders is that millions of people walk in taking the wealth that you once had.
    A country like the UK has a population density 10 x that of the USA.
    More people will just destroy the UK.
    And what is the point of working, earning, and creating businesses if somebody will just give it all away ?
    What is the point, when your effort will be stolen.
    The left is excellent at working out how to take other people’s money.
    They don’t understand anything about making money,
    they are like children expecting their parents to give them handouts,
    not having the idea that perhaps they should get off their backside and work for a living.
    Nowhere in this article is it even discussed how to make money, how to create something.
    The article is just about how to take from other people.

  • Oliver Rieger

    thx, but please provide a link at least to the wiki page.

  • Annamaria0

    Completely open borders? Let’s see – Nigeria is on the way to having 500 million inhabitants, the same as the whole of Europe. Every year, 2 million young people there enter the job market, and there aren’t 2 million jobs waiting for them. The world’s population is 7,5 billion, twice what it was only 40 years ago, with half a billion added in only the last 6 years, and is on course to reach 9 billion. Even without that growth, if the current number of people on the planet consumed on the level of people in the UK, we’d need nearly 3 planets. How do you propose we tackle the population explosion and finite resources?

  • Feidhlim Harty

    Nice overview of some basic effective ideas. I’d love to see a full article in PN devoted to each idea; particularly the open borders bit. I can see that it has a lot of potential, but it’s just newer to me than the UBI and reduced working week.

  • Philip Benjamin

    What a pity you missed the point of this article completely! The whole of society (which includes moralistic individuals like you) benefit from raising the level of income for everyone. Less social costs and increase in quality of life… The point you miss is that people want to achieve something for society, to be recognized as contributors if they can. Try and reread the article without your blinkers on!

  • rideforever

    What a pity you lack the intelligence to cease talking about what does not work.
    Only a fool does the same thing twice and expect a different result.

  • Julio

    What is wealth worth when the world falls appart? What is individual or national growth worth when it relies on others poverty?
    You can keep thinking like that and might live a happy life but at least acknowledge that your selfish behaviour is only making the world a horrible place to live. Or maybe you are too busy making money to realise the consequences of your actions outside the UK?
    You have no right to stop people from moving around the world. Do you think you are superior because you live in the Western world? It would only be fare if you did not go out of your little country. And then, how would you do business?

  • rideforever

    Yes and no.
    The question Julio is how is wealth peace and happiness made?
    Do you think it comes out of thin air?
    Do you think that if you yourself walk into a jungle that you are going find Lions and Bears singing and dancing together.
    No, they will kill you and eat you.
    That is the reality.
    So, in order to create peace and love you have to be strong, first.
    And when you are strong you can help some people.
    But if you let the whole jungle enter you country there will be nothing left.
    That is reality.
    Becoming strong, taking initiative, wanting to build, this is not selfish.
    You are simply working.
    Whilst other people just talk bullshit.

  • Sandra M

    Wow, I really don’t like your point of view, it sounds really selfish to me. There are about 100 people in the world that currently hold the same amount of wealth as the other 7 billion people. If — instead of a few people having inordinate amounts of money while others struggle to eat and clothe themselves — if instead of that, every single human being had enough to live on, the world would definitely be a place I would prefer to live in. This is the kind of thing the author is talking about, I think. Not stealing your income from you. The idea is raising everyone’s income to a minimum (just enough to cover rent and food) then whatever else you make is bonus. You can still make thousands or millions more if you want to. Just that instead of starting from zero every month, you would start from, say, 1000 (rent+bills+food). Get it? It’s not about limiting people’s incomes, it’s about providing the people who are starving with a minimum income so that they can eat and find shelter, etc. Please, please open your mind! I promise it will open up a whole new world to you, and I’m sure it will make you a happier, more joyful person. You sound like you could use some positive energy, so I’m sending some of that your way. Take care, hugs

  • Andrew Buckley

    I can’t think of a single reason why utopia shouldn’t be a goal for humanity – I like the idea! There are many concerns expressed in the discussion and there is some truth in them all. Can I offer a few, bullet-style comments.
    The whole idea of change to a utopian society from our present messy situation requires sound national and international governance and the process must be well managed. The present measures of our dysfunctional society are the drivers for this change and authentic, comprehensive measurement of the social impact of this change process must inform the continuum of change.
    Voluntary migration is different to enforced migration. When people immigrate to another culture, the host culture must accommodate “reasonable” elements of the immigrant culture – extremism, whether left or right, will result in inequities. Negotiation with a win-win outcome is what’s needed. Different cultures may not blend “in a great big melting pot” but different cultures can co-exist, blend, overlap or whatever works for that society but care must be made to not form ghettos of different cultures.
    People have a right to remain in their own culture but to not be subject to violent control.
    Many “negative” comments, I believe, display an undercurrent of fear and this is frequently driven by media sensationalism.
    I personally define “health” as physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual wellness – Health and Happiness are our “default modes”! Unless a person is born to an “unhealthy” mother, they are born as healthy human beings and it is their experiences in life that will determine their present and future health. Rapists, violent criminals, drug dealers are the expression of the impact of their environment on them since they were healthy babies. They are not in a state of health but a sound governance structure and a healthy society can, over time and in the majority of cases, help restore their health. The question is, how do people become so unhealthy before our social and “health care” systems successfully engage with them? The challenge of our present society, I believe, is to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma and to teach children resilience and tolerance of differences between cultures. Our governance structure must then support individual and community resilience by ensuring that there is equity in society as well as sufficient resources for each individual to live in dignity, contribute socially and achieve their full potential.
    The top – or bottom, from a different perspective – 100 of people having most of the money is not the point, it’s the control which that money brings them is what matters. Politicians of small nations, and even big ones, are held to ransom by these individuals who use banking and corporate business as vehicles to control and manipulate political decision as nation politicians strive to maintain a functional economy for their citizens – whether that economy is currently functional is questionable. National politicians must get together and agree to a change in their attitude to courting such international trade.
    I believe there is plenty of food and other resources on the planet – it is lack of equitable distribution which is the problem, as well as intentionally nurtured consumerism and stressful over-choice.
    Whether we strive for utopianism or another model of social architecture, there is one certainty – we must strive for a different and better model because, using all the appropriate measures of social and individual health, the present situation is not functional or sustainable. As our social architects go about their decision-making, they must consider all available information, engage in Critical Thinking – not Group Thinking, apply Practical Wisdom in their decision-making and inform policies with feedback from authentic measurement of the impact of their decisions. As a background to each individuals input, they should write their CV and their epitaph, apply the “newspaper test” and positively influence future generations impression of our impact on their experience.
    However – I may be wrong!

Start typing and press Enter to search

Pin It on Pinterest