Rutger Bregman: It’s time to think utopian

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