Ideas for the Future

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, has this to say early on in his book:

…But the real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better.

Picking up from here, he proceeds to set out a vision for the future that is equal parts fantastical and plausible, layering his narrative with insights from the past (he happens to be a historian) while steering clear of overt technicality and ideological posturing. Along the way, he delivers a damning verdict on the way we live now and what needs to change, namely, the rise of societal inequality, an education system geared towards creating jobs that help fuel consumption but add little by way of wealth to the nation, and the looming spectre of automation that threatens to hollow out the labour market even further in the not so distant future.

Bregman’s idea of a better future to counter this scenario is propped up on three main limbs: a universal basic income, a reduced working week, and open borders. In prose that is as conversational as it is entertaining, he goes about justifying this three-pronged strategy by relying on an impressive array of case studies and anecdotes, as well as some good, old-fashioned morality. The result is a work that is unorthodox and not without its flaws, but always fascinating to read.

Bregman posits his ideas with an air of inevitability, setting out the impact that he believes will necessarily follow the introduction of his approaches. Thus, according to him, a basic income without any strings attached will help alleviate poverty while giving the poor agency and dignity. Similarly, a redistribution of time in the form of shorter working hours will ensure that work is shared between individuals, thereby keeping unemployment at bay and altering the incentives for people by making them value time over money. He also believes that open borders and the migration they engender will spur on progress for everyone while making redundant the need to spend precious resources on development aid.

Needless to say, achieving this shift will not be possible without far-reaching changes to the way we look at education, taxation, work, and the sovereignty of nations themselves, particularly in the highly charged environment of today. And this is where Bregman’s narrative feels a little undercooked. While he accepts that any change will be difficult to implement, he stops short of setting out a roadmap for achieving it. Given the pioneering nature of his work, this feels like a missed opportunity. For a reader in India, it’s also important to understand that Bregman’s account is centred on the West. Any attempt to incorporate his ideas here must necessarily consider the local context.

If one were inclined to give Bregman some slack over these shortcomings, it would be by thinking of his book as an introductory text, heavy on ideas but light on the nitty-gritty of implementation. I suspect that he would not be averse to such a categorisation, given the recurring theme throughout the book is the power of ideas and the notion that thinking of a better future is the first step towards attaining it. One can’t help but laud his attempt to do so.