Book Review: Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

2016 | The Correspondent | 252 Pages

I find this book short of something, yet I cannot name it. Maybe after this review, or after you read, you can name it for me.

The Style: the audience of the book is the ordinary people who have an interest in politics, not academics. As a result, there are many stories in the book, the language (in its English translation) is rather simple, and the arguments are straightforward. Having gotten used to theoretical/philosophical articles, it was a very easy (and sometimes boring) read for me and I doubt that anyone that knows B2 level English would suffer while reading it.

The Structure: the book is made of ten chapters, each dedicated to a very precise message. The second chapter, for example, argues for a shorter workweek, the third chapter for universal basic income, etc. Rather than a book, it can be taken as a series of articles which, altogether, give an ultimate message. This is another reason that the book is an easy read.

The Arguments: Bregman has three major and two minor arguments: 1) a 15-hour workweek, 2) universal basic income, and 3) open borders. Also he argues that with increased automation we are losing our jobs at the lower levels but not in every field this is the case, and earning tens of thousands of dollars does not necessarily increase our life quality. None of these arguments are original, as you know if you have any interest in equality and/or distributive justice. The literature is full of studies, articles, and books on these topics. Similarly, ever since Adam Smith we are worried on the consequences of automation, and how marginal returns of more income are less and less after a certain point is reached.

The Good: as I said above, the book is easy to read and easily understandable for an ordinary reader. It can provide a good introduction to introduction for the topics it covers. There are some studies or names quoted or used in the book which are important and are useful to gain knowledge on the issues.

The Bad: In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell and the Right to be Lazy by Paul Lafargue are two impressive and important works which shaped their contemporaries and later philosophers on the issue of the length of the workweek. Bregman does not mention them at all. The references, mostly, seem to be found over internet with some not so deep research. I should confess that at times I was impressed, yet overall I am rather disappointed with the references and the strength of the arguments.

The Worse: Bregman has a good intention — he wants people to be happier. He tells us how also — by working less, opening the borders, and giving everyone “free” money. But he, sadly, does not precisely tell how this will happen — and it is not because everyone’s conception of a good life is different. What exactly will happen when we will introduce universal basic income? We do not know. Where will the money be found for the universal basic income? If by taxing the rich’s all wealth, how do we justify this? If not, where exactly do we find this money?

The Worst: Bregman does not provide any answers to possible counter-arguments. If we will implement universal basic income tomorrow, first effect will be increased inflation. How will we deal with that? If with increased automation we can work less, what is the exact outcome of 15-hour workweek, as its one expected result is decreasing unemployment? How universal basic income will work — by giving everyone an equal amount, or setting a threshold? Based on what?

The actual problem in the book is that it neglects the problem of consumerism. It is more the people in “the land of plenty” that are causing the problems, not the rest. We want first a car, then a small car, then a bigger car, then an even bigger car, then a jeep, then a bigger jeep with a bigger engine, then an Aston Martin, then a Rolls Royce… Where does it stop? Well, nowhere. Give everyone homes with 20 bedrooms, and watch them wanting 30 bedroom ones. With two private pools, rather than one. Five cars, rather than only four. Bregman seems to care about this some, yet he has neither a solution nor an argument against this. As long as we will want more and more every day, how much of production will be enough — be it for those in the land of plenty, be it in the rest of the world?

The Conclusion: I tend to consider myself a realist, but I highly doubt that this is the utopia that I have or would have. I have tried to be positive about it both while reading and now, yet for me it was a loss of time. Still you can get something, if you are a beginner to the issue of equality or distributive justice, and move on to a very short introduction by Oxford University Press, if they published one on the topic.

Read In: 2 days. Rating: 3/10.

(This post was previously shared at Medium)

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