Rutger Bregman

Dystopia for Realists

Air Date: June 29, 2020

HUMANKIND author and historian Rutger Bregman discusses hope for a prosocial society amid simultaneous American and global crises.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind at home. I’m delighted to welcome virtually to our program Rutger Bregman. He is a historian. He is author of “Utopia for Realists” and now “Humankind.” Mankind is threatened right now, Rutger. I was thinking about the headline, the title of your first book and we seem to be living through a dystopia for realists now with the Iran, U.S. confrontation, the global pandemic, and now worldwide protests. How, do you see it? Is that a fair way to look at it or are we going to come out of the dystopia into a utopia?


BREGMAN: You know it’s very understandable if people are pessimistic right now. I always like to make a distinction between optimism and hope. I mean, you certainly don’t have to be an optimist right now, but I think there are some reasons to have hope because hope is about the possibility of change, right? And I think that this moment gives us a lot of reasons for hope as well. I mean we’ve seen that ideas that just a couple of years ago were dismissed as quite unreasonable and radical and crazy have been moving into the mainstream. Now they still have a long way to go yet, I’m talking about ideas like universal basic income or higher Texas on the rich or you name it. But that gives me, that gives me some hope.


HEFFNER: What were you trying to do in building on “Utopia for Realists” in your recent work, “Humankind,” which evokes for me and our viewers wellbeing, the welfare of society at large. What were you hoping to accomplish in cultivating this new work?


BREGMAN: You know, the book is really about a silent scientific revolution that has taken place in science in the past 15 to 20 years. So what’s happened and many people don’t know this, is that scientists from really diverse disciplines, think about anthropologists, archeologists, sociologist, psychologists, they’ve all moved from a quite cynical view of human nature of who we are as a species to a more hopeful view. Now I’m not saying we’re angels or anything. But it seems to be the case that most people deep down are pretty decent. And I think we’ve also seen that during this pandemic, right? If you watch the news, then you hear a lot about you know, I don’t know people looting and you know making a run for toilet paper. But if you zoom out a little bit and you see the, actually the vast majority of the behavior by most people is prosocial in nature, people really cooperating and helping each other. And so in the book, I just wanted to connect the dots that to show that something bigger is going on here.


HEFFNER: But would you contrast humankind and the condition of humankind and Europe or where you are in the Netherlands with a humankind in our experience here because in endeavoring to resolve the public health crisis, the murder of an innocent civilian in Minnesota has exposed larger inequalities, systemic, not only systemic in police brutality, but systemic in the inequities that pervade and when 40 million Americans instantly overnight lose their jobs, who were already in the lower income or the aspiring income bracket in particularly service workers who’ve gotten the short end of the stick in the gig economy. Isn’t that exposing a dystopia here, if you want to call it that maybe it’s just a very grim portrait that we will have to overcome. And I guess my question is, is there a reason to be more cynical about the condition of humankind in the United States right now?


BREGMAN: Hmm. You know, institutional racism and racism and discrimination, these are not uniquely American phenomena. You know, it exists everywhere in the world and in Europe, sadly as well. There are some things though that I think, you know, we can learn from other countries and in the book, I’ve got one example of how prisons in Norway are organized. And I think that the U.S. could learn quite a bit from that. So what you have in the United States are sort of tax payer funded institutions that are called prisons, where you have citizens who go in there for small crimes I don’t know, small drug offense and they come out as criminals, right? So sort of, they create this kind of bad behavior. Now in Norway, they have the opposite. They have an institution where people go in as criminals and they come out as citizens, right, now, if you look at these prisons, they’re, they’re very strange, actually there’s one prison called Bastoy a little bit to the South of Oslo. And it basically looks like a holiday resort. Inmates have the freedom to relax with the guards, socialize with them to make music. They’ve got their own music studio and their own music label, which is called Criminal Records. And so sort of your first intuition is like these small regions have gone nuts. Like this is very crazy, but then you look at the statistics, you look at the numbers, it turns out this is the most effective prison in the world because it has the lowest recidivism rate in the world, the lowest chance that someone will commit another crime once he or she gets out of prison. So investing in these kinds of institutions, you will actually get a return on investments. These things save money in the long term because the chance that someone will find a job actually increases with 40 percent. Now, it’s just unimaginable that this will ever happen in the United States. In my book, I try to show that actually it wasn’t just the U.S. that was the first country that experiments it with these kind of prisons in the sixties, just as the U.S. was almost a about to implement a universal, basic income to completely eradicate poverty at the beginning of the seventies. So I think that’s where historians may be useful. They just can show that, you know, things can be different, you know, they can be much better.


HEFFNER: Those solutions that you describe are innovative and imaginative at a time when this country couldn’t even honor the commitment of frontline essential workers, a sensible, immediate measure would have been ensure that for the next year, these incredibly courageous people have their transportation costs covered in full in advance. I mean, this country doesn’t seem capable of the compassion, let alone the ingenuity that you’re describing.


BREGMAN: You know, I think the country is capable of the compassion because we see so much compassion. We see millions of very courageous protesters in the streets. It’s just that, you know, we need a political revolution here. So the short summary of my book would be something like most people are pretty decent, but power corrupts, you know, for the vast majority of our history, when we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, there was a process going on that scientists call survival of the friendliest, which means that actually for millennia, it was the friendliest among us who had the most kids and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. And then you look at current policies and it seems like, well, that’s not survival of the friendliest, this is survival of the shameless, right. And it’s not only the case in the U.S. it’s also the case in the UK with, I don’t know, pretty shameless politicians like Boris Johnson or Brazil Bolsenaro. So it’s a real indictment of the so-called democracy we have created that somehow not the most humble leaders, you know, rise to the top, but the most shameless leaders. And. Yeah,


HEFFNER: I think you’re onto something. It is the means by which we can achieve participatory democracy that will define the efficacy of those next, more imaginative solutions to policy crisis. So where is the onus on, is it on the protesters, or is it on a government institutions? And you have pointed out that the U.S. protests have given birth to a wave of protests around the world now. So each country will be different, but does your book advocate for a specific tactic that can be used by protestors to try to in this new tech age actualize their movement for reform when the political means to achieve it really don’t seem apparent.


BREGMAN: Well, you know, it’s not up to me as a white European to say, I know this tactic is better or that that, that tactic is better, you know? Or if they say that people shouldn’t dry it or whatsoever, I mean, like Martin Luther King said a riot is the language of the unheard, but it is interesting though, that if you look at the scientific evidence that the approach that the vast majority of protesters are taking right now, very courageously so, the peaceful approach is also the most effective one. So we’ve got the work of sociologist called Erica Chenoweth who’s built this huge database of protest movements since the 1900s. And she discovered that actually peaceful protest movements are twice as successful as violent ones. And the reason is that they bring in a lot more people on average 11 times more, right. It’s just, you bring in children and women and the elderly and older men and you name it so everyone can participate in these more peaceful protest movement. I’m not saying that you know, a certain amount of rioting or violence, I’m very hesitant to sort of condemn that when we see sort of the horrific brutal savage police violence, right, that’s what, that’s the real story. That’s what we should really be talking about. And yeah, but then again I’m, I’m hopeful and I’m so impressed just to see this for ordinary uprising of so many peaceful protestors who are against all odd you know, keeping their self control and doing what’s right. It’s, it’s very, very impressive.


HEFFNER: I think though, that the missing piece is that at least so far in the United States, many of the protesters are, are not pursuing clear legislative or political goals that define, you know, we will protest peacefully up until we have some deliberative means of our goals. And I think it’s been the case with some of the more recent protests, like the March for Our Lives, that there were specific tangible outcomes they were seeking, and sometimes with immediacy, when it came to gun laws and Florida gun safety. So what do you think, you know, just being realistic, people marching can advocate for a change and try to achieve that change in the span of months and not years.


BREGMAN: Well, I think if you zoom out a little bit and if you look at all the protest movements that we’ve seen in the world, in the policy, I don’t know, five to six years, right. We’ve seen many more protest movements, not only against institutionalized racism and police violence, but also against climate change and the lack of action from governments there. And we have seen real progress. People may, for example, look at someone like Joe Biden and say, oh, I’m disappointed. He’s a boring, moderate candidate. You know, I’m not enthusiastic about him. Sure. That’s fair. But then if you look at his climate plan, it’s actually more radical than Bernie Sanders climate plan of 2016. So the window has shifted, right. Ideas that were once really unrealistic and dismissed as crazy have moved into the mainstream. And now is the time obviously to make the marks through the institutions. So yeah, so a lot will depend on the outcome of the election this year. Mmm. But yeah, just, just zooming out. I do. I do see quite a lot of substantial change,


HEFFNER: Historically speaking, how, how do you think that in the wake of the pandemic, our economy can recover in a more equitable fashion?


BREGMAN: You know, every historian knows that throughout history, crises have been abused by those in power. Think about the burning of the Reichstag and then you get Adolph Hitler, think about 9/11, and then you get two illegal wars and massive surveillance of citizens by the government, right? This is the, this is an old playbook. But we’ve got other examples as well. The New Deal, you know, it was, they came up with it in the midst of the great depression. Think about the Beveridge Report, the primal text of the welfare state in Great Britain. It was not written after the war, but in 1942, when the bombs were falling on London. So now is the time to do something like that. And here’s my hope. If you, again, zoom out and you look at the past 40 years, I think you could describe it as the era that was governed by the values of selfishness and competition, right? The greed is good mantra. My hope is, and I do feel, I sense a shift in zeitgeist here is that we can now move in a different era, that’s more about solidarity and cooperation. It’s not a prediction, you know, historians can’t make predictions. I don’t think anyone can. But it’s something I hope for. It, it’s a real possibility.


HEFFNER: And do you think enough people are strategizing? Hope is not a strategy and results that you pro socially envision. And I think that the economic inequities are just one piece of this. We have an information culture that has deprived a lot of communities of information literacy, and integrity, and basically in order for communities to launch the kind of alliance you’re describing, alliance, as opposed to a tribal alliance. We’ve talked ad nauseum about deficits and deficiencies of the contemporary media environment. And so I know you’re hopeful, but as one source of obstacle that you think if it’s not corrected soon, will stymie any honest attempts for policy reform just deeply, deeply toxically, polarized and monetized.


BREGMAN: We don’t have much time. Obviously. Also, if you think about challenges like climate change, right? We’re, we’re in a hurry, but as you know, in 2019, I was a guest in Davos you know, where the rich and famous of the world come together to talk about the world’s issues. And one of the star economists there was a woman, Italian economist named Mariana Mazzucato. And I think she’s one of those people who’s responsible for, I don’t know, a break with the status quo and a very different kind of thinking about the role of the state for example, one of her favorite and best examples is how we got the iPhone. So every sliver of fundamental technology in the iPhone, it was invented by researchers on the government payroll, right, think about voice recognition, battery, Internet, touch screen, right? It’s really impressive. And that is exactly what we need right now. We need to think about something like a Green New Deal, the old, the thinking about the Green New Deal that we’ve seen in the past couple of years, it didn’t exist five years ago, but now there is a more robust plan. And I think there’s also much better organizing around that. You know, I can give you many other examples of the real shift in economic thinking, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman, you know, the expert on, on tax paradise. It’s not enough, but we can’t say that nothing is happening, actually quite a lot is happening.


HEFFNER: No, that’s, that’s fair. I, I think that quite a lot is happening too, in terms of the bellicosity and aggressiveness of the rhetoric and the, and authoritarian-esque, or want to be authoritarian, are actually now more authentically authoritarian leaders. And so you have the vast majority of people on the side of the field that you’re describing, but you seem to have those plutocracies, plutocrats and kakistocracies that exist to deprive people on the field. So how are you, how are you accepting the sort of totality of these presidents or prime ministers or people who lead countries who are employing tactics and rhetoric that is closely resembling the thirties and forties,


BREGMAN: You know, I’m just as worried about that as you and is as anyone else, I think and again, this is why I’m talking about hope and not about optimism, Rebecca Solnit, one of my favorite authors, she wrote a book in 2003, I think it was published, you know, when the Iraq war was about to start or just started anyway, called “Hope In the Dark.” And I don’t know, I ever since I read that book, I felt that hope is kind of a moral obligation is that it helps you to act to do something. And yeah, I see all the dark possibilities, see the dark scenarios, maybe where at the beginning of a very long and dark road, because that’s the only all the more reason to imagine alternatives and to work on them and to, you know, to do everything that you can do to contribute.


HEFFNER: Rutger, how do you assess President Obama historically? Because hope was the mantra that he employed and the realization of most of his voters was that he was, reinforced the best of our ideals, the practice of thoughtful deliberation and democratic engagement issues. But on economic ideas, he didn’t really espouse anything that that was going to be corrective, or that even acknowledged the, the systemic disparities that exist. Now, you point to Sanders and Biden too, who has much more fully accepted where we are, and so that may be in the air, but I just wanted you to give our viewers and listeners a sense of the economic tectonic shift if there is one in Europe. What is the, what is the state of sort of economic thinking around sort of the future of, of governance, both by state and EU governance?


BREGMAN: Yeah, well, I think the direction is quite similar as, as the direction in the U.S., so just to think about the thinking around the Euro and the Euro group in the European union, right? We’re all in this monetary union, and you might remember the crisis that we ended up in off after 2008, when Northern European countries refused to show solidarity with Southern European countries. Now that is still an issue, right? It’s still an issue. So the Netherlands where I’m from still, you know, doesn’t want to like significantly help Southern countries like Spain or Italy, but Germany has changed, right? Germany has changed. Angela Merkel is showing real leadership right now. And that is, that is interesting. It’s just; it’s a very substantial difference from the debate we had 10 years ago. And also if you look at the new generation, I always like to point out that, you know, sometimes people say, oh, if you’re young, then you’re progressive and maybe a bit left wing, but as you get older, you become more conservative. This is, this is really a myth. It’s really a myth. If you look at the eighties in the UK, for example, who was the most popular politician among the young? It was Thatcher, right? It was the classic Neo liberal conservative candidate who was the most popular in the U.S.? It was Reagan, also the conservative candidate. Now, if you now ask young people, if we would have as a society, for example, in the UK, where only people under 40 could vote, you know, like labor win with a landslide, there would be no district that was conservative, right. So change is coming. It is coming, whether you like it or not. I mean, just the demographics here are on the side of change. The question is though, do we have enough time? Because that is what I really worry about.


HEFFNER: And as a final question, just going back to that fascinating and courageous Davos debate that you partook in, do you see more advanced awareness and action coming from the community that really has been the community responsible for lobby government policy? I mean, what people at Davos want really is what happens in governments?


HEFFNER: You know, there seems to be this strange law in history that when almost no one is talking about a certain injustice, it’s, it’s like the worst, it’s the worst state possible. And then as people become angrier about something it’s actually improving, right, because people are angrier. So the sort of the paradox is that at the moment that people are really, really angry about something it’s actually already getting better and sort of tax avoidance and the whole debate around that. That’s a really good example. So 10, 15 years ago, it was the worst possible situation, right, massive text avoidance from huge corporations and rich individuals. But now that we’ve become angry at about it in the past five years, we are actually seeing progress. So Switzerland, for example, used to have bank secrecy. It’s gone. And why, because the U.S. said, stop it. The FBI said we don’t want it anymore. Stop it. And Switzerland, it is not exactly the most powerful country in the world. Right. So the U.S. has stopped it and then it’s over. And, I think that, yeah, we’ll see more of that kind of progress if the European union and the U.S. work together to crack down on tax paradises like Ireland, like Luxembourg, like the Netherlands, where I’m from, it will be over very quickly. So we should become more angry about these kinds of things, because that helps us.


HEFFNER: Finally. And do you think that that is enough or something like Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax necessary to, is that necessary to drive a more equitable capitalistic system where everybody can participate?


BREGMAN: In the U.S. I don’t see how you can ever do it without a wealth tax, because just wealth inequality is just grown so big, right. But no, you know, I’m not going to pick my favorite texts. You know, I like inheritance taxes, estate taxes, income taxes corporation taxes. You need all of them, obviously. And then let’s remember that in the fifties and sixties, when we had much higher levels of taxation, capitalism actually work better, you know, higher levels of growth, higher level of innovation. So, yeah, this is all about making capitalism work again, but not only for the rich, but for everyone.

HEFFNER: Rutger Bregman, I want to thank you for your, for your time today. You are the author of two books that I think our viewers and listeners ought to check out: “Utopia For Realists.” I hope there’s not a sequel that is dystopia for realists! Think of it as you will. There’s of course “Humankind,” which is out now. Stay safe there in the Netherlands. And thank you again for joining me on The Open Mind.


BREGMAN: Thanks for having me Alexander.

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