Could this young Dutchman, hailed as a visionary, galvanise the left with his radical plan for a borderless future in which we are all paid for working less?
As liberal democracy has appeared to be disintegrating under the weight of widespread despondency, some hardline sentiments are in danger of becoming received wisdoms. In the global market, we are told, we must work harder and improve productivity. The welfare nation has become too large and we need to cut back on benefits. Immigration is out of control and perimeters need to be strengthened.
The choice seems to be either to accept this new paradigm or risk the likes of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders gaining power. The centre ground is being dragged to the left and right, and collapsing down the middle. Meanwhile progressive politics has returned to its comfort zone, busily opposing everything and offering almost nothing. Where is the vision, the aspiration, the notion?
Yet into this bleak picture falls a book and an writer bristling with hope, optimism and answers. Rutger Bregman is a 28 -year-old Dutchman whose book, Utopia for Realists , has taken Holland by storm and could yet revitalise progressive believe around the globe. His solutions are quite simple and staunchly set against current trends: we should institute a universal basic income for everyone that encompasses minimum living expenses say around 12,000 a year; the working week should be shortened to 15 hours; perimeters should be opened and migrants allowed to move wherever they choose.
If that all sounds like fantasy politics, then Bregman has assembled a wealth of empirical evidence to stimulate his case. Better than that, though, it is not a dry, statistical analysis although he doesnt shy from solid data but a volume written with verve, witticism and imagination. The impact is charmingly persuasive, even when you cant quite believe what youre reading.
Bregman lives in Utrecht, arguably Hollands most progressive city, where cycling is almost obligatory and motorists are effectively deemed guilty until proved innocent. His house is a few yards from the pretty canal that cuts through the centre of a carefully thought-out town.
Thin, with a pallid complexion and a wispy gossip of a beard, he appears even younger than 28, but he speaks with impressive authority on his subject. Bregman does something very smart and matured in his volume. Instead of merely assaulting capitalism and post-enlightenment liberalism, at the outset he celebrates its accomplishments. He shows the unbelievable improvements in life expectancy, health, wealth, education and freedoms that have been achieved in the last couple of centuries.
As for much mocked globalisation, he credits it with lifting 700 million Chinese out of extreme poverty hugely more than communism ever attained. But whereas idealists in the 60 s extolled Maoism, regardless of the death and destruction it operate , no one gets too misty eyed about what the international market has done for China. Why, I ask, are the progressive-minded so reluctant to acknowledge this remarkable turnaround?
I believe the big problem on the left, says Bregman, is that it merely knows what its against. So its against austerity, against the creation, against homophobia, against racism. Im not saying Im not against those things, but I think you should be for something. You need to have a new vision of where you want to go.
Bregman has a vision. And its a pretty clear one. But, wait a second. Universal benefit, a 15 -hour running week, open borders, truly? How?
Ive heard for three years that many of my ideas are unrealistic and unreasonable and that we cant afford them, he says, by way of preamble to a more comprehensive answer. And the simple answer is Oh, you want to stick to the status quo? Hows that been working out?
In Bregmans Holland the status quo has taken quite a bashing of late, and as a result the white-haired Wilders, who wants to stop Muslim immigration and ban the Quran, has emerged as the countrys most powerful politician. The debate in what used to be Europes most tolerant nation has become increasingly toxic. But as bad as that situation is, it still doesnt explain how a universal basic income would be paid for. The first thing we should acknowledge, says Bregman, is that poverty is hugely expensive. It varies from country to country, but most of the time its around 3, 4 or 5% of GDP. If you look at what it would expense merely to top up the earnings of all the poor people in a country, it would cost about 1% of GDP.
Perhaps, but hes talking about paying everyone rich and poor around 12,000 a year. Thats a vast amount of money. How could that be achieved? Youd have to tax the middle class so much that what theyd receive would be wiped out, and then to continue efforts to taxation the very wealthy at a much higher rate which has not proven a successful policy, because the rich are very good at protecting their money.
Bregman gets a little bit vague at this phase. He says that even neoliberal economists such as Milton Friedman were keen on universal basic income( UBI ), although they tend to call it negative income taxation. He also notes that the country that has come closest to implementing a UBI is the US, under President Nixon. It was merely because the Democrat-controlled Senate believed Nixon wasnt offering enough fund in the basic income that the policy was ditched at the last moment.
He acknowledges that a genuinely universal system would involve a massive overhaul of our tax system and that it would require an enormous amount of public and political support. But youve got to start somewhere, is his outlook, and the best place to start is in redefining what we mean by work.
There was a poll in the UK that showed that 37% of British workers think that their chore doesnt need to exist. Well, its not the bin men, and the care workers and the teachers that say that. Were talking about consultants, bankers, accountants, lawyers etc. The implications of the hell is revolutionary. We could cut the working week by a third and be just as rich. Likely richer!
Well, I say, merely because someone doesnt value their undertaking, doesnt mean that it doesnt have value. These things can be part of an invisible network of jobs that maintains everything else running. They cant only be excised like that.
Thats the best we can come up with nowadays? he asks, shocked at my dull pragmatism. People are saying: I feel alienated, I think my job is useless, and the only answer we have for them is No , no, its really useful. You know the invisible hand knows best. Were paying you so much fund, it has to be useful!
I say I was believing more of the cinema Its a Wonderful Life , which, after all, is about a banker. He believes his life is worthless and yet we find the depth of his effect on others when his input is stripped away. Anyway, I take his point. We should reconsider much of what society through the inequality of fiscal pay deems important.
One of the basic lessons of history, says Bregman, is that things can be different. The way weve structured our economy, our system of welfare, its not natural. It could be different.
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