Rutger Bregman is a practised feather-ruffler. In January, the author of the bestseller Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There rattled the World Economic Forum in Davos. Interrupting his fellow panellists, he abruptly asked why his hosts didn’t pay more taxes. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one is allowed to speak about water,” said the 30-year-old Dutch historian. “We’ve got to be talking about taxes.”
He had rehearsed that zinger in his hotel room the night before with his wife Maatje on Skype. “English isn’t my first language so you can’t rely on your improvisational skills,” he explains. It was filmed and won Bregman millions of fans. A month later, an unaired interview with Fox News host Tucker Carlson went viral. He accused Carlson of being a billionaire-class stooge, presenting a partisan news agenda that protects the status quo of his paymasters. Bregman endured a foul-mouthed backlash from the anchor, who told the historian to “go f**k himself” — which Bregman leaked. “I was a bit worried when we put that video up,” he admits when we meet in his publisher’s Bloomsbury office.
He is a wispy, pugnacious figure, like a bookish relative of Liverpool’s German football manager Jürgen Klopp, with a tone that veers from wry to exasperated. “But a lot of Tucker fans agreed with me. If you see the video Fox News put online where Tucker Carlson apologised for bad language, there were a lot of people who said, ‘Admit Rutger owned you.’”
There was some blowback. “I get a lot of emails saying, you’re stupid, or you’re a f**king communist, did you know that actually your ideas caused millions of people to die? You just ignore it. Nothing to worry about.”
He can take criticism. “This Yahoo CFO on the Davos panel got really angry with me off-camera. He said, ‘You know, this is a very one-sided panel.’ I shouted, ‘No, this is a very one-sided conference.’ He was really angry at me for that — he said, ‘That’s rude.’ These people find when I cry bulls**t more offensive than massive tax avoidance. I couldn’t live with myself and not point out the elephant in the room.” Does he think he is rude? “Well, in Holland we say that’s just being honest, so what we often say is that honesty is just what other people call rude.”
Why is Bregman irking the Establishment? The Dutchman doesn’t see himself as dangerous — he’s an optimist, or “possibilist”, as he puts it, believing things can only get better if we put our minds to it. His starting position is that we’ve never had it so good, reeling off numbers on global crime and disease, observing “science fiction is becoming science fact”, and identifying why now is the time for a utopian blueprint.
“I honestly believe there is some possible Britain in the future where Brexit has turned out to be a good thing,” he says — although he’s saddened by the “bizarre” position of the official Opposition. “The Left should be the party of reform, not of exit. Not just being against things, but coming up with a bold vision of how a better society would look.”
His feeling on Corbyn is that “he’s an alt-Leftist from the Seventies — it’s like he took a time machine, or had been hiding in this cave all the time, and after the financial crash was like, ‘Hey, I still exist, you can vote for me.’ That was definitely necessary, but now we’re at a stage of the political momentum where Britain is ready to move on to something a bit more forward-looking — something new, politically.”
So where’s the danger? Last month The New York Times baptised Bregman “a more politically radical Malcolm Gladwell”. The ideas that dominate Utopia for Realists — higher taxes, a 15-hour working week and, crucially, a universal basic income (UBI) — have become caught up in the prevailing winds of the zeitgeist, although the book was published two years ago.
“The book’s already a little outdated,” he grins. Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks of a radical Green New Deal in the US — as, with less fanfare, does Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey in the UK. (This chimes with Bregman’s call to use populist language for progressive aims). Meanwhile, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang has made a UBI a key part of his platform. “People are yearning for a long-term vision, but they’re also yearning to be part of something bigger,” says Bregman. “What frustrates me so much with the contemporary Left is that it’s just moaning all the time: everything’s unjust, we can’t do this, we can’t do that. No!” He clenches his fist. “We’re capable of such great things.”
Feeling down about the future is a failure of imagination, Bregman argues (although the climate crisis, he admits, is pretty bleak). And it’s endemic.
So what’s the cure? A central plank of his thinking is that we work too many hours to do too little. A recent poll in more than 20 countries by two Dutch economists asked people if they believed their job added anything of value, and 25 per cent said no, or were in doubt. “Bizarre,” he says. “We’re talking about people who went to Cambridge and Oxford and whom society has invested a lot in to make sure they get these wonderful diplomas or education, and then they go on to do absolutely useless jobs.”
Bregman grew up in a town in southern Holland. His father is a pastor and his mother a teacher. He was all set for a career as an academic historian but at the last minute decided that was too dry and joined Dutch news outlet De Correspondent when it launched in 2013 (it’s set to launch an English-language newsroom later this year). His job there is as a sort of in-house historian, working alongside reporters who are encouraged to take their time on stories and be transparent about their research. UBI is at the centre of his thesis: the book’s original title was Why We Should Give Free Money to Everyone. This redistribution of wealth, generated by higher tax rates on the super-rich, is at the core of Bregmanomics. We’re richer than we’ve ever been, he says, yet inequality is still yawning.
Who would pay for it? Bregman tours this area in convincing, accessible — but admittedly not granular — detail, pointing, for instance, to a UK study that asserted child poverty costs the country £29 billion a year, and the conclusion that a policy to eliminate it would pay for itself. How? State-funded stipends, keeping those who need it above the floor of the poverty line.
“Poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash,” he says, noting a 2009 experiment that handed £3,000 a year each, no strings attached, to 13 long-term dispossessed Londoners who were in dire financial trouble. It was a success: they spent on average just £800 a year. Nor was it misspent. Among them, they instead bought a phone, dictionary and a hearing aid.
Poverty, he says, is a “mental bandwidth problem” — a line credited to Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir. It means those below the poverty line are so consumed by scarcity “you’re less able to focus on the things that are important to you”. As a possibilist, though, doesn’t he see the possibility of UBI failing? Of it being too costly, or not worth it? “Maybe,” he says. But the audacity of hope is its own reward. “In medicine you’ve got the placebo effect. If you believe you’ll get better it may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s so often in politics as well. So sometimes you’ve just got to change your world view, your view of humanity, and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m critical of politicians on the Left and the Right because I think they’ve both bought into this ideology that there’s something wrong with the poor themselves, and that we need to help them with anything other than money.”
He is responsible for a small spike in unemployment. “More than 100 people have sent me emails saying I read your book and quit my job. I’m not in the art of self-help. But obviously, if you hate what you do, and if you can, quit your job. That’s not a solution for many people because they have mortgages. What we need here is a huge transformation of the whole economy and a total redefinition of what work is. And again, here is where basic income will work because people can always fall back on it.”
“Gustave Flaubert said that you need a boring private life so you can have an incredibly exciting public life, and that is my life philosophy. People get so excited about promoting their own lives on Tinder and Instagram that they have an incredibly boring [contribution] to public life. And this is the trick — I’m incredibly boring.”
That’s the least convincing thing he’s said.