This well-argued account puts forward a blueprint for radical change, offering a real program for mobilisation and action.
The bold premise of Utopia for Realists is
that by implementing the Universal Basic Income (UBI), cutting the working week
to 15 hours and opening borders to migration that poverty can largely be
Rutger Bergman builds his argument steadily,
quoting for example of UBI from an experiment in the City of London in 2009,
when 13 men living on the street were given £3,000 a year.
The result was not that they spent it all
on alcohol and drugs but on accommodation. After 18 months, seven had a roof
over their heads, with two about to move into apartments.
The men had joined classes and reconnected
with families. What was more the experiment saved money, with the total cost
working out at £50,000, rather than the £400, 000 per annum it was previously costing
to keep them on the street.
The UBI case is strengthened with examples
from Canada and the US where experiments were conducted in the 1970s, on giving
out free money. One particularly intriguing case is how President Richard Nixon
endeavoured to get UBI adopted in America, being thwarted finally in the
The central thrust of Bergman’s argument is
that the evidence shows that when given a basic amount of money people act
sensibly, they don’t stop working but do have more time for their families and
education. Basically, that people are on the whole well intentioned, not lazy and always seeking to cheat the system.
The author goes on to argue for a shorter
working week, bringing in the effects of automation in removing much paid work
The arguments are familiar for those who
charted the economic developments of the 1970s. ~Then it looked like the
shorter working week and earlier retirement was on the agenda.
Enter the neo-liberalism creed enacted under
Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher which threw everything into reverse. Since
that time people have worked longer for less, with requisite increases in
levels of stress, mental illness and general unhappiness with life.
Bergman covers a lot of ground in what is a
short book but his arguments are well put together and lucid. Too many
economic accounts lose the reader in the detail, Bergman’s light touch keeps
the reader engaged and up with some new exciting ideas.
Criticism of the book would centre on
possibly trying at times to sew together too many ideas at one time, thereby
sometimes losing the reader.
There is certainly a lot of ground covered
from the inadequacies of Gross Domestic Product as a 21st century measure
of international well-being to the effects of automation.
One of the many sobering statistics comes
from an Oxford University study that suggests 54% of jobs in Europe are likely
to be done by machines in the next 20 years. The figure is 47% for the US.
Bregman attacks what he calls “bullshit
jobs.” These are jobs like HR managers, social media strategists and PR advisors
who effectively create nothing and could be done without. Indeed, such work is
often creating problems. Such jobs are compared unfavourably with valuable jobs
like dustmen, farmers and teachers.
Bergman’s answer to the world’s problems is
a massive redistribution of wealth, moving from the present grotesque inequalities
that sees eight people owning as much of the world’s wealth as half of its
population (3.5 billion). The means to achieve such redistribution will be
implementation of UBI, a 15 hour working week and taxes on capital and not
He also calls for an opening up of borders,
arguing that if developed countries let in just 3% more immigrants that would
provide a boost of US$305 billion for the world’s poor. The author notes with
some irony how ever since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989; governments around
the world have been putting up walls and barriers to stop people moving around.
The program offered by Bergman is a radical
challenge to the left. He criticises the left for acquiescing in
neo-liberalism, simply being prepared to manage the system better.
He claims the left has now been so beaten
back that it only talks in negative terms about what it is against rather than
what it is for.
The programme outlined in this book has
much to recommend to the Jeremy Corbyn led Labour Party. Indeed, some of the
ideas like UBI are already being considered as central planks of policy. Although,
concepts like open borders, might take a bit more selling in the present
Published by Bloomberg, £16.99