LA Review of Books: Money for Nothing

A review of “Utopia for Realists” by Rutger Bregman

The idea of a universal basic income, whereby the state or another such sovereign provides all citizens with regular cash payments to supplement earnings, has existed in various incarnations for centuries, even if it is not yet a reality. In recent decades prominent intellectual advocates, like the Belgian academic Philippe van Parijs and American ex-union leader Andy Stern, have argued its merits, but the universal basic income — known by the acronym UBI — is gaining new momentum amid fears that automation will continue displacing the traditional working class.

A June 2016 petition-driven referendum in Switzerland on whether to implement a UBI system only added to the hubbub. Though nearly 77 percent of Swiss voters rejected the plan — and the Swiss are not exactly radical, women did not obtain the right to vote until 1971 — the plebiscite nonetheless drew serious attention to a concept previously considered eccentric if not insane. In the meantime, the Finnish government launched a two-year pilot study on UBI, whereby recipients are picked at random from the country’s unemployed and get €560 (or about $590) per month with no strings attached. Similar trial runs are now underway in Scotland, and the idea has plenty of advocates in the hipster salons of Silicon Valley.

Among UBI’s more articulate recent advocates is Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman, who lays out a multipronged case in his new book Utopia for Realists, a title that evokes the shibboleth of 1968 student movements: “Be realistic, demand the impossible!”

The 29-year-old Bregman begins by asserting that it is a book about ideas not practicalities, an attempt to “fling open the windows of our minds.” Today, “almost everyone is rich, safe, and healthy” in historical terms, but we lack a “reason to get out of bed in the morning,” he says. Amid this collective malaise, it has become taboo to dream a better future. Instead, many of the brightest minds spend their time developing a slightly improved smartphone camera or creating algorithms that detect market anomalies milliseconds faster than the ones already in use. “Optimism and pessimism have become synonymous with consumer confidence or the lack thereof,” Bregman laments.

Our civilizational discontent comes, in part, because we tend not to recognize how many 21st-century realities were not so long ago dismissed as unrealistic and utopian themselves, Bregman says. There are two types of utopian thinking, he adds. “Blueprints” are bad as they tend to prescribe exact steps needed to achieve some predetermined end. This singular focus risks ignoring excesses and casualties along the way and has led to the high body count utopias of the Spanish Inquisition, Stalin, Pol Pot, Pinochet, and Jim Jones. As Chairman Mao once put it, “A revolution is not a dinner party.”…