Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

This is a short book covering three main topics, but the issues it struggles with are complex and while the author lays out his arguments very clearly and with rigorous case studies and data backing him up. Originally written in Dutch, this is an excellent translation, and most of the case studies and examples are taken from North America.

The overarching theme of the book is that we have more or less banished the concept of utopia from our society as something too farfetched or impossible. He argues that we need to set our sights on seemingly impossible goals in order to make progress toward a better society, and importantly that many of the things we now take for granted (a 40-hour workweek, Women’s right to vote, the abolishment of slavery) were previously seen as impossible, utopian goals.

The book takes three ideas that on the surface seem unachievable and, with copious case studies and references, shows how our society can not only afford them, but how they save money while benefitting society and individuals. The three utopian ideas he champions are universal basic income, a 15 hour workweek, and open borders. For each, he argues why it would aid not only the obvious beneficiaries, but also those who fear and oppose these plans, and society as a whole. He tackles common arguments against these ideas and presents ways of introducing them gradually, acknowledging that radical changes need time.

Overall, I found his arguments convincing. Where I found the book weakest was in the issues he did not address peak oil and global warming, which will certainly impact our ability to implement these ideas, although also make them more urgent and important. He is a staunch neoliberal capitalist, presenting both ideas as moral arguments and as ways for society to save money. The book was written pre-pandemic and so does not address that recent issue, which has simultaneously brought attention to universal basic income, but harms the idea of open borders.

Reading it, even skeptically, certainly gave me a lot to think about and to discuss with friends. Because ultimately it is about hope and the idea that we can do better, which is sorely needed right now.