Magazine article Management Today

Books: Thinking outside the Box

Magazine article Management Today

Books: Thinking outside the Box

Article excerpt

Rutger Bregman's ideas for a better society are a breath of fresh air, but don't expect the book to provide an economic blueprint, says Simon Caulkin.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There

Rutger Bregman

Bloomsbury, pounds 16.99

This book, by young Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, is a riot of forgotten stories (in 1970 US President Richard Nixon came within a hair's breadth of implementing a universal basic income); counterintuitive propositions ('The big reason people are poor is that they don't have enough money, and it shouldn't come as any surprise that giving them money is a great way to reduce that problem'); and unlikely facts (someone on the poverty line in the US - or UK - is in the top 14% of the world's income bracket and thus part of the global elite).

This, plus a liberal sprinkling of spirited quotes and a first-rate translation from the Dutch, makes Bregman's book, which had a big impact in the Netherlands when it came out last year, an enjoyable and provocative read. But be warned: if you expect a linear, detailed economic case for 'a universal basic income, open borders, and a 15-hour workweek', as you might from reviews, and the title, of a previous edition of the book in English, you'll be disappointed.

Bregman's purpose is different. As he sees it, borrowing from Francis Fukuyama, the West has reached an 'end of history' moment - a bleak land of plenty where we are so obsessed with growth, hotness and consumerism that we don't even know how well off we are. The real crisis of our times and his generation ('pampered', not jilted, as others have complained), is 'not that we don't have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. No, the real crisis is that we can't come up with anything better.'

So treat his ideas - a new measure to replace GDP and an end to the obsession with paid work, as well as the big three mentioned above - as purposeful thought experiments. His chief aim is to let some fresh air and ambition into the crimped, reductive thinking that (for example) sees the EU just as a narrow nexus of material and trading relationships; or humans as the rational utility maximisers of Chicago economics. Time and again, yesterday's out-of-the-question (an end to slavery or child labour, universal suffrage) becomes the next day's normal: the key is to be thinking it when the consensus breaks apart 'Only a crisis ... produces real change,' said Milton Friedman. 'When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.'

In this attempt to enlarge the range of the politically thinkable, Bregman mostly succeeds. …

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