Rutger Bregman: “Without a Utopia, we are lost.” Pope Francis: “we must learn not to be resigned to human failure, but let us sustain the rescue of the creative plan at all costs”.

September 30, 2017

Pope Francis: “we must learn not to be resigned to human failure, but let us sustain the rescue of the creative plan at all costs” – translation by Zenit.

‘Without a Utopia, we are lost’

At the age of 29, Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and journalist, formulates new utopian propositions conceivable in the short term. His essay, a bestseller in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, has already been translated into 17 languages.

By Béatrice Bouniol, in La Croix, 30 Sep 2017

Rutger Bregman, September 30, 2015. / CC Maand van de Geschiedenis/FlicK

La Croix: You write: “Utopias always say more about the time in which they were imagined than about what’s actually in store”. What does this return of Utopia in our time tell us?

Rutger Bregman:  Let’s take the three main propositions in my book:

  • a universal basic income
  • fifteen-hour week
  • open borders.

They all, in fact, say something about our time. The first tries to offer a response to the pauperization of millions of people in our societies which, by the way, are increasingly rich, and to the fact that one-third of all wage earners, including some of the most qualified ones, have doubts about the sense and usefulness of their work. The second one takes into account the problems of CO2 production and income gaps. As for the opening of borders to migrant workers, even if it’s limited, it is a much more effective way of fighting poverty than development aid.

Your book gives an overview of past and current experiments, done on a small or medium scale. How do you respond to the objection that they would be impossible to generalize?

RB: Up to five years ago, the idea of a universal basic income had been totally forgotten. Today, the Canadian and Finnish governments and Silicon Valley are interested in it. Scotland has just announced the launch of an experiment and Hillary Clinton, in her last book, admits that she considered integrating the measure in her programme and that she regretted that the idea was rejected by her campaign team. This is how utopia gradually changes the world: ideas are born on the margins, then move little by little to the center and experiments based on them move from the local to the national level. And it’s a much faster process than one may think.

A recent poll in the United Kingdom showed that a majority of Britons were in favor of a universal basic income. That result surprised everyone, in the first place, me!

During the last French presidential campaign, Benoît Hamon was labeled a “utopist” in a derogatory manner. How would you interpret the skepticism with which this idea has been greeted?

RB: Benoît Hamon doubtless moved too fast. The idea was little known in France and maybe he did not present it correctly.

To broach this subject, you have to be able to speak of experiments that have already taken place, to take ownership of the vocabulary around these topics and stop limiting oneself to saying that we must help the poor.

Two points, in particular, need to be underlined here: The universal income is an investment that finances itself through lower health care costs, lower crime levels, higher academic success rates, etc. Secondly, it enables you to free up a lot of ambitions and energies: individuals allow themselves to change jobs, places of abode, create businesses, etc.

Campaign time, and politics, in generalare not always conducive to such developments. How can the “realistic utopists” win out?

RB: In the wealthy countries, two types of actions are possible. Carry out more experiments on a large scale, on the one hand, and make the current systems more universal, on the other.

The Welfare State has become too bureaucratic and humiliating today. You have to show your credentials to obtain the least allowance. Phase by phase, it’s possible to introduce unconditional assistance, but in any event, at some point, a big jump will have to be made. Certain countries have done so by adopting a universal health care system, for example. Today, we have tangible proof that the universal basic income works and for the first time in history, we have the means to do it. This measure can be considered the crowning achievement of capitalism in that it gives everyone the freedom to decide what (s)he wants to do.

At times you show less optimism… You find, for example, that we have sunk into a comatose state which even the 2008 financial crisis has not interrupted …

RB: We need to demonstrate patience, that’s for sure. I am a historian and I am 29 years old, which gives me the impression I have all the time in the world! I think that in 10 or 15 years, the situation may be completely different. Politicians come and go, it’s ideas that guide the world.

In the early 1960s, the debate on the universal basic income kicked off in the United States and Canada. By the end of the decade, everyone on the political exchequer was in favor of it and Richard Nixon himself defended the idea in the 1970s. In 10 years, America went from a Protestant ethic to a totally different conception of work!

Does the imagination need to be rehabilitated in politics?

RB: Millions of people throughout the world aspire to be given hope. The left is guilty of not proposing a credible alternative to unbridled capitalism. In the United States, Hillary Clinton lost out to Trump, who sold a dream, albeit a somber one, to the Americans. And in France, Emmanuel Macron won by using the vocabulary of progress, even utopiaThese two victories show the extent to which citizens are hungry for change.

The problem of the left, but also of the center and the “progressives” is not that they are not radical enough. Without a Utopia, we are lost. It’s not that the present is bad, on the contrary; but it is gloomy if we have no hope of bettering it.

Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman is published by Bloomsbury (London). 

How Privatization Cuts Us in Two, While Public Institutions Make Us a Better People: A nation of profit-makers and their crusade to deregulate and monopolize public systems.

As increasing privatization "starves the beast" of government, infrastructure is failing, and companies like Nestle pay nearly nothing to take over our water supply and sell it back to us

“As increasing privatization “starves the beast” of government, infrastructure is failing, and companies like Nestle pay nearly nothing to take over our water supply and sell it back to us.” (Credit: Center for Media and Democracy) 

Most people looking to make big money are eager to disparage public systems as inefficient, wasteful, inferior. Many of those people are in a position to starve the public systems of funding, thereby making them less functional, and making the private options look more appealing.

But privatization is not the solution, it is the problem. Properly supported public systems serve more people in a more efficient and less costly way. We might begin by looking at FEMA, the underfunded disaster relief program much maligned for its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But today it’s a lifesaver for many people. And the alternative is an onslaught of businesses that seek profit among the hurricane victims desperate for water and food and supplies.  

Privatization cuts us in two: we’ve become a nation of profit-makers versus the struggling middle/lower classes. This is true for health care, education, housing, and the environment. 

Health Care: Profitability vs. Mortality  

“In a totally free market health care system, you must be willing to let some patients die.” –emergency room physician Farzon Nahvi.  In the US, our privatized system is letting that happen. It’s killing our children. Among 34 OECD countries, only Turkey, Mexico, Argentina, and Slovakia have a higher child mortality rate than the US. A National Institutes of Health report summarized: “The USA health care system appears the least efficient and effective in ‘meeting the needs of its children.'”

The connection between the profit motive and quality of health care is strikingly depicted in a recent study by the Commonwealth Fund, which placed the U.S. last among major nations in access and health care outcomes, and concluded that “The U.S. performs poorly in administrative efficiency mainly because of doctors and patients reporting wasting time on billing and insurance claims.” It’s very clear that administrative costs are substantially lower in a single-payer system, less than one-sixth the percentage for many private insurers. Medicare allocates only 1 percent of total spending to administrative costs, compared with 6 percent for the privatized Medicare Advantage. A public system also has no need to spend money on advertising, which can make up over 15 percent of private insurance costs.  

Education: Hedge Funds vs. the Children  

Betsy DeVos’ state of Michigan is a painful example of the perils of privatization. Michigan’s K-12 system is largely unregulated, with charter schools competing for the same pot of money like so many profit-seeking corporations. The results have been miserable, according to recent nationwide assessments. Student proficiency has faltered, inequality between rich and poor districts has grown, and in places like Holland, MI (Betsy’s hometown) white families have ‘chosen’ their way out of traditional public schools, leaving behind the children of low-income Hispanic migrant workers. Says Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron about the charter experiment: “These are the most vulnerable students we have. Why do we experiment on them?”  

But all is well for the banks and hedge funds, and for the Education Maintenance Organizations (EMOs) that buy up properties, lease them to schools for a little while, then sell them to the same schools for millions of dollars in profits.

Public schools, on the other hand, can work very well when the emphasis is on the student-teacher relationship rather than on business models. Jeff Bryant describes some of the attributes of the successful Long Beach, California school system: “respect for teachers…internal accountability…intense devotion to the well-being of students.” This is similar to the much-praised educational system in Finland, where teachers are well-trained, well-paid, highly respected, and trusted to actually teach the kids rather than test them.

Parents want well-supported local schools much more than they want the choice of private options. A 2017 poll conducted for the American Federation of Teachers by Hart Research Associates found that 71% of parents chose “a good quality neighborhood public school” over “more choices of which schools I can send my children to.”

Housing: Blackstone vs. the Rent-Burdened Family 

The ravages of privatization are clearest in the aftermath of tragedies, as in New Orleans after Katrina. Public housing, still in good repair, was demolished so that developers could rush in and begin building upscale homes. The mostly poor black population of New Orleans has dropped from 67 percent of the residents to 59 percent

Around the nation since the 2008 recession, affordable public housing has been the victim of a business model that disregards the tragic reality of people being turned out of their homes. Blackstone and other private equity firms — with government subsidies — buy up foreclosed houses, hold them till prices appreciate, and in the interim rent them back at exorbitant prices. Rana Foroohar calls these largely unregulated companies “great white sharks that have perfected the use of debt, leverage, asset stripping, tax avoidance, and legal machinations to maximize profits for themselves at the expense of almost everyone else.” They carry out their home-wrecking schemes “with as little capital or risk to themselves as possible.”

Environment: Eating & Breathing Chemicals vs. Preparing the World for Our Children 

Scientific studies keep confirming that agricultural pesticides are poisonous to humans. Unbelievably, Monsanto sued the state of California for telling people about the threat to their health. Even more unbelievably, their reasoning was that it’s ‘unconstitutional’ to use findings from the World Health Organization.

Equally disturbing is the deadly deceit of Exxon, which has covered up its own climate research for 40 years, and was joined by other oil-connected companies in lobbying against the Kyoto Protocol. The lobbying paid off. Fossil fuel subsidies in 2015 were estimated to be greater than the world’s total health spending.

There are numerous other ways private companies imperil the rest of us in the name of self-interest and profit. The Florida Power & Light Co. has lobbied vigorously against solar panels, even though solar energy might have prevented the deaths of nursing home residents in overheated facilities after Hurricane Irma; Wyoming’s Devon Energy abandoned plans for emission reduction simply because it now has a ‘friend’ in charge of the EPAcruise ships, which pollute the air each day as much as a million cars, apparently see no reason to spend some of their profits to clean up after themselves.

And here’s one that should make everyone mad. As increasing privatization “starves the beast” of government, infrastructure is failing, and companies like Nestle pay nearly nothing to take over our water supply(even on public lands) and sell it back to us. Globally, according to a Bloomberg report, failing infrastructure has led “to a near-total reliance on bottled water in parts of the world.” Says Pakistani environmental lawyer Ahmad Rafay Alam: “Twenty years ago, you could go anywhere in Lahore and get a glass of clean tap water for free. Now, everyone drinks bottled water.”

More profits for the privatizers, more health concerns and expense and disdain for the public.

Paul Buchheit

Paul Buchheit is a college teacher, an active member of US Uncut Chicago. His latest book is, Disposable Americans: Extreme Capitalism and the Case for a Guaranteed Income. He is also founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (UsAgainstGreed.org, PayUpNow.org, RappingHistory.org),  and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at paul [at] UsAgainstGreed [dot] org.