Dutch historian Rutger Bregman's manifesto for optimism reads like a 400-page TED talkby Julian Baggini / June 6, 2020 / Leave a comment
If you want to be seen as a profound thinker, just remember the principle: dark is deep. You must take a dim view of human nature and see its prospects as dismal. There may be more money to be made writing upbeat self-help books promising easy happiness, but you will never be taken seriously in self-consciously intellectual circles unless you are unremittingly gloomy or, as such intellectuals see it, unflinchingly realistic.
Think of the fate of Steven Pinker. Once widely admired as one of the world’s leading psychologists, he is now ridiculed by cognoscenti for his belief that we’ve “never had it so good”—that more human progress remains possible, even likely. Meanwhile, the stature of the likes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and John Gray, neither of whom I believe has ever been photographed smiling, grows every time they dismiss his data as either wrong or irrelevant.
The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has emerged as the youthful leader of the rebellion against the doomsters and gloomsters. His first book, Utopia for Realists, argued that with a universal basic income, a 15-hour working week and open borders, we could build a fair and flourishing world. It was a huge bestseller, praised by the likes of the Green MP Caroline Lucas, who said it “adds to a growing list of compelling accounts in favour of radically restructuring our economy.” But the sober mainstream was unmoved: journalist Will Hutton dismissed his three key proposals as “pie in the sky.”
Listen to Rutger Bregman discuss Humankind with Prospect’s Sameer Rahim
The sequel, Humankind, is an attempt to challenge the basic premise on which the more pessimistic orthodoxy rests: that human nature is essentially rotten to the core and that only the constraints of civilised society keep us in check. “Veneer theory,” as the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal calls it, asserts that underneath the pacific and pro-social cover of civilisation lies humankind’s festering heart of darkness.
Bregman’s tone is chirpy, but he does not attempt to make the impossible case that the human heart is all sweetness and light. His view is simply that we have a “powerful preference for our good side,” one…