Hopeful Altruism Is No Substitute for Radical Politics

Rutger Bregman made a name for himself by dressing down Tucker Carlson and calling out the ultrarich at Davos. But his new book is closer to a hopeful self-help guide than a manifesto for radical political change.

Rutger Bregman gives a TED talk, April 25, 2017. Steve Jurvetson / Wikimedia

Rutger Bregman is one of the most prolific intellectuals of our age. His books are on display at airports from Frankfurt to Shanghai. In December 2018, Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch was photographed at a Caribbean beach with Bregman’s Utopia for Realists in his hands. Trevor Noah knows “Rutger” by name. Two Davoses ago, we saw Bregman in a panel at the Swiss forum talking on the subject of taxation. “Taxes!” he proclaimed, “that’s what we need to talk about! I feel like a firefighter at a conference on fire extinguishing techniques who is not allowed to pronounce the word ‘water.’ Taxes, we need to talk about taxes!”

Bregman’s statement ended up on Twitter, views skyrocketed and suddenly the Dutch thought leader found himself trolling conservatives on Fox News, so angering Tucker Carlson that the latter refused to air an interview with him (it was packed with expletives). “The Dutch historian who savaged the Davos elite,” the Guardian’s headline ran a couple of days later.

Bregman indeed has a penchant for political grenade-throwing. Starting with his 2017 Utopia for Realists — preceded by a flurry of publications in Dutch — the Dutchman has morphed into something of an intellectual superstar, planting conceptual seed bombs which blossom into further debates in Dutch and English, from basic income, the idea of progress (Geschiedenis van de vooruitgang), or our received notions of inequality (Waarom vuilnismannen meer verdienen dan bankiers). 

Humankind is no exception to this rule. Like previous books, Bregman’s latest is a passionate plea for a radical revision of our view of mankind and a call to collective behavioral change. In Bregman’s view, man’s innate goodness has become a neglected fact, obscured by centuries of philosophy solidified into common-sense. More strongly, the idea that we are evil by nature, Bregman claims, has become one of the most harmful myths of our time — a “life-threatening fiction.”

An intimidating mountain of evidence is mobilized to disprove this myth. Lord of the Flies might be a captivating novel, but its anthropological hypothesis hardly bears out in reality. Boys stranded on an Australian island began working together instead of killing each other. Neither did German soldiers fight enthusiastically for Nazism from 1940 to 1945. Rather, they took part in the German war effort craving a shared sense of camaraderie. The population of Easter Island, in turn, was never cannibalistic, but rather peacefully pastoral. In his own, roundabout way, Bregman here offers what one might term a “secular theodicy”: proof of the ultimate kindness of our human world, even if that kindness often appears painfully absent to us.

One of Bregman’s main targets in this theodicy is the so-called “varnish theory” of human development. Such a theory presents civilisation as nothing but a small layer prone to crack after slightest external disturbance, “a thin crust on the swirling magma of human nature.” Humankind provides an able refutation of this theory. “Precisely when bombs fall from the sky or dikes break,” Bregman proclaims, “the best things come out in humans.” See the joint Christmas celebrations of 1914, or the spontaneous solidarity after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

An evolutionary basis can be tracked down for each of these traits. In Bregman’s view, homo sapiens did not overcome their rivals with bloodlust, tact, or wantonness, but rather through the gift of cooperation: the crux of a “homo puppy”-theory. Humans excel at gentleness in comparison to other primates; it is not our desire for competition but cooperation that explains our biological advantage. This desire consists of the “basic communism” that humans practice on a daily basis with friends and family, at home and at school. Humanity is a thoroughly “gregarious species,” as Marx had it, with a distinctly moral bent.

All of this also invokes the ominous question first raised by the philosopher Epicurus: unde malum — or, whence evil? To counter this threat, Bregman introduces us to the concept of the “nocebo.” A variation on the familiar placebo effect, he talks about a “massive psychogenic illness” that convinces us of our own evil, a civilizing fairy-tale that takes us mentally hostage and closes off our imagination. 

The heaviest noceboes are cable news, television, religion, and the oeuvre of Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes. Wielding these tools, Bregman’s “homo puppy” is indoctrinated, brainwashed, manipulated. If humans come to believe most people are indeed evil at heart, we will treat each other accordingly and bring out the worst in our fellow man. 

Anthropological pessimism is not only philosophically harmful, however. Bregman sees it as actively deadly. In the long run Hobbesian stories foster a collective delusion, with corresponding expectations, behaviors, and institutions. States, markets, and parties are ordered in such a way that their members are forced to assume malevolence on behalf of others. Survival commits us to animality — even if that animality itself might not be in our genes. For Bregman, for instance, the Holocaust was “the end of a long historical process in which evil disguised itself as the good.” Writers, poets, philosophers, and politicians poisoned the psyche of the German people and reaped what they sowed — mass murder.

Bregman’s conclusion is as simple as it is daring. Even in the face of unspeakable evil, the Dutch historian clings onto man’s fundamental kindness and instead blames acts of anthropological sabotage. The daringness of his conclusion also invites further questioning, however. Was Nazism really about horror as camouflaging the “good”? Did the Nazis even see it that way themselves? Himmler, Hitler, and Eichmann knew their crimes were unspeakable and persisted, nonetheless. As Himmler addressed his soldiers in 1943: “We persevered, and we remained decent boys. That was a difficult task. Here we are talking about a glorious page in our history that has not yet been written and will never be written.”

Whether such an urge can only be exerted on a large, anonymous scale — as was the case for the Holocaust bureaucrats — also seems pretty improbable. In the private sphere Bregman’s kind humans continue to commit atrocities without parallel. Most child abuse still takes place in a family setting. Few historical conflicts are more deadly than civil wars. When a group of Polish farmers was asked by documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann what they made of the fate of their previous Jewish neighbors in the late 1970s, they declared that one day the Jewish problem had to be “solved.”

Humankind offers mountains of evidence for man’s essentially social nature, his role as a homo cooperans. All this evidence, however, ultimately evokes a paralyzing question: why does politics exist? If all human questions can be traced back to matters of personal morality, why do humans persist in the harmful habit of engaging in politics? 

Bregman admits that man is essentially a “constructivist” animal. Religions such as “Judaism and Islam, nationalism and capitalism,” he states, are “little more than figments of our imagination.” As Iris Murdoch once put it, humans compose images of themselves and then we want to resemble those images. From there on Bregman proposes an extension of private generosity: what can be executed in a family context must now take place globally, on an even larger scale, with the planet figuring as a kind of macro-family.

Here we witness the birth pangs of something resembling a political philosophy. Since Aristotle we know that the polis is the end of the oikos: different laws apply on the forum and at home. Such a vision implies that figures who might be on good personal terms can differ violently on matters of politics. Abraham Lincoln was a friend to many a slave-owner in Congress, yet still launched a war against their state. These cases are uncomfortable for Bregman, especially in the light of his calls to get millionaires to pay more taxes. Social justice hardly is a matter of personal attitude or behavior. Even if Jeff Bezos behaved “kindlier” towards his employees, he would still remain the richest man in the world. In the end, only two factors can meet the challenge of private power: the coercion of a state, or collective action. On these issues, Humankind remains mute. 

The limits of this hopefulness become all too visible in Bregman’s proposed list of remedies. The book finishes with a call for a basic income. A perfectly feasible proposal according to Bregman, both financially and individually; after all, humankind, as his book tells us, has a natural tendency towards helpfulness, prodigality, and creativity. Among many other examples Bregman cites the famous Alaska Permanent Fund founded in 1976 as a concrete example. When the American state started drilling oil after the war, Republican governors decided to finance a dividend with new oil revenues. The idea’s driving force was that states could return surpluses directly to the citizens in individual slices instead of spending it on a public sector.

Bregman is forthright about the right-wing pedigree of the fund. The scheme’s original architects, he claims, were anything but radicals. Too little time in Humankind is spent pondering this legacy, however. The politicians who launched the Alaska fund knew all too well how the 1976 plan would end up strengthening markets: the size of the state’s public sector would decrease, and Alaskans would go spend their money privately. 

The pro-market legacy never fully receded. In July 2019, for example, Alaska’s governor announced drastic cutbacks at the state’s university as part of a general austerity drive. Half of expenditure was to be scrapped, buildings sold off, staff fired. Justifications for the cuts were predictable: Alaska wanted to double its basic income and could not do so on a falling oil market. Critics proposed countermeasures: the state could build a new library, or simply keep its existing university accessible and free. Alaskan conservatives responded presumptuously: who needs a public university if every book is for sale on Amazon?

Through 300 pages of hopefulness it is precisely this political dimension which goes missing from Bregman’s tract. However useful his role in educating readers on the injustices of Western tax system, America’s prison archipelagos or the dangerous myths of right-wing economics, Humankind ends in general indecision. “Come out of the closet, don’t be ashamed of the good,” “Avoid the news,” “Improve the world,” “Love thy neighbour.”

With these recommendations, Bregman’s book reveals itself as a self-help guide for readers eager to work with their renewed faith in humanity. What this might mean for one’s party membership, voting choices, religious denomination, organizational preferences, or leadership positions is left to the discretion of the reader. Politics is the exclusive terrain for politicians, students of Thomas Hobbes who only see evil in our world. Perhaps this is also a major reason why Humankind has such a hard time explaining to us why, if humans are indeed kind, we still live in anything but the kindest of worlds.

This article originally appeared in Groene Amsterdammer.

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About the Author

Anton Jäger is is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, working on the history of populism in the United States. Together with Daniel Zamora, he is currently working on an intellectual history of basic income.

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