Utopia For Realists By Rutger Bregman – Book Summary

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Originally written in Dutch, Utopia for Realists has been translated in several languages since and is popularly advertised as a book aiming to reconstruct the modern world. The author Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian, often labeled as one of the greatest young thinkers of Europe.

Working as a journalist, he wrote articles for an online journal in Dutch. Due to the positive response to these articles, it was compiled into a book and published. He is also known for his TED Talks on related topics.

 A tagline of the book is “how we can build the ideal world”, which is what it is widely publicized as. A popular narrative style of Bregman is to include historical anecdotes to his ideas – which can either point the idea to a negative or a positive direction. He clearly states what is to be followed and what habits must be left behind.


1. The impossibility of revolutionizing the world

Most people we come across have a certain vision of the world. The vision includes a clear distinction between the poor and the rich. A clear gap between the privileged and unprivileged. The gap may or may not be viewed in an exaggerated form, but several bodies are working towards bridging this gap. Still, many believe a reality where everyone will stand on the same ground is an impossibility. Bregman disagrees and says that the inability of people to broaden the horizons of their imagination does not correspond to the impossibility of the world-changing.

2. Giving money to the poor

A popular notion in capitalist countries is that giving money to the poor makes them lazy and encourages them to never work again. However, Bregman has noticed the opposite reaction. A study done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that when the poor are supplied with money, they are benefitted in the long term. It promotes nutrition, ownership, and income.

Bregman suggests that this form of encouragement is less expensive than programs for the poor. Such steps have a lasting effect on the families and help them overcome the burden of poverty. Taking it as a form of encouragement, the poor are observed to indulge less in habits such as alcohol consumption and smoking. Children are the biggest victims of poverty, with a long-term detriment with the poorer income.

When given money, poor children are the most benefitted. Studies have shown they have better physical and mental development, have more opportunities for education, and are well-fed. A steady income also supposedly decreases the rate of reproduction and discourages having large families.

3. The poor should not be blamed for their plight

Contrary to popular belief, most people are not happy when unemployed. Unemployment is a vulnerable state to live in – and has been associated with the inculcation of bad company and toxic habits. Since employment is the basis of security in the modern world, unemployment can have a toll on the mental condition of a person and steer on the wrong path

People attribute the reason for being poor to poor people. They assume that it is their decision to remain unemployed and live their life out in poverty. The decisiveness of the poor are constantly criticized, and the blame is piled on.

While the poor must be held accountable for their illogical decisions, it must not be put on their conscience, but their mental status must also be put into consideration. Poor have something called a ‘tunnel vision’ which restricts them to find alternatives out of their situation and keeps them confined to their life.

4. Aid from the side of the government

Countries that hesitate to pay for the poor must reconsider their decisions since such schemes pay for themselves in the longer run. The people directly benefitted from these schemes – that is, the children – will grow up to be responsible and financially independent citizens of the country.

A general observation is that education is the way out of poverty. Investment in education is a burden for the poor and must be facilitated by the government by propagating educational schemes.

The two evident ways in which the government can aid the poor is by helping them to get educational opportunities and secure housing. Several states and countries have implemented these and are seeing tremendous results. Bearing in mind the tunnel vision of the poor, the implementation of the schemes must be done in an orderly and patient manner.

Bureaucracy tends to discourage the poor. Several are unable to understand the importance of the same and do not wish to indulge in these practices since such situations are out of their comfort zones. To help the poor, the poor must be primed to accept the help.

5. Learning from the mistakes of the past

Bregman lists several world leaders of the past who have driven the thought of the poor being lazy. Everyone from Marx to Nexon chose to ignore the condition of the poor and continue the trend having them fend for themselves without any extrinsic support.

The respective countries under these leaders saw no improvement in the lives of the poor. Yet, the trend continues and must stop somewhere. Bregman states that instead of learning from the mistakes of the past, the leaders tend to keep them going.

6. The importance of GDP

It is thought that the growth of GDP corresponds to the prime standard of the country. It is perceived that an increase in GDP is observed following ‘good’ circumstances. However, Bregman highlights the point World War II – widely considered as an unfortunate couple of years – increased the GDP of the USA.

A recent development in economics suggested the amount of calculated risk undertaken by the country dictates the GDP. A linear relationship was established between the two factors. The author also makes it a point to mention that GDP is an incomplete system of measurement. Since it generalizes the overall status of the country, the poor and the unusual circumstances are ignored.

GDP, as a metric system, fails to consider the overpowering contribution of a millionaire as compared to a teacher earning the minimum wage. It attributes a number which holds all citizens on contempt without exception. In such a way, the GDP gives a rather incorrect judgment of the status of the country by ignoring social disparities.

7. Productivity of humans

The productivity of humans has been a crucial determinant of the economic status of the country. With the increasing financial strength of the world, it was predicted that an average person would have to work for merely fifteen hours a week to sustain a regular life for themselves. But, with every passing day, the situations seem more and more unlikely.

The formula to balance working hours and personal time has been tried and tested, but none seems to be fruitful. A general will was that every type of job must have the same working hours – a difficult proposition. A rich person can finish their part of the work in a much shorter time than a poor person. To equalize their working hours would be an injustice to either one.

Numerous factors determine the productivity of a person. If a person is exhausted, their productivity reduces to a minimal level. Hence, the imposition of longer working hours saw a decline in productivity. On the other hand, shorter working hours promotes productivity.

The solution to getting all the work done in the shortest time and encouraging employment is to hire more people. Instead of having one person do overtime, it is recommended that two people work on the same project in different shifts. This will allow both of them to productively spend their time and earn money.

8. Comparison of jobs

Every country and its countrymen want to eradicate poverty. Even if the methods to do are in place, it is nearly impossible and redundant to bring every citizen at the same level in terms of effort and income. A clear disparity is noticed between the incomes of the two extremities.

A garbageman works all day, putting in their physical strength and gets paid less than a banker in an air-conditioned room. The two jobs cannot be compared at the same level. While the banker’s income is a testimony to their years of education and strives to grow in their career, a garbageman has his efforts throughout the day. Still, a relationship between effort and income of these two jobs cannot be compared.

That being said, every job is crucial to the working of the world as we know it. If all the teachers would wish to leave their jobs to pursue a career in business, who would train the students to grow up to be responsible citizens? The existence of every stratum of a job is important, and the comparison of the same is redundant.

9. The impact of the machines

Machines and all forms of technology are one-time investments. They need not be paid, do not get tired, and can work all day long. With the arrival of machines, the need for human labor is on a decline. Although it was predicted that machines would enhance the lives of humans, it is rarely observed.

A business that employs more machines than humans is saving on all kinds of resources. However, Bregman argues that as a business employs lesser and lesser humans, the number of winners in the world decreases. Now if the business employed humans instead of machines, there would be thousands of them basking in the glory of success.

10. The notions about immigrants

The superpowers of the world have strong opinions about their immigrants. The poor having left their country and their livelihood behind to fend for themselves in a foreign land has threatened the citizens of the host country for generations. While the immigrants do little to nothing to invade and claim the right of the citizens, a constant prejudice against them is harbored. The popular notions concerning the immigrants are to be blamed for the same –

The myths associated with immigrants are that of them being terrorists, criminals, lazy, and that they have to invade their homeland. Bregman believes the gates of the world must be open and the walls between humanity must be broken.

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