Radical Decency

Rutger Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History

Bloomsbury, 496pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781408898932

reviewed by George Ttoouli

Hoping it wouldn’t be terrible, I picked up Rutger Bregman’s Humankind between lockdowns n and n+x. I say hoping, for the white dustjacket reminded me too much of similar-looking titles like Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style or Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, for example, which, with their gazy, photo-polished authors and minimalist designs, somehow merge into a tub-thumping, masculine drone-choir: an exercise in voice over insight. And so, predisposed as I am to judge a book by its cover, I began reading Humankind for its flaws, expecting to find little of merit beyond some middle class white guy’s utopian fantasies.

Admittedly, Bregman was on my radar for another reason. His 2016 title, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek, resurfaced during lockdown, as a few (mostly Green) politicians and pundits began calling for universal basic income (UBI) to solve economic and labour inequalities caused by the pandemic. Green politics seemed hopeful to learn lessons from the pandemic’s horrors and construct a more resilient, compassionate and ecologically healthy society — albeit one rooted in a heavily regulated capitalism, which any pragmatist should know is a mug’s game.

Through its central claim, Bregman’s new title at the very least exposes the relativist nature of radicalism: ‘That most people, deep down, are pretty decent.’ He grounds this ‘radical’ premise in an over-simplistic binary between Thomas Hobbes’ ‘nasty, brutish and short’ worldview, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opposite and, although Bregman works hard to nuance the ‘noble savage’ dilution of Rousseaulian theory, he can’t avoid cutting corners.

For me, the polarisation invoked Monica Saieva’s 2007 art installation, where she placed nail-riddled cardboard boxes full of soft toys and children’s shoes around Shepherd’s Bush Green, and an altar mourning the loss of Pelagius. In opposition to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, Pelagius, like Bregman, also believed in humanity’s inherent goodness, but with London still on terror alert following the tragic bombings on 7 July 2005, Saieva received a police caution for her ‘radical’ premise. One wonders what punishment Bregman warrants, given the forcefulness of his argument.

In the opening nine chapters, Bregman deconstructs doxa after doxa reinforcing the Hobbesian worldview. He makes his case not through glib rhetoric, but through appeal to empirical research, all of which appears to be public domain. In the foreword alone he dismantles World War Two carpet bombing strategies, both Hitler’s Blitzkrieg and the British counter-offensive proposed by Frederick Lindemann — the latter more shocking given unequivocal research into bombed English cities showing the Blitz improved civilian morale.

In other chapters, he debunks the Stanford Experiments, colonial myths about Easter Island’s ecological desolation and the death of Kitty Genovese, to name a few. All this to serve the premise that while kindness is integral to our species’ survival and evolution, we hold the Hobbesian fake news to be true, even when such myths have been contradicted by careful investigation.

The arguments mainly hinge on an ‘Or is it?’ turn. Beginning with a gentle walkthrough, Bregman outlines what we already know and believe. Then comes the turn, sometimes delivered with the flourish of a single-sentence paragraph: ‘The truth is less fantastic — but not by much,’ or, ‘They’d got it all wrong.’ (Eventually I began imagining a full orchestra play DUM DUM DUUUM! after each one.)

Lindemann becomes the first of the book’s string of villains, who are almost invariably men in positions of power: Jacob Roggeveen, the first explorer to land on Easter Island; Ivy League researchers like Philip Zimbardo, orchestrator of the Stanford Experiment, and Stanley Milgram at Yale; Abe Rosenthal, editor of the New York Times. These villains are often guilty of suppressing counter-information and unethically manipulating research data. Even William Golding, who so convincingly poured his misanthropy and pessimism into our social imaginations with Lord of the Flies, receives a well-deserved inoculation with a real-life story of teenage boys stranded on a deserted island, though a novelist seems a somewhat mild target compared to the purveyors of fact beside him.

What’s interesting about Bregman’s process is that the groundwork in most of these cases has already been done by a roster of heroic, critically astute researchers. Jan Boersema, for example, features significantly in the chapter on Easter Island for having first sailed against Roggeveen’s hot air, while Gina Perry’s Behind the Shock Machine forms the backbone to Bregman’s chapter on Milgram. These key critical figures serve as spines for Bregman’s intellectual apparatus, supported by a plethora of subsidiary research, concepts and contexts. As with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, there’s a sense of Humankind as an incredible work of synthesis.

Two things save Humankind from its broad, binary brushstrokes and template chapter structures. First, the book is incredibly well-evidenced and transparent; in fact, the intellectual rigour is astonishing for such accessible writing. Bregman’s style reads as if prepared for external audit compared for instance to Taleb’s Antifragile, with its punchy style and psychotic idea that things gain strength from experiencing shock, and where sources surface rarely amid long stretches of expostulation.

Yet Humankind is also very readable and not in the way Pinker advocates in his style book. In fact, in one of several deft, entertaining takedowns of popular non-fiction writers, Bregman describes Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Natures as ‘802 pages . . . Perfect for knocking your enemies out cold.’ Bregman avoids the kind of tangled academese that often lets down important contributions like Giorgios Kallis’ Degrowth, a book similarly invested in countering capitalist doxa by challenging infinite growth mechanisms like GDP that enforce unsustainable ideologies of production and consumption. Where Degrowth suffers from a lack of penetrability, Bregman’s sharper message stands to gain traction among grassroots movements and political leadership.

Humankind’s other strength lies in how Bregman’s ‘radical idea’ develops in the later parts. Having countered the Hobbesian standpoint, Bregman begins to intercept and counter obvious criticisms of his ‘decency’ premise. These later, shorter chapters convince us of the potential for realising social change without ignoring the existence of humanity’s occasional brutality, accounting for how power corrupts and how prejudices form.

Then, in the closing sections, the book explores already-extant cases where a belief in human decency has enabled social justice and equality. From radical healthcare organisations in the Netherlands to Alaska’s (i.e. deep-red Republican) ‘citizen’s dividends,’ which almost perfectly parallel UBI, Bregman demonstrates the potential for better societies not just to manifest, but to extrapolate from successful models.

Much critical work has aimed to debunk the neoliberal there-is-no-alternative narrative with little impact in terms of electoral and social reform. Our psychological entrenchment is indicative of the power of doxa to shape our will to change, more so in these bleak pandemic days. And it’s refreshing to read such a resounding invitation to make changes toward a better society. If you’ve read your David Harvey, which Bregman has, you’ll catch glimpses of a more total rejection of capitalism lurking in Humankind’s undercurrents. These glimpses suggest the book’s ideas might be a first step toward Bregman’s utopic vision for a resilient and trusting society operating independently of property and ownership and false democratic governance.

Yet it’s also easy to be sceptical of the binaries and archetypes underpinning Bregman’s radical premise. Can he be trusted, or is this this really is just a plea to make the unsustainable look more sustainable, prolonging inequalities and contradictions? I don’t think Bregman would want readers to take his word for it, but to test his premise for themselves and make a reasoned decision about what to do with the results.

George Ttoouli is a writer, editor and teacher based in Coventry. His second collection of poetry, from Animal Illicit, is out now.