Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic many people have been awed by the displays of human solidarity. In supposedly atomised societies, altruistic instincts have reasserted themselves (750,000 people have volunteered for the NHS, for example).
One of those who was not surprised is the Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman. “Catastrophes bring out the best in people,” he writes in his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History. “I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored.” Over 463 pages he seeks to dismantle the thesis – formulated and popularised by thinkers such as Hobbes, Machiavelli and Freud – that humans are inherently selfish.
“I found a disconnect between my own view of human nature and the ideas I was advocating and this book is an attempt to solve that,” Bregman, 32, explained when I recently interviewed him over Skype from London. His previous book Utopia for Realists (2014) promoted policies such as a universal basic income (UBI), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. As he debated such ideas he found himself continually drawn to fundamental questions of human nature.
Having once taken a “relatively cynical” view, he was forced to revise his perspective as he interrogated new evidence from “diverse disciplines: anthropology, archaeology, sociology, psychology”. Far from humans being predisposed to violence, for instance, Bregman argues that the reverse is true: we find pain immensely difficult to inflict. “Most bayonets throughout history have probably not been used because soldiers just can’t do it, something holds them back… the same goes for shooting the enemy. We’ve got this fascinating evidence from the Second World War, and also from other wars, that most soldiers couldn’t do it.”
But how does he reckon with the 20th-century and the horrors inflicted by Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism? “I think we have to acknowledge that human beings are not only the friendliest species in the animal kingdom, they’re also clearly the cruellest.” Bregman is not, he emphasises, an optimist but a “possibilist”. All too often, he fears, pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “What I’m trying to do is to redefine realism, I’m trying to say that actually the cynic is naive… If you look at empirical evidence then you find that assuming the best in other people gets you the best results.”
He cites the pioneering Norwegian prison system, where inmate facilities include tennis courts, a sauna and even recording studios (music is issued by the Criminal Records label). “They have the lowest recidivism rate in the world [20 per cent, compared to 48 per cent in England and Wales], these are the most effective prisons.”
Bregman has spent his own lockdown in the Dutch town of Houten in Utrecht. “Nothing really happens here, you could die on the street and people wouldn’t notice… My life philosophy is that you need a boring private life if you want to have a more exciting public life.” (An echo of Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”)
In January 2019, Bregman attracted global attention when he used his first appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos to excoriate his wealthy audience: “Almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. It feels like I’m at a firefighter’s conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.” (Bregman was not invited to this year’s conference.)
He speaks animatedly of how the Overton window – the spectrum of policies deemed acceptable by voters and the political class – has shifted left in the wake of the pandemic. “In the Netherlands we had our own prime minister [Mark Rutte] – a classic neoliberal – who in parliament said I believe in a big state and, deep down, the Netherlands is a socialist country. What is happening here?” He notes that 70 per cent of Europeans now favour UBI (according to a recent poll). “It’s a wonderful time to be a social democrat.”
But much the same was said after the 2008 financial crisis, why should this time prove different? “Progressives are better prepared than last time. I think after 2008 you could say the alternatives were not really there but since then we’ve had Occupy, we’ve had the rise of Thomas Piketty as a rock star economist.”
He must, however, feel less hopeful of a world of open borders? “You’re right and here I am outside of the mainstream.” He warns of the consequences of long-term immigration controls: “Contact is the best medicine against hate, racism and prejudice. It’s something that we should be very wary of, the more segregation we have, the more of a problem that’s going to be.” But he maintains: “It’s a bad time to be a xenophobe and a populist because the usual rhetoric from the Trumps of the world doesn’t seem to work.”
In Humankind, Bregman quotes playwright Anton Chekhov: “Man will become better when you show what he is like.” The notion that we already have the capacity to radically improve the world is both an exhilarating and a daunting one. What if pessimism is vindicated? Bregman measures his words with care: “Optimism is an alibi for complacency while hope impels you to act; it’s about possibilities.”
This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show