Luke Robert Mason: You’re listening to the Futures Podcast with me, Luke Robert Mason.
On this episode I speak to historian and author, Rutger Bregman.
A realistic view of human nature recognises that we are a species that have evolved to be friendly, that this is our true superpower, that we can cooperate on a skill that no other species can, and that we need to reconnect with this superpower if we want to do anything about the great challenges that lie ahead of us.
Rutger Bregman, excerpt from interview
Rutger shared his insights into why we have such a pessimistic view of human nature, what it means to be evolutionarily hard-wired for kindness, and how radical ideas and stories can shape the future.
This episode is an edited version of a recent live stream event. You can view the full, unedited video of this conversation at Futures Podcast dot net.
Throughout history, psychologists and philosophers have made the assumption that human beings are governed by self interest. But where did this belief originate, and what if it isn’t true? New evidence suggests that humanity’s success might actually be based on our evolutionary bias towards kindness, cooperation and trust. So perhaps it’s time for a radical new perspective on human nature. In his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman argues how this simple idea that we’ve evolved to be social and altruistic species holds the potential to radically change how society functions. So, Rutger, I want to turn this over to you. What your new book is essentially arguing is that most people, deep down, are pretty decent. I just wonder why is this such a radical idea?
Rutger Bregman: You know, it sounds quite innocent, doesn’t it? Like, oh, this guy’s written this happy clappy book about the power of kindness, isn’t that nice? But if you really think it through—the assumption that most people are fundamentally decent—then you realise that it actually has quite revolutionary implications because nowadays, so many of our institutions are designed around the idea that most people are selfish. Our schools, our workplaces, our democracies, our prisons—you name it. If you turn this around, I think it has quite some radical implications.
Mason: Do you think humanity has a self esteem crisis? There’s a reason why we ended up in this position, didn’t we? I just wonder how and why did we actually come to underestimate our capacity for doing good and being good?
Bregman: I like that—self esteem crisis. Well it’s been going on for quite a long time. It goes back all the way to the Ancient Greeks: the idea that our civilisation is very thin. It’s only a thin veneer and especially in times of crisis, we quickly reveal who we really are. Savages, animals, beasts—deep down we’re all selfish. You see it with the Ancient Greeks. A really good example here is Thucydides, the Ancient Greek historian—one of the first historians that we know of—who already wrote about the plague in Athens like 500BC or something around that. He also wrote about a civil war near Corcyra. He has these phrasings where he talks about how human nature showed its true colours when the violent crisis became really serious.
The same is true for the Christian church-fathers. So you read Saint Augustine for example, and you discover this idea of original sin: that we’re all born sinners. Then you start reading the enlightenment philosophers: Thomas Hobbs, David Hume, Adam Smith—you name it, all these brilliant philosophers—and you expect some kind of break with Orthodox Christianity, but actually their view of human nature is again, quite similar. They emphasise that we have to assume that most people are selfish.
Then fast forward another two centuries and you look at the modern capitalist system. What’s the central dogma of our economy and our society right now? I think again it’s this idea that people are, deep down, just selfish. The veneer theory is very, very deeply embedded in our culture and it comes back again and again in our novels, in our plays, in our films—you name it—in our series. It’s like the water we swim in. We’ve become really adjusted to it.
Mason: You say in the book it’s not just the films, the novels, the history books, the scientific research that we read—but also it’s embedded into our education system. This idea that we’re selfish is an assumption that’s made from when we first try to work out how to navigate or interface with this world.
Bregman: You know, I think that what you assume in other people is what you get out of them. When we talk about human nature, you’re talking about two things at the same time. On one hand, you’re talking about what we really are; what we really are like. You’re talking about our evolutionary history, and in that case we’ve got to talk about new evidence from biology and evolutionary anthropologists who suggest that human beings have actually evolved to be friendly. They literally talk about survival of the friendliest which means that for a millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids, and who had the biggest chance of passing their genes onto the next generation. But on the other hand when you’re talking about human nature, you’re also sort of talking about a self fulfilling prophecy. If we buy into a certain view then we start designing our society around that idea and we’ll create the kind of people that our theory presupposes.
A simple example here is: Let’s assume you have a company. You believe that most of your employees are really selfish. Then you’ll rely on bonuses and a strict hierarchy and a strict management culture. You won’t believe in intrinsic motivation or a more egalitarian working culture. It has real consequences, and probably people will start behaving in a more selfish way as well. If you turn this around and you say, “Well actually, I believe that my employees have their own intrinsic motivation. They want to contribute. I don’t need this hierarchical culture.” then you can move to a very different kind of organisation.
I’m talking about two things at the same time. It’s what we really know from science, but also about what we can actually do if we update our view to a more realistic view of who we are.
Mason: Before we look at some of the nuances of where we went wrong, I want to look more closely at some of the biological basis for some of your arguments. In the book, you take great care in showing how we might be evolutionarily hardwired for kindness, for trust and for cooperation. You just said there that we all know the idea of survival of the fittest, but you argue this idea of survival of the friendliest. Could you explain just a little further what you mean by that?
Bregman: The big question of our history is, I think, why us? Why have we conquered the globe? What is so special about us? Why are we building spaceships and pyramids and cathedrals, etc.? Why do we do that? Why not the Neanderthals, or the chimpanzees, or the bonobos? For a long time people said, “Yeah, we must be really smart. That’s probably the explanation. We’ve got these really big brains and that’s probably what makes us special.” or other people say, “We’re really mean.”, or, “We’re very strong and very violent.” or something like that. Maybe we’ve killed off all the Neanderthals.
But then you actually look at the evidence we’ve got there, and it’s very weak. We’re not very smart, actually. You do intelligence tests and you let a human toddler of around two years old compete with a pig, and usually the pig wins. If you do a boxing match with a chimpanzee, well, I don’t recommend it. It’s going to smash you. We’re not very smart. We’re not very strong. So what is our true superpower? I think it’s our ability to connect with one another and to actually establish trust, so that we can build really large social networks and learn from each other. I think this is really what distinguishes us from the other primates and the Neanderthals: our ability, basically, to work together, to be friendly. That is our true superpower, and you really see it in our own bodies as well.
Mason: I mean in some scientific evidence, it actually suggests that that’s the reason Homo sapiens survived over Homo neanderthalensis. Even though they had the bigger brains, Homo sapiens did have that ability to cooperate. You go one step further in the book though, and you say that friendliness might be the reason why we have intelligence. Intelligence might be a byproduct of that friendliness.
Bregman: Exactly, exactly. Often when we talk about the history of innovation or technology, we focus on specific individuals. We focus on geniuses like Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton once said that if he had seen further than others, it was because he’d stood on the shoulders of giants. I’m not going to say that Newton wasn’t a smart man—he obviously was—but it’s not really how it works. Human innovation works by standing on the shoulders of dwarves. That’s really what we do.
There’s one example that I think really explains this very well. It’s from the anthropologist Joseph Henreich. He asks us to imagine a planet with two tribes. There are two tribes, or two primate species, I should say. On the one hand you have the copycats, and on the other hand you have the geniuses. The geniuses are really, really smart. They’ve got really big brains and they come up with inventions on their own. They learn how to fish—they just find that out. But the problem is, they’re not very social. They don’t really have a lot of friends, who when they come up with something brilliant they don’t really share it. The copycats—they’re like us. They’re not very smart, they’re quite stupid, in fact. It hardly ever happens that they come up with something interesting, but when they come up with something interesting—when they have an Isaac Newton among them—then boom, quickly everyone learns it because they have so many friends. They’ve got these really large social networks. This is what made us intelligent. Not that we had the bigger brains. Actually, Neanderthals had bigger brains than us, and actually our brain size has shrunk in our evolutionary history, which is really bizarre, right? As we became smarter, in a way—collectively smarter—as we got more inventions, learned how to fish, learned how to travel over the sea—actually our brain size shrinks. That’s because intelligence is not about individuals. It’s about all of us, together.
Mason: It’s not just our brain that shrunk, it’s our entire body. You describe in the book how humans got both smaller but also cuter. You do that through coining this term homo-puppy. Rutger, what is homo-puppy?
Bregman: Okay, so this is the new theory that biologists call ‘self-domestication’. We all know what domestication is, right? I think. We’ve got sheep, we’ve got cows, we’ve got pigs. Over a very long period of time—centuries, maybe even millennia—we selected the more friendly, tame pigs so that they were domesticated.
Another example of domestication is: you start with a wolf, and you end up with a chihuahua. Now, there’s a whole list of traits that scientists call ‘domestication syndrome.’ All these domesticated species have things in common. Things like thinner bones, smaller brains, floppy ears is what you often see…white spots in the fur. Most importantly, domesticated species just look cuter. They look more childish. The scientific term is ‘paedomorphic.’
Now, we also know what genes are associated with domestication. The fascinating thing is that if you look at us; at our DNA; at our bodies, then it’s like, whoa, we’re domesticated. We really tick a lot of the boxes. So then the question is: who domesticated us? Who did it? The answer is: we did it ourselves. So we lived in an environment for thousands of years where survival of the fittest meant survival of the friendliest. Actually, the friendliest of us had the most kids. They had a bigger chance of surviving. Why? Because a nomadic hunter-gatherer in the Ice Age, it didn’t really make much sense to collect possessions, right? That’s not really how you survive. You survive by collecting friends, because you can rely on friends during really hard times—when there’s a drought, or when there’s a storm or something like that. This just kept going on for centuries, and centuries, and so we domesticated ourselves. You really see this in skeletons that have been excavated from 40, 30, 20, 10 thousand years ago. You really see this process of us becoming cuter; becoming more puppy-ish. Yes indeed, I think the right scientific term here should be: we are homo-puppy.
Mason: Well, part of becoming homo-puppy meant some key biological changes. Those biological changes were really set up to allow for friendship to emerge. More importantly, they were allowing us to hardwire ourselves so we could reveal our inner thoughts. Two of those that you cover in the book are blushing, and the whites in our eyes. Why are those two things uniquely human, and why do they make us homo-puppy?
Bregman: This is, for me, really an astonishing thing to discover. It was actually already Charles Darwin who wrote about this. Human beings are one of the only species in the whole animal kingdom—maybe some parrots do it as well, there’s some evidence for that—but apart from those parrots, we’re the only animal in the whole animal kingdom to blush. This is so interesting, if you really think about this. Why do we do that? How could it ever be an evolutionary advantage to give away your feelings, involuntarily, to somebody else? I think the answer here is that blushing helps us to establish trust. It’s just easier to trust someone who blushes. Shame plays such an incredibly important role in holding together human societies.
Another example here—you really see this as well in our faces—humans have the most expressive faces in the animal kingdom, and it is indeed our eyes. I can see that you’re not looking at me right now, you’re looking at the camera, because that looks better on YouTube. Ah! Now I can see you’re looking at me. This is really interesting, about human beings. We can actually follow each other’s gazes. If you look at all of the other primates—and there are 200 other primate species in total—all of them have dark around their irises, which means it’s not very easy to see what they’re looking at. A bit like poker players wearing shades. With human beings, we reveal our gazes, and this again helps to establish trust. There are some scientists who think that this happened during this process of domestication.
Mason: Part of this process of domestication isn’t all positive, is it? Some of those mechanisms that made us the kindest species…it’s been revealed that they’ve also made us the cruelest species. How do we contend with that?
Bregman: Well that’s obviously the biggest question that hovers over my whole book. How can human beings have ever evolved to be friendly? If that’s true then how do you explain the Holocaust? How do you explain what’s going on in America right now—you know, those killer cops. How do you explain all of the violence of the past centuries and millennia? Again, the irony here is that in a book about human kindness, you have to go on for hundreds of pages about all of these darker chapters in history, obviously.
I think we can find the beginnings of an answer here if we look again at the self-domestication theory. There’s one researcher, Brain Hare—he’s an evolutionary anthropologist in the United States. He says that the mechanism that made us the friendliest species also made us the cruelest species. Friendliness can morph into group-ish behaviour; tribe-ish behaviour—where you sort of get this in-group:out-group dynamic.
My own theory is that this wasn’t a problem when we were still nomadic hunter-gatherers. Back then we had quite flexible networks and people often switched groups. But when we settled down and we started this whole process called civilisation, we became sedentary. We became farmers and city dwellers. That’s when everything went wrong. That sort of triggered something in us—I think, this group-ish behaviour—it really went berserk. Indeed, the archaeological evidence suggests that warfare is not something we’ve always been doing, but that it actually had a beginning. For 95 percent of our history when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, we didn’t really engage in wars at all. When we settled down, boom. Explosion of warfare.
Mason: I mean, part of that is because of what you describe in the book as a ‘mismatch’—that human beings are not mentally prepared for these artefacts of modern times such as civilisation.
Bregman: Yes, yes. So mismatch is a concept from evolutionary anthropology which is all about recognising that for the vast majority of our history, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. So, our bodies have sort of evolved to adjust to that lifestyle. Simple examples of a mismatch: say for example, the fact we find it hard to say “no” to sugar. When we were hunter-gatherers, it would make sense when there was a tree that was full of fruits to eat it all, because that was good protection for the future, you know? Now, in a modern supermarket, it’s not very adaptive. Evolution didn’t have time to catch up with this, because we’ve only lived in this period that we call civilisation for ten thousand years—so that’s a very short period of time, obviously.
My argument is that, indeed, some of the really dark things that have been happening in the last ten thousand years—the ethnic cleansing, the genocides, the warfare, hierarchy, patriarchy—you can also see them as mismatches. To just talk about inequality, we know from ethnographic field reports from anthropologists that lived with nomadic hunter gatherers, wherever they lived—whether it’s in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, or in Alaska, a very different kind of environment—we know that they’re almost always quite egalitarian. Humbleness is really a prerequisite if you want to survive. As I said, it’s all about collecting friends. People don’t like arrogant and narcissistic people. Imagine Donald Trump in pre-history…probably wouldn’t have survived for very long. But then we ended up in a very different kind of world, a more hierarchical world where there was more inequality. Suddenly, this whole process of survival of the friendliest changed in a process that you could describe as survival of the shameless. I think that’s a pretty good description of the current state of politics, as well.
Mason: We’re going to get a little bit more into that later, but to help us understand where things went wrong—in the book you pit two thinkers against each other. On one hand, you’ve got Hobbes, who claims that civil society saved us from our baser instincts. Then on the other hand, you’ve got Rousseau, who claims that deep down, we’re all good, and selfishness emerged with civilisation. So, Rutger, who do you think was right?
Bregman: Well, Hobbes is often described as the realist, right? As the father of realism. He argued that in the state of nature, we were these violent creatures, and that our lives back then were nasty, brutish and short. Rousseau—I mean they never met each other but they’re always pitted against each other at the boxing ring—he was a French philosopher. He made the complete opposite argument. He said “No, actually, in the state of nature, life was pretty good. But civilisation was the real disaster. We should never have gone that route.” There is this wonderful description, this wonderful paragraph, very well written—Rousseau was a great writer as well—in his discourse on inequality, where he says “The moment that the first man”…it was probably a man…“that the first man said, “This piece of land here, that’s mine”, that’s when we should have said “No, no no! Don’t listen to him!” That’s where everything goes wrong.
Rousseau has always been described by many commentators as the romantic. As the revolutionary sentimentalist, as not a very realistic guy. But then for this book, I started going over all of the latest evidence we have from anthropology and archaeology. At some point I thought: you know what, I’ve got to call my book ‘Rousseau Was Right’—because on many points, he actually was. Especially about this transition from hunter-gathering to farming. I mean, Rousseau had it all right, actually.
Mason: When you look at society today, it does look like Rousseau had a point. I wanted to talk a little bit more about the impact of civilisation. It feels like the minute the human species began settling in one space and amassing private property, this is where our problems began. What sort of impact did civilisation have on human beings? How did it change our relationship with strangers? How did it change our relationship with nature and lead to viruses and death and all of these things you feature in the book?
Bregman: Yeah, it’s one big shit-show, that’s basically what it is. Let’s start with our health. We know that the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle was quite healthy, you know? You had a varied diet, a bit of fruit, a bit of vegetables, a bit of meat—so that was good. You also did quite a bit of exercise because you moved around all the time. Then, if you look at the organisation of the societies, not bad. Quite egalitarian, you could almost call them proto-feminist. The work week was not very long, 20 hours, maybe 30 hours max. Then it was also quite peaceful. As I said, there’s almost no evidence for warfare among nomadic hunter-gatherers. That doesn’t mean they were not violent. I mean, they were humans, right? So sometimes they were jealous or aggressive, and they had sociopaths and psychopaths, so that’s always been with us.
But then you look at the transition. You look at the farmers and the people who started to live in villages and cities. Their lives were so much worse. Their health deteriorated, their diet was much less varied—like grain in the morning, grain in the afternoon, grain in the evening, always grain. Then you had to work really hard for that. No pain, no grain. Often, you paid at another high price as well in terms of infection diseases. If you think about all these great and terrible infection diseases—polio, malaria, the plague, COVID-19—these are all civilised diseases, because we started to live too close to our animals and to our domesticated animals. So yeah, again, people started dying all the time from epidemics.
It got even worse because also the era of hierarchy and patriarchy started. When people settled down they started amassing property and then they invented the idea of inheritance so kids would get the property from their parents and we know this builds up and builds up over the generations. At some point, a kind of status difference became also hereditary. Then these rulers started raising armies and started fighting with each other. You really see this whole process of warfare also starting. The archaeological evidence is quite convincing there.
Just as I said, it’s one shit-show, basically.
Mason: Well it feels like civilisation isn’t the only thing to blame here because it’s really civilisation plus power. It’s how civilisations eventually are governed, because somewhere along the line we realised that these new cities and these new states needed leaders. The issue was the sorts of folk who became leaders. How is it really that power is the thing that corrupted civilisation, not civilisation itself? I want to play devil’s advocate and allow for us to be a little bit supportive of civilisation here—it’s done a lot of good things.
Bregman: I know that some people may think at this point: these guys are using highly advanced technology to talk to each other even though they’re hundreds of kilometers away and they’re talking about how we should be hunter-gatherers again. That’s not what I’m arguing, I’m just saying that if you look at the last 10 thousand years of our history, that for the most part civilisation was a disaster. It’s only very recent—basically after the Second World War that things started improving for most people. We are now richer and we are healthier. We are wealthier than ever but maybe we’re also dancing on top of a volcano. We don’t know how sustainable it is. Can we still live like this two centuries from now? I don’t know, and what is two centuries on the whole history of our species?
The question about power. If we look at leadership among hunter-gatherers, it was all about humbleness. Obviously they had leaders, but leadership was temporary and you had to prove that you were really the right man or woman for the job. This is what anthropologists call ‘achievement based inequality’, which makes sense. If you’re really better at something—like a better storyteller or a better hunter—then it makes sense that people listen to you. Then, as we made the transition, we came up with status based inequality, or hierarchy based inequality—a very different kind of thing.
You also started getting different kinds of leaders. The whole process of the corruption of power also started playing a very important role. This is the other crucial dynamic that I talk about in my book. On the one hand, most people are pretty decent, but on the other hand, power corrupts. Power is just an incredibly dangerous drug that disconnects you from the social network, quite literally. If you put powerful people in brain scanners, you’ll discover that the regions that are involved with empathy don’t really work anymore. Blushing—they don’t do that anymore. Imagine Boris Johnson blushing. Imagine Bolsonaro, Donald Trump blushing. I mean, it doesn’t happen. Exactly the qualities that made us so successful as a species—our ability to connect, to work together, to blush, to see each other in the eye, etcetera etcetera. If they’re really under the influence of this drug that we call power for too long, they’ll lose them. That is, I think, the tragedy that we see happening so often. In the past, and still today.
Mason: It feels like there’s a feedback loop. An individual rises to become a leader and then power corrupts and they become more and more ingrained in that personality type. Why do you think it is that ego manics, opportunists, narcissists, sociopaths…how did they—the shameless, let’s just call them the shameless—how did they rise to become power leaders? Why did we allow that to happen?
Bregman: Well as I said, shamelessness was a very dangerous thing to be. If you were shameless, you wouldn’t survive for long. Nowadays, it seems to be an advantage, because you can do things that other people just can’t, because they would be so ashamed. We see it on the television all the time. We see leaders doing things that are like…God. Like Dominic Cummings. Why isn’t he gone yet? That’s a kind of shamelessness. Most of us would be in the corner of our room like, “Okay sorry”, but he’s still there. We’ve created an environment, a kind of democracy—we call it a democracy—and also mediocracy, where the shameless people can do things that other people just can’t. I think that’s a real indictment of our current political system. It’s a suggestion that we should try and move to a real, genuine democracy that will be much more egalitarian and will be much better at keeping those who are in power in check.
Mason: On reading the book and you mentioning blushing and how the leaders rise to shamelessness, I couldn’t help but think, I wonder if that’s why Donald Trump uses so much fake tan to hide his ability to blush? I think it’s interesting—what you also say in the book is how we used to deal with the shameless members of our tribe. Those who develop the superiority complexes—they were cast out of the tribe. Do you think that we should do the same with billionaires?
Bregman: Well, you know what my position is. I think we should tax the hell out of them. I think billionaires are…how would you call it? A policy failure. Billionaires shouldn’t exist. I think the fact itself that billionaires are there proves that capitalism is failing. A healthy kind of capitalism would spread the wealth around and make sure everyone has a certain amount of venture capital so that they could start a new job, move to a different company and make their own choices in their lives. If a billionaire exists, that suggests that someone is rent-seeking. Someone is just collecting rent. No person can be so brilliant or so smart or whatever—and remember, we’re all dwarfs anyway. Individually, human beings are not that special. Almost all of the wealth that we get, we get because of the work of someone else. 60 percent of our income is dependent on the country in which we live, which is pure luck. Then there’s like 10% gender, 10% race. Then you’ve got 20% socioeconomic, like your wealth etc. I don’t know. Real skills? The real effort you put in yourself? Maybe that’s like five percent. Even then you could argue, philosophically: does the free will really exist? Isn’t that also just a matter of getting the right genes and being lucky there? So I think that in a healthy, sane society, you have much smaller differences in wealth and the burden of proof is always on the rich. The rich have to prove that we really need this kind of inequality, that everyone will benefit from that. If not, then it can’t be justified.
Mason: Let’s have—in the theme of your book—let’s have a little bit of empathy for those in power, for a second. What they’re really caught in is the power paradox. For them, power is this corrupting force and perhaps it’s even similar to a psychological disorder—this Machiavellianism that they seem to possess. Do you think we should be more empathetic to people who end up in these trapped situations? We should consider them very lost and lonely in this position of power. Is there a way, perhaps, we as a collective can help?
Bregman: I like the suggestion. I always think we should make a distinction between condoning and understanding. This is even true for people who do the most horrible things. I’ve got a chapter in my book about terrorism which you would never want to condone in any way. But I do want to understand why someone blows him or herself up. Why do suicide bombers do what they do? If you start researching this, you’ll discover that many of them do it not because they’re ideologically motivated, but actually the opposite. They don’t really know a lot about Islamist ideology, for example. There were people going to Syria with a book like Koran for Dummies in their backpack. So why did they still do it? Because they were motivated by comradeship and friendship and they wanted to be part of something bigger. They wanted to have some kind of destiny in their lives. That’s not condoning, that’s understanding. It’s understanding the kind of systems that create this behaviour.
I think we should do exactly the same thing with those in power. It’s sometimes important, though, to use the power of shame. Sometimes, there needs to be casualties. I know that in this era of Twitter and social media, the group can go and overcorrect a little bit. We’ve seen the incident in Central Park a couple of weeks ago with this woman and this terrible racist behaviour in which she faked that she was attacked by an African-American man, and called the police. She was destroyed in those days following. She quickly lost her job. The man himself said that he sort of felt that it was maybe a bit too much, right? That her whole life had been destroyed over this one—even though still horrible—incident. But then I think, you know. Maybe that’s collateral damage. Maybe that just happens. Shame can be a really nasty thing. Think about the shame of poverty. Then on the other hand, imagine a society without shame. That would be hell. Shame is a very important force that sort of glues our society. If we need to shame those at the top, so be it.
Mason: The problem then becomes: how do you shame the shameless? I think Donald Trump’s armour is the fact that he feels no shame. That’s the reason he’s able to maintain his power. There’s so many ways in which those in governance are able to maintain their power—whether it’s through war or even through religion. You focus in the book on the idea of God and how God emerged to keep tabs on the masses. In other words, God became this all seeing eye. If we weren’t able to look at each other in the whites of our eyes any more to work out whether we trusted each other then we needed some overarching force to be looking at what we’re doing. It feels like in a secular society, God is now the NSA or social media shaming. How do we overcome these ways of power being maintained? Is it even possible?
Bregman: Let’s go back to how our forefathers and mothers did it. Let’s go back to the nomadic hunter-gatherers. They mostly relied on the power of shame. If that didn’t work anymore, they would expel the shameless people from the group. If even that wouldn’t work—if someone would be really a sociopath or psychopath—then that person would be executed by the group. I’m not saying that we should go back to execution, but yes, at some point you need to find some way to expel these people. Normally in a democracy, we’d do that with elections. If you look at the US, the question is: really, is that still a democracy? The majority votes for one candidate and we elect the other candidate, right? That is pretty depressing. I don’t have, obviously, all the solutions there. I just think it’s important to emphasise here that we’ve strayed quite far from the original setup, and keeping those in power, in check, is so important. You need to think really hard about how we redesign our democracies.
Mason: There’s an Easter egg within the book because you almost suggest there is a way to overcome this power, by doubling down on what those in power fear the most, which is hope. What do you mean by that?
Bregman: Well, if you think about this theory that’s been so influential in our culture—especially in Western culture—the idea that civilisation is only a thin veneer. That theory has always been in the interest of those in power, and you see it happening right now in America. Those at the top, from the police to Donald Trump, they want us to believe that we should be afraid of our fellow citizens. They can start rioting any time, and we need the police and the army to restore law and order. We need the leviathan, as Thomas Hobbes would have called it. The cynical worldview has always been used as a legitimation of power differences, of inequality and of hierarchy. If we can actually trust each other, if we do believe that most people are pretty decent, then we don’t need them anymore. We don’t need all these CEOs and managers and kings and monarchs and queens and generals—you name it. We can move to a very different kind of society.
As I said earlier, it may sound quite innocent—this idea about human decency and kindness—but if you really think it through, it means a revolution.
Mason: Well this is the broader theme in the book. This is the bigger message that, personally, I got from the book, which is the idea that ideas can become reality. You say in the book, “We are what we believe. We find what we go looking for, and what we predict is what comes to pass.” What is the power of ideas and stories in actually creating the sorts of Futures that we want to see?
Bregman: I think that we human beings often become the stories that we tell ourselves. For centuries, maybe even for millennia, we’ve told ourselves quite cynical stories. One example I give in the book is the story of Lord of the Flies—you know, one of the most famous novels of the 20th century. William Golding, the British author in 1954 published this book that is about kids that shipwreck on an island and quickly turn into savages. Another example of veneer theory. Look, here you have these kids who went to really good British boarding school and were very well behaved, but then you give them the freedom to do whatever they want on this island and they become very violent, very quickly. Millions of kids around the globe had to read this for school, especially in America and the UK.
For this book, I wondered, has it ever really happened? Can I find a different story about real kids who really did shipwreck on an island? After a lot of research, I actually found one example. In 1965 on the island group of Tonga, there were six kids who were students of an Anglican boarding school and they didn’t like school. They thought it was boring and they hated the school meals. They said, “You know what? We’re going to go on an adventure. We’ll borrow a boat and we’re just going to go exploring.” The first night, they ended up in a storm. They drifted for eight days and they shipwrecked on this island called ʻAta, which is a volcanic island, a rock island that sticks out of the ocean. Somehow, they managed to survive there for 15 months.
How did they do it? By behaving in exactly the opposite way of the kids in the fictional Lord of the Flies. The real Lord of the Flies kids, they worked together really well. There were two of them who would be on the lookout. Two would tend to the garden and two would be cooking. Sometimes they ended up in fights, but then what would they do? One would go to one side of the island, the other would go to the other side of the island. They would cool off a little bit and then come back and say, “Sorry.” They survived in this way for 15 months even though there were really hard times. At one time, one of the children broke a leg and they actually healed that with traditional medicine. Actually, there were storms. Sometimes they were really thirsty. Then, they were rescued at one point by an Australian captain called Peter Warner and I managed to track down this captain and two of the original kids who are now 70 years old. They told me the story of what really happened, and you know what? They’re still the best of friends today. They go out fishing every now and then. Even more exciting, now Hollywood is going to make a movie out of this, so finally we can get a more hopeful and optimistic story about what happens when kids shipwreck on an island.
Now, I know this is not a scientific experiment. I don’t know if any parent would ever say, “Well, take my kids and drop them on an island for the sake of science.”—but it is a fascinating story. If we still tell millions of kids the fictional Lord of the Flies, if they have to read that for school, that’s fine. I think in a way it’s a good novel. It didn’t win a Nobel prize for nothing. But then let’s also tell them what really happened when real kids get shipwrecked on a real island. I think that our kids deserve to know that as well.
Mason: In many ways, the thing I worry about with that story is whether Hollywood is going to sensationalise it and it’s going to become a mashup of the real story and Lord of the Flies. Really, when you’re looking at the nuances of how these ideas affect culture, you look at this thing called nocebo. We’re all aware of placebo, but nocebo is the negative version of that. That seems to function so much in society. Why is that?
Bregman: If we start with placebos, I think many people don’t realise just how big placebo effects can be. They’re really, really important in healthcare. For example, if you look at antidepressants, there’s some evidence that they work but the placebo effect—that’s what we have the real good evidence for. This is true for so many things in healthcare. People believe that something’s been done, someone’s helping them; this really works. Again, there’s probably an evolutionary reason for this, because…I don’t know, just the feeling of someone helping you, already, in a way, is healing. We also know that the more extreme placebos have a bigger effect. An injection, for example, is a more effective placebo than just a small pill. One of the most effective placebos is called sham-surgery. What you do, then, is you bring someone in an unconscious state and then when the person wakes up, you say, “It was a huge success, the whole operation.”—and you didn’t actually do anything. You just went to get a coffee. We’ve got some really good evidence that in a huge amount of cases, this works almost as well—or gets a similar result as the real thing, the real surgery.
This works one way, but it also works the other way. This is in what we call the nocebo. If people believe they’ll get side effects from a certain drug, for example—if the doctor says, “Oh, where are your side effects?”, they’re probably going to develop it, because you get what you expect. I think that our view of human nature works a little bit like either a placebo or a nocebo. If you believe that most people are pretty decent, you’re probably going to treat people in that way and that’s what you’re going to radiate. That’s sort of your whole attitude to life and that’s going to be contagious. Everything is contagious in human societies. But then if you choose the nocebo and have a more cynical view, that can spread as well.
Mason: When you’re talking it just reminds me of Robert Anderson Wilson’s idea of pronoia. Paranoia is when you believe everyone is against you. Pronoia is the idea that everybody’s secretly out to help you. You mention cynicism very briefly…
Bregman: I think that’s more realistic though—pronoia.
Mason: I believe so too, but you know. I have my suspicions rather than my beliefs. When it comes to this idea of cynicism though—which you mention briefly—cynicism is just so overpowering societies, especially today. In a weird sort of way, cynicism has become that theory of everything. We’re constantly caught in that trap of the cynic always being right. How do we overcome that? Surely you must have had cynical kickbacks to the sort of ideas that you’ve presented in this book? What are the challenges of standing up for human goodness when the opponent, really, is the cynic?
Bregman: We often equate realism with cynicism, and we tend to think that the cynical, pessimist professor in his armchair, talking about, “Oh, human nature”, and how, “It’s all so dark”, and “Everything will go to hell.” We often tend to look at that and think, oh that sounds really wise. That’s really smart. That’s like a real intellectual, over there. When you make prophecies of doom, like “This is going to be a disaster, that’s going to be a disaster.”—it’s always fine. If it doesn’t happen then you can say, “Oh it’s because I warned everyone of it.” if it does happen you can say, “Yeah, see. It did happen.” The people who are hopeful or optimistic are in a very different situation. They are right but could be wrong at any moment, and people always expect, “Yeah, maybe it’s true right now—but just wait. It’s just around the corner.” What I tried to do with this book is to redefine what it means to be a realist. I think that the cynics are really naive, and I believe that it is realistic to be hopeful. Not saying that people are angels or anything—I mean clearly we’re capable of the most horrible things, but a realistic view of human nature recognises that we are a species that have evolved to be friendly, that this is our true superpower, that we can cooperate on a scale that no other species can, and that we need to reconnect with this superpower if we want to do anything about the great challenges that lie ahead of us—whether it’s the current pandemic or climate change.
Mason: So in other words, what you’re saying is what you assume in other people is eventually what we will hopefully get out of them.
Bregman: Yes. That is simply what it is. In a way, it’s almost ridiculously simple. At one point someone said to me, “Rutger, this is the secret!” The hugely popular book promoted by Oprah Winfrey—if you just want something you can just ask the universe and it will happen. That’s obviously total bullshit and it’s a way to legitimise very big inequalities, but in this case, yes. You have to understand that ideas have performative effects. Ideas are never merely ideas. You can’t just describe a situation without changing the situation at the same time.
Mason: I guess capitalism is our best example of that. That is a fiction that has become a reality, so why not create other fictions that potentially could become a reality? As we’re waiting for questions to come in, Rutger, I want to talk about some of the case studies in the book. There’s almost hundreds and thousands of potential case studies that you could have included in the book of where we’ve seen people cooperating on a massive scale, but the thing that unites all the case studies that you use, and often unites some of those case studies that are out in the world is that they go unrecognised. Why is it that we often hide the examples of where catastrophes, for example, bring out the best in people? Why are we so often told a different story by the media from what the research is presenting?
Bregman: There’s a very strong negativity bias, not only in us—we tend to focus more on the negative than on the positive—but also in our information systems. If you look at the news, the news is obviously mostly about things that go wrong—crises, corruption, terrorism—you name it. There’s even a term for this in psychology. Psychologists talk about this mean world syndrome which you get if you’ve watched too much of the news and if you’ve consumed too much CNN and Fox News. what you’ve got to keep in mind here is that those at the top, they want you to watch CNN and Fox News all day, because that’ll make you scared and it’s much easier to rule people who are scared. Here, I think it’s important to plug out and to think really carefully about what information you’re putting in your heads. We think a lot of these days about the food we put in our bodies. We should devote just as much attention—or maybe even more—to the question: What are we actually putting in our heads? Is it making us cynical? Is it making us anxious? Or does it actually give us energy to do something and help create a better world?
Mason: We have our first question from YouTube, which is really focused on some of the potential solutions that you offer in the book. It’s from David Wood, who asks, “Your book gives examples of participatory democracy involving members of society and decisions and things like budgets etcetera. Do you see these examples as growing more influential, or losing their power?”
Bregman: Hmm. That’s a great, great question, and to be honest, I’m not entirely sure. This whole movement around participatory democracy started at the end of the 80s. Porto Alegre was really doing powerful breaking work here. It’s a city in Brazil, where at a point, 20, 25% or something like that of the city’s budget was basically a participatory budget, so average citizens could decide what it would be spent on. Since then, there’s an account from a couple of years ago that said 1500 cities around the globe now do it. But if anyone has more recent data on whether this is growing or declining etc, I’d be really curious to see that. My feeling is that the amount of attention and intellectual energy and the interest of policy makers in it, is increasing.
There’s one book that I really recommend here. It’s written by, I must say, a good friend of mine, David Van Reybrouk—he’s an intellectual, and the book’s called Against Elections. It really helps us to imagine a different kind of democracy. So often we say, “Oh, democracy—that’s just elections. Every four years, having the chance to vote for someone or to kick someone else out.” It’s a very limited idea of what a democracy can be like. What David does in that book, he goes back to the original philosophy of the Greeks who said that elections are actually very undemocratic because they can be ruled by those who have a lot of money and who can try and sway the elections. A real democracy randomly selects citizens from the population to be a politician every now and then. That sounds quite crazy, but here have been a lot of experiments with that and it works really well, in practice.
Mason: I mean in many ways, some of the solutions you offer in the book are a return to the idea of the commons. You say it’s one of the ways we can move from cynicism to engagement, from polarisation to trust. Exclusion to inclusion. Complacency to citizenship. Corruption to transparency. Self-interest to solidarity. Inequality to dignity. I mean, you’re really a proponent of the idea of a democracy through the commons.
Bregman: Yeah, and genuine democracy. So if you look at the original meaning of the word, you go back to the Greek demos kratos—it’s about the people ruling. It’s not about people sitting on the couch and watching Netflix or the news or the reality show that we call ‘politics’. No, it’s about actively participating. It’s about joining. It’s about making decisions for yourself. The problem here is that often the media hates this kind of democracy. They really hate it. There was this show in the 90s in Britain that was called The People’s Parliament. They randomly selected people from the population to discuss really controversial issues like drug policies or taxes, inequality—you name it—controversial. These people were left wing, right wing, rich, poor, young, old. They were just asked to have a discussion about that. Why did the media hate it? Why did Channel 4 pull the plug after the first season? Well, because the discussions were just really rational and they came up with these very reasonable compromises. It worked really well. It was very boring compared to the show that we normally call politics. This actually works.
Mason: We have another question from YouTube. This time it’s really asking about: How long will these changes actually take? How many generations do you think it’ll take to establish altruistic motives as the social norm? How do you think this would be achieved? Do you think it’s going to be something that we’ll have to do through parenting or education, for example?
Bregman: Well I think we just have to do it with the way we’ve been designed by evolution right now. I’m not in favour of eugenics—is that the English word? Artificially that the state takes a role in deciding who can have kids and who can’t. We do know that it can happen relatively quickly. There’s one really famous experiment that I talk about in the book, with silver foxes—a species that had never really been domesticated. Then, this experiment started in Russia with a Russian scientist called Dmitri Belyaev, who selected the friendliest among these wild silver foxes and just in a couple of generations, he already started to see this domestication syndrome that I talked about earlier. He selected for friendliness, and actually he got smarter foxes as well.
This is obviously not something that we can do right now, but what we can do is acknowledge our nature is obviously highly flexible, and we can try and design different kinds of institutions that will bring out the best in us. That will focus on the better angels of our nature. That’ll take some time. As a historian you never really look at what’s going to happen next year or two years from now. You think in decades. But then quite a lot can happen. I really sense a shift in the zeitgeist, if I look at the last, say, ten years. I think there’s a new generation coming. In the 90s, you were avant-garde, or you were cool when you were a cynic. That was really cool in the 90s. That’s really not the case anymore. Cynicism is out, hope is in. I really think we can see that right now. You can just look at the millions of people protesting right now in the United States or the massively successful climate change movement that was started by a 16 year old Swedish girl. There’s really something changing here.
Mason: Let’s talk a little bit about the climate crisis, because there’s another question from YouTube, which asks whether the climate crisis is really a symptom of our selfishness. Is it our selfishness that’s led to the climate crisis or is it more our ability to be short sighted towards the long term threats? Is it a failure of our trust in experts, I think, is the question that’s being asked here.
Bregman: There’s so many things going on at the same time, obviously. Let’s imagine that you were God. You were an old, powerful, all-knowing God. Another God would give you the task to come up with a problem that would be pretty much impossible for humanity to solve. The most difficult problem for humanity to solve. I think something like climate change would probably be it, right? Our behaviour right now has effects decades from now. It’s everything that everyone in the whole world can contribute to a tiny little bit. If we can solve this, I think we can solve pretty much everything, you know. I’m very anxious about this whole thing. If you just look at the latest state of the science, it’s pretty clear that we have to do something that has never been done before in peacetime. We need to totally restructure and revolutionise our economy. We need to half carbon emissions in 2030 and move to zero in 2050. If you just look at what a graph like that would look like, it’s pretty astonishing.
On the other hand, if you just go back five years and see how much progress we made in that very short period of time—very impressive. It has become a much more urgent subject to so many people. The technology is improving at a very rapid pace. Also politically, we see a lot of progress—not in the United States, I know that—but I think Europe is really going to lead the way here. The European Union has just launched a very ambitious climate plan—the New Deal. They always have to steal concepts from the Americans, they can’t come up with their own concepts. But anyway, it’s called a Green New Deal. Europe is such a large market—500 million consumers—that it can be quite powerful by introducing laws that just the whole of the rest of the world will have to abide by as well. Many factories don’t want to build a different car for Europe and for the United States and for Latin America. So yeah—if there’s a really strict environmental law in Europe, other regions of the world often have to follow.
There’s a new book about this, I can’t remember the author’s name, but it’s called The Brussels Effect. It really powerfully makes this argument that actually, we hear a lot of news about how weak Europe is. “It’s a failure, blah blah blah, it’s falling apart.” I really think that’s nonsense. I think that Europe has many failures—especially our currency—but if you think about climate change, it’s one of our big hopes, actually.
Mason: We have another question from YouTube, from Maria. This time it’s about the individual versus the collective. She says, “Individual optimism is a political act. Isn’t this delegitimising collective action? Whether the change really comes from us as individuals or us as the collective.”
Bregman: I think that individually, we should be way less optimistic, actually. I’m not at all into self help—I mean I couldn’t resist writing about a couple of rules for life at the end of the book, if you really adopt this view of human nature—but real change always comes from the collective. It always comes from the moment that we redesign our institutions. People are produced by their collective institutions. I often think that we have too much individual optimism and too much collective pessimism, and we should turn it around. Collectively we can be a bit more optimistic—or I’d say hopeful—while individually, cut yourself some slack. You can’t always achieve what you want, and that’s fine.
Mason: I think that’s quite important actually. You can’t always achieve what you want, but you’ll find sometimes that the outcome is what you need. We have another question from YouTube, this time about the current situation in the US. They ask, “Can you please elaborate a bit about the current situation in the US regarding police brutality, and how the system compares to European countries? How is this an example of how power corrupts, and how does the broken windows theory come into this?” I know you feature the broken windows theory in the book.
Bregman: Yeah, great question. I first want to emphasise that racism exists in the Netherlands and Europe as well, alright. We have very deeply embedded institutional racism, so it’s not that these things only happen in America. But I must also admit that from a Dutch perspective, if you do watch CNN, it is quite horrifying and shocking. It’s hard to imagine this scale of savagery from police. It’s interesting to go a bit into police tactics here, or different philosophies of policing. I think that police departments in the US can be described as really crap. On average, training as a police agent in the US takes 18, 19 weeks. If you think about it, that’s crazy. It’s an incredibly important and difficult job and then in 18, 19 weeks you can be an officer—it’s crazy. In most European countries it takes 2, 3 years—or even longer. Then how violent they are and that they all carry these weapons—again, from a European perspective looks crazy. In London for example, 90% of all of the cops don’t even wear guns because the idea is that, again, what you assume and what you radiate is what you get. If you start walking around the streets with heavy armour and guns, then you’re going to bring something out in people that you probably don’t want to bring out.
In my book I also talk about the Norwegian prison system that is really the complete, total opposite of how everything is organised in the US. The Norwegian inmates get the freedom to basically relax and socialise with the guards. They can make music, they’ve got their own music studio, own music label called Criminal Records. Turns out that these institutions are very effective. In Norway, people come in as a criminal and they come out as a citizen. They have a 40% higher chance of finding a job. In the US, it’s the opposite. You’ve got really expensive taxpayer funded institutions that make citizens into criminals. It’s bizarre, if you think about it. It’s so ridiculous. Kropotkin, the anarchist thinker called prisons ‘universities for crime’, and that’s basically what they are in the US—and it’s funded by the taxpayer. I think you can completely turn it around. In the case of prisons, you would have a much more rational system like in Norway with a very low recidivism rate, so a very low chance that someone will commit another crime once he or she comes out of prison. In the case of policing, you would move to something that we call community policing. When the police officer becomes something of a social worker, where it’s really important that you know the community, that you become friends with the grandmothers and the aunts and the uncles. That you really have your connections in the whole neighbourhood so they are your allies and they can help you with doing something about serious crime.
Now the US is, in many ways, very far removed from that. My feeling is that maybe, you just need to kill the beast first and then start over again. Maybe first defund the whole thing and then start over again. I don’t know. It’s going to be a very, very long journey.
Mason: What it feels like is that in the centre of that, is the idea of dehumanisation. You wrote a fantastic Facebook post recently on the launch of your new book in the US where you said, “If you don’t look at the people you’re policing as human, then you begin to treat them inhumanely.” Equally, don’t you think the protestors—and it’s difficult to say—but don’t you think the protestors also have to have empathy with the police? We’ve seen successful de-escalation when the police have had empathy and that’s created empathy in the protestors. We’ve seen police, for example, kneel, and we’ve seen successful de-escalation when that occurs. How do you think empathy is the way out rather than escalation—a form of de-escalation through acknowledging our human kindness?
Bregman: I totally agree and I think that’s actually what’s happening. The vast, vast, vast majority—can’t emphasise this enough—of protestors, are peaceful. Even with the protestors who are peaceful, I just saw this Tweet today of the son of Martin Luther King who said, “I will never condone violence. I will never justify it, but I can understand it. It is understandable.” Martin Luther King himself said that a riot is the language of the unheard. The real perpetrators here are obviously those at the top. It’s such a dark truth about us as a species, that we can become these monsters who put our knee on someone else’s neck and just do it for more than eight minutes. It just totally dehumanises someone, to do something like that. There’s a long and complex road to that, though. Some people were quoting the Stanford prison experiment as an example of: Oh this just happens. You put someone in a uniform and they become these killer cops. I don’t think that’s true, and in my book I have a chapter about the Stanford prison experiment where I try to show that actually, it was a hoax. It shouldn’t be used in textbooks anymore because these students were specifically instructed to be as sadistic as possible. Many of them said they didn’t want to do it, and then the researcher Philip Zimbardo said, “Come on, you’ve got to do it, because I need these results.” It was like fake science and we shouldn’t use it anymore.
But then still, we know that it can happen. People can become really sadistic, and often they destroy something within themselves as well. This is something we know from wars. Take the war in Vietnam: soldiers who went to Vietnam were much better brainwashed and conditioned that soldiers in the Second World War. Many of them came back and had actually succeeded in killing someone else. What did they get? PTSD. They were traumatised. We’re just not born to do this. Sex is something we intuitively like because it’s good for the species, and we survive as a species. Eating food is also something we intuitively like, and it makes sense. Now violence—we’re capable of the most horrific violence, but often we destroy something within ourselves as well. This suggests to me that although we’re capable of it, we’re not born to do it.
Mason: To some degree, should we be just more aware of ourselves, our own acts and our own behaviour? You say in the book that one way out of a lot of the situations we find ourselves in in society is through engaging in non complementary behaviour. In other words, to turn the other cheek. What would a society where we did that—a society based on trust—actually look like? Do you think we can ever get there, or is it a very hard road?
Bregman: Well, some places are already there. I talked about the Norwegian prisons—these are like non-complementary institutions where indeed, you have people who did terrible things. They murdered other people, they sometimes raped other people—these are not nice guys or anything. But then the Norwegians say that they don’t want to sink to their level. They’re punished, obviously. They lose their freedom, so they have to stay in the prison, but then in that prison what the Norwegians try and do is to make citizens out of them who become law abiding, tax paying, etc. That takes real courage to do something like that. You go against your immediate intuition. Your immediate intuition is that you want vengeance. You want this immediate justice. But sometimes, real justice looks very different. Really about trying to heal something there. I think this is a good example of how you could do that.
Mason: We have another question from YouTube, this time from Bruce Duncan, who’s asking about some of the antidotes to selfishness. In what way, Rutger, do you believe that listening plays a role as an antidote to selfishness? I guess in the book, you talk about some of the rules you have for how we can move towards a more kinder society. One of those is being more passionate—understanding the importance of passion over something like empathy. I guess, how would that operate? How can we achieve a more compassionate society?
Bregman: So there’s this golden rule that you find within so many of the world’s religions and philosophies, which is something like: Do not do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you. I don’t know the exact phrasing in English. I don’t know, I did Dutch—but everyone knows this. So many parents teach it to their children. Now it’s a really good rule, but we could improve it a little bit. There’s also something called the platinum rule, and that rule recognises that we often don’t know what the other person wants. Actually, the taste of that other person may be different. Maybe what you want is not the same thing as that other person wants. How do you find out? Ask questions. I think that is—as I say, I’m not really into self-help and I still have to learn a lot here myself—but what I’ve discovered in my own personal relationship is: just asking questions is the best way to deepen understanding. It’s very simple, but if you really think about it, how often do you ask questions? Do you really do that? I think that should be a subject in school: the art of asking questions.
Mason: I host a podcast so I have to spend my life asking questions.
Bregman: I’m in such a terrible situation, I only have to give answers all the time.
Mason: Thank goodness you’re giving the answers. We have another question from YouTube. It feels like the discussion we’ve had has really been a macro discussion. If we want to zoom down to specific examples, one of those is how this lies within business. The question asked by Gabriel is, “How do we break the power paradox in business systems? What is the potential and modus operandi to reach the people in power and in business effectively, and spark awareness of social connection?” and then he just exclaims, “UBI!”
Bregman: Haha, I like that. Certainly, UBI would be a good start to give everyone some venture capital, to move to a different job and start their own business. But what would a business look like if we really start with the assumption that most people are pretty decent? I’ve got a couple of case studies in my book, and my favourite case study is an organisation called Neighbourhood Care—Buurtzorg—Dutch. It started in 2006 with two self-directed teams and no management, and now it’s probably one of the biggest healthcare organisations in the Netherlands with 50,000 employees, totally decentralised, no management. Only self-directed teams of 12–13 nurses, and they decide for themselves what kind of additional education they need, how they’re going to schedule the weeks. The fascinating thing is that if you really do this properly, if you trust your employees, if you dare to rely on their intrinsic motivation and their wish to care for other people, you can build an organisation that, in this case, is not only better—it delivers higher quality care according to independent evaluators—but it’s also cheaper. It’s actually cheaper than the competitors, because you don’t need a lot of the management and bureaucracy anymore, and you can actually pay your employees a higher salary as well. It’s win, win, win. This has been really revolutionary in Dutch healthcare. At a time when the government tried to introduce market forces—more competition in healthcare—they totally went against that direction, and they won. They really showed that it can be done.
I don’t think this is a blueprint, so probably it looks a little bit different everywhere—in education, finance, whatever—but I do think it’s really inspiring. I do think the basic idea of decentralising and relying less on hierarchy, relying more on the intrinsic motivation of your employees—I think that can be done in other organisations as well and I think it can also be scaled up.
Mason: So ultimately, what you’re talking about is that we have the ability to reform things like civilisation, and reform things like capitalism. You’ve been accused of being an anarcho-primitivist…that’s a very difficult thing to say.
Bregman: Anarcho-primitivist, yes.
Mason: That’s right. You’ve been accused of that a couple of times.
Bregman: I don’t really mind, because I think that the basic worldview—or the view of human nature—of anarchists is correct. The anarchist philosophy is two simple dogmas: most people are decent; power corrupts. I think the only problem with anarchists is that they’re not very good at building institutions. Remember Occupy Wall Street—it was a very successful movement but then it found it hard to make real changes, because so many of these activists don’t want to take the additional step of actually going in government or actually trying to change an institution. What I think we should do is to take this philosophy and try to apply it, institutionally.
At one point, I had the idea of writing a book called ‘The Anarchist State’. Now that sounds ridiculous, I know, because anarchists want to abolish the state. What I mean is that we can maybe have a state that thinks a little bit like an anarchist. What would that look like? When it comes to social security, you would implement something like a universal basic income. Universal basic income: you need fiscal authority, you need taxes, quite some redistribution—so you need a big state when we’re talking about that, but you can have a much smaller state in terms of paternalism. I think people are starting to understand that now. Our parents had these boring debates about capitalism versus communism and they were traumatised by the Cold War. Now there’s a new generation that dares to think differently or goes between the lines. I think a universal basic income is a perfect example of that. It’s really a marriage of left wing and right wing thinking. Left wing in terms of redistribution and eradicating poverty, right wing in terms of freedom from interference from the government, and just making your own decisions.
Mason: Well to go down that anarchist route a little bit further, do you actually think we need a new enlightenment? But this time round it’s an enlightenment based not on reason, but on empathy? Do you think we’re kind of halfway there? because it feels like we’re pretty heavily focused on the acknowledgement of emotions and feelings right now. Are we half way down this new enlightenment of acknowledging these very human traits?
Bregman: Well I think we need both of these things. When you’re talking about those people close to you, you can sort of rely on your intuitions. It’s quite easy to be nice and to believe in the friendliness of those people who are close to you—your friends, your family, your coworkers, your neighbours—and the communication will be quite easy as well, because your body has been designed to trust other people. You can blush, you can look one another in the eye, you have this very expressive face. When it comes to those other people far away—the strangers, the immigrants, the people who are unlike you or are more abstract—then you need your rationality. Then you really need to use your rationality to remember that they’re actually just like you. Some people say, “Oh, Rutger thinks that people are just kind and we just need to reconnect with our inner emotions.” Well, if we’re talking about the strangers and the immigrants and the terrorists and the criminals, we have to actually go against our intuitions, because our intuitions are leading us astray.
Mason: Ultimately, you believe that we need to see everybody as fundamentally human and although that feels weird to say, and feels so obvious, it feels like something that in society we’ve, to a degree, forgotten. There’s another question from YouTube here, which is from Alex, which seems a little fatalistic but he’s asking, “How do we curb corruption in capitalism with a political system that’s based around elites and clientelism? Protesting can work, but with the current state opposition that we’re seeing, do you think in actual fact that protesting might be suppressed?” In other words, how is it possible to fix a corrupt system within a corrupt system? We’re going full inception right now.
Bregman: Yeah, well you need to do so many things at once, so yes you need to protest and yes you need to join organisations like a Labour union or whatever. Yes, you also need to vote—not only at the national elections but also the local elections—that may be even more important. You need to do all of those things at once, and we need to recognise that in any movement that tries to change the world, there are different roles to play. So often, people want to pick their favourite role and they say, “Oh, I like Greta Thunberg, she’s cool, but I don’t like the Extinction Rebellion anarchists.” or, “I like the peaceful protestors, but I don’t like the rioters.” or, “I like Occupy Wall Street, but I don’t like Thomas Piketty, the French economist—he’s too mainstream.” It’s so pointless. All of these people are necessary. There are different roles to play in every movement.
For example, in my case, I often experience that the people who hate me the most actually agree with me on most things. Freud, the psychoanalyst, called it the ‘narcissism of minor differences’. Maybe I’ve been a bit guilty of the same thing. I think it’s just important to recognise in the end that we need each other. Also when it comes to the world of writers and science, I couldn’t have written this book without relying on the brilliant work of so many specialists. But then I think we also need writers who are zooming out and sort of trying to connect the dots and show, hey, wait a minute—something bigger’s going on here. You need people who write in very obscure, academic jargon that’s hard to understand for most people, and then you need people to explain it to a larger audience and to make these difficult things a bit more simple, which is actually quite difficult to do. Don’t try to pick a role or say, “That role is better than the other one and we don’t need this role.”—just decide for yourself what you’re good at and try to contribute something.
Mason: Well I think this goes back to the idea—you summarised it so well there—that when it comes to effecting change, what we tend to do is pick the movement that fits our identity, rather than actually just support everybody who’s moving towards the change we want to see. In a weird sort of way—and the media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has said this a number of times—the Bernie bros would get along a lot with the Trump guys. They might be culturally very different, their identities may be very different—but fundamentally what they want, which is to drain the swamp, is exactly the same. How do we stop playing identity politics with ideology?
Bregman: Focus on results. One of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit, she’s written this book called Hope in the Dark. At one point she writes that there is a certain kind of activism that’s not true for all activists, but there are some activists who care more about expressing their own identity than about actually changing the world. It almost seems sometimes as if their activism has become a way of life, and actually failure, losing, has become something for them that they almost enjoy, because losing is the point. Losing proves that you were right all along, and the whole system is corrupt anyway, and capitalism is terrible. “We’re never going to reform!” etc., etc., and everyone is blah blah blah but at least you die knowing you were right. This is the kind of cynicism that we need to reject. It is poisonous and it’s not going to get us anywhere. I think it’s also a form of laziness. It’s just an excuse to not ask the really uncomfortable questions and try to do your best and make some change.
Mason: To conclude, ultimately, what it feels like is at the core of this book is a desire to redefine this idea of realism, and what is realistic. It’s one of your rules. In fact, you say that we need to find a way in which to redefine this idea of realism. How do we go about doing that? How do we make some of the ideas you’re espousing in this book actually possible on the ground?
Bregman: Well, talk about them. Not only viruses are contagious—ideas are contagious as well, and behaviour is contagious as well. It may sound a little bit cheeky but it’s important to remember that we are in the words of Jonathan Haidt—a really great psychologist—we are wired to inspire. Jonathan Haidt gives this example of where one of his students said that she saw someone doing something really nice—a friend of hers who helped an elderly woman—she got goosebumps, and felt incredibly inspired, and also wanted to do something nice for someone else. Isn’t that an amazing fact about the way our bodies are designed by evolution? That something happens that we see hundreds of meters, or far away from us—we see it and we are inspired, and we want to change our own behaviour. I think this is exactly what happened at the beginning of this crisis. So many people had the feeling: God, I want to do something. I want to help something. I’m stuck in this bullshit job right now. I’m writing reports no one’s ever going to read. I’m sending emails to people I don’t like. I want to become a nurse or something like that. What I hope is that this whole corona crisis can also mean generational change. If you’re young right now and 2020 was the first big thing that happened in your life on a societal level, then you can always remember and think, who did we really rely on when the shit hit the fan and there was the crisis? What was the list of the essential occupations or the essential professionals? Hedge Fund managers? Nah, not really. Bankers? Marketeers? No. It was the nurses, the garbage collectors, the teachers—you name it. That is my hope—is that we are not going through a moment where we can say goodbye to the era of selfishness and competition; the ‘greed is good’ era. That we can come out of the closet and just acknowledge that maybe, we want to be a do-gooder, and that we’re not ashamed of it any more.
Mason: On that hopeful note, Rutger, I want to thank you for joining us today.
Bregman: Thanks so much for having me. This was fun.
Mason: Thank you to Rutger for reminding us that most people, deep down, are pretty decent. You can find out more by purchasing his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History, available now.
Don’t forget, you can watch the full, unedited video of this conversation at Futures Podcast dot net, where you can also find out about all our upcoming livestream events.
If you like what you’ve heard, then you can subscribe for our latest episode. Or follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram: @FUTURESPodcast.
More episodes, transcripts and show notes can be found at futurespodcast.net.
Thank you for listening to the Futures Podcast.