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 1213 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. 

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Further Reference

Episode page, with intro­duc­to­ry and pro­duc­tion notes. Transcript orig­i­nal­ly by Beth Colquhoun, repub­lished with per­mis­sion (mod­i­fied).


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