Last week as California burned apocalyptic orange, and India and China postured menacingly in the Himalayas, while Covid-19 rampaged out of control right to my door in Goa, I was reading Rutger Bregman’s relentlessly upbeat Humankind: A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury). It felt distinctly like this new global bestseller was taking the piss.
Contrarian is Bregman’s default gear. The 32-year-old Dutch historian rose to prominence with the 2016 Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build The Ideal World that argued for an unconditional universal basic income for everyone everywhere, reduction of the work week to 15 hours (he cites Keynes in support), and worldwide open borders with free movement of citizens.
It so happens that universal basic income is trendy amongst the plutocratic robber-baron-turned-philanthropists of the Davos set, who made the strategic miscalculation of inviting Bregman to their 2019 World Economic Forum. He proceeded to set the stage afire, saying “1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet. I hear people talking the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance and of the rich not paying their fair share.”
Bregman said, “It feels as if I’m at a firefighter’s conference, and no one is allowed to speak about water. This is not rocket science. We can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes, we can invite Bono once more. But come on, we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it, taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit.”
The outburst impressed Tucker Carlson, the mendacious Fox News talking head, who invited Bregman on his show. The appearance – which never aired, but has garnered millions of views online – further burnished the young historian’s legend.
Carlson started by hailing Bregman’s truth-telling as “maybe the great moment in Davos history” but grew incensed when the Dutchman coolly responded, “I think the issue really is one of corruption, and of people being bribed, and of not talking about the real issues. What the Murdochs basically want you to do is to scapegoat immigrants instead of talking about tax avoidance.” The host was left spluttering obscenities.
Earlier this year, Bregman shot into global headlines again when The Guardian published an excerpt from Humankind. It was an irresistible narrative, about six teenaged boys from the island of Tonga who were shipwrecked in 1965, and co-operated impressively with each other to survive 15 months on a deserted island.
Bregman uses this story to rebut the conclusions reached by William Golding’s 1951 classic novel Lord of the Flies, which famously depicts British schoolboys turning murderous when isolated from civilization. He stakes his case up front: “For centuries western culture has been permeated by the idea that humans are selfish creatures…But in the last 20 years, something extraordinary has happened. Scientists from all over the world have switched to a more hopeful view of mankind. This development is still so young that researchers in different fields often don’t even know about each other.”
Humankind: A Hopeful History weaves together this material from an extraordinarily wide range of resources: the book has 55 pages of notes. It sweeps from pre-history (Bregman suggests that modern humans should be called Homo puppy, whose evolutionary advantage was friendliness) to the Columbian peace process that ended conflict in 2016, about which this tireless optimist says, “Like all the best things in life, the more you give, the more you have. That’s true of trust and friendship, and it’s true of peace.”
In its scope, accomplished synthesis, and non-stop polemics, Bregman’s book is in the vein of two other global bestsellers: Jared Diamond’s 1997 Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. But those two were published in what seems like another world that is irretrievably lost, while his emerged right alongside Covid-19. Can a message of hope, based on humanity’s allegedly inherent goodness, cohere in our collective pandemic predicament?
“Today, it’s relatively easy to see the selfishness,” admitted Bregman to Deutsche Welle. “Just switch on the TV and you see reports about panic purchases, or people hoarding or fighting over toilet paper. [But] for every panic buyer, there are a thousand nurses working as hard as they can. For every hoarder, there are a thousand civilians setting up WhatsApp groups and Facebook groups, and people in the neighborhood trying to help each other.”
All this is certainly true in India, where months of unalleviated human misery and humanitarian disaster has also generated considerable community spirit, and many incidences of individual heroism. In an unforgettable journalistic masterclass in the New York Times, Basharat Peer recounted one story that “came like a gentle rain from heaven on India’s hate-filled public sphere” when 22-year-old Muhammad Saiyub refused to abandon his dying friend 24-year-old Amrit Kumar, on their nightmarish cross-country journey during the exodus from our cities.
Bregman says even that degree of altruism isn’t unusual. He argues it is the way of life for all humans, with the crucial exception of the elites, writing that people in power “literally act like someone with brain damage. Not only are they more impulsive, self-centered, reckless, arrogant and rude on average, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in other’s perspectives. They’re also more shameless…Power appears to work like an anaesthetic that makes you insensate to other people.”
All that has spill-over effects, because “if you’re powerful you’re more likely to think most people are lazy and unreliable. That they need to be supervised and monitored, managed and regulated, censored and told what to do. And because power makes you feel superior to other people, you’ll believe all this monitoring should be entrusted to you.”
This is an apt description of sociopathy, and Bregman says our societies have been crafted – and now further bombarded by the media – into sociopathic states that subvert the better angels of human nature.
These particular lines left me rather rueful, and almost bruised by how stunningly accurate they are about India in 2020.
“In our modern democracy, shamelessness can be positively advantageous. Politicians who aren’t hindered by shame are free to do things others wouldn’t dare. Would you call yourself your country’s most brilliant thinker, or boast about your sexual prowess? Could you get caught in a lie and then tell another without missing a beat? Most people would be consumed by shame – but the shameless couldn’t care less. And their audacious behaviour pays dividends in our modern mediacracies, because the news spotlights the abnormal and absurd. In this type of world, it’s not the friendliest and most empathetic leaders who rise to the top, but their opposites. In this world, it’s survival of the shameless.”
As every serious student of history knows, the discipline is ultimately vested in the present, and it is in hard-hitting passages like these that Humankind: A Hopeful History reveals its true importance, as manifesto and blueprint for the future. Bregman argues against cynicism, returning again and again to “the new world that awaits if we revise our view of human nature”.
To that end, this die-hard Utopian ends his engaging, and rather thought-provoking new book with “ten rules to live by” which I have immediately shared with my teenaged sons and also below (they are explained in detail in his excellent Epilogue).
1) When in doubt, assume the best.
2) Think in win-win scenarios.
3) Ask more questions.
4) Temper your empathy, train your compassion.
5) Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from.
6) Love your own as others love their own.
7) Avoid the news.
8) Don’t punch Nazis.
9) Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good.
10) Be realistic.
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.