Not Everyone’s an A$$Hole: Rutger Bregman on Humankind

Life gives us plenty of reasons for cynicism but best-selling author Rutger Bregman (Utopia for Realists) summons a wealth of evidence that humankind can do better. Bregman’s the guy who took down Tucker Carlson and whose suggestion they pay taxes made the tax dodgers uncomfortable at Davos.

Could a new understanding of our species—based on psychology, evolutionary biology, and political economic history—help us see ourselves in a new light and guide us toward a kinder future? Laura has her doubts — which makes for a great discussion. And we hear about The Correspondent, a Dutch news platform owned and operated by its writers and readers. 

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– There’s an old idea in Western culture that deep down we’re all just fundamentally selfish, nasty, or even monsters. And I think it’s wrong. Scientists from many different disciplines they’ve been moving from a quite cynical view of human nature to a more hopeful view. Survival of the fittest often means survival of the friendliest. And I think that is actually our secret superpower as a species. And it is what enables us to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the animal kingdom can do.

– Hi, I’m Laura Flanders. So which is it? Are we people basically good and kind, or cruel and selfish as so much of Western literature would have us believe? It’s on the answer to that question that a lot of what we cover on this program depends. Can we as people in society learn to respect and share with one another public goods and services and so forth? Or are the only motivators we respect profit or punishment, hence our policing system? In the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve all seen examples of people behaving like angels. We’ve been led to believe that’s amazing because it happens so rarely. We’ve also seen others behave selfishly and cling to their ideological beliefs even at the price of putting other people’s lives and their own at risk. We’re interested in getting to the bottom of this question with an author of a bestselling book, “Utopia for Realists” who works for a cooperative media outlet called The Correspondent in Europe. We’ll hear more about that. And who’s just written a book called “Humankind: A Hopeful History”. He’s author and historian, philosopher, Rutger Bregman. And he’s my guest this week on the Laura Flanders Show, the place where the people who say it can’t be done take a back seat to the people who are doing it. Welcome. Rutger, welcome to the show. So glad to have you.

– Thanks for having me, great to be with you.

– I’m not gonna give equal time to both sides ’cause heaven knows we hear one side a lot, but give us the conventional wisdom that you set out to investigate. The conventional wisdom about humans being selfish, greedy and just out for private profit.

– There’s an old idea in Western culture that scientists call veneer theory. And the idea is that our civilization is only a thin veneer, only a thin layer. And that below that real human nature resides. That deep down we’re all just fundamentally selfish, nasty or even monsters. And this idea, veneer theory, it comes back again and again in Western culture. You see it among the Asian Greeks, in Orthodox Christianity. The church father’s talking about original sin and this idea that we’re all sinners. You find it with the enlightenment philosophers, it’s embedded at the heart of our modern capitalist system. The idea that people are just selfish and that we basically just need to accept it. And I think it’s wrong. I think there’s a real sign of devolution going on in science. So many scientists from different disciplines shown that actually most people have evolved, not to be angels, but to be pretty decent after all.

– So Darwin is wrong? It’s not survival of the fittest, survival of the most, if you will, kind of brutish?

– Well, I think that in some of his writings, Darwin actually already said that survival of the fittest often means survival of the friendliest. So for the biggest part of our history as a species, biologists now think that actually it was not the nastiest among us, not the smartest among us, but actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. And if you think about it, the reason is pretty simple. Imagine you live in the ice age and you wanna survive. Well, how are you gonna survive? Not if you’re lonely, not if you don’t have any friends, right? So imagine someone like Donald Trump in prehistory. Well, whatever you think about him.

– Just maybe.

– We’re pretty sure that he wouldn’t have survived for long in history. People wouldn’t have liked him. They would have said, “You’re just a tiny bit too arrogant.” And wouldn’t have wanted to cooperate with him. So what you see in those kinds of societies, nomadic hunter-gatherers societies is that humbleness is incredibly important. Humbleness is a political imperative basically if you wanna survive. And if you live in that kind of environment for a millennia, then it starts to impact the evolution of a species as well. And this is really what you see. Is that literally over the course of our evolutionary history, we became friendlier. We became nicer. And I think that is actually our secret superpower as a species. And it is what enables us to cooperate on a scale that no other species in the animal kingdom can do.

– I’m with you so far, or at least I’m with you up to a point. Because the anthropology that I’ve read says everything that you’ve just said is true until the point that somebody puts a stake in the ground and says, “This land mine, not yours, and I’m gonna defend it with this very pointy stick I have here.” It’s just for my family, not for your family, and don’t you dare put your foot across it. The point at which people become agriculturalists, start living on land that they claim, I’ve read anyway, that’s kind of where it all goes south.

– I think you’re absolutely right. I would just say that it’s important to zoom up. If we look at the whole history of our species, and we’re looking at around 300,000 years, and for the biggest part of that history we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Scientists generally agree that around 95% of the time that we’ve ever existed, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers. It’s actually quite recently that we settled down and we invented things like agriculture. And we settled down and lived in villages and cities, et cetera. And we’ve always been told in school that this was a great thing. That civilization has saved us from a war of all against all. From a terrible existence that was nasty, brutish in short. Well, actually the most recent science that we have suggests pretty much the opposite, but actually life, for the biggest part of our history was not all that bad. And that we lived in egalitarian societies, proto-feminist societies, that we didn’t have all these terrible diseases, infection diseases like COVID-19 and malaria, and the plague et cetera. I’m not saying life was perfect, but actually for the biggest part of the history of civilization, actually civilization was the problem.

– You say in your book that we give even civilization a pretty negative rep, that in fact we’re less poor, less brutish, our lives are way longer than they used to be in pre-industrial times. So, which is it? Is it the kind of post-nomadic period that has been our downfall, or has it also been the period in which we’ve figured out how to feed more people on less land and fend off easily contagious diseases?

– Both of these things. So the standard shape of history that they told us in school is something like like this, a general improvement, the march of progress. Life used to be terrible, but then we invented things like agriculture, the wheel. We started living in villages and dentistry, very important. And that’s sort of the standard. My view of history is quite different. So life used to be pretty good. Then it was this terrible disaster of civilization that lasted for around 10,000 years. So the biggest part of the history of civilization was pretty terrible. And then only in, well, I would say the last 200 or maybe even just the last 50 years, we’ve seen incredible progress. Now we are richer, we are wealthier, we are healthier than we’ve ever been. The question is though, how sustainable was it really? Because you might say or our historians of the future might say, “Well civilization was just a big gamble.” And people were dancing on top of a volcano. And for a while, they thought they had done a great thing and that they have been really smart, but then species started dying in a massive rate. The climate changed and civilization turned out to be this terrible mistake. Don’t know yet.

– Well, so let’s talk about the period that we’ve just lived in. The year of COVID. It’s been a kind of peak year, a watershed year. John Kay and Paul Collier, they’ve just authored a book, those economists, “Greed is Dead”. They call it the year of peak greed. That we kind of went as far as we can go in individualism, selfishness, shredding the safety net, neo-liberalism, if you will. But in fact, the least successful businesses, the ones that have most often failed in this period are the greed is good businesses like Bear Stearns that went belly up in 2008, the one that had on the trading floor, the only thing we produce is profit. What do you think? Are we at a watershed? Have we peaked in the bad stuff? Can we focus on the good stuff now?

– Well, as you know, historians have a hard time understanding the past. And then when they talk about the future you should be very, very skeptical. That said though–

– Fair enough.

– That said though, I mean, it has been fascinating to see the shift in the world of ideas. Ideas that used to be dismissed as unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible, have been moving into the mainstream. I thought a very telling moment this year, actually something that historians of the future will probably talk about, was when The Financial Times, the newspaper of the rich elites, the very powerful politicians and business men and women often read The Financial Times. And even this newspaper said in April in an editorial, that we need to, quote, reverse the policy direction of the last 40 years, and think about things like higher taxes on the rich, the universal basic income to completely eradicate poverty, and a more ambitious and activist role for the state in combating great threats like climate change and corona pandemics, et cetera. So there is a real shift going on here. I really see that as well and it gives me, well, it gives me a lot of hope because I think it’s exactly what we need right now.

– The self-interested part though, hasn’t disappeared. If I remember, the Davos World Economic Forum that shortly followed the financial crash, it was clear that a lot of super rich folks were saying, “We have to do something because otherwise they will be coming for us with their pitchforks. If we want to preserve this system, we need to scatter a few crumbs off the table of our largest.” So why do you think or do you think now those folks have actually shifted or they just wanna keep the danger at the door?

– You have to remember that change almost always starts at the margins of society, not in the center. So it starts with people who are first dismisses and reasonable and ridiculous, et cetera. There are those historians who more have a, I don’t know, sort of materialist background or a more Marxist background. They like to focus on power and money. And I do think that’s important as well, but my perspective or my focus is often more on ideas. So what I’m interested in is how is it possible that quite often there are groups of people who don’t have a lot of money and who don’t have a lot of power, for example, the suffragettes at the beginning of the 20th century, women who wanted the right to vote. Not the most powerful group in society, but with an incredibly powerful idea. And these kind of groups sometimes do prevail in the end. And that’s the process that really interests me. How is it possible that things that are first unrealistic can actually become milestones of civilization in the future?

– Well, let’s talk about that. I mean, you’re a nice white guy talking to us from the Netherlands. In the history of black America, you see an enslaved people managed to, as you just say, against all the odds, win their freedom through years of organizing, building alliances, fighting resistance, intellectually, creatively, every possible way. Ultimately brutal war, liberation kind of, against all the odds, even after a very awful foiled reconstruction period, troops sent down to actually help were beaten back by white racist segregationists. Eventually the segregationists win. You see those towns made unbelievably by people who had been denied the right to even learn how to read and write. Thriving towns like Tulsa, that just happened to be in black hands, destroyed by white mobs in the 1920s. So there you have your story like great for 50 years and then yuck, it’s not so simple. Are you underestimating the power of racism and the sense of tribalism really in people? We may be nice to our own, but we’re sure as hell gonna stop the others from getting a piece of what we think of as our pie.

– You know, there’s so much to say about this. The first thing I would say is that indeed our capacity for friendliness is intimately connected to this groupishness. That we often prefer those who are more like us, who talk like us, who think like us, et cetera, et cetera. This is a very strong part of human nature and psychology. And it comes back again and again in our history. I do think it’s not inevitable. There are ways to overcome this. So one of the most powerful and actually one of the oldest theories in modern psychology is what we call contact theory. It’s a very simple idea that we have a lot of empirical evidence for that the best way to combat prejudice and hatred and racism is to put people into contact, to strive for diversity. And that’s easier said than done, obviously. I can easily say, “Well let’s design our schools for example, for diversity.” But then we see this segregation and rich kids going to rich schools, et cetera, et cetera. So the solution is sometimes easy to know but then very difficult to do. I am hopeful though. Yes, I mean, it’s absolutely not for me as a, you’re absolutely right, as a white European to, I don’t know, give advice on anti-racist movement in the US. I am absolutely not in a position. I can say though, that it just gives me so much hope to see what’s been going on in the US and also how the Black Lives Matter movement has been contagious. We’ve seen it here in the Netherlands as well. Huge anti-racism demonstrations. Not only viruses are contagious, activism is contagious as well. I mean, these were the biggest protest movements in the history of the United States. Just 10 years ago when I was in my early 20s, I was writing op-ed pieces about why people of my generation don’t go out into the street anymore. That was and you could write something like that. That feels very silly right now if I read back those pieces because that has totally changed. So yeah, I mean, I recognize everything you said there. If you zoom out, though, there is genuine progress.

– But let’s come to you. How do you come to this work? And talk a bit about the work that you do on a daily basis beyond writing these hit books and good for you for doing that.

– I’ve been really lucky in my career. When I was a 22, 23, I was basically thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And at first I had to dream of going on and becoming a professor in history or something like that. But as you know, academia these days is a difficult environment to put at mouth leads. It’s hyper-specialized. So you have to focus on a very tiny part of the puzzle. And I’m not saying that’s unimportant, but I was interested in bigger questions. So then I moved into journalism, but journalism is so much about the new cycle these days. And I very quickly became fed up with the news because it’s mostly about the exceptions, about things that just go wrong, basically. And it gives you this very negative impression of the world and a very dark view of human nature as well. So then I was really lucky that at an early point in my career, I was 24, 25, something like that. A new journalism platform was started here in the Netherlands called The Correspondent. And the philosophy from the beginning has been to basically ditch the news. So the slogan is unbreaking news. And just focus on the structural trends that really govern our lives. And it’s a position in between traditional journalism and academia, and I’m very happy there.

– Well, you’re singing our song. The other interesting thing about The Correspondent is the way that it’s funded. Can you talk about that?

– Well, obviously one of the main problems with journalism as we have it now is that it’s so often dependent on advertisers, right? And we said from day one is that we, I mean, you have to be dependent on someone. I mean, true independence never exists. I mean, humans are fundamentally dependent creatures, that’s our secret superpower actually. But we wanted to be dependent on our readers, and we wanted to be accountable to our readers. So we take no money at all from advertisers and we’re entirely member-funded. In the Netherlands we now have 70,000 members and our English language edition has around 30,000 members now, I think. Also pay what you can. So if you’re rich, you can pay a lot. And if you’re poor, you don’t have to pay anything at all but you can still become a member. And I think again and again, it just starts with a different view of what people are basically like. If you assume that people are cynical news consumers who don’t really care anything, and they just wanna click on sensationalist stuff, then that’s what your journalism is gonna be.

– Here we are really burdened by the sort of cliche. It’s the conventional wisdom, if you will, that what bleeds leads. And we’ve had a lot of effect of that in the last four years of Trump. In that, no matter how much you didn’t want to follow the news headlines of what Donald Trump just tweeted, you kinda found yourself doing it. And so did every media outlet and they did it because their ratings raised. We’ve seen some change about that now, but what do you make of that aspect of human nature that does love to look at a car wreck?

– Yeah. It’s what psychologists call the negativity bias. It’s really deep within us. The fact is, and we have to deal with this, I mean, the fact is that evil is stronger than good. It simply is. Evil is more powerful than the good.

– Wait!

– How can the good still win?

– Wait, you’re saying–

– Well–

– “Humankind” right here.

– Yeah, I’m sorry, but this is really the way. But don’t, wait, just the wait, I haven’t finished yet. How can the good still win? Well with an overwhelming majority. You can see this very clearly in the sociology of protest movements. So we know that actually peaceful protest movements are more effective than violent protest movements. Why is that the case? Well, because on average, according to sociologist Erica Chenoweth, who’s built a huge database that goes back ’til the year 1900. And she’s shown that these protest movements are more effective, actually twice as effective, because they draw in on average 11 times more people than violent movements. So not only, I don’t know, young guys with too much testosterone, but people from all ages and genders and backgrounds, et cetera. That’s exactly why Black Lives Matter is so important. I mean, people can zoom in on specific incidents, but it’s an incredibly successful and huge movement, I think. And one of the main reasons it’s because it’s a fundamentally peaceful movement.

– But doesn’t it help when you’re peaceful movement has, well in the South African case, an armed wing. You threw off apartheid ’cause you have a peaceful movement that moves minds, hearts, and minds, but you also have an African National Congress and an ANC military way.

– Hmm. Well obviously, I mean the history and sociology, all these kinds of dynamics is incredibly complicated. So I think it’s hard to say there are general laws of history here. I would say though, that, I mean if we look at the biography of Nelson Mandela, I mean, he’s an example of someone who changed his mind here. He used to think that he could win with violence. Then he was in prison for more than 20 years and changed his mind and built one of the most effective movements in world history. Now, I mean, I’m not saying we can all be, obviously we should try to be, but I’m not saying we can all be like Mandela or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, and like the giants of history, but we can try and make life a little bit more difficult for ourselves, right? I think that is a question at least that I’m trying to ask myself. Because if you’re only looking for what’s comfortable and what feels good, then maybe we won’t get where we need to be.

– Let’s talk about how you see some of this playing out in the economic sphere. Your book “Utopia for Realists” advance the idea of the universal basic income among other things. How is that going? And what are you excited about that you see that could perhaps be coming into its own in this moment? Which is you just described is a kind of watershed one where ideas that used to be rejected are now being accepted more and more.

– Yeah. So I wrote this book originally in Dutch in 2014. So that’s now six years ago. It was translated a couple of years later. And it’s been just astonishing and fascinating to see that this idea that actually was pretty much on the margins of the debate, it wasn’t really taken seriously, and especially not taken seriously by economists. They thought it was a ridiculous idea, but it’s really been discussed at the highest political level right now. We’ve seen someone like Andrew Yang in the US who’s built this incredibly effective movement around it. And actually basically introduced the whole idea to a lot of people. Look, it’s still has a very long way to go but if you just see what’s happened in just a couple of years, I think that’s very exciting. And I also would that that is the basic message of studying history. That nothing about the way we organize our economy and society is inevitable. It can all change. Actually one of the stories that I tell in my book “Utopia for Realists” is about this one time that most people will have forgotten about, when Richard Nixon of all people, almost implemented a modest basic income in the United States. So sometimes people tell me, “Well, basic income, that sounds like a very crazy European idea.” And then I’m like, “Well actually the US was a country who almost implemented it.” And why didn’t it happen? Well, because the Democrats said, they love the idea but they wanted a higher basic income. And so they said no, and thought that they would have another chance to pass the whole thing.

– Well, they may eventually someday. We have had many debates about it on this program. Rutger, anything else in your research you wanna share before you leave us? Any other examples from the incredible body of science that you studied over the last few years behind this book?

– Oh, I can go on for hours. The reason I wanted to write this book, it’s that’s been such a shift in science. So many scientists from many different disciplines, anthropologists, archeologists, sociologists have been moving from a quite cynical view of human nature to a more hopeful view. So if you look at psychology, for example, you see new studies now about how people respond or behave in times of emergency. Say someone’s drowning, or someone’s being attacked in the street. We used to believe for a very long time that well, in the modern big city, you’re actually alone that people don’t help each other. And this was called the bystander effect. Now we have real evidence, not from lab experiments, all these experiments that don’t really replicate, but actually real evidence from real life because we’ve got cameras hanging everywhere in modern cities. So you can just study the footage basically. It turns out actually that in 90% of all cases, people help each other. I think that’s a reason for hope which is not the same as optimism. I mean, optimism is complacency, where you become a little bit lazy. Now it’s reason for hope. And hope impels you to act. And that’s exactly what we should do.

– Rutger Bregman, thank you so much for joining us. The book is “Humankind”. You can find more information at our website and the paperback will be out in the US very soon. You can also find out about The Correspondent. We’ll put a link at our site too. Rutger, thank you so much. It’s just great talking to you.

– Thanks, really enjoyed this.


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