Dutch historian Rutger Bregman shot to international prominence during the week. His open comments about the world’s billionaires – and the need to tax the super-rich properly – sparked mass reactions of delight across social media. Someone talking sense, finally?!
It’s not Bregman’s only notable contribution to the world. His upbeat debut polemic hit the shelves in 2014 when Bregman was only 26. And it features echoes of George Orwell’s machinations from the worryingly prescient Down and Out in Paris and London, along with concepts for genuine social equality.
The Davos Speech
First, a bit about the incident during the last week of January 2019.
Bregman hit the news due to his comments in the above clip at the Davos World Economic Forum, where the elite, movers, and shakers occasionally meet to discuss global issues.
And, invariably, do nothing about them.
Bregman caught the world’s eye as he did something unusual – he was open and honest in his assessment of how to deal with a pandemic of inequality.
We should also note he was backed up by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director at Oxfam, eager to explain the reality of worker inequality.
‘It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.’ — This historian wasn’t afraid to confront the billionaires at Davos about their greed pic.twitter.com/TiXSJZd89M
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) January 29, 2019
Such a statement is analogous with modern life. In England, one hour of work each week is classified as work. We could gone on, but the staggering embarrasment for the Tory government is beyond redemption.
How do you repair this? It’s a situation demanding immediate jail time for the Conservatives for their undending human rights breaches. And no one says this.
We can have a UN envoy tour the country in November 2018 to document and investigate the extent of the the breaches… and this isn’t an issue. The Tories deny it. The right wing press denies it.
Because the reality is low wages trap hundreds of millions in an inescapable situation. But the distribution of wealth from high earners to the masses is, of course, not popular amongst high earners.
It’s an ever-contentious issue. Pro-capitalists and right-wingers say no one has the right to your hard-earned money. Even if you’re a business magnate handing yourself a wage delusional in its outright greed, whilst you dangle unlivable wages to the employees who are making you so wealthy.
And so we endure mass poverty whilst the likes of Denise Coates of Bet365 can hand herself a £48 million pay rise to £265 million p/a.
You can view this in two ways, we believe (getting reductionistic on you):
- That money is earned through hard work alone and fully deserved – an almighty success story.
- It’s greed – the exploitation of the luxury and privilege of her situation.
For us, we don’t wish to deny Coates and her ilk their success or wealth. Well done on those achievements.
The problems begin when those at the top obsessively hoard wealth for themselves, deluding themselves into believing they deserve it over everyone else.
And so we have salaries that leave hardworking employees in poverty.
Plus a situation where the 1% lives in splendour, but everyone else doesn’t. And that’s thought of as perfectly normal.
In outlandish 2019, is there any way back from this distorted state of affairs?
Utopia for Realists
As the title suggests, Bregman is aiming for a realistic thesis on how to achieve societal harmony.
Some of his examples that it’s possible stem from the past. For instance, there was a Canadian city in the 1970s that banished poverty. And 1950s America the super-rich were taxed properly.
Bregman’s comments in a piece from The Guardian in March 2017 discuss the matter further:
"These days, politicians from the left to the right assume that most wealth is created at the top. By the visionaries, by the job creators, and by the people who have 'made it'. By the go-getters oozing talent and entrepreneurialism that are helping to advance the whole world."
"It is the waste collectors, the nurses, and the cleaners whose shoulders are supporting the apex of the pyramid. They are the true mechanism of social solidarity. Meanwhile, a growing share of those we hail as 'successful' and 'innovative' are earning their wealth at the expense of others. The people getting the biggest handouts are not down around the bottom, but at the very top. Yet their perilous dependence on others goes unseen. Almost no one talks about it. Even for politicians on the left, it’s a non-issue."
We feel this is so blatantly obvious that it’s inexplicable no one discusses it openly in mainstream politics. And it’s an overall state of affairs in Utopia for Realists, which perhaps makes it too idealistic in its outlook?
From the annals of history, it’s obvious there’s always going to be someone with the singular drive to become insanely rich. Even if that means destroying the planet and leaving those around them suffering; such obsessive money-making is readily apparent in our world of big business and 24/7 work.
So, here’s an objective (if obvious) standpoint – the work won’t convince centrists or right-wingers to shift their political ideologies.
Nor will it make Donald trump – handed $60+ million by his father to establish his empire – embrace reality.
But, regardless, it was a delight to read something written by a thoughtful and magnanimous individual steeped in the rarity of idealistic common sense.
A man not obsessed with wealth as the only drive in life, instead eager to push for the collective improvement for everyone.
The issue of poverty, and social inequality, has fascinated us since 2001. We read Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Then we went through The Road to Wigan Pier.
And it really is bizarre the rich are happy to treat the poor with such contempt. As if in rising above the misery of billions they can gloat in how special they are compared to the dribbling masses.
The North West of England is particularly famous for its hotbed of working-class poverty. And as Orwell wrote:
“The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else, and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit. Change places, and handy dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? Everyone who has mixed on equal terms with the poor knows this quite well. But the trouble is that intelligent, cultivated people, the very people who might be expected to have liberal opinions, never do mix with the poor. For what do the majority of educated people know about poverty?”
His views on the ruling classes (as a democratic socialist) are particularly resonant now.
We’re in an age of staggering inequality. But it’s still far too easy for the super-rich to dismiss those in poverty as either:
- Lacking in business ability.
As Orwell again points out:
"It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.”
The idea that, for example, the 14 million people living in poverty in the UK is due to a plague of laziness is an astonishingly arrogant and stupid stance to hold.
As is the belief a bit of hard work and personal responsibility are the solutions.
Outright denial of the situation is even more troublesome.
It doesn’t take much digging to find nine years of governmental failures, big business greed, and an anachronistic economic set up contribute far more than a tiny sect of freeloaders who don’t want to scrub dishes to make a living.
And the fix? Well, Bregman makes it clear. But will anything happen to support his vision? Of course not. But, for once, it was nice to see a bit of truth make it out amongst the incessant bad news cycle of modern life.