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Ultimate utopia

How Rutger Bregman imagines a perfect world

Universal basic income, climate change, freedom of movement – are these the answers to utopia?

Sophie Mackenzie
Sydney Opera House

Each week, we'll be deconstructing the people and the movements that made them as part of Antidote, the Opera House's newest festival of ideas, art & action.
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Never before have humans been so well equipped to gain knowledge. With information overload comes an understanding of just how complex our society is. And when there is no just answer, we often utter, ‘well, that’s just the way things are…’

But what if they weren’t? What if universal basic income was the norm? If our environmental impact was minimal? What if the imaginary lines that make borders were erased and the lottery of birth didn’t pose a death penalty as one’s prize? What if the working week was reduced to 15 hours? Multiple global studies have shown a shorter working week contributes to lower stressa reduced environmental impact, less workplace mistakes and accidents. It also helps even out gender and wealth equality. These visionary ideas do not lack support, but they do often lack a pragmatic manifesto – and when they do, it can seem unrealistic.

“They’re all crazy dreams – but for how much longer?" says Rutger Bregman in his 2017 book Utopia For Realists. "The greatest milestones of civilization always have the whiff of utopia about them at first." With success storiesmeaty interviews and lively anecdotes, the young, media-savvy Dutch historian pushes these utopian ideas beyond the ideal and imaginary forms of liberalism.

Throughout this book, the questions Bregman raises are not for the faint-hearted. “What’s the point of freedom of association when we no longer feel any sense of affiliation?" he says. "What purpose does freedom of religion serve when we no longer believe in anything?” A controversial figure who likens his jargon to Oscar Wilde, Bregman offers us an ultimatum: “on the one hand, the world is still getting richer, safer and healthier. On the other hand, it’s high time that we, the inhabitants of the Land of Plenty, staked out a new utopia.” To Bregman, hyper-production and consumption are no longer sustainable, and the unrealistic economic system we live in must be overturned.

Bregman offers nothing less than a new approach to economics. His blueprint is both realistic and achievable – taking into account humans as quixotic creatures who are foolish, fearful and selfish. If you’re unhappy with the modern creed of injustice, Rutger Bregman offers an alternative reality: “what we need are alternative horizons that spark the imagination. And I do mean horizons in the plural; conflicting utopias are the lifeblood of democracy, after all.”

Join Rutger Bregman on Sunday 3 September, at the Sydney Opera House for Antidote.

“It's high time that we staked out a new utopia.”

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