LUNCH WITH THE FT: Rutger Bregman on humankind, cheese and being occupied by a virus
The Dutch author and philosopher went viral after putting a flea in the World Economic Forum’s ear, and still has no plans to move to Mount Bullshit
“I’ve got everything here,” Rutger Bregman calls out. He holds up each item in turn. “Butter! Most important ingredient: peanut butter. Cheese — biological. Bread from Michel, the ‘real baker’ in the old village of Houten.” He sniffs it: “Smells good.”
The image screams Dutch sobriety. Bregman, just 32 but with thinning, unkempt coronavirus-era hair, sits in T-shirt and fleece in the modest house where he lives with his wife in Houten, a small town south of Utrecht. You wouldn’t peg him as a global public intellectual who spreads progressive ideas through bestselling books and viral videos. From Paris, I wave my baguette céréale and Dutch Gouda cheese.
We have agreed to a simple sandwich video lunch, partly because of the lockdown and partly in homage to the austere Dutch lunching tradition in which we both grew up, 13km apart. Bregman, a Protestant minister’s son from Zoetermeer, has stuck with it: “I always eat bread and almost always peanut butter and apple syrup, sometimes cheese. I hardly ever ate out as a child. When I did it more as a student, it felt strange to be served.”
Bregman is best known for upsetting the 0.1 percenters’ cordiality at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. In an onstage outburst of Dutch frankness that went viral on social media, he said, “I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency, but then almost no one raises the real issue: tax avoidance, right? ... It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.”
Dismissing “stupid philanthropy schemes”, he said, “Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.”
His grumble about attendees flying in on private jets to discuss climate change earned him an interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News. Bregman told Carlson he was “a millionaire funded by billionaires”. Carlson swore at him and terminated the interview, not realising Bregman was recording it. That clip went viral, too.
Bregman is more than just a situationist prankster in the spirit of 1968. His new book, Humankind, displays his gift for synthesising libraries full of academic research into spellbinding reads.
I whizzed through Humankind: A Hopeful History’s 480 pages, engrossed by his accounts of soldiers who didn’t shoot; the Dutch school without lessons; and the Norwegian jail-cum-holiday camp that reforms criminals. It all feeds into his thesis: most people (except the ones who become leaders) are altruistic, at least to those they see as members of their in-group (so they might be cruel to migrants, for instance).
It’s human nature. Sociologists of disasters have shown that crises tend to create explosions of co-operation and altruism. Now, though, we’re going from crisis to more like an occupation
The claim, at times, feels too grand, and the book overambitious, but Bregman says this central finding reflects a growing consensus in fields from biology to psychology to anthropology.
I remark that the global lockdowns have mostly backed up his point. The general compliance, kindness to neighbours and ovations from balconies recall his description of the calm decency in London during the Blitz, when British officials had expected mass disorder.
“Afterwards they thought, ‘This must be typical British culture,’” Bregman says. “No, it’s human nature. Sociologists of disasters have shown that crises tend to create explosions of co-operation and altruism. Now, though, we’re going from crisis to more like an occupation. It’s as if we’re occupied by the virus. That puts us in another era.”
Humankind ends by imagining a society that gives people more freedom to learn, work and govern themselves, instead of treating them as selfish, aggressive profit-maximisers who require surveillance by teachers, managers and rulers.
I compliment him on his pastor’s gift for speckling a sermon with well-chosen metaphors and stories. He replies, “Sometimes people say, ‘We’ve discovered that his father is a dominee, that explains everything.’ Some critics tell me, ‘You’re such a dominee.’ I say: that’s exactly what I’m trying to be.”
Still, underlying the sermon is academic rigour. Humankind prioritises meta-analyses — examinations of data from multiple studies of a topic — over cherry-picked single studies. “My aspiration was to write a book that you could still read in 10 years. That’s hard. Then you start doubting every sentence you write. You find a paper in Nature or Science that looks very promising and fits your theory. Then you think, ‘Replication crisis. Leave it out’.” Most published findings in social sciences are not replicated in subsequent studies.
Watching the video of our lunch later, I will realise that I placed my laptop too low and gave Bregman a horrifying hour-and-a-half-long view of my face from below. Nonetheless, the initial awkwardness of a virtual meal between strangers has given way to happy munching.
I ask where we would have gone in normal times. “I think a local restaurant here in Houten. I know a couple where you can eat vegetarian pretty well.” An ideas man in his bones, Bregman was converted to vegetarianism by Yuval Noah Harari’s depiction of the meat industry in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “But I’m still inconsistent because I’m eating cheese,” he laments. “A Dutchman can’t easily get away from cheese. I was dropped into a cauldron of cheese when I was young.”
Bregman grew up on cheese, church and video games. “That’s why my English is relatively good,” he laughs. “When I was 15, 16, I was gaming non-stop. I played a game — called Utopia, by the way — where you were with about 24 people in a kingdom, and you each had your own province. Those people were from around the world. At one point I’d become king and had to lead the thing. I remember in high school texting a man of about 40 or 50 in America, saying, ‘Attack now! We’ve got to get him!’ That really teaches you English.”
Bregman’s spoken Dutch is full of neo-Anglicisms like gedisrupt (“disrupted”) and gedebunked (“debunked”). Past Dutch thinkers could have lambasted Davos in English, but not with the colloquial fluency required for virality.
He claims to have been a lazy schoolboy. After he joined a Christian fraternity at Utrecht university, his new friends dragged him to lectures. Suddenly he fell for ideas. “I had such a hunger for knowledge. I still do, but not as strong as then. If I hadn’t read at least one or two books in a week, it could make me unhappy.” Reading thinkers such as Richard Dawkins converted him to atheism. That gave him a sense of urgency: without an afterlife, problems had to be solved in this world.
Late in his history degree he decided to become a professor. “I wrote complicated papers. In English! I sent some in to journals. They were even gepeer-reviewed. Nothing got through because it was really bad, but I think I cost them a lot of time. It was all written in the academic jargon I was trying to master. When I read one paper back later, I had no idea what I was talking about.”
So he went into journalism. Is there something wrong with academia if it’s losing people like him?
“It’s one of the tragedies of the modern university that it offers little space to generalists,” he says. “But the book I’ve written is built on the work of countless specialists. Sometimes one sentence is somebody’s four-year PhD. So I can’t pretend that specialisms aren’t important.”
The glory days of intellectual journalism, when one book review could pay a month’s rent, had gone. Luckily for Bregman, in 2013 a Dutch philosopher called Rob Wijnberg launched a revolutionary online publication called De Correspondent. Its premise was that “news” covers exceptional events — plane crashes, terrorist attacks — and therefore distorts our understanding of society. De Correspondent tries to show how the world works.
Bregman has never worked anywhere else. “De Correspondent is a rare place that sort of fills the gap between university and newspaper. I’m so lucky that — how old was I? 24, 25? — Rob said, ‘Here’s a basic income. Go and do what you want. Write an essay a month and that’s fine.’ Most journalists have to go through a whole merry-go-round and then at 50 they might get to be ‘editor-at-large’ and do fun things. But by then lots of time has passed, and many ideas have become anchored in your brain. Maybe not everything is as open any more.”
His 50-year-old lunch partner in Paris winces.
In 2016 I got an email from a 27-year-old Dutchman. He was essentially self-publishing a book in English, the translation funded by De Correspondent, called Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. Please could I read or even review it? Bregman laughs at the recollection: “I asked you, ‘Can you help? I don’t know anybody.’”
For a 10-minute speech you can get my mother’s annual salary in special education. Generally, the more you’re paid, the dumber your audience. The cleverest audiences are students and, of course, old people
Utopia for Realists eventually appeared in more than 30 languages. It helped mainstream the argument for universal basic income, and showed that well-written wonkery can reach a mass market. Bregman travelled the world, met the stars and was underwhelmed. “I’ve abandoned the idea that titles and big names mean much.”
He discovered how the powerful co-opt potential critics. “People are by nature friendly beings. In Davos you don’t meet evil crazies scheming behind the scenes to take over the world. You meet very friendly people, for whom a certain worldview has been made easy and pleasant. I find that uncomfortable.”
One arena in which thinkers are co-opted is the speaking circuit. “Powerful players pay obscene sums for talks. For a 10-minute speech you can get my mother’s annual salary in special education. Generally, the more you’re paid, the dumber your audience. The cleverest audiences are students and, of course, old people. If you speak in a care home, they’ve always read your book and they undress you with good questions. But a 25-minute keynote at some hip congress — nothing happens, man.”
Why not? “I think a certain intelligence requires a freedom and playfulness that you maybe don’t have if you’re CEO of some fat company. Maybe you’re just too busy with everyday work, which is often more one-dimensional.”
His own speaking fees go to De Correspondent, as will 30% of Humankind’s royalties. “It’s all invested in new journalism,” he says with satisfaction.
Wouldn’t he like being three times richer? “No. I’ve nothing to spend it on. Luckily, in the Netherlands you’re on a 52% tax tariff. And tax dodges are dealt with better nowadays.”
I remark that the Netherlands remains a tax paradise for multinationals. “But not for Dutch companies. Look, what does wealth change? You take taxis and order takeout more often. And you can buy a house. Those are already enormous privileges.”
What he wants is for his “realistic utopias” to have an impact. “If you believe in ideas, you have to go out and do it. An idea can be in a viral YouTube film.”
He believes his fellow progressives have been clearer about what they oppose — sexism and racism, for instance — than what they are for. He believes they failed to enthuse voters with a vision of a better society, and consequently wasted the crisis of 2008. His model as a public intellectual is his intellectual opponent, Milton Friedman — the economist who propagated “Homo economicus”, the individual as rational maximiser of his self-interest.
“The people who called themselves neo-liberals, Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek, in the 1950s were the radicals, the outcasts. They met in the Mont Pelerin Society, a think-tank in Switzerland, and said to each other, ‘We’re not being taken seriously now, we’re capitalist resistance fighters, but we’ll build a network, institutions, think-tanks, develop our ideas, and when the crisis comes, we’ll be waiting backstage.’
“That has been my frame. There are lots of roles in a movement. Just having someone who writes books is useless. You then need people who can start organisations, from think-tanks to schools. Those have to be anchored, which takes a generation. You need a networker, an agitator, someone who makes little viral films, and a super-thorough thinker writing academic publications for a small audience. I think I have a small role to play. What I do well, I think, is separating the essential from the side issue, and trying to synthesise it for a large audience. Zooming out.”
The risk in his work, he adds, is “Mount Bullshit”. “Mount Bullshit?” I ask.
He holds up his arms to mimic a graph. “On the X-axis is the amount of time that’s passed, and on the Y-axis how much you think you know about something. When you go to university, the curve rises fast: ‘I really know something about this!’ And at a certain point you think, ‘Oh, I know nothing about it,’ and you enter the valley of despair. Then, slowly the curve rises again, but it will never be as high as it was here, on Mount Bullshit. Who are the people who rule our country, the people most often invited on talk shows? The people on Mount Bullshit. I think it’s healthy to walk around constantly fearing: am I on it?”
When was he on Mount Bullshit?
“So far, with every previous book,” he laughs. Many of Humankind’s arguments, about why Easter Island’s civilisation collapsed, or the veracity of the Stanford prison experiment, contradict Bregman’s past writings.
Zoom conversations are draining, probably because virtual interaction requires extra personal animation. With no waiter to provide interruptions, we are flagging. I suggest getting coffee.
We both return to our screens two minutes later, Bregman bearing a Nespresso. I ask him to tot up his lunch. “Two sandwiches, one with cheese and one with peanut butter. And a mango-orange juice.” His cheese cost €3.99, but he ate only one of the six slices. We estimate his total expenditure at about €3.
“Not the most expensive Lunch with the FT ever,” I remark. “Maybe the cheapest!” he laughs.
I ask what he’s doing next. With characteristic media savvy he replies — in case any TV producers read this — that he’d like to make a Netflix series. Then he clicks “End meeting” and escapes back to small-town Dutch life.
• Kuper is an FT columnist
© The Financial Times 2020