Book Review – Rutger Bregman, Humankind

illustrationI was going to start with what I dislike about this book, but that would be contrary to its whole ethos. I had in my head that there was something opportunist in Bregman’s prose, and hence the man himself. I have to say that this book could be life-changing, or in the case of oldies like me, a bit of a booster, like one gets to top up a vaccine every now and again. In life I can see myself slipping into pure cynicism. Bregman is a check on that. So I am going to change the criticism to give readers some idea of how I should be thinking rather than the way that I have come to think.

So, here is the re-writing of my original first paragraph (I’ve moved what was the original first paragraph to the end of the review for anyone who is remotely interested).

Regular readers know that I do not watch much television, though I did when I was a child. As I got older and was allowed to stay upillustration later and watch adult television, my father insisted that we watch documentaries rather than sit-coms and soaps (we’re talking the 1970s). The format was always the same: an expert or knowledgeable person (or both, James Burke, right), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense, even then. With hindsight, one of the reasons for the no frills was limited bandwidth. Broadcasting hours were fewer back then, and there were no specialist stations. It was broadcasting in the true sense. There was insufficient airtime to waste on unnecessary graphics, or choreography. In recent times, I have been reading much more than I used to – the pandemic has helped. I have noticed a style of writing in popular non-fiction (a genre that I have traditionally avoided out of snobbery). It is akin to current TV documentary style. There’s a soundtrack, an extended narrative with cliffhangers and expansive prose. I realise that this book in this style is not produced for me. Though if it gets people engaged with science, current affairs, art, philosophy, then all well and good.

SONY DSC

I started reading this book, not because I want to be convinced at how kind humans can be – which is the point of the book – but because I know Bregman is an important commentator. I finished it, incidentally, because I wanted to be convinced of how kind humans can be. Bregman made a big splash at Davos in 2020 in telling rich people that they should pay their taxes, and in the US when he took on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. He is not going away in a hurry. I commend him for that because ultimately he is on the right side of history, albeit a white history. But the style of writing is not entirely to my liking but I know this view is not shared!

The first part of the book seeks to debunk the hypothesis that there is a human predilection to violence and being beastly to one another. I have not checked the veracity of many of the claims made in the book, but here are a few that I really want to be true:

  • blanket bombing of populations in war does not result in the surrender of those subject to it
  • soldiers do not like shooting at other soldiers, even if they are deemed to be the enemy
  • Lord of the Flies is a work of fiction; left to their own devices, boys will create order and manage their way through
  • the people of Easter Island did not engage in tribal warfare that decimated the population (colonialists did that)
  • The Stanford Prison Experiment was a contrived hoax to enhance the reputation of social psychology and academics

illustrationThe philosophers at the heart of Bregman’s analysis are Hobbes and Rousseau. The Hobbesian world is that of the Leviathan – the human need for strong leaders, discipline and order to prevent a state of chaos, barbarism and cruelty. The Rousseau-ian world is one of the social contract, cooperation and common interests regulating behaviour. Bregman makes the argument that it all started going wrong when private property was conceived, when people – who became powerful and rich – were able to enclose common land and exploit it for private gain. These people built a civilisation on slavery, private property and the exploitation of natural resources. This has been a theme of other books that I have recently read; namely, Adreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and Tim Lang’s Feeding Britain.

There’s a chapter on Stanley Milgram and the “shock machine” – an experiment in 1961 where volunteers administered electric shocks of up-to 450 volts to so-called “learners” in an adjacent room. Milgram was Jewish and, claims Bregman, devised the study to to offer an explanation for the Holocaust. People follow orders, hypothesised Milgram, irrespective of the implications, genocide being one of them. All is not, however, as it seems. Bregman argues that the experiment did not test obedience, as stated, rather it tested goodness! The subjects, although paid, participated because they believed that the research would result in a contribution to knowledge. An explanation for the Holocaust was a worthy study. There was trust in the research and people in white coats who kept insisting that they needed to continue to administer the electric shocks for the research to be valid.

It was also the time of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem. Bregman’s case for human kindness could not exclude a discussion on the Holocaust. I do not have the authority or knowledge to engage with the terms of Eichmann’s guilt. What is recorded is that Eichmann presented himself as someone who just followed orders. Hannah Arendt who witnessed the trial first hand coined the term, banality of evil, to capture the essence of the Eichmann phenomenon as she saw it from the courtroom. There is much debate about exactly what she meant, though it was largely interpreted as her accepting Eichmann’s defence. Bregman concludes that Eichmann’s motive for his actions was actually a commitment to a cause that he believed would lead to a better society, however perverted.

What about the German citizenry who fought to the very end of the war, despite the inevitability of both the eastern and western fronts being breached? The evidence points to camaraderie, argues Bregman, rather than ideology as the cause of seemingly pointless resistance.

More optimism

Bregman takes us with him to visit some interesting people. For example  trained nurse and economics degree dropout, Jos de Blok (right), not someone I’d previously been aware of. He runs a large healthcare company in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg. He does this not by dillustrationesign, but as a consequence of working in the sector and realising that it the care service was not fit-for-purpose. Care is not delivered optimally as a product (i.e. commoditised) and by people who get their orders hierarchically, rather by people who work in small autonomous teams. De Blok is not unknown; he is in receipt of the the Royal Society of Arts’ Albert Medal. Previous recipients of this medal have been Stephen Hawking (physicist), Tim Berners-Lee (the www) and Francis Crick (DNA). So, he’s in good company.

Then there is the story of the transition of South Africa from Apartheid state to inclusive democracy under Nelson Mandela. The period between Mandela’s release in 1990 and the presidential election in 1994 was precarious. I was aware of the ugliness of Eugène Terre ‘Blanche and his Afrikaner Volksfront. I was not aware of the Viljoen twins. The family resource meant that only one of them could go to university. Constand said that brother Abraham should go. Constand (left) joined the army and became a senior officer in the South African Defence Force in Apartheid South Africa. Abraham studied abroad and found himself irreconcilably parted from his brother and aligned with the ANC and Mandela. Constand joined Terre ‘Blanche. I’ll leave it there – it is worth reading the book just for this section and only goes to raise my emotions. Mandela is the leader that we all need.

If any reader thinks that I have covered everything in this book, I have not. It is packed with ideas about positive reforms: education, democratic, penal, protest and warfare! The protest issue is so pertinent as I write at a time when the USA is convulsed by the racist Murder of George Floyd. Drawing on a study by American sociologist, Erica Chenoweth: “In the real world, she thought, power is exercised through the barrel of a gun. To prove it, she created a huge  database of resistance movement going back to 1990. ‘Then I ran the numbers,’ she wrote in 2014. ‘I was shocked.’ More than 50 per cent of the nonviolent campaigns were successful, as opposed to 26 per cent of the militant ones. The primary reason, Chenoweth established, is that more people join nonviolent campaigns. On average over eleven times more. And not just guys with too much testosterone, but also women and children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Regimes just aren’t equipped to withstand such multitudes. That’s how good overpowers evil – by outnumbering it.” (p359). At a time of Covid-19, however, maybe not.

Bregman keeps caveating his narrative with admissions of imperfection in the characters and methods he presents. Deliberative democracy works sometimes, not others. There are some truly bad people around – power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely in Lord Acton’s famous phrase. But Bregman is right, too, that if we treat one another badly in our places of work, jails, schools, communities, we cannot be surprised if it is reciprocated. We have seen during the pandemic real goodness in people, communities coming together to help one another and even the act of self-isolating and observing the lockdown are unexpected demonstrations of togetherness. Let us try to retain some of that as we move on, starting with the rewriting of my first paragraph.

Here is the original first paragraph:

The more I have been reading recently, the more I have seen this style of writing. Now, I do not watch much television these days. But when I was growing up – I know I keep going on about this – television documentaries used to have an expert or knowledgeable person (or both), would present in a quite succinct way some science or current affairs. There was never any music and the expert or knowledgeable person had no dress sense. One of the reasons for this succinctness, I imagine, was limited bandwidth. TV programmes did not start showing until late afternoon and TV stations shut down by midnight, apart from at the weekend. And then it was half-past midnight. There was such a shortage of airtime, so every minute mattered. Hence the quality of the output. Bregman’s book is a documentary with music, and is excrutiating for it. Moreover, it is extremely patronising: “This may get a little technical, but we need to understand where he went wrong” (p88). It then proceeds to be not very technical.

Pictures:

Bregman: Victor van Werkhooven

James Burke: https://archive.org/details/james-burke-connections_s01e10

Jos de Blok: https://www.josdeblok.com/biography/

Constand Viljoen: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constand_Viljoen

 

 

 

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: