:: Article

Utopia for Realists and The Radical Incrementalist

By John P. Houghton.

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists, Bloomsbury, 2017
Kelvin Campbell and Rob Cowan, The Radical Incrementalist, Massive Small, 2016

Utopia for Realists is a racing jumble of slogans and ideas that makes Russell Brand sound like Bertrand Russell by comparison. The book is organised in three broad sections: an opening essay on the “return of Utopia”; the substantive middle that puts forward a range of policy prescriptions; and a more explicitly political epilogue.

The confusion of the whole is apparent from the very beginning. We are treated to a quick-fire round of facts and mega-trend data points that establish an incontestable truth: by any historical standard and by any measure of progress we already live in Utopia. People are living longer, absolute poverty is falling, and science is developing cures for illnesses that once destroyed entire civilisations.

Yet the author detects a socio-political sickness beneath the surface of this apparent idyll. It is not enough for people to pursue the things that make them happy and through a system of capitalism that has delivered such advancement.

Here we encounter the first major problem with the text; the malaise we are supposed to address is very poorly defined. For proof of its existence, we must gulp down a cocktail of sweeping statements that bear very little interrogation and corny old pub-bore complaints about ‘politics these days’.

As an example of the former, take this: “Radical ideas about a different world have become almost literally unthinkable.” What does this actually mean? How can this assertion be tested and proven or disproven?

To illustrate the latter, we have this tired old trope: “Voters swing back and forth not because the parties are so different, but because it’s barely possible to tell them apart”. I worry for the eyesight and political sensibility of anyone who cannot distinguish Corbyn’s Labour from May’s Conservatives, or Clinton’s Democrats from Trump’s Republicans.

The second section of the book is more satisfying. The author is on safer ground exploring a series of social and fiscal policy experiments from around the world which might point us toward a brighter future.

Thus we hear about Richard Nixon’s flirtation with a basic income guarantee, the New York garbage-collector strike revealing the critical importance of their labour, and different societies’ attempts to measure development other than through GDP.

Taking the second part as a whole, however, we encounter another serious flaw. For a book which states we must “direct our minds to the future”, none of the conclusions are particularly new. They have been left-wing staples for quite some time now: free money (the actual title of the chapter); shorter working hours; basic income; and free movement of labour. And if anyone of this sounds familiar, we encounter another old friend: ‘Well, compared to the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…”

The epilogue of Utopia for Realists returns to the bold yet confused hyper-assertions of the introduction. The notion that politics is the ‘art of the possible, as encapsulated by Bismarck, is airily dismissed and proven by centuries of practice is airily dismissed. Instead, the author is “talking about Politics with a capital P, one that’s not about rules, but about revolution. Not about the art of the possible, but about making the impossible inevitable.” The chapter continues in this vein.

After a brief and uncritical look through the Overton Window (a notion problematised here) we are introduced to the curious incident of “underdog socialism”. The entire global left has apparently fallen prey to this canker, by which the left abandons rationality to the right (I’m sure Drew Westen would challenge that) and instead makes appeal to the electorate’s sense of compassion in order to smooth off the harshest edges of capitalism.

Despite offering little further definition, “underdog socialism” is used to gather together the entire global left and beat it for its collective dullness, tedious “philosophizing about “post-capitalism” and “intersectionality”” and general inarticulacy.

We are told that the first hurdle for the new politics “lies in being taken seriously at all”. Indeed. Utopia for Realists is no guide for overcoming that hurdle.

The Radical Incrementalist is also concerned with questions of how we create a new future. Its focus on the ground-up movements that deliver radical urban change, through the efforts of citizens and local bodies, often working in and against the state.

The emphasis on incrementalism is borne of the authors’ observations (shared by this author) that the barrier to progress in many cities is the reliance of top-down municipal mega-plans. Instead, citizens must “get started by starting”, making change happen for themselves, at the small scale.

The book is a compendium of twelve ‘stories’ from cities across the globe. The topics are diverse, but each focuses on an individual and all follow the same ‘case study’ pattern of problems, actions, lessons. Our citizen-hero is dissatisfied with a local problem; the problem reveals deeper flaws in the systems of urban governance and management; they pioneer a local solution which succeeds; the lessons are learned and applied more widely.

The fact-fiction nature of the stories inevitably creates some confusion about the exact lessons that might be learned from each account. Nonetheless, if you only have time to read one book about how the world can be different and how to change it, make it The Radical Incrementalist.

John P. Houghton is a freelance consultant, commentator and evaluator. He is the author of Jigsaw Cities and tweets @metlines. You can read all of John’s published work here: www.metropolitanlines.co.uk 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 19th, 2017.