What about the root causes?

Rutger Bregman Humankind: a hopeful history Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020, pp496, £20

In hierarchically organised societies, those who benefit will necessarily try to defend and justify the structural violence and oppression this involves.

Part of how they do so is by constantly producing and repeating narratives that ‘reaffirm’ notions that most human beings are bad, lazy, immature, incapable of self-rule, and so on. Broad acceptance of these convictions helps sell the oppression of the many by the few, by persuading us that ‘exceptional’ people must rule over ‘the masses’. And, since our societies have been organised this way for millennia, there are many such morality tales being (re)told, many of which have become part of received wisdom: enshrined in the Bible, Shakespearean plays, aphorisms and so on.

The most obvious and (in)famous example of this mentality is probably the ‘white man’s burden’, employed to justify imperialist/colonialist/capitalist exploitation. But there are infinitely many others that follow the same basic pattern.

Enter Rutger Bregman, a fairly influential Dutch, left-liberal journalist/author. In his newly published book Humankind: a hopeful history he has made an interesting attempt to expose some of the more prominent narratives as either completely false or deliberately misleading, while arguing for a new, ‘more realistic’ view of humans as basically (overly) kind or helpful creatures. Some of the more famous narratives he discusses are the ‘Stanford prison experiment’, ‘The case of Kitty Genovese’, the ‘Milgram experiment’, Lord of the flies and a few enlightenment mainstays like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume (though strangely not John Locke).

Sadly, the book is a quite uneven attempt even on its own terms, and it really suffers from its artificially limited scope. Furthermore, the author is largely blind to left history (and completely to class dynamics) - arguing, for example, that it was not until December 1914 that the people forced into the army and trenches briefly recognised that they were “all in this together, as brothers, as humans”; and cheering on the disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia as an unqualified win for the people.

Nevertheless, I do think his book is worth discussing. And it seems to me most interesting to look at whether it lives up to its dual aims of undermining reactionary narratives about what makes humans tick, and of promoting “an idea that might just start a revolution”: that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent” (p2).

As I see it, there are two fundamental issues that cause the book to fall flat for me. Firstly, Bregman is still a long way from shedding his own liberalism. As a consequence, he is constantly contradicting and undermining his own case. For instance, in the prologue, he is happy to deride the “unrealistic” and “misguided” beliefs of military planners “falling into the trap” (pxxii) of engaging in “ineffective” (with respect to the stated aim of causing “mass hysteria”) civilian bombing campaigns, without ever discussing how all such talk is premised on an instrumental view of life’s value, which is part and parcel of the world-view that he wants to undermine. Additionally, he never goes into whether there may have been unstated reasons to engage in such mass bombing - starting with, but not limited to, a simple desire to punish people for resisting, and to increase demand for weapons.

Secondly, Bregman refuses to do anything more than point towards the (actual) structural reasons for the continual spread of misanthropic narratives. He never asks the reader to consider how and why these types of narratives and this frame are consistently being promoted by opinion-writers and the ‘news’ (and entertainment) media, and how that relates to their own, their owners’ and their advertisers’ class interests. Which also means he never encourages his readers to organise against these efforts (the conclusion consists almost exclusively of self-improvement suggestions).


Let me discuss a few examples that illustrate the mismatch between stated aim and execution.

I will start with Bregman’s suggestion that what some academics have termed ‘veneer theory’ (the notion that civilisation is skin-deep) keeps rearing its ugly head due to “[our eagerness] to believe in our own corruption”. This because holding such beliefs (‘We’re all selfish’, etc) makes it easier for people to justify harming others, and looking away when others do. Although it is undeniable that many people think this way, it is nonsensical to imply that corporations consistently choose to frame events this way because that is what “news consumers” demand of them, or that this is why they constantly promote reactionary narratives. And Bregman himself implicitly admits he understands this, in his (mildly self-congratulatory) warning that to “stand up for human goodness” is to “take a stand against the powers that be”:

For the powerful, a hopeful view of human nature is downright threatening. Subversive. Seditious. It implies that we’re not selfish beasts that need to be reined in, restrained and regulated. It implies that we need a different kind of leadership. A company with intrinsically motivated employees has no need of managers; a democracy with engaged citizens has no need of career politicians (p19).

One of the key points of Bregman’s argument is featured in chapter 10, where he points out that for most people, ideological considerations play far less of a role than camaraderie and helping those they care about and trust (no matter how wrongheaded the goal). What I would say follows from this is that we should seek popular control over societal institutions, and be much more mindful of the role played by those who come up with, promote and institutionalise reactionary value systems (such as fascism, colonialism, capitalism itself). Yet, rather than continuing with a discussion of institutions, propaganda and incentive structures, Bregman first discusses “the danger of over-empathising” and then bemoans the fact that “we” supposedly “allow ourselves to be ruled” by “narcissists and sociopaths” (p221), who coopt supposedly neutral institutions of rule, ultimately through “shamelessness” (chapter 11).

About empathy, Bregman says the following:

As I read Bloom’s book, I began to realise that empathy resembles nothing so much as that modern-day phenomenon: the news. In chapter 1, we saw that the news also functions like a spotlight. Just as empathy misleads us by zooming in on the specific, the news deceives us by zooming in on the exceptional. One thing is certain: a better world doesn’t start with more empathy. If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because, the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspective of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view (p216).

This is terrible analysis for two reasons. First, as mentioned, ‘the news’ is almost completely controlled by billionaires, corporations and the bourgeois state, who are quite good at producing ‘news’ that reaffirms reactionary sentiments. This is why “the exceptional” tends to be pro-reactionary; it need not be. Second, empathy does not “make” us “less forgiving”, because empathising simply means listening and reflecting back what something was like for the other, or what motivated them to act. Its purpose is to allow the other person to feel heard or understood. As such, empathising does not force you to adopt the victim’s viewpoint and see the perpetrators exclusively as “enemies” or “adversaries”. After empathising, you should feel completely free to reflect on and judge people’s actions (as Bregman also argued, when he discussed terrorism earlier).

I draw particular attention to this because this skill is very relevant today, given that most people currently understand the world through a liberal lens, and act accordingly. Writing people off as ‘irredeemable’ simply because they make reactionary statements (etc) is a counterproductive and misguided liberal tendency.

This relates to another of Bregman’s claims, concerning ‘in-group’ formation, and how we allow ourselves to treat those whom we see as not belonging. In his most direct discussion of the phenomenon, Bregman repeatedly suggests that we are naturally drawn to those who are “most like” us (the nearest, physically most similar), without pointing out that this is heavily influenced by upbringing and context. That is, without being clear that how we treat strangers or members of nearby groups depends strongly on whether we see them as “competitors”, and whether we are living under conditions of socially enforced (versus actual) scarcity (one example of this being the slow, but successful, creation of ‘national’ identities). Of course, during exceptional circumstances, bad things can and do happen. But even then, people can be extremely gregarious, and someone’s choice to treat you as a fellow human is influenced by many factors - as illustrated by the varied responses people show to fires, drownings, hurricanes and Nazi occupation. As such, this too strikes me as being an institutional-political issue.

Although the book’s main argument moves very slowly, Bregman does eventually discuss private property as being at the root of things: “From the moment we began settling in one place and amassing private property, our group instinct was no longer so innocuous. Combined with scarcity and hierarchies, it became downright toxic” (p244). Sadly, once again he does not continue by discussing how hierarchies and violence are institutionalised and sold, but by bemoaning the - intended - outcomes: a “toxic” group instinct, and a willingness to use violence towards “others”. This even as he mentions how the same thinkers who we are taught to revere as kick-starting the “enlightenment” also turned racism into a “science” (p248).

Bregman concludes this section of the book by suggesting that, from the enlightenment through to modern society, “institutions … premised on pessimism” have been ‘mistakenly’ promoted as necessary (p249), thereby once again evading the central question - how promoting those views benefited those in power. He asks:

Can we use our heads and harness rationality to design new institutions? Institutions that operate on a wholly different view of human nature? What if schools and businesses, cities and nations expect the best of people instead of presuming the worst?

This is a red herring (and a professional/managerial favourite). The true challenge is not designing new institutions - which mostly requires common sense, coupled with strong (ie, real) democratic controls - but in forcing those changes.

Lastly, Bregman never asks what it means that these highly publicised stories all fell apart when someone bothered to look into the details - even as some were literally repeated for decades, and even though he is aware (and admits) that the promotion of those lies directly contributed to repression. The most blatant examples of this are found in his (class-blind) discussions of the Katrina aftermath (pp4-6) and the Kitty Genovese case (pp190-94). Nor does he ask, conversely, how stories that disrupt official narratives could so effectively be memory-holed (such as the 1914 Christmas celebration), similar to how school curricula still focus on when ‘leaders’ were so kind as to ‘grant’ certain rights, rather than how they were forced into this, after fighting those developments. Individuals acting alone, even when they manage to reform single (unthreatening) organisations, have no hope of disrupting a pattern this pervasive.

To sum up, unless you are already aware of how and why these narratives are constantly reproduced - and of why certain events are consistently spun the way they are, while others are ignored - you are likely to come away from this thinking that these narratives pervade the public sphere because of the actions and preferences of ‘news consumers’, when it is actually the other way round: we think that way because we are constantly presented with stories thus framed. (Michael Parenti’s analysis of the news and entertainment media, in Inventing reality and Make-believe media, may serve as an effective antidote.)

All that said, my main reason for reviewing this book is not concern that the predictably circumscribed nature of his critique (and the many omissions) will lead readers astray. Rather, it is because it bothers me that the topics he touches on get so little attention from us, when we need to have the best answers on offer (beyond an anthropologically grounded view of humanity: actual egalitarianism, proposals for real rather than bourgeois democracy, with a strong emancipatory focus, etc); and because there obviously is interest in books like this, judging by the great appeal of his work, especially among the educated. Now, of course, in some the enthusiasm will only be skin-deep. Nevertheless, there is a propaganda war to be won, and we hardly seem to be fighting it.

Furthermore, the choice of topics and mode of presentation may also serve as inspiration. To list a few that I had no room to discuss:

All of these are topics that (can be made to) resonate. And it is up to us to explain how they relate to capitalism and life in liberal ‘democracies’. While we keep ceding these topics to authors like Bregman, with their (mostly) liberal analyses and solutions, people will keep running into the same problems - fighting symptoms and single issues, without understanding their root causes.

Foppe de Haan