To hope or to hide? Rutger Bregman: “Humankind – A Hopeful History”

Right back at the beginning of the pandemic, one of my neighbours died. Wendy lived directly opposite me, and our lives had been intertwined just so since 1973 when I was just a toddler. She was born in 1944, so she had been a part of my Mum’s life for much longer. When I moved back to my old parental home from London around five years ago, Wendy reminisced that her clearest memory of me as a child, was of me happily singing to myself, swinging on the front gate without a care in the world.

Remembering Wendy from that front gate!

I am deeply indebted to Wendy for that reflection. It has stuck with me ever since, helping me to peel away more about ‘who I am?’ – still at heart that naively optimistic child, guided by a simplistic binary ethical outlook on the world, but one which seems, after some fifty years or so, continually rained upon, routinely buffeted by events, but still feels ever more relevant. As one line-manager once explained to me, I had not joined the ranks of the pessimists, merely that I was a thwarted optimist.

As lockdown restrictions are lifted, and we finally get the opportunity to celebrate Wendy’s life some eighteen months after her death, this theme which she helped me unpick in my own life is where Rutger Bregman’s book ‘Humankind – A Hopeful History’ picks up, in exploring in whether we can be justified in having an optimistic view of human nature, or whether the negative experiences strewn across the path of human history justify a more pessimistic view, which seems to have dominated civic society, and driven human behaviour.

Wendy helped me understand that the sunny disposition had never left me! RIP Wendy.

What Wendy helped me understand about myself was that, however dark times may have become, or however loud headlines may have barked, that ‘sunny’ disposition which had first evidenced itself on the front gate has never left me, and I can still, on odd occasions even be heard singing in a strange tone at the top of my voice. Contrary to however much I might try to convince myself, I have not disappeared under a cloud dictated by a pessimistic view of human nature.

This is essentially the debate set up Bregman’s book. I say debate – it tries to set itself up as an academic, rigorous assessment of the terrain. In some sense, I wish it could be more honest in approach, that it is in reality more of a polemic for my side of the argument – ‘all you need is love’. That said, it still does the job beautifully. It garnered much publicity back in May 2020 when Bregman shared the story of the ‘real Lord of the Flies’ which is in the book – the story of a group of Tongan schoolboys marooned on an island in the 1960s, but which had a much more positive outcome than in William Golding’s bestseller (see, for example, Guardian, 9th May, 2020), thus helping to make the the optimists’ case.

The book places in the ring the pessimistic view of human nature posited by Hobbes, shaping much of life and thinking emerging after the Enlightenment and through to today that essentially views humans as never satisfied with their lot, whether that be self-esteem, power, glory, fame or wealth for example, and that it not only creates the worst of excesses, it invokes the worst as a result of competition and jealously. It means that much of modern life becomes structured around regulating that behaviour, or harnessing it, often with resulting catastrophic conclusions in terms of public policy outcomes, or personal lifestyle tragedies.

In the opposite corner, we have the optimistic view represented in a brighter hue by Rousseau. He argues that in our natural state, we are ‘free, wise and good’. The more we recognise that, the further we encourage it. We only move away from that state of affairs the more we construct a complex ‘civilisation’ and seek to regulate society on top of that natural state of affairs. Left to our own devices, we ‘care and share’.

Among the experience and case studies Bregman explores, he also teases out a number of threads which are useful axis for further reflection. One is the impact of tribalism for example, through various funnels such as the effects of the misreporting, over-simplification and amplification of the traditional media; crude mobilising and goading of social media, and the ‘pull’ of over-arching ‘stories’ that can all reinforce together, and which might act to undermine what might otherwise have been an optimistic set of behaviours.

Nevertheless, there are some powerful examples of hope – like Jos de Blok helping to demonstrate that workers are able to be much more productive and more motivated if they are given the freedom to just get on and do their job – and management structures are blown away.

Of course, there are already scores of teachers and bankers, academics and managers who are passionately motivated to help others. Not however because of the labyrinths of targets, rules and procedures, but despite them!” (pg. 270, 2020 paperback edition)

Much of what he argues democracy really looks like sounds remarkably like sortitions – a concept I have become increasingly interested in myself, and something I think we will see more of in coming years as an antidote to the competitive, party political, machine driven approach to politics which can only appeal to a pessimistic view of human nature. As the labels Bregman put on his sections looking at this area put it – all the better for fostering engagement, inclusion, citizenship and transparency.

Bregman talks much of “the Commons” and how this represents “nature’s bounty” – what we all share in common, and recognising it as so that we take better care of it. For so many centuries, he argues it was just so, but that perhaps it is only as we have privatised our vision of the world and management of our communities that we have moved from a more optimistic to a more pessimistic outlook.

As well as placing a flag on “the Commons”, Bregman appears to be surreptitiously laying the foundations for a rebranding of communism – arguably too much of a project for one book – but he may have at least been able to make more of an advance for those who might have aligned with them on the progressive side of politics who have found themselves consistently on the losing side in recent years if he had been more explicit about such an objective earlier on in the book.

Promoting the book (Time magazine interview, Billy Ferrigo, May 22, 2020), Bregman stresses that acts of kindness are contagious, further underlining the optimistic standpoint. He stresses the point in the book that identifying and nurturing optimism is not about being an idealist but in fact, a strategy for realism because it encourages a reset for all to adapt to or adopt such behaviours. Our responses during the pandemic are held up as an example –  a failure when left to the market, but at their best when calling upon and mobilising the force of the full and active intervention of the state, or each other in our neighbourhoods or volunteering in our wider communities.

I am wholeheartedly a fan and advocate of what Bregman lays out and is seeking to achieve with the book – after all, such a ‘sunshiney’ approach is all I think that I’ve got in my back pocket to fall back on to navigate myself through each week, and the challenges thrown up by society’s bigger challenges. However, in terms of the book itself, I would rather it had been skewed towards being a more blatant polemic for the optimistic view of human nature, rather than having to appear to pitch itself as an even handed canter through the opposing sides of the debate – I feel it fails at this, and (thankfully!), totally fails to address so many other areas of modern life and near modern history which might have helped serve to ‘blow open’ or shatter the case for a positive view of human nature. There’s probably far too much material vying for inclusion there, particularly today.

Finally, the ‘Epilogue’ section is fantastic in attempting to pass on ‘ten rules to live by’ –  a kind of free ‘CBT’ therapy session, with simple but effective guidance including:-

  • “when in doubt, assume the best;”
  • “think in win-win scenarios;”
  • “ask more questions:”
  •  “try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they’re coming from;”
  • “avoid the news;”
  • “come out of the closet; don’t be ashamed to be good;”
  • “be realistic;”

Although many might not take too kind to the self-help approach, I found the list particularly practical and real when compared to similar books, and applicable for how we live out our lives in particular in the digital space on social media.

It’s typical that having just finished the book, and having penned most of this review, most of my own conclusions in favour of a positive, optimistic of view of human nature were severely challenged in a two-and-a-half-hour train journey taking in the North Downs Line, returning from visiting a friend on the south coast. Nobody in the pretty packed train carriage was wearing a face mask, despite signs encouraging us to do so, and absurd announcements from the guard thanking us for obliging! A young family sat, mask-free, loudly swearing abuse about the driver, feet on the seats, and a radio blaring. And before the connecting train even had a chance to empty ahead of setting off from Gatwick Airport, another mask free group barged their way on to the train to sit in first class, without first allowing passengers to get off the train with particularly cumbersome and heavy luggage, which would have actually made it easier for all to get on and off. Before I started to lose my optimism (or sound like my grandparents), I realised that many things contribute to this state of affairs, and while it is not ideal, it does not deflect from the central argument of the book – or the ‘central rules to live by’ in the Epilogue. For a start, it had been a long day, and even I had discovered from a 45 minute connecting wait that there were no benches or seats on that particular platform.

I thoroughly recommend this book, stuffed full of points to reflect on about our fellow human beings, and terrain that covers everything from education and crime, to prison reform and welfare, as well as more general philosophy and human behaviour in a genuinely easy to read, accessible and free-flowing format. It has helped give me an embrace and nourishment at just a time when I need it, which makes up for the fact that it took me so long to find it.

Bregman, R. (2020) “Humankind: A Hopeful History”. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. Paperback edition

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