Deep down, are humans really selfish, brutal, and cruel? For much of the last century, the most famous experiments in social science, from Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram’s electric shock study to the 1971 Stanford prison experiment, have purported to prove that we all have a monster lurking just behind a carefully crafted social veneer.
In his new book “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman aims to shed new light on this idea by examining the latest social science research, knocking over some of the discipline’s sacred cows in the process. The book offers optimistic answers to anyone looking for a way forward in this era of political turmoil and confusion.
Rutger Bregman: Well, if I were to give a short summary of my book, it would be something like: Most people are pretty decent, but power corrupts. And I think that’s also a pretty good description of what’s happening in the U.S. right now.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
Are you feeling down, depressed, about the state of the world — the state of the human race? Maybe today’s show will raise your spirits, give a boost to your optimistic side.
RB: It seems to me like we’re in an extraordinary moment, full of hope, and the authoritarian response on the right seems like the last gasp of breath of a dying ideology.
MH: That’s my guest today, the Dutch historian, journalist, and best-selling author Rutger Bregman.
He’s got a big new book out called “Humankind” that’s making waves over its pretty simple yet pretty radical idea: human beings, he says, based on mountains of research, are good people. We’re not all selfish bastards.
So, on Deconstructed today, a truly important discussion: Are we, deep down, fundamentally decent, and, if so, what does that mean for our politics and our political ideologies in 2020?
Human beings are pretty awful, right? That’s what we’ve been told for years; that’s what the state of our crazy, war-torn world seems to often suggest.
Plus, we grew up reading novels like William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” where we saw young kids turn into violent savages once they’re removed from a rules-based, civilized society.
We grew up reading political philosophy from the likes of Thomas Hobbes, who said that without strong government keeping us all in check, our lives would be “nasty, brutish, and short.” Or we read social psychology from the likes of Philip Zimbardo, whose infamous Stanford Prison experiment showed ordinary students in a mock prison setting suddenly becoming OK with torturing their fellow students.
We were told by biologists and anthropologists about “veneer theory,” which says all of our human morals and ethics are merely, “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature,” ready to fall apart at a moment’s notice, in a moment of crisis, or war, or natural disaster, where we humans turn on each other like animals.
And, of course, in terms of our politics, conservatives on the right made it very clear that the only way to order and organize our society was around free markets, the profit motive, every man for himself — because, they effectively argued, human beings are motivated mainly by our material desires, by our greed, by our selfishness.
In fact, you could say conservatism itself is based on a pretty negative and pessimistic view of human nature. Conservatives say you can’t build a socialist utopia — a left-wing heaven on earth — you can’t shoot for the progressive stars, because human beings aren’t built for that. We’re not built for cooperation or mutual trust. We’re not generous altruists; we’re selfish individualists.
But the Dutch intellectual, journalist, and historian Rutger Bregman takes a hammer to that rather cynical view of the world, to that particular view of human beings, in his new book “Humankind: A Hopeful History.” He tells us at the very start of the book that he’s on a mission to uncover a “a radical idea” — one that has been “erased from the annals of world history.” You could even call it, he says, “a new view of humankind.”
And what is it? That human beings, at their core, are “friendly, peaceful, and healthy.” That “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” In the words of one reviewer, Rutger is intent on demolishing what he sees as “the big lie that human beings are fundamentally evil and self-interested, and that our normal civilized behavior is a veneer that tends to collapse under pressure.”
In fact, Rutger even argues that we were better off during our nomadic times, before what we now call civilization came along, before agriculture and the domestication of animals. “Civilization has become synonymous with peace and progress and wilderness with war and decline,” he writes in the book. “In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.”
Rutger wants us to feel a little less cynical, a little less jaded, about humanity. Based on his own deep research and study, he now has faith in humankind; I mean, the subtitle of his book — released in the midst of a pandemic — is “A Hopeful History.”
So, if he’s right about humankind, and I hope he is — though I’m not a hundred percent sure he is, I hope he is — what does this all mean for our politics, for our society, for the left in 2020? And how does this view of human nature fit with some of the huge, almost unprecedented political and social developments we’ve seen so far this year — the global pandemic and the lockdowns, mass unemployment, the anti-racism protests, the ongoing debate over refugees and borders?
Today I’ll ask the author himself, lefty historian and public intellectual Rutger Bregman.
You may have heard of Rutger from his first best-selling first book “Utopia For Realists,” in which he made the case for, among other things, a universal basic income — UBI. Or more likely you may have first heard of him last January when he went viral online, after calling out the global ruling class themselves, the 0.1 percenters, to their faces, at — where else — the World Economic Forum in Davos:
RB: This is my first time at Davos, and I find it quite a bewildering experience, to be honest. I mean 1,500 private jets have flown in here to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about, you know, how we’re wrecking the planet. And, I mean, I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice, and equality and transparency, but then, I mean, almost no one raises the real issue, of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share. I mean, it feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference, and no one’s allowed to speak about water.
I mean, this is not rocket science. I mean we can talk for a very long time about all of these stupid philanthrophy schemes, we can invite Bono once more. But, c’mon, we gotta be talking about taxes. That’s it: taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion.
MH: And then, of course, there was my own personal favorite clip of him, that also went viral, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, where he called out Carlson to his face, and after Carlson, the coward, refused to air the interview on his show, Rutger released a covert recording of it online — and it was awesome:
RB: I mean, you’re probably not going to air this, but I went to Davos to speak truth to power, and I’m doing exactly the same thing right now. You might not like it, but you’re a millionaire funded by billionaires, and that’s the reason why you’re not talking about these issues.
Tucker Carlson: But I am talking about these issues.
RB: Yeah, only now. But, come on, you jumped the bandwagon. You’re all like, “Oh, I’m against the globalist elite. Blah blah blah.” It’s not very convincing to be honest.
TC: And I want to say to you, why don’t you go fuck yourself, you tiny brain. And I hope this gets picked up. Because you’re a moron. I tried to give you a hearing, but you were too fucking annoying —
RB: You can’t handle the criticism, can you?
MH: So that’s my guest today. He’s author of the new book, “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” and he joins me now from his home in the Netherlands.
Rutger, thanks for coming on Deconstructed.
RB: Thanks for having me!
MH: “Catastrophes bring out the best in people,” you write in your new book, “Humankind: A Hopeful History.” You say, “I know of no other sociological finding that’s backed by so much solid evidence that’s so blithely ignored.” Do you believe the current coronavirus catastrophe has brought out the best in people? Because a lot of people, especially in 2020, would say otherwise.
RB: Well, I mean, there are a couple of examples here and there of people, I don’t know, hoarding toilet paper, and we can count on the press to give a lot of attention to that. But if you zoom out just a little bit, I think we can clearly see that, you know, there’s been this explosion of cooperation. Billions of people around the globe, you know, quite radically changing their lifestyles and abiding by the, the procedures and rules of the health authorities. That’s the real headline here.
MH: You said recently in an interview with the BBC that we humans, we’re not fundamentally good, but we are fundamentally decent. What’s the difference?
RB: The difference is that, sort of, being good is, yeah, it’s really a moral judgment. And sometimes the right thing, the moral thing, to do is to be unfriendly and to be nasty. You know, we see this in the whole history of progress. You look at the history of feminism, or anti-racism, and so often, progress starts with people who are willing to go against the status quo and who are willing to be a little bit unfriendly.
And, in that way, they’re actually going sometimes against their nature as well, because what evolutionary anthropology tells us these days is that we human beings, we have evolved to be friendly and to work together. For millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids, and so had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. It’s deeply embedded in our evolutionary history that, also at times of crisis, but also just generally in life we prefer to work together and be friendly most of the time.
MH: You mentioned human nature. Your book is a fascinating discussion of all of the latest science and research on human nature. But you also delve back into good old philosophy. Talk about this clash between Rousseau and Hobbes, the two famous philosophers of the Enlightenment, which you hang a lot of the book on that clash —
MH: — their very different views of human nature, on how humans interact with one another.
RB: Uh huh. So let’s start with Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher, who argued that in the state of nature, as they called it back then, when we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, that we lived these lives that were nasty, brutish, and short, and there was some kind of war of all against all going on back then. That was his theory.
Now, Rousseau made the complete opposite argument. He said that no, when we were nomadic hunter-gatherers, we lived these lives that were pretty good actually. But then we invented civilization and you know, everything went downhill from then on.
So, I think that a lot of, how do you say that, a lot depends on who was right. Rousseau is sort of the father of revolution, of the left, you could even say, and Hobbes is the father of what they call political realism, of saying, you know what, we just need people in power to make sure that people don’t kill each other, because deep down we’re all savages.
MH: And you reject the Hobbesian view, you reject the veneer theory of human morality, which is associated with Hobbes, which says that our goodness is just a thin veneer, which covers up a pretty selfish, brutish nature underneath, which is ready to come out at a moment’s notice. Is that how you started the book? Did you start with that position, that, you know what, this is B.S. or were you kind of Hobbesian and switched to Rousseau-ian, if I can call it that?
RB: Yeah, I think the latter, you know? I used to have a much more cynical view of human nature. I used to believe in veneer theory. I had, you know, read “Lord of the Flies”; I had read about what happened on Easter Island, where this civilization killed itself. I had read about the Stanford Prison Experiment in which, you know, pacifist, hippie students very quickly turned into savage monsters.
So, yeah, I had to change my mind on quite a lot of things while writing this book.
MH: So I do want to touch on those examples you mentioned in a moment, but just sticking with the Hobbes-Rousseau, why do we have to pick a side? Why can’t we say that human beings are complicated, we have a brutal, selfish, cynical side and we have an altruistic, cooperative side?
I mean, if you look at the recent mass protests against racism and violence, that’s our good side — those protests, you could argue. And then you look at the racism and violence that provoked those protests, that’s our bad side. It’s both.
RB: Well, if I would give a short summary of my book, it would be something like: Most people are pretty decent, but power corrupts. And I think that’s also a pretty good description of what’s happening in the U.S. right now. I mean, millions of peaceful protesters, very courageously, you know, going on the streets every day and showing this extraordinary self control, and then the savage violence from the Leviathan, you know, from those at the top, and the police, and the army, you name it. It’s actually the complete opposite of what Thomas Hobbes argued.
Now, why I think this is important is because our view of human nature tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. And throughout history, a more cynical view of who we are has been used by those in power to legitimize their power. Because if people cannot trust each other, if they’re really, deep down, just savages, then we need the army, and the police, and the kings, and the generals, and you know, we need hierarchy.
But if people are — maybe not angels, but on average, pretty decent, at least most of us, then maybe we can move to a very different kind of society that is much more egalitarian and genuinely democratic.
MH: It’s interesting, you talk about self-fulfilling prophecy, because you see that in the language of the right where Donald Trump came to power warning that, you know, society is about to fall apart; the foreigners are coming to kill you; that I alone can fix it; that America’s in carnage.
RB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s the classic law-and-order argument. You know, again,
It goes back all the way to Thomas Hobbes, like: you need us because you can’t trust each other, because there will be some kind of war of all against all if I do not interfere right now.
MH: So you wrote this book, in which you say actually the evidence suggests we can trust each other.
MH: You talk about our species being homo-puppy — friendly, cooperative, decent. That’s our superpower, you say; that’s what allowed us to survive, homosapiens, where the Neanderthals and others couldn’t. You even suggest we were better off — happier, less violent —back then in the prehistoric, the pre-civilizational period. How do you know that? I know you’re good at research, there’s a lot of footnotes in this book, but you don’t have a time machine, do you? You can’t go back and see for yourself.
RB: No, and I must admit that this is partly speculative. We’ve got a lot of evidence from anthropology and from archaeology. So what you can do is to look at excavations of all skeletons and see, you know, if there are any signs of violence; turns out that you know, there’s hardly any evidence for war in prehistory. You can also look at cave paintings — you know, if there really was a war of all against all, going on 20,000-30,000 years ago, you would expect that, at some point, you know, some Picasso from the Stone Age would have made a nice you know, Guernica of that, right? You know, sort of this depiction of this war of all against all. We haven’t found it.
But then after we became civilized — or “civilized,” I should say — when we settled down, and we became farmers, invented agriculture, then suddenly you do see a lot of these cave paintings. So that is some evidence.
What you can also do is study nomadic hunter-gatherers, who lived in the 19th century or the 20th century, that, you know, that we have ethnographic field reports about. And then there are obviously huge cultural differences between different nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes around the globe, but there are also striking similarities. If you look at the political systems of these kind of societies, it turns out that they’re quite egalitarian; humbleness is really prerequisite. You could argue that they are almost proto-feminist — you know, there’s this interesting equality between the sexes as well.
And that makes sense, because actually more equal societies, where people just have more friends and more social connections, they also display more social learning — they learn more from each other — so they get more inventions. And I think that this is what made the difference, in the end, for us as a species.
MH: But you’re not saying you want to kind of unwind the clock, you don’t want to go back, you’re not saying that hunter gatherer societies are superior societies to the ones we have today.
RB: No, I’m not saying that. I mean, we can’t go back. That’s the first thing.
MH: [Laughs.] I mean, I’d be crap with a bow and arrow.
RB: [Laughs.] Well, if you would have the theoretical, you would have to choose between living a life as a nomadic hunter-gatherer or a life in civilization, then I would advise you to choose the life of a nomadic hunter-gatherer. Because if you look at the whole history of civilization, the last 10,000 years, 99 percent of that was horrible, absolutely horrible — you know, up until the year 1800, the vast majority of people was a slave, you know, bonded to some kind of powerful man. It was usually a man, obviously.
We have made extraordinary progress. I mean, Steven Pinker’s right about that in the past couple of decades. We are richer, we are healthier, we are wealthier than ever, even though there’s still a lot to be done. But then the question is: How sustainable is it, really? Right? Maybe we’re dancing on top of a volcano. Maybe this is just a very small bit of our history, once climate change ends the whole show.
MH: People like Steven Pinker, of course, say, you know, “We’ve never had it so good. Things are getting better and better, et cetera.”
Steven Pinker: Violence has been in decline for long stretches of time, and, today, we may be living in the most peaceful era in our species’ existence.
MH: But you’ve been a critic of his. Why?
RB: I mostly disagree with his take on our life in prehistory. So, I think, for his ideology, I mean, someone like him would always deny to be ideological, right? They always say, “Oh, I’m just rational. I’m just looking at the facts.”
RB: I think we should be very suspicious of those people because usually they’re the most ideological of all.
RB: So what he wants to paint is some picture of our history that is like the march of progress — with some ups and downs, but, you know, generally things get better all the time, right? We invent things like writing, and the wheel, and we start to live in states. And then the Enlightenment, obviously, which was the greatest thing ever.
And now, there’s nothing guaranteed; he’ll never say that, you know? He won’t present us with a sort of whiggish version of history, but he does want to paint sort of this gradual line that goes up.
If you look at the latest evidence that we have, actually, from history, archaeology, and anthropology, you know, you get to see this very different shape. What you actually see is that for 95 percent of our history, we lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, and these lives were relatively good, you know, working weeks of around 20-30 hours, relatively peaceful, no evidence for war, relatively egalitarian as well. Then we settled down, and we became farmers. And that was just a huge, huge disaster: our health deteriorated, we got so many infectious diseases, like measles, and the plague, and Covid-19, which is also a disease of civilization because we live too close to our animals, which is a modern phenomenon. Wars broke out, we invented hierarchy, patriarchy — which is also a quite recent phenomenon. So yes, you get to see this very different shape of our history.
Now, again, we’ve made a lot of progress, especially, I think, since the end of the Second World War. But this is all very, very recent.
MH: Hmm, and you suggest it could be tentative, too?
RB: Well, I mean, this book is called “A Hopeful History.” So it’s about the possibility of change. You know, my previous book was called “Utopia For Realists,” in which I argued that we also always should have some, you know, something on the horizon. Because every milestone of civilization was once a utopian fantasy — end of slavery, democracy, you name it. So we always need to have something to work towards, but that’s no guarantee.
MH: You do a lot of evidence-based and very well-researched debunking of some conventional wisdoms and common tropes in the book, which, I have to say it’s partly what makes it so fascinating and entertaining. For example, you take aim at “Lord of the Flies,” the famous 1954 novel by William Golding, which many of us were forced to read and absorb in school; I was never a fan. That is a book which has a very Hobbesian view of human nature, a bunch of British school kids get stranded on an island, they turn into violent, hate-filled savages, they turn on each other in their “natural state.”
You say that’s not based on any real-world examples, and you even found a real world case of six Tongan boys who were stranded for real on an island in the South Pacific for over a year back in 1965. And you say they didn’t end up like the “Lord of the Flies,” fictional kids.
RB: Yeah. And if this will be a fictional story, people would say, “Oh, that is so unrealistic. That would never happen. This is so sentimental. This paints this naive, Rousseau-ian picture of what kids are like.” But turns out that, yeah, this is what really happened.
The real “Lord of the Flies” is a story of friendship, of hope, and of resilience. These six kids managed to survive for 15 months —
RB: — until they were found by an Australian Captain named Peter Warner. And yeah, they stayed the best of friends.
MH: But they didn’t turn on each other on the island, they didn’t fight or kill each other?
RB: No, not at all. Not at all. So they managed to get a fire started after three months, they never let it go out. They worked in teams of two — two to be on the lookout, two to cook, two to tend to the garden. Sometimes they ended up in fights; I mean, this is what happens with humans. But what they did is one would go to one side of the island, and the other would go to the other side of the island, cool off a little bit, come back and say “sorry.” And that’s how they kept cooperating for 15 months.
I managed to track down two of them — and I’m now actually in contact with all of them after the story was published — and they’re still friends today, you know, 50 years later. And they also became friends with this Australian captain. So it’s, as I said, it’s a very sentimental, unrealistic story. But yeah, it really happened.
MH: Whereas the “Lord of the Flies” story, which you say there’s no evidence for, well, that’s the one we’ve been imbibed with since childhood and that we all know and that we all assumed to be the case, and your book is saying that assumption is built on very weak, real-world foundations.
Just on the kids issue, in your book, you also described an experiment run by Yale’s Infant Cognition Center or “Baby Lab,” which looks at tribalism in babies. And you point out that the researchers put a puppet in front of the kids — two puppets, one mean and one selfish in a puppet show — one mean and selfish, one generous and kind. And the infants had a preference for the good puppet. But then what happened in terms of the tribalism? Talk about the tribalism involved in that experiment?
RB: Yeah. So then when they let the kids choose between — what is it, graham crackers, and another piece of food — and they would also show the preference of the puppet, then suddenly, people would choose the puppet that had the same food preference, even when that puppet was nasty, right?
RB: And that sort of shows the capacity we have for —
MH: Pick your side.
RB: Yeah, for groupthink. And for in-group, out-group behavior.
MH: But doesn’t that undermine part of your thesis, then? Because you’re saying at the very beginning, they were good and they picked the good puppet, even as babies.
MH: But then they allowed their tribalism to take over.
RB: Hmm. Well, what I’ve tried to give in my book is a quite paradoxical view of human nature. So, on the one hand, we’ve evolved to be friendly, and we’re the most cooperative species in the animal kingdom, you could even argue that. But on the other hand, this friendliness is quite often exactly the problem. So often we do the most horrible things in the name of comradeship, and of loyalty. It’s very often that, sort of, these qualities that we tend to regard as good, are implicated in our worst behavior.
MH: Yeah. A lot of people don’t realize how much of the scholarship on for example, “jihadist terrorist groups” focuses on the fact that a lot of guys join because they want solidarity with their friends, peer pressure.
RB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
MH: They want to look out for their communities or their friends.
RB: Yeah, and it’s not about condoning. But it’s about understanding. So, in my book, I’ve got a chapter about, you know, more effective ways to design the whole criminal justice system and also to do counterterrorism.
Now, my own country, I’m from the Netherlands, has an interesting tradition here of counterterrorism that we call the “Dutch Approach.” So what does the Dutch Approach entail? Well, it means that you don’t talk about terrorism, you only talk about sort of criminal behavior or violent political activism. And what you do is you try to approach kids that seem to radicalize with kindness and friendliness. And now, that takes real courage because it goes against your intuition.
RB: But it turns out that these approaches are way more effective. So back in the 70s, when there was a lot of left-wing violence, and things went completely out of hand in Germany and in Italy, Rote Armee Fraktion and the Brigate Rosse. In the Netherlands, something very different happened, and many of the terrorists later complained that ,you know, it just wasn’t, it just wasn’t fun to be a terrorist in the Netherlands —
RB: [Laughs] — because, you know, yeah, it was like, the authorities were too soft.
MH: Yes. Something else you take aim at, you debunk in the book, is the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which I remember having to study back in university. This is the famous social psychology study in which college students were picked to become either prisoners or guards in a simulation.
Archival Voiceover: They were led to a simulated prison block consisting of three small cells, a narrow hallway, and a closet designed for solitary confinement. This would be their entire world for two weeks.
MH: And the ones who became prison guards instinctively embraced pretty brutal, sadistic, authoritarian personalities.
Philip Zimbardo: Some of the guards were behaving sadistically, brutally, and many of the guards who were not were helpless to do anything about it — indeed, allowed it to go on.
Prison Guard: I really thought that I was incapable of this kind of behavior. This was a part of me I hadn’t really noticed before.
MH: And that experiment was supposed to show how we’re all capable of becoming, basically, tyrants in the right circumstances. You say that’s not true, that it was a bit of a bogus experiment.
RB: Yeah. It’s one of the most famous experiments in psychology, though. Still today — millions of students around the hear about the Stanford Prison Experiment that supposedly show, you know, shows that there’s a Nazi just below the surface in each and every one of us.
Quite recently a French sociologist called Thibault Le Texier, published a book in French that, sadly, has not been translated. And the book is called “A History Of A Lie.” And that’s basically what we’re talking about here.
We now know based on archival evidence, you know, because the archives have opened up, that Philip Zimbardo, one of the most famous living psychologists today, specifically instructed his students to be as sadistic as possible, you know, to behave in a nasty and brutal way.
MH: He put his finger on the scale.
RB: Yeah, exactly. Then many of these students said that they didn’t want to do it. They didn’t want to do it because they said: No, that’s not who I am. Then Zimbardo said: You got to do this because I need these results, then we can go to the press and say look, prisons are horrible environments. We need to reform the whole thing. That was actually a movement in the 60s where people said, you know, we got to abolish prisons totally.
And the terrible irony of this movement, which, and Zimbardo was was part of that as well, is that it was was then later used by conservatives to say, oh, well, if prisons you know don’t work at all, if rehabilitation is not an option, then, you know, let’s just throw people in prison and throw away the key, right? Let’s just lock people up for life, because then that’s the only option. It’s a history full of dark ironies.
But yeah, the Stanford Prison Experiment is — I think it can only be described as a hoax and it’s very sad that this has been taught to students for 50 years.
MH: But the other experiment that is taught to students, this very famous experiment, is the Stanley Milgram experiment where, you know, students were asked to exercise authority over others via electric shocks, you know, imaginary electric shocks that they were supposed to administer.
Archival Voiceover: The results are disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature cannot be counted on to insulate men from brutality, and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial proportion of people do what they’re told to do, irrespective of the content of the Act, and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.
MH: You weren’t able to debunk that one, though, you?
RB: Well, not totally, no. It’s a problematic experiment as well. The archives have opened up, again, and we now know that many of the subjects didn’t believe the situation was real. And we also know that the people who went all the way, to give 450 volt shocks, yeah, the chance that they would do that was higher if they didn’t believe the whole thing was real.
But, then again, you’re right. I mean, maybe it was not 65 percent, as Milgram initially reported, maybe it was — the real number is 50 percent, or 40, or 30, but it’s still way too high. It’s still a very dark and sinister experiment that shows that, indeed, friendly people can do this.
But I do think the experiment needs to be reinterpreted. So Milgram made the argument that people became sort of rigid robots, that they just blindly followed orders, just as many Germans said after the war, you know, “I was just following orders.” But I think what really happened in that experiment was something different. It was about joining; it was about followership. It was about people wanting to help the scientist, and yes, sort of feeling part of his group — which is not a comfortable message, right? It’s not a comfortable message at all. We talked earlier about, you know, how so often we do the most horrible things in the name of loyalty and friendship. And I think that’s also how we should interpret this experiment.
MH: But you’re not denying, are you, that, you know, people talk very casually, sometimes, you know, human beings have a dark side? Your book and your research hasn’t led you to the conclusion that we don’t have a dark side?
RB: No, of course not. I mean, this is one of the ironies about writing a book about human kindness and cooperation is that you have to go on for hundreds of pages about all the dark pages in our history, right? And all the atrocities. How do you explain ethnic cleansing? How do you explain the Holocaust and wars, etc, etc?
The psychology of violence is really interesting here. Violence is quite difficult for most people. I mean, eating food is easy, and we, I mean, everyone understands that, that that is nice and we need that in order to survive. Same is true for sex; I mean, if we stop having sex, you know, species will go extinct. But with violence, it’s different. Often we pay a high psychological price: soldiers go to war, they kill an enemy, and they come back with PTSD. So that suggests to me that even though we’re capable of it, especially with technological means, you know? If we manage to increase the distance with the enemy, for example, or with the conditioning or brainwashing, there are a lot of procedures that are used in the military and also actually with police officers. I mean, many American police officers have been brainwashed, basically, to be violent. But that’s not how they were born. And that’s, I think, that’s important to keep in mind.
MH: Let’s talk about the Holocaust. You mentioned it a couple of times. I’m sure when you sat down to start writing this book — this book that says how fundamentally decent we are — you must have thought to yourself, “I’m gonna have to deal with the Holocaust.”
MH: How do you deal with it in the book? How does it fit with your thesis? The Nazis, the Holocaust, industrialized mass killing?
RB: Well, I mean, I obviously can’t pretend that it’s sort of, you can explain the Holocaust. I mean, libraries full of books have been written about it.
I do criticize the standard explanation that we often hear, which is: How do you explain the Holocaust? Well, there’s just a Nazi below the surface.
And this was also the message of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiments. And I think that those explanations trivialized, actually, what was going on. We need a much more complicated layered explanation.
So if you look at soldiers of the Wehrmacht, for example, why was this the most effective fighting force in all of history? Well, it had a lot to do with comradeship, we now know. There have been a lot of interviews of prisoners of war in the last two years of the war, and it turns out that many of them were not fighting because they were fanatical Nazis, but because they didn’t want to let their friends down.
Now obviously, that explanation doesn’t work for camp guards or for fanatical S.S. idealogues, right? That we need something —
MH: Or the entire leadership of the country.
RB: Yeah, exactly. So there we need something different, that has — well, I think you really need to look at the whole history of Nazi Germany, where evil was normalized. I mean, I mean, that’s, I guess the most important point that I tried to make in the book, is that it just takes years and years and years before a society becomes so lost and so poisoned that something like this happens. And that’s important to keep in mind.
MH: What about the other famous or infamous genocide of the last hundred years, the Rwandan genocide? That happened in a matter of weeks or months.
RB: Oh, I think that often in the West, we have a very simplistic view of the Rwandan genocide. Right? We — many Western commentators — have tried to paint this as, “Oh, these Africans suddenly became savages.” And, you know, that’s that’s really not what it was.
In many ways, it’s just, you know, it’s been a modern genocide with many of similar mechanisms that we also see in the build-up to the Holocaust. You know, where modern, mass propaganda was used; where the process of dehumanization have been going on for years and years and years. And then, yes, the, the unthinkable became possible; which is, again, I mean, it’s a very dark truth about who we are as a species. And there’s no — I’ve never heard of a penguin that says, oh, let’s lock up an old group of other people and exterminate them all.
So I’m not, you know, in many ways, I think this book is not a comfortable book.
MH: No, and there’s and there’s no easy answers to some of this stuff. But let me just take some of your, kind of, very strong statements. You say in the book: “Precisely when bombs fall from the sky or dikes break, the best things come out in humans. That’s a quite sweeping statement. A lot of people would look at something like 9/11 —
MH: And say, OK, 9/11 — after 9/11 the worst things came out: illegal invasions, torture, rendition, surveillance, demonization of Muslims, all backed by an American public that was bent on revenge.
MH: The polling shows most Americans signed up for all of that. They even re-elected George W. Bush three years later.
RB: Yeah, yeah. And you wonder, sometimes, could it have been different? Because the first initial response that I’m talking about in the book was so different. You know, we’ve got eyewitness accounts of people who were going down the stairs of the burning Twin Towers, and literally saying to each other, “No, you go first.” “No, you go first.” “You go first.” So this extraordinary decency, even in such a, you know, such a scary situation.
Now, we all know what happened after that, and how this crisis was abused. And we got two illegal wars and massive surveillance of citizens by the government. But maybe there’s a different possibility.
One of my favorite books about this is written by Rebecca Solnit, the American writer who published the book, “A Paradise Built In Hell,” where she also talks about the extraordinary evidence we have from sociology about what happens after natural disasters, and she goes into the case study of Katrina. You know, 2005, the press was full of stories about looting and plundering and violence —
MH: Exaggerated stories.
RB: — but what exactly happened was an explosion of altruism and cooperation. But elites just look at us, and they look in the mirror, and they think that, “Oh, other people are just as selfish as we are.” And then they send in the military and they send in the police, right?
MH: No, I understand that. But just sticking with 9/11. I understand your point about going another way. And you know, the Iranians came out with a candlelight vigil after 9/11.
MH: There was a moment there for some, you know, reconciliation between those two countries. All of that was missed, because unfortunately, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were in charge.
MH: But the fact is, Americans did get behind those horrific policies that I mentioned.
RB: Yes. Yeah.
MH: They didn’t take the path that you mentioned could have been taken, and surely that undermines some of the thesis of your book.
RB: Well, I think it’s the connection again, with, on the one hand, you have the corruption of power, and on the other hand, you have this tribal behavior from sort of ordinary people who could, in fact, be decent. I think this is sort of a very toxic combination that you so often see play out in history; there are ways to try and get around this though. There’s a very old theory in psychology that’s called the contact hypothesis. It’s very different, a simple idea, that’s just that if you put people in contact, they find it much harder to hate each other.
I’ve got one chapter in the book about, you know, something that many people have heard about, you know, the Christmas truce in 1940, during, in the midst of the First World War —
RB: — when soldiers stop fighting.
Archival Voiceover: All of the sudden, I saw lights all along the German trenches, all coming up, there’s sort of Christmas trees, and they started singing Christmas carols, singing “Silent Night.”
RB: And it’s really interesting, actually, is that the people who hated the Germans the most, they were the people who, at home, reading the newspapers, and the journalists and the editors, but the actual soldiers in the trenches, they often find it hard to keep on fighting, because, you know, they were so close to the enemy that very often you would have these outbreaks of peace, and that was very hard to control for, for the generals and the officers.
MH: You’re on the left of the political spectrum, and you’ve written a book your conservative critics might say, which conveniently affirms your own politics, your own ideology. After all, conservatives say we humans are fundamentally flawed, we’re selfish, individualistic people, while it’s people on the left — socialists, for example, who have utopian ideas about collective action and solidarity between human beings. What would you say to people who say, “Well, this just, you know, it firms your own biases?”
RB: Well, it’s a book that, for me, has, in many ways, been a reckoning with my own ideas. I used to believe in the Stanford Prison Experiment. I used to believe in the cynical story of Easter Island, you know, how the civilization killed itself. I used to believe in veneer theory, so that has to say something.
And I also think that very often on the left, you also find this, I don’t know, bit more paternalistic view of people that we have to help them to make the right decisions. While, I think that, in the end, what I’m advocating is a more anarchistic view of who we are as a species — that most people are quite decent, but power corrupts. The problem with anarchists, though, is that they’re not very good at building institutions. And that’s where, really we need to do better.
MH: [Laughs.] By definition.
MH: You said in a recent interview with my former colleague, George Eaton, over at The New Statesman magazine in the UK, that you believed the Overton Window, the range of policies deemed acceptable to the voters, is moving left. You said, “It’s a wonderful time to be a social democrat.”
MH: And yet, just a few months ago, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party were heavily defeated in the UK election. Just a few weeks ago, here in the U.S., Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were both rejected by Democratic primary voters.
RB: Mhmm. And then the standard response here is obviously what Sanders said himself, as well, is that he won the battle of ideas.
Now, that may sound like a bit of a weak response, but I mean, if you zoom out, it’s really true. It’s really — you can clearly see it, if you just look at the climate plans of Joe Biden, who is, I totally agree with people, is a boring, moderate, and there are many problems with his platform. But his climate plans are more ambitious than Bernie Sanders’ climate plans of 2016.
If you look at how the window has shifted, when it comes to taxing the rich, you know, people are — it’s true that actually Biden is relatively radical, if you look at the history of Democratic candidates in the U.S..
And the same is true, I think, for the UK, is the actual spending of the conservatives on social services in the past couple of years has been closer to the UK, or the Labour manifesto of 2017, to the plans of the conservatives themselves.
MH: And yet, and yet these left-wing parties and candidates frustratingly keep losing.
RB: Yeah, but maybe that’s — I mean, it would be nice, I totally agree with you, to win an election for once. And maybe, I think people on the left also have to become better at building coalitions.
RB: I’ve just read this really great book by Helen Lewis, it’s a history of feminism —
MH: Another former colleague of mine.
RB: [Laughs.] Well, there you go. It’s a history of feminism in Great Britain.
RB: And she talks about the women’s right to vote, and the whole campaign for that. And it’s so interesting, because what they managed to do is build this huge coalition of working class women and aristocrats. And then they reached a compromise in what is it, in 1918? Just a partial right to vote for women, only women over 30 who had property. And then 10 years later, they got the whole thing.
So that teaches us something. If you want progress then sometimes you need to do things that you don’t like, and I think this is sometimes a bit of a problem among the left is that we like to stay in our corner of the internet and be retweeted by people who already agree with us.
MH: Yes. That is —
RB: But that’s not how you actually change the world.
MH: — that is a problem across the political spectrum. By the way, Helen Lewis’ book is called, “Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights.”
MH: If you want to check that out. We’re running out of time, but I do have to bring up a major issue, because when I came across your book and the thesis of your book, even before I started reading it, the first thing that jumped into my mind, as a counterpoint, was not Nazi Germany or the Stanford Prison Experiment or whatever it is, the number one thing that jumped into my mind was immigration, and I think about human decency, and cooperation, and sticking up for other people, and then I look at the record of the West in recent years, as refugee numbers have ballooned around the world, Syria imploded.
We didn’t see people across Europe or North America opening their arms to refugees, to immigrants. We saw the exact opposite, we saw the scapegoating of those people, the demonization of those people. We saw voters elect Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán — almost even elect Geert Wilders in your country, Marie Le Pen in France. How does the backlash against immigration fit with your thesis about our basic decency, because I so want to believe in your thesis, and then I look at the immigration debate, and I just want to tear my hair out.
RB: Well, let me say one thing about my country’s cause I’ve seen the reports about Geert Wilders supposedly becoming the leader of this country. Well, he got, like, I don’t know, 15 or 20 percent of the vote at max, and he’ll never get more. Actually, 80 percent of the country strongly dislikes him [laughs]. And, what we’ve also seen here, is that for every refugee that came in, there were two or three volunteers who wanted to help. This was actually a problem; we had too many volunteers.
And, you know, I remember a conversation with my sister, I had at the time, who was angry; she had signed up to be a volunteer, and people from the city had said, “You can’t do anything anymore because we’ve got too many people already who want to help.”
Now, this is, these are sort of the banality of the good; it’s what, especially the news, doesn’t really focus on. Because the news is mostly about, I think, the nastiness, about the negative.
RB: Now I’m not saying that doesn’t exist —
MH: Yeah, that’s the thing: I agree with you on the news, and I know you’re very critical of the news, and you’re right about the media industry, and the way that we consume news is a drug that makes us pessimistic, cynical, you know, brings out our worst qualities and the point you made earlier about self-fulfilling prophecy — all great points about the media; I share them totally.
But, we can’t deny the fact that there’s ths growing, far-right, “populist” — I hate that word — nativist, xenophobic, anti-migrant wave across the West, and then you come out with this book saying we’re actually really decent people. I’m like, well, the wave of politicians being elected doesn’t seem to support that.
RB: No. But at the same time, you have these millions of protestors across the U.S., in all 50 states. I don’t know. It seems to me like we’re in an extraordinary moment, full of hope, and it seems to me, many of these, I don’t know, the strong man and the authoritarian response on the right — I don’t know. It seems like, the, how do you say that, last gasp of breath for some of these people, of a dying ideology.
MH: A death rattle.
MH: I hope you’re right, Rutger. I pray to god that you’re right.
RB: Well, maybe it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we actually believe it. That’s what the book is about, as well.
MH: Yeah. Maybe we’ll have to get you back on this show in November to talk about how you were right to be hopeful in this moment.
MH: Before we finish, we’re out of time, but I do, I want so much more to discuss with you, and I recommend listeners read the book, because there’s so many fascinating anecdotes, studies, interesting & provocative points that you make.
But just on a separate subject, I do want to ask you one last question: you became very famous last year when you went to Davos, when you took on the “elites” in Davos to their faces, and I played a clip earlier on the show of you doing that. And then, of course, you went on Fox News, on Tucker Carlson’s show, which went viral, where you challenged him on his kind of biases, and awful output, and kind of apologism for billionaires. Let me just ask you this: When you went on Tucker’s show, did you go planning to do that or did that just happen in the spur of the moment? I wanted to ask you that for a year now, because it was brilliant.
RB: [Laughs.] Well, it’s been a bit of both. So, it was 2 AM. It was in the middle of the night in Amsterdam, and I had forgotten about the interview, to be honest, because I was moving to a different place. And that Monday, I realized, “Oh god. I still have this Tucker Carlson interview. What am I gonna say?” And I arrived at the studio, and there was just one producer — as I said, it was the middle of the night. And I joked to him, that, you know, I was going to do this interview and they were probably not going to air it because I, I don’t know, I was in the mood of telling him the truth.
And I asked him, the producer, I asked, “Can you record the thing?” Because then I have something nice to say, you know, next Friday, when I’m going to drink beers with a couple of colleagues and I’ve got them a nice video to show them. And he said, you know, that he couldn’t do it. That he didn’t have the equipment there to do it.
So I just went to the interview, expecting that, I don’t know, nothing would happen; I just would have a nice anecdote and they would never air it. And then we had this bizarre conversation where he really exploded, and to be honest, I thought it was hilarious; I thought it was absolutely hilarious —
MH: It was hilarious.
RB: — that he completely lost it.
And then, the interview was over, and this guy came in the studio, and he said, “You know, I’ve got the whole thing on my iPhone, I couldn’t resist, you know, recording it.” And then he airdropped it to me on my phone, and I immediately tried to post it on Twitter, but it didn’t work. You know, my Internet wasn’t working.
And so we went downstairs, had a couple of beers. And I guess, at that point, I didn’t really realize what had happened.
And then the next morning I woke up and I watched the video, and I was like, “Holy shit, this is a hand grenade.” [Laughs.] And then we consulted, I don’t know — three, four lawyers, before we had the guts to actually publish it. So that’s how it happened.
MH: Well it was definitely fun to watch, and I’m glad someone kind of stuck it to Tucker Carlson, the faux populist and white nationalist of our time.
Rutger Bregman, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Congratulations on the book. Carry on being thought-provoking.
RB: Thanks, man. Thanks for having me.
MH: That was Rutger Bregman, the Dutch historian and journalist, and author of the new book “Humankind: A Hopeful History.” I’m hopeful, after listening to him speak; he sure does make a passionate, thought-provoking, well-argued case. And what’s so important is that progressives use such arguments, use books like his, to fight for a better future, to imagine a better world, and not get lost in cynicism or despair — especially at a time like now.
That’s our show! Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice: iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review — it helps new people find the show. And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much!
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