Rutger Bregman: 'classic household set-up' may allow abuse to go unchecked

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent
Photograph: Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

The surge in recorded domestic violence in recent weeks poses a big challenge to the uplifting messages about human nature now associated with the work of star author Rutger Bregman. But the bestselling Dutch historian offered some responses to the grim trend this weekend in a Hay festival conversation with the writer, actor and model Lily Cole.

Related: Rutger Bregman: the Dutch historian who rocked Davos and unearthed the real Lord of the Flies

Admitting that his latest book, Humankind, should have included more analysis of the destructive forces behind domestic violence, Bregman told Cole that since its publication, and even more since the imposition of an international lockdown, he has thought hard about the issue.

“I’ve been thinking that school, or certainly the traditional English public school model, is like a prison, in that you can’t get out and it is hierarchical. As a result they have a lot of bullying. On the other hand if you mix ages and academic ability this is less of a problem,” said Bregman. “And I wonder is the classic household set-up similar to a strict school, with its inequalities?”

In reply Cole, who has her own positive book on human behaviour, Who Cares Wins, about the potential for a gift economy, out in the summer, noted that some anthropological studies have suggested that nomadic tribes show less evidence of domestic abuse and it is the privacy and isolation afforded by a closed domestic setting that can allow abuse to develop unchecked.

Related: Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman review – a tribute to our better nature

Bregman’s earlier book, Utopia for Realists, coupled with a talk he gave at Davos about taxes in 2019 which went viral, have made him popular internationally, particularly with those trying to shape a more positive narrative for human societies of the future.

The digital Hay festival event was watched by fans from around the world.

Bregman said he hoped the pandemic may now allow for societies to change. “To me the message of my book feels quite timely. The first chapter is about how people respond in a crisis. But we actually have an extraordinary amount of evidence showing that you get an explosion of altruism,” he said. “Even before this, in the past 10 years so many ideas that were once dismissed have become quite mainstream. The tide is really turning. Cynicism is out.”

Bregman also said he hopes to break down the old binary oppositions between left and right, capitalism and communism, and state and the market, to create a possible “third way”, that is closer to anarchism. “It is not Tony Blair’s third way,” he said, telling Cole he is attempting to reclaim two historically stigmatised terms, not just anarchism, but communism and take them back to their original meanings.

“When I talk about ‘everyday communism’, I am teasing a little. It is a provocative idea. But then we all do a lot of sharing a lot of the time. We don’t draw up contracts for everything. It would be impossible. On top of all that interaction, we have put the market and the state.”

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