Late in his history degree he decided to become a professor. “I wrote complicated papers. In English! I sent some in to journals. They were even gepeer-reviewed. Nothing got through because it was really bad, but I think I cost them a lot of time. It was all written in the academic jargon I was trying to master. When I read one paper back later, I had no idea what I was talking about.” So he went into journalism. Is there something wrong with academia if it’s losing people like him? “It’s one of the tragedies of the modern university that it offers little space to generalists,” he says. “But the book I’ve written is built on the work of countless specialists. Sometimes one sentence is somebody’s four-year PhD. So I can’t pretend that specialisms aren’t important.”
The glory days of intellectual journalism, when one book review could pay a month’s rent, had gone. Luckily for Bregman, in 2013 a Dutch philosopher called Rob Wijnberg launched a revolutionary online publication called De Correspondent. Its premise was that “news” covers exceptional events — plane crashes, terrorist attacks — and therefore distorts our understanding of society. De Correspondent tries to show how the world works. Bregman has never worked anywhere else. He says, “De Correspondent is a rare place that sort of fills the gap between university and newspaper. I’m so lucky that — how old was I? 24, 25? — Rob said, ‘Here’s a basic income. Go and do what you want. Write an essay a month and that’s fine.’ Most journalists have to go through a whole merry-go-round and then at 50 they might get to be ‘editor-at-large’ and do fun things. But by then lots of time has passed, and many ideas have become anchored in your brain. Maybe not everything is as open any more.” His 50-year-old lunch partner in Paris winces.
In 2016 I got an email from a 27-year-old Dutchman. He was essentially self-publishing a book in English, the translation funded by De Correspondent, called Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. Please could I read or even review it? Bregman laughs at the recollection: “I asked you, ‘Can you help? I don’t know anybody.’” Utopia for Realists eventually appeared in more than 30 languages. It helped to mainstream the argument for universal basic income, and showed that well-written wonkery can reach a mass market. Bregman travelled the world, met the stars and was underwhelmed. “I’ve abandoned the idea that titles and big names mean much.”