It is not too far-fetched to believe that a new religion will develop within the next few hundred years, a religion which corresponds to the development of the human race; the most important feature of such a religion would be its universalistic character, corresponding to the unification of mankind which is taking place in this epic … its emphasis would be on the practice of life, rather than on doctrinal beliefs.—Erich Fromm, The Sane Society
Martin Hägglund is that rarest of beings: a critical theorist who writes beautifully and has a real vision for the future. Currently a professor of Comparative Literature at Yale, his recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom has received a surprisingly warm reception for a work that casually references Hegel and Kierkegaard and openly argues in favour of democratic socialism. It has been profiled in the New Yorker and enthusiastically reviewed and discussed in a variety of outlets. Hägglund has indeed delivered a seminal work, which is sure to provoke both controversy and serious analysis for many years. It provides a sustained leftist account of spirituality, while retaining a sharp critical edge. It has some serious limitations in its relatively heavy reliance on classical Marxist political economy. But the vision of secular faith and democratic socialism sketched out is not only inspiring, but convincing.
This Life divides neatly in two: the first half develops a novel critique of (mostly western) religious faith and the second delves into economics and politics. Given the complexity of these topics, the book is a work of extraordinary ambition: it attempts to provide a comprehensive vision of what a meaningful life looks like both for the individual and for society.
The Critique of Religion
The first section offers a criticism of religious faith as ultimately unable to provide a meaningful existence. This is a startling claim. Since at least Arthur Schopenhauer, most western philosophers—even atheists—have argued that, without God, life becomes meaningless or absurd—to use Camus’ favored expression. The discourse around secularization has sometimes reached apocalyptic heights. Consider Dostoevsky imploring that without God “everything is permitted” and commentators like Jordan Peterson and Sohrab Ahmari laying the blame for relativism and nihilism at secularism’s door. Hägglund, by contrast, makes a compelling cause for the nihilism of the religious belief in eternity:
The sense of finitude—the sense of the ultimate fragility of everything we care about—is at the heart of what I call secular faith. To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down … I call it secular faith because it is devoted to a form of life that is bounded by time. In accordance with the Latin meaning of the word secularis, to have secular faith is to be dedicated to persons or projects that are worldly and temporal. Secular faith is the form of faith that we all sustain in caring for someone or something that is vulnerable to loss.
This is a decidedly modernist argument about faith. Hägglund spends almost no time dealing with the classical or scholastic proofs of God’s existence, which were meant to provide belief in the divine with a rock-solid foundation in reason. I assume that Hägglund takes it as a given that such arguments are unlikely to be convincing to philosophically and scientifically literate individuals post-Kant. Instead, he confronts the one major argument left: that only belief in God can provide a sense of meaning in this world. This direct appeal to the heart has been made by many intelligent philosophers of faith since Kierkegaard: including luminaries like Dostoevsky, Miguel de Unamuno and Paul Tillich. One might be tempted to object that the need for a god or gods to provide meaning is unrelated to whether or not gods actually exist. But Hägglund does better than this: he shows that religious faith does not even provide a sense of meaning on its own terms. Secular faith does much a better job of this.
His argument owes much to his treatment of the human experience of time—not time as a physical phenomenon, but the existential horizon of our lives. Much like Wittgenstein, Hägglund insists that it is the finitude of life that gives it “form and texture.” The fact that none of us live forever forces us to value projects and people, and, in so doing, define who we are. Hägglund argues that we each have certain, socially determined “practical identities.” I may be, let’s say, a father in a familial context, a bartender in a professional one and an amateur poet in my spare time. Each of these practical identities is part of who I am. But the “order or priority” I give to these practical identities frames my “existential identity” by responding to “conflicts between [the practical identities’] respective demands.” The finitude of time available to me means that I may never be able to simultaneously be the world’s best father, master my professional craft and excel at my hobbies. This forces me to choose, to exercise what Hägglund calls our “spiritual freedom,” in deciding which of my practical identities is most valuable to me—a decision of tremendous significance. According to Hägglund, if I had an infinite span of time at my disposal, I would never be forced to wrestle with these questions of value, since, in the fullness of eternity, each of my projects would be realized one after another, and, consequently, they would become ever less meaningful. This is why religions have only been able to portray eternal life indirectly, through imagery. In Dante’s Paradiso, for example, he and his love Beatrice lose their individuality and become completely absorbed in endlessly worshipping God. Goethe’s Faust represents an eternal life in which to pursue one’s desires as a special kind of hell, in which one is never permitted to cease that pursuit. The finite moments of life lose their meaning in the onrush of eternity.
This theme is also explored in the sitcom The Good Place, whose protagonists quickly discover that eternal bliss is boring—even a burden. Each person gradually accomplishes everything they have ever wished to, which leaves them without ambitions, interests or passions. The solution is to create a door that allows people to end their eternal lives by fading back into reality, like a “wave returning to the ocean.” Once this option to end things becomes available, the inhabitants of paradise are rejuvenated, since they are now forced to ask tough questions about what is worth living for. Real paradise is being able to enjoy an immensely long time in great comfort, deepening one’s relationships, understanding and aptitudes. But an immensely long time is not the same as forever: it is the fact that life will end that gives it its unique beauty. When we mourn at funerals, Hägglund insists, we are reflecting this secular faith. Someone came into the world, made something distinct of her life and will never be seen again. This is what gives our lives their meaning. This is powerful stuff.
Questions of time are also at the center of Hägglund’s political ruminations.
Marx and the Argument for Democratic Socialism
In the second half of the book, Hägglund takes up the critique of political economy launched by Marx, who developed the “greatest resources for developing a secular notion of freedom.” This is because Marx made the expropriation of time by capital central to his analysis of the contradictions inherent in capitalist society. Marx argues that the exchange value of commodities ultimately stems from the socially necessary labour time embodied within them. In earlier historical epochs, this truth was obscured, since the economy was organized such that only slaves or serfs were forced to labor directly to produce goods. With the advent of capitalism, labor time quickly became “explicitly the measure of value in exchange.”
The standard Marxist position is that, in a capitalist society, all commodities have both a use and an exchange value. The use value of a commodity lies in its utility. Water, for instance, has a high use value. But water doesn’t cost very much—at least, in conditions in which it is readily available. Its exchange value is therefore low since one needs to expend relatively little “socially necessary labor time” to obtain water. Socially necessary labor time is determined by the “amount of time it takes for the average worker in our society to produce” a commodity, given the technology and tools available. One of the reasons that capitalists like timesaving devices is that they decrease how long workers need to labor, which in turn means that they can pay those workers less. This produces many of capitalism’s contradictions: for instance, when workers get paid too little to actually buy things, it provokes a crisis of under-consumption. For Hägglund, the more important issue is that capitalists can only profit by drawing on socially necessary labor time provided by workers to produce “surplus value.” We could easily produce enough to satisfy human demand, while caring for our own needs, given the technologies available today, but the capitalist need for profit means that we are forced to work far longer hours than necessary. For this to change, the means of production would need to be owned socially, rather than vested in the hands of capitalists. The time of our lives is being sucked away from us, as we spend decades at work and far less time with friends and family.
Hägglund argues that we need to abandon capitalism and replace it with democratic socialism, in which the means of production are owned in common and managed democratically. In such a society, each person would be free from exploitation and empowered to pursue a meaningful life. In the book’s conclusion, Hägglund cites Martin Luther King’s campaigns against poverty and the power of vested interests as examples of the kinds of political activism we should be engaged in. Rather than imagining a perfect, eternal world beyond the grave, we should try to create a better one within the realm of time—before we lose the opportunity forever.
I am very sympathetic to the broad thrust of Hägglund’s argument. The resources now exist to provide everyone on the planet with enough to allow us to lead lives of dignified self-authorship. That we have failed to so is a moral blight on our species, given the ethical obligations of fairness and our duty to relieve preventable suffering wherever possible. I also agree with Hägglund that, for democratic socialism to take hold, one would need to do more than just redistribute wealth. Institutional changes—such as democratizing the workplace—would also be required. If these changes are not enacted, any effort to redistribute wealth will always be vulnerable to pushback: as we saw in the 1980s, with the spread of neoliberalism and the rollback of the welfare state.
However, I am not convinced that Marxist categories like socially necessary labour time have much to offer us in the twentieth century. Marx was a brilliant man and there is much to learn from him. But the argument that exchange value is derived from the socially necessary labor time embodied in commodities has always struck me as obscure and metaphysical. Marx himself is not to blame for this—as even Ben Shapiro has acknowledged, the association of labor with the creation of value has deep roots in the thinking of John Locke, Adam Smith and David Ricardo. But, since then, economics has immeasurably complicated the picture: everyone from Max Weber to Milton Friedman has observed that monetarist policies, interest rates and consumer expectations play an important role. Most compellingly, Joseph Schumpeter has argued that capitalism continuously engages in a process of “creative destruction” to destroy the old forms of value and bring about new ones—including forms of value without an obvious link to direct labor, of the kind that Marx calls “fictitious capital” in Capital: Volume Three. Unfortunately, Hägglund doesn’t address these issues at great length. F. A. Hayek is given too little attention, despite the author’s acknowledgement that he is “the most powerful and philosophically sophisticated critic of capitalism.” To make a strong case for resurrecting the classic Marxist categories, Hägglund would have to spend a great deal more time delving into these controversies to convince the skeptics.
Another, more subtle issue is how Hägglund shifts the historical orientation of Marx’s arguments. Marx famously refrained from making moral judgements about capitalism, presenting himself as a diagnostician first and foremost. He believed that capitalism was the highest stage of history, but —like all those that had come before it—it was destined to be replaced by an even higher form of society. While most commentators now admit that there are clear moral judgements implied by Marx’s analysis, it is not always obvious how Hägglund reconciles his historicism with an account of “spiritual freedom.” If we are free to remake the world as we wish, doesn’t this count against the orthodox Marxist claim that the contradictions of capital will inexorably bring about its ruin? Considerably more engagement with these issues is needed.
These are minor critiques of a truly magisterial work. This Life has gigantic ambitions, and it is no slight to its author that it leaves the reader with many unanswered questions. Hägglund has written a great book and it should be read and discussed widely.