What Is Democratic Socialism? Part I: Reclaiming Freedom

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To find LARB’s symposium on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, click here.



IN OUR HISTORICAL MOMENT, the fundamental questions of how we should organize our societies — how we should live and work together — are felt with a new urgency. As we find ourselves implicated in the accelerating destruction of our ecosystem, the environmental crisis has reanimated questions regarding the viability of capitalism even in mainstream political debates. Yet exactly what is meant by “capitalism” is far from clear in the diagnoses of our predicament. Inequality, exploitation, and commodification are regularly denounced, but their systematic relation to the capitalist mode of production is rarely taken into account. Likewise, the proposed solutions to our current crisis are increasingly gathered under the banner of “democratic socialism.” But in almost all cases, democratic socialism is a name for the reformation — rather than the overcoming — of capitalism. As a result, the critical injunctions are reduced to calls for the redistribution of wealth, which do not question how the wealth itself is generated by wage labor and how capital accumulation is required for there to be any wealth to distribute in the first place.

By contrast, This Life seeks to challenge the very measure of value that shapes the production of wealth under capitalism. There is no shortage of rhetorical indictments of capitalism, but what we need is a profound definition and analysis of capitalism that can illuminate the historical conditions under which we live, as well as the principles for an economic form of life beyond capitalism. That is what I set out to provide.

Given the stakes of the project, I am deeply grateful to Los Angeles Review of Books for organizing this symposium and for the critical engagement of the six distinguished respondents, all of whose work I have learned from and admire. In responding to them, my aim is not only to defend the arguments of This Life but also to elaborate the emancipatory vision of democratic socialism at the heart of the book. Democratic socialism in my sense would be a post-capitalist form of life, which cannot be achieved merely through redistributive reforms. Rather, democratic socialism requires a revolutionary revaluation of our collective measure of value, which would abolish wage labor and transform how we reproduce our lives, all the way from our production of goods to our forms of education and other social institutions.

To grasp the meaning of such a revaluation, it is helpful to begin with Benjamin Kunkel’s response to the book. Kunkel generously emphasizes that This Life makes a “magnificent case for democratic socialism” by “wresting the indispensable slogan of freedom away from the publicists for liberal capitalism.” To this end, I argue that Marx should be understood as the most important inheritor of the modern, Enlightenment commitment to freedom. Marx has no nostalgia for the premodern world. Rather, he makes clear that both capitalism and liberalism are historical conditions of possibility for the collective emancipation that he espouses. While consistent with Marx’s vision of communism, I choose to describe the post-capitalist form of life in terms of a novel conception of democratic socialism, in order to underline that the commitment to democracy is indispensable for Marx’s critique of capitalism. Through a critique of capitalism and liberalism on their own terms, I specify the general principles of democratic socialism and elaborate their concrete implications. What I call democratic socialism is neither an imposed blueprint nor an abstract utopia. Rather, I derive the principles of democratic socialism from the commitment to universal freedom and equality that is a historical achievement of modernity.

In developing the vision of democratic socialism, I have two main aims, which are perceptively highlighted by Kunkel. At stake is both a recuperation of “the cause of freedom for the radical left” and a demonstration “through the existential register of This Life, that democratic socialism is properly the cause of everyone.” As Kunkel rightly underlines, the case for democratic socialism requires that we can explain why capitalism is a source of unfreedom not only for the working class but also for the ruling classes themselves. In short, we must be able to explain why “an ordinary citizen under democratic socialism” would have greater possibilities of leading a free life “than even an exceptionally rich person today.”

To establish my argument, I must therefore demonstrate “the existential bankruptcy of capitalist wealth,” as Kunkel vividly expresses it. He recognizes that I show the unfreedom of those “whose mortal schedule and daily priorities take shape as capital demands,” including “the comparatively well paid, the ‘privileged,’ even the working rich.” Yet Kunkel thinks my argument “could easily be appropriated by the idle rich,” since he misconstrues the notion of free time that is at the center of This Life. On Kunkel’s account, my notion of free time is an empty quantitative category: “the sheer number of free hours” in which “we might do as we please,” since we supposedly do not have to answer to any demands placed on us by others. The same conception of free time informs Michael W. Clune’s response. According to Clune, I subscribe to a notion of freedom and equality “that says you can do anything you want to do, that all desires are equally legitimate, that society plays no role in judging what form of life you should adopt, so long as you don’t harm anyone else in certain carefully delimited ways.” Indeed, Clune claims that I do not “distinguish between better and worse ways of spending one’s free time,” since my notion of free time merely amounts to “the freedom to do whatever we want.”

I am truly surprised by these assertions, since the conception of freedom they ascribe to me is one that I argue against throughout the entire book. To be free is not to be free from obligations and follow any inclination one happens to have, released from the normative question of what is the right thing to do. On the contrary, I argue that we are free precisely because the normative question of what we ought to do is always at issue for us. Being free is not a matter of being unconstrained but of being responsive to the question of what is worth doing and which ends are worthy of our devotion. From your first-person standpoint, there is always such a question at work, if only implicitly. By virtue of doing anything at all, you are in practice taking a stand on the question of what is worth doing. If there were no such question involved — if it were immediately given what to do, without any possible hesitation, deliberation, or alteration on your part — you could not even understand yourself as an agent, since there would be nothing for you to do; it would all be automatic.

By the same token, the distinction between better and worse ways of spending your time is always at stake implicitly and can become explicit. You must be able to recognize that what you are doing is not worth doing and that what you have done is not worthy of who you are trying to be. The ability to make such negative judgments is an essential part of leading a free life. That is why Clune can judge that, by his own lights, he has wasted much of his life on doing heroin, buying worthless consumer goods, and playing the computer game Slay the Spire. It is also why the free time of the idle rich can be spoiled by a sense of “guilt and futility,” as Kunkel notes, with the attendant “suicides, addictions, mortal frivolities, and terminal bad faith that plague the rich today.”

Kunkel admits that he does not know how to “articulate philosophically” why the free time of the idle rich is pervaded by pathologies, but that is because he does not grasp the notion of freedom that is at stake. In a revealing example, Kunkel assumes that “loafing” on a lawn is an inherently free activity, whereas maintaining lawns on which people can loaf is an inherently unfree activity. Socially necessary labor (e.g., “seeding, fertilizing, and mowing lawns”) would then be an external constraint on our freedom — a necessary evil that we should try to reduce as much as possible — since freedom supposedly consists in freedom from socially necessary labor. If that were my notion of free time, the idle rich would indeed be paragons of freedom, since their abundant monetary wealth apparently releases them from the pressure of obligations and leaves them open to indulge any inclination that emerges as they are loafing through their lives.

As I underscore, however, free time is not reducible to leisure time and it does not designate a merely quantitative category of time. Rather, I coin the term socially available free time to make clear that our freedom can exist only in a social form and that it always depends on the quality of our social activities. For the same reason, there is no inherent opposition between socially available free time and socially necessary labor. To have socially available free time is to be engaged in activities that we recognize as ends in themselves — which can include many forms of socially necessary labor — as distinct from activities that we recognize as mere means to an end. This is a formal distinction, in the sense that it is not given which activities should count as ends in themselves and which activities should count as mere means to an end. If you are mowing a lawn because you are cheap labor for a capitalist enterprise, your labor time is unfree and alienated, since what you are doing is merely a means to the end of earning a wage. However, if you are mowing a lawn because you are committed to the flourishing of green spaces in the society of which you are a part, your socially necessary labor can itself be an expression of your freedom, since your labor is a way of participating in and contributing to a social good that you recognize as an end in itself. Inversely, there is no positive form of freedom in being “free” from obligations. Loafing on a lawn is itself a form of unfreedom if you cannot see your leisure time as part of a life that is good in itself.

Moreover, whether your life is good in itself is not simply up to you but always depends on your relation to others. We are essentially social individuals because it is impossible to be anyone without the recognition of others. You cannot even try to be someone — for example, a friend, a parent, or a comrade — without some normative conception of what it means to be recognized by others as a friend, a parent, or a comrade. Even if you are trying to be a recluse, this requires a normative conception of what it means to be a recluse, which in principle can be recognized by others. Such conceptions are never invented from scratch by an individual but depend on socially shared norms into which we are habituated. You can transform the norms through your practice, but in doing so you are always answerable to others and held to account for yourself. This is not a restriction on your freedom, but a condition of possibility for your freedom. Being free is not a matter of being free from a social world but of being free to engage, transform, and recognize yourself in the social norms to which you are bound.

Hence, to be free is not to be independent but to be able to affirm your dependence on others in forms of mutual recognition. A good example is the experience of love. When you love someone — as a friend, a parent, a comrade — your dependence on the other is not a restriction that prevents you from being free. Rather, your dependence on the other belongs to the life you affirm as your own. Acting on behalf of the one you love is not an alien purpose but the expression of a commitment in which you can recognize yourself, since caring for the interests and the well-being of the other is part of your own understanding of who you are. Likewise, if the work you do is for the sake of something you are devoted to as an end in itself — e.g., a society based on mutual recognition of our freedom and equality — then even the difficult or exhausting demands of the work are not an external imposition. On the contrary, the demands of the work are an intrinsic part of the form of life to which you are committed. Thus, even when it is hard to sustain the work, you can recognize the challenges as ones to which you hold yourself and therefore as expressive of your freedom.

Inversely, to the extent that our lives are based on forms of mutual misrecognition, our supposed free time is a form of unfreedom. This becomes especially clear in the case of the idle rich, which Kunkel poses as a challenge to my argument. The idle rich are dependent on being recognized as masters by the people who are working for them, including those who work far away and never meet them face to face. This form of social recognition is compelled by the power of capital — and the disempowerment of those without capital — rather than by a mutually satisfying relation. For the same reason, the idle rich can maintain their lives only by maintaining forms of domination, which make the status of their own lives perpetually insecure. Since the idle rich are not working for others but must make others work for them, the social fabric of their lives is necessarily fraught by a sense of other people as ones who cannot be genuinely trusted but must be controlled by coercion and violence.

The claim here is not primarily psychological but structural. The point is not to prove that every idle rich person directly experiences the psychological cost of domination, but to render intelligible why the sense of threat, guilt, and bad faith is a logical consequence of alienated social relations rather than an accidental fact. Likewise, we can understand the suicides, addictions, and mortal frivolities of the idle rich as symptoms of a way of living that is inherently unsatisfactory. Because the idle rich are not working, they are alienated from the conditions of possibility for their own lives. Hence, it is no coincidence that they tend to experience their time as empty and seek to fill it with excessive consumption of goods or substance abuse. Like idle masters, they atrophy while their slaves are doing the work.


We can thus approach the radical idea of freedom at the heart of This Life. No one is free unless everyone is free, since genuine mutual recognition is a condition of actual freedom. To lead free lives, we must be able to see ourselves both in the purposes of our occupations and in the social conditions of the labor that sustains our lives; to recognize our own commitment to freedom in the institutions on which we depend and to which we contribute. Such mutual recognition requires that all of us have the freedom to participate in possible transformations of what we do — democratic transformations of the social institutions of labor — as well as the freedom to give up or call into question our supposed vocation in favor of different occupations. The example of the idle rich may seem extreme, but it highlights the forms of mutual misrecognition that are at work in the lives of everyone under capitalism. If the institutions on which we depend exploit the labor time of others even as it gives us free time to lead our lives, then we ourselves fall short of actual freedom. There is certainly a harrowing difference between those of us who assemble computers in factories or manufacture clothes in sweatshops and those of us who turn on our computers or put on our clothes while forgetting the labor conditions under which they were produced. Yet, from Marx’s perspective, these issues are all connected, since they concern how our shared economic life is organized under capitalism and how it is inimical to our freedom.

At the heart of our freedom, then, is the question of how we should sustain the labor that is necessary to lead our lives. As Kunkel recalls, the time we spend enjoying an activity (e.g., loafing on a lawn) can exist only on the material basis of time spent producing and reproducing the means of our enjoyment (e.g., maintaining the lawn). A crucial question is thus how we can coordinate the activities that we value as ends in themselves with the production and reproduction of the means that are required to pursue those activities. Kunkel insists that such coordination is possible only through “the institution of paid labor” where the seeding, fertilizing, and moving of lawns is taken care of by “people who in most cases would rather be doing something else” but who are “compensated with a desired wage” for the “undesired work” that they have to perform.

Far from overcoming the fundamental form of capitalist social relations, such a wage-system retains the alienated relation to labor. Under Kunkel’s socialism, I work on maintaining a lawn not because I am committed to the existence of green spaces as a social good in our society, but because I need to earn a wage that I can use to buy commodities. Indeed, since Kunkel also advocates for a guaranteed basic income, his vision of socialism is in fact a version of capitalism. For an income or a wage to have any value, labor-power must be a commodity, so that other people can pay for my time and I can use what I earn to buy the time of other people or the products of their labor. In line with such capitalist realism, Kunkel dismisses my argument that we could do the necessary labor “for the sake of social meaning rather than material compensation” as “a pipe dream” that is due to my “misty imaginings” of an untenable democratic socialism.

The underlying assumption of Kunkel’s argument is that the coordination of our economic activities can work only if we are coerced to labor. Because I argue that democratic socialism must entail the emancipation from coerced labor, Kunkel assumes that I am naïvely positing a “spontaneous harmony” or “spontaneous equivalence” of our economic activities, which would arise “without having to be formally established.” This is not the case. As I make clear, to be free is not to be free from obligations but to be free to recognize our obligations as ones to which we have bound ourselves and to which we hold ourselves. Thus, under democratic socialism there will be formal ways to establish the work that is demanded of us both as citizens and in terms of our professions as doctors, engineers, teachers, and so on. The crucial point, however, is that we will be compelled to work by virtue of our commitments — and the obligations they entail — rather than because we fear material deprivation. We will get up in the morning not because we are forced to labor to survive but because we can see that our work is meaningful and of vital importance to others.

The institutional formation of freedom, then, is not a matter of imposing externally motivated laws on subjects in order to make them obedient. On the contrary, it is a matter of being habituated and educated in an emancipated form of life, which enables persons to grow into responsible agents who are internally motivated in their actions and who can justify what they are doing. For the same reason, an actual free society is one in which we learn to recognize the common good as the condition of possibility for our own freedom. Rather than seeing the laws of our collective life as imposed on us and as coercively restricting our self-interest, we should be able to see ourselves as bound to work for the common good by virtue of our own commitment to lead a free life, which in turn requires that we can participate in the determination of what counts as the common good.

Again, such mutual recognition is not primarily a matter of individual psychology. The point is not to ensure that everyone as a matter of psychological fact identifies with the common good. Rather, mutual recognition is a matter of the rational institutional structures of our shared form of life, which must make it possible in principle for everyone to recognize the formation and cultivation of the common good as enabling the formation and cultivation of their own freedom. The principles of mutual recognition are the principles of democratic socialism. These principles are not based on “misty imaginings” but specify the form of social life that is required to fulfill the commitment to universal freedom and equality.

The first principle is that we measure our wealth in terms of socially available free time. Pace Kunkel, increasing our socially available free time does not have to mean that we reduce our socially necessary labor. Rather, we can transform our socially necessary labor in such a way that we are able to recognize it as an end in itself. With regard to lawn mowing, this means that we will be committed to developing technologies that both enhance the quality of our work and that can perform instrumental tasks, allowing us to reduce or eliminate the time we have to spend on activities that are mere means to an end. Even if lawn mowing is largely automated, however, it will still require that we manage and organize the operations. The value of socially available free time here entails that we will be committed to making the maintenance meaningful and satisfying in its own right, thus enabling us to recognize the time we devote to the lawn as an exercise of our freedom. This requires overcoming the opposition between manual and intellectual labor, so that those who take care of the lawn are also involved in landscape design and infrastructural planning. Rather than assuming that socially necessary labor is an inherently unsatisfying and unfree activity that requires the exploitation of workers in need, we will be committed to making all aspects of our socially necessary labor worthy of human dignity.

With regard to loafing on the lawn, we will recognize that leisure time is a necessary part of leading a free life, but also that mere time off is not automatically satisfying. Rather, under democratic socialism part of our educational formation is learning to take responsibility for the normative question of which kinds of leisure activities are worthwhile. What is worth doing on the lawn? Which loafing activities are actually satisfying and which are corrosive? The point is not to prescribe the same answers for everyone, but to enable us to own our responsibility for the answers to these questions in our practices. Under capitalism our leisure time is commodified for the sake of profit, which shapes the goods we consume, the technologies we develop, and the activities we pursue, including how we spend our time on social media that are targeted for advertising revenues. Under democratic socialism, by contrast, our leisure time will be an integral part of how we learn to identify what is worth doing; and our social media will be designed to enhance our mutual recognition, including our ability to explore and question what matters to us. To be committed to the value of socially available free time is not to provide empty units of time for atomized individuals, but to make our time available in forms that are adequate to our being as social individuals who can take reciprocal responsibility for our lives.

Such a transformation of what we value is only possible, however, if we own the means of production collectively. This is the second principle of democratic socialism. To be clear, collective ownership does not mean that there is an authoritarian state which controls the means of production and it does not mean that we are prevented from having property in a concrete sense. Under democratic socialism we will have our own productive cooperatives — as well as our own houses, our own computers, our own books, and so on — in the sense that we will use them for our self-determined ends and no one will have the right to take them away from us against our will. While there will be property in a concrete sense there cannot, however, be private property in the abstract sense that transforms property into a commodity (or a means for producing commodities). The recognition of your property as your property will be based on your right to its concrete specificity as valuable to you and as useful for you in leading your life, rather than on your right to its abstract value as a commodity that is bought and sold for profit. As long as the means of production are used for the sake of profit, our technology serves the commodification of both our labor and our leisure. But if we own the means of production collectively, we can pursue our technological development for the sake of our social freedom. The latter involves both the quantitative reduction of time we have to spend on merely instrumental activity and the qualitative transformation of our labor — as well as our leisure — through enhanced social-technological means of interaction. Under democratic socialism, our technology will not serve the exploitation of our socially necessary labor but the expansion of our socially available free time, which includes both our labor and our leisure.

By the same token, collective ownership of the means of production is the material condition of possibility for the principle of production and consumption that Marx specifies: from each according to her ability, to each according to her need. This is the third principle of democratic socialism. Because we are not producing for profit, we will be able to explore what we are able to provide in light of the needs of our society. Under capitalism we learn to produce in terms of “What is profitable?” whereas under democratic socialism we will learn to produce in terms of “What enables social individuals to flourish and how can we satisfy our needs in a responsible way?” The success of a product will then not depend on manipulative marketing strategies but on whether it can satisfy actual social needs, justify a high demand, and be produced in accord with standards (including environmental standards) for which we are responsible. Likewise, because we will not work for a wage, we will be able to ask ourselves what is meaningful and justifiable to do with our lives. Under capitalism we learn to work in terms of “How can I survive?” or “How can I get rich?” whereas under democratic socialism we will learn to work in terms of “Which occupations make sense for me to pursue, in light of my abilities and the needs of the society of which I am a part?”

Thus, everything depends on the form of social life into which we are habituated, since it is through social habituation that we learn how to engage the question of what is worth doing with our time. There is not first an individual and then society, or the other way around. Rather, it is in our nature to be socially formed. Because our natural constitution does not establish who we should be and what we should do, who we are and what we can do is a matter of our social formation. If we see ourselves as atomistic individuals who form an aggregate in society, it is not because we are an aggregate of atomistic individuals as a matter of natural fact, but because we are socialized into a world where we acknowledge one another as though we were atomistic individuals. Indeed, if we live and work in a society where the dominant way of relating to one another is to compete for resources — as it is under capitalism — we will understand ourselves as creatures who are competing for resources rather than cooperating for the sake of our social freedom. That we can overcome such a form of life does not mean that we can be free from constraints or that we have an altruistic nature, but that we can learn to flourish in mutual recognition of our interdependence.


To read part two of Martin Hägglund’s “What Is Democratic Socialism?,” click here.

To read part three of Martin Hägglund’s “What Is Democratic Socialism?,” click here.

To read Benjamin Kunkel’s essay on This Life, click here.

To read Michael W. Clune’s essay on This Life, click here.


Martin Hägglund is professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. He is the author of four books and his work has been translated into a dozen languages.



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