What Is Democratic Socialism? Part II: The Immanent Critique of Capitalism

By Martin HägglundJuly 15, 2020

What Is Democratic Socialism? Part II: The Immanent Critique of Capitalism
To find LARB’s symposium on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, click here.



IN THE FIRST PART of my response, I argued that the overcoming of capitalism demands a transformation of how we are socially formed on every level of our society, ranging from how we are raised to how we are educated and how we participate in the labor that is necessary to sustain our lives. I am not assuming that such a social transformation will happen naturally or automatically. As Clune points out in his response to This Life, the overcoming of capitalism must “involve a transformation of desire,” and he rightly emphasizes that “any theory of socialism must also be a theory of the kinds of collective institutions and practices that will make freedom a blessing, rather than, as it all too often is under capitalism, a curse.” Clune fails to see, however, that the formation of our desires — what we value — is not reducible to explicit educational institutions but already at work in the social-material practices through which we reproduce our lives. Like all other historical forms of life, capitalism cannot be “neutral” with regard to our individual desires (as Clune claims), since we can learn to understand ourselves and our desires only from within a historical form of life.

To demonstrate why capitalism is inimical to our freedom, we must therefore interrogate how value is produced under capitalism and why it entails relations of mutual misrecognition. Before Marx, socialist writers tended to portray capitalists as evil villains who exploit workers out of greed, as though the problem were a question of morality. In contrast, Marx shows that the dynamic of exploitation is intrinsic to the social form of capitalism itself and not reducible to individual vice or virtue. As a capitalist employer, I cannot recognize my employees as ends in themselves but must treat them as means (“human capital”) for the end of producing profit. Insofar as I provide them with education, health services, and leisure time, it is not because I care about their well-being in its own right but because I need to develop, sustain, and renew their labor-power. No matter how benevolent my intentions may be, all the resources I devote to my employees count as a negative “cost” for me as a capitalist. Because I pay for their labor-power — their ability to produce value — the only way I can turn a profit is by making sure that the value they produce during a given period of time is greater than the value I have to expend on maintaining their labor-power during the same period of time.

The measure of value in capitalist production is thus what Marx calls “socially necessary labor time,” which designates the quantity of time it takes for the average worker in a society to produce a given commodity. The socially necessary labor time is not an absolute standard that can be established in advance, but relative to the technological means of production and the efficiency of the labor that is performed. If my workers produce commodities more efficiently than the social average, my profit margins will increase, since my labor cost for each commodity will be less than that of the average producer. This is why the drive to decrease labor costs — to devote as little resources as possible to the well-being of workers — is intrinsic to any capitalist enterprise.

Clune maintains that Marx’s analysis of the production of value under capitalism is wrong, but it is clear that he has not understood the argument and the way I develop it in This Life. Clune defers to the influential economist Steve Keen, who he thinks has delivered a devastating blow to Marx’s analysis of value. Keen argues that not only labor but also machines can contribute to the production of value under capitalism. This is certainly true, but Keen fails to grasp how machines contribute to the production of value under capitalism. The value of machine technology for a capitalist is that it reduces the labor time required for the production of a commodity, which confirms Marx’s argument that socially necessary labor time is the measure of value in capitalist production. A machine cannot produce any value by virtue of its own operation, but only by reducing labor time. A living being, by contrast, can generate a surplus of value by virtue of its own activity. Neither Clune nor Keen can explain the production of surplus value. Indeed, Keen claims that that “we are better off to forget the whole question of ‘where does the surplus come from’ and instead simply accept that it exists, and analyze capitalism on that basis.” [1]

Because they cannot account for the source of surplus value, Clune and Keen cannot explain the dynamic of capitalist production and how it generates a “growth” of value. Contrary to a widely held assumption, the source of economic growth cannot be located in the process of circulation (buying and selling). Particular economic actors can make a profit when buying something cheaply and selling it for a higher price, but in the economy as a whole this kind of profit is a zero-sum game, since gain for one actor amounts to loss for another. Accordingly, the process of buying and selling cannot by itself explain why there is an increase of value in the economy as a whole. For there to be an overall growth of capital wealth in the economy, the surplus value that is realized in exchange must have its source in the process of production.

Marx argues that the source of surplus value is the activity of living labor. This has often been dismissed as a mystical claim. As I demonstrate, however, there is nothing mystical about the claim that living labor is the source of surplus value, since it is derived from a constitutive feature of all living beings, which necessarily produce a surplus of time by virtue of their own activity of self-maintenance. For example, even if a plant is removed from any form of nourishment, it can survive for a period of time due to the surplus it has generated. Speaking economically, all living beings produce more lifetime than they need to “spend” on keeping themselves alive. This is why many kinds of animals have “free” time to engage in activities of self-enjoyment — as the purring of cats or the playful interaction of dogs — but it is also why they can be exploited in labor. Precisely because animals produce more lifetime than it “costs” to keep them alive, they can be used for the sake of profit. Likewise, because we generate a surplus of time, a capitalist employer can in principle extract a surplus value by purchasing our labor-power for a wage. If we did not generate a surplus of lifetime we would have no labor-power to sell — since all our time would be consumed by the activity of merely staying alive — and nothing could be gained from employing us.

For the surplus value of our labor to be converted into profit, however, we must not only produce but also consume commodities, not only sell our labor-power but also buy the products of labor. The resulting profit for capitalist employers is the source of capital growth. Thus, even though other animals generate a surplus of time that can be exploited in labor, they cannot generate surplus value, since they cannot receive a wage that they use to buy commodities. Only the employment of living beings who earn a wage and buy commodities can give rise to a surplus of value — an overall “growth” of capital wealth — in the economy. This is why wage labor is the source of value in a capitalist economy and why socially necessary labor time is the measure of value for commodities. The surplus of time that we produce makes it possible for us to be exploited in the social form of wage labor, which converts our surplus of lifetime into surplus value for the sake of profit and the growth of capital.

Clune and Keen, by contrast, cannot account for the source of surplus value, since they do not grasp that only living beings generate a surplus of time through the activity of self-maintenance, which can be transformed into surplus value only through the social form of wage labor. For the same reason, they fail to account for the role of technology in capitalist production. Keen hinges his critique of Marx on the fact that machines can contribute to the production of value, while entirely ignoring Marx’s analysis of the dynamic of relative surplus value, which explains exactly how technological development contributes to the production of value under capitalism.

Relative surplus value concerns the difference between the wage I pay my workers for one hour of labor and the value my workers produce during one hour of labor. As a capitalist employer, I am always trying to increase the production of relative surplus value, since it is the source of profit, and the development of technology plays a key role in the process. With a more efficient technology I can make my workers produce more value in less time and keep their wages down at the same time. [2] This reduction of socially necessary labor time is not designed to give us more free time to lead our lives, but to intensify the exploitation of living labor and/or export the production to locations where labor is cheaper to buy. Due to increased technological efficiency in production, workers either become unemployed and part of a surplus population that can be used to keep down wages (as tends to happen in the Western world today) or they become subjected to working conditions that seek to extract as much surplus value as possible from their labor (as tends to happen in the parts of the world where we now locate most of our manufacturing). Unemployment and the exportation of jobs are not incidental effects, but necessary conditions for the production of capital wealth. Lowering the relative value of wages and sustaining a rate of profit depends on a surplus population of the unemployed who are willing to work for less, either domestically or in poorer countries to which production is moved.

Such exploitation of living labor is not optional under capitalism. As long as the measure of value is socially necessary labor time, machines cannot produce any value by virtue of their own operations. No matter how efficient a machine becomes, we cannot extract any surplus value from its operation except by exploiting the lifetime of someone who is operating the machine. By contrast, if we measured value in terms of socially available free time, then machines would produce value for us by virtue of their own operations, since they would give us more time to lead our lives and thus make us wealthier in an existential sense. Under capitalism, however, the ultimate purpose of technologies is the exploitation rather than the emancipation of human labor. Under capitalism, we must find ways of employing people in wage labor, regardless of whether the work they do is needed and regardless of whether the work is meaningful for the ones who labor. Moreover, we must get people to consume ever more commodities, regardless of whether they need the goods they consume and regardless of whether consuming the goods is fulfilling for them.


The key to the critique of capitalism is therefore the revaluation of the measure of value that governs our lives. The term “capitalism” is often used loosely, but in light of Marx’s work we can give it a precise definition. Capitalism is a historical form of life where wage labor is the condition for producing wealth, which entails that socially necessary labor time becomes the measure of value. For the same reason, the overcoming of capitalism requires that we transform our mode of production and measure our wealth in terms of socially available free time.

To recall, socially available free time is not primarily a matter of leisure but depends on socially meaningful work. Even the meaning of leisure itself only makes sense as part of a rhythm of work that can be recognized as socially meaningful. Hence, if we produce for the sake of socially available free time, we can cultivate the value of nonliving technologies for our labor as well as our leisure and develop machines for the benefit of our life together rather than for the sake of profit. This practical revaluation requires collective ownership of the means of production. The point is not necessarily that we will reduce the quantity of socially necessary labor but that we will be able to own the question of what is worth doing with our time and thereby transform the quality of our socially necessary labor. For example, even if we can design machines to take care of the sick and the elderly, we may hold that there is an intrinsic value in care being provided by persons who care and who can understand suffering. The principle “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs” is not the imposition of an anonymous collective will, but a condition of possibility for owning the question of what matters to us and how we should care for one another.

We can thus address the question that Walter Benn Michaels raises in his response. “Wouldn’t we all be much better off,” he asks, “if we had a left that didn’t care about nurturing what Hägglund calls ‘our capacity to care’ and just wanted to produce a massive redistribution of wealth downward?” Michaels’s career-long answer to this question is an emphatic yes. His work belongs to a reformist tradition that limits the critique of capitalism to the mode of distribution and does not interrogate the measure of value that shapes the mode of production. The production of value under capitalism is taken for granted and socialism is reduced to a matter of redistributing the wealth that is generated by wage labor. Far from being based on a systematic critique of capitalism, the top-down reforms that Michaels advocates (“a massive redistribution of wealth downward”) are altogether dependent on capital accumulation. Without the accumulation of capital (“growth” in the economy) there would be no wealth to redistribute through state reforms, since the state itself is financed by the taxation of capital wealth. Whether we depend on capital for wages, revenue, or benefits from the state, the wealth that sustains our lives can be produced only if we commodify our time for the sake of profit. Even as well-intentioned reformers, we must prioritize the generation of profit through the exploitation of wage labor, since it gives rise to the wealth we can redistribute in the form of welfare, public goods, and support for the unemployed.

To be clear, my point is not that redistributive reforms are meaningless and should be abandoned. As Rosa Luxemburg argued already at the beginning of the 20th century, “the daily struggle for reforms, for the amelioration of the condition of the workers within the framework of the existing social order, and for democratic institutions” [3] — such reform work is absolutely indispensable. Yet, as Luxemburg went on to emphasize, reforms should be understood as means toward the end of a “social revolution,” which requires the overcoming of wage labor. This is why I argue that redistributive reforms should not be conflated with a solution to the basic problem of value under capitalism. Even in order to understand the challenges that our reforms will encounter, we need to grasp the inherent contradictions in the capitalist production of wealth and take them into account in conceiving our political strategies as well as in articulating our priorities. If we are committed to overcoming capitalism, then redistribution cannot be our end. Rather, we must explicitly work toward a revolutionary transformation of our economic system, which requires a fundamental revaluation of value rather than a redistribution of capital wealth.

An instructive example is the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), which Brandon M. Terry addresses in his lucid response. Many influential figures on the left advocate a form of UBI that would give every citizen enough money to maintain a reasonable standard of living. The idea is that a universal basic income could empower us to say no to exploitation, since it would allow us to live our lives without earning a wage. We would have the material resources to leave behind not only abusive employers at work but also abusive spouses at home, since we would not be dependent on them for our survival. I analyze these potentially emancipatory aspects of a universal basic income in This Life — and they are insightfully elaborated by Terry — but I also emphasize that it is misleading to describe universal basic income as a possible solution to the problem of wage labor that Marx analyzed. No form of universal basic income can free us from capitalist exploitation, both because any form of UBI is financed by the wealth that is generated by wage labor and because the income itself has value only if I can use it to purchase commodities produced by the labor time of others. The attendant problems of inequality, exploitation, and commodification cannot even in principle be solved through the redistribution of capital wealth, since the wealth itself is produced by unequal relations of production, exploitation, and commodification that extend throughout the world.

The production of value under capitalism is thus a global problem, which is why I argue that the overcoming of capitalism and the achievement of democratic socialism ultimately must be global. Yet, in her response to This Life, Jodi Dean asserts that my vision of socialism “is limited to the United States,” and that I ignore the “global capitalist system,” which is “exploiting and immiserating the majority of the world’s people as it plunges headlong into the catastrophe of planetary warming.” These claims are completely off-target, and Dean manages to misconstrue not only my arguments but also those advanced by Marx. According to Dean, because “value can never appear directly” there is no “essence” of value in Marx’s analysis of capitalism, whereas Marx’s definition of the essence of value is precisely that it can never appear directly. Furthermore, Dean rejects the notion that “we” have a shared measure of value under capitalism and that “our” collective purpose is the generation of profit. As a consequence, she fails to grasp what it means that capitalism is a global condition of possibility for our lives. That our collective purpose is profit is not reducible to an explicit ideology, a conscious belief, or a psychological disposition. Profit is our collective purpose not because of what we have to think but because of what we have to do under capitalism. We cannot maintain ourselves — cannot reproduce our lives — without the surplus value of wage labor that is transformed into profit and accumulated in the form of capital.

Hence, the critique of capitalism must be an immanent critique. An immanent critique does not criticize a form of life in the name of an ideal that is imposed from the outside. Rather, an immanent critique locates a contradiction between the avowed principles of a form of life and the actual practice it legislates for itself. Accordingly, Marx seeks to show that the production of value under capitalism is at odds with the principles of freedom and equality that are made possible by the capitalist mode of production itself. In contrast to societies that require slavery or serfdom to function, wage labor under capitalism is historically the first social form which in principle recognizes that each one of us “owns” the time of our lives. Moreover, our lifetime is socially recognized as inherently “valuable,” insofar as we are compensated with a wage for the “cost” of our labor time, which is supposed to serve as a means for us to achieve the end of leading a free life. Yet the recognition of every person as an end in herself is necessarily contradicted by how we measure the value of our time under capitalism. Through the rights of the labor contract we recognize formally that the lifetime of every person is irreducibly her own and that it is inherently valuable. But by virtue of the same labor contract we still cannot treat our lives as ends in themselves, since our surplus of lifetime serves as a means for the end of accumulating surplus value in the form of capital.

Thus, while Marx often compares wage labor to slavery, he also emphasizes that wage labor is a form of progress relative to previous kinds of social labor. Dean ignores this central argument in Marx, and she clearly does not understand the method of immanent critique that shapes his analysis of capitalism. For example, she claims that “where Marx highlights the crime of wage slavery, Hägglund views the wage as premised on a right to free life. Where Marx recognizes chattel slavery as a capitalist enterprise, Hägglund relegates it to a past that capitalist progress has left behind.” Dean thus presents as two opposed alternatives what in Marx — and in This Life — are two aspects of the same argument. As I underline, many capitalist societies have indeed allowed for and profited from various forms of slavery, including chattel slavery. But unlike in preceding historical epochs when slavery was seen as naturally justified, slavery under capitalism can be seen as unjustifiable, since it contradicts the core principle of capitalist exchange (the right of everyone to sell their labor time). Under capitalism, the existence of slavery can thus be recognized as a collective failure to be who “we” claim to be. While slaves or serfs are denied ownership of their time, under capitalism we are all supposed to be “free” to sell our labor-power, and no one is supposed to have the right to purchase the life of another. Likewise, while slaves or serfs are bound to a given master for their livelihood, under capitalism we are all supposed to be “free” to move to a new location in pursuit of a professional vocation and in principle granted the right to lead our own lives.

The social form of wage labor thus paves the way for the generalizable idea of the freedom and equality of all individuals. As Marx emphasizes, the economic relations of capitalism provide “the productive, real basis of all equality and freedom,” since “equality and freedom presuppose relations of production as yet unrealized in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages.” [4] While the idea of freedom and equality can be fulfilled only through the overcoming of capitalism, the historical emergence of the idea itself is inseparable from the capitalist mode of production.

Moreover, Dean herself must presuppose the idea of freedom and equality in her critique of capitalism, even though she does not acknowledge it. If Dean is against the exploitation of human labor time through “the crime of wage slavery” she must be committed to the idea that all individuals are ends in themselves and that they ought to be able to lead their own lives; otherwise it would make no sense to denounce their subjection to wage labor. Likewise, if wage slavery is to be intelligible as a “crime” there must be some right of freedom that it violates. But to which right of freedom is Dean appealing in prosecuting the crime and from where does she derive the authority of her case? The idea of the freedom and equality of all individuals is not a given intuition that has been available to human beings since the dawn of time; it is a fragile historical achievement that could not have gained a foothold in the first place without the advent of capitalism and liberalism. However, since Dean only ascribes negative significance to capitalism and liberalism, she must be assuming that the idea of general freedom and equality magically fell down from the skies to the working class. Like all vulgar materialists, Dean is the most naïve idealist, since she refuses to see that capitalism is a historical condition of possibility for the idea of universal freedom and equality to which she herself must appeal in her critique of capitalism.

To emphasize the latter point is not to “jettison class struggle,” as Dean claims that I do. On the contrary, I seek to explain why we ought to engage in the fight to overcome class society and why such an overcoming is required for us to achieve actual freedom and equality. Given the power relations of capitalism under which we live, the achievement of democratic socialism can only be the result of a sustained and difficult political class struggle. An indispensable part of the struggle, however, is to clarify to ourselves what is wrong with our current form of life and where we are committed to going. I am under no illusion that my account of democratic socialism is sufficient to secure that it will be achieved, but I hold the account to be necessary to orient our struggle for freedom and grasp the meaning of a truly emancipatory social revolution.


To read part three of Martin Hägglund's "What Is Democratic Socialism?," click here.

To read part one of Martin Hägglund's "What Is Democratic Socialism?," click here.

To read Brandon M. Terry’s essay on This Life, click here.

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

To read Walter Benn Michaels’s essay on This Life, click here.

To read Jodi Dean'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.


[1] Keen, Debunking Economics — Revised and Expanded Edition (Zed Books, 2011), p. 429.

[2] For a groundbreaking analysis of the dynamic of relative surplus value, see Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1993); see also This Life, pp. 248–251, 291–294. Because Keen ignores Marx’s analysis of the dynamic of relative surplus value, he also misconstrues Marx’s arguments regarding “the law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit.” Contrary to what Keen asserts, Marx does not argue that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall will necessarily lead to the overcoming of capitalism. The point is not to establish that capitalism inevitably will kill itself, but to show that capitalism can keep itself alive only through a pernicious and self-contradictory dynamic, which entails a tendency toward destructive crises and is inimical to the production of real social wealth. See my analysis in This Life, pp. 289–294.

[3] Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, trans. Integer (Dover, 2006), p. 3. My quotation in the next sentence is from the same page.

[4] Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (Penguin Classics, 1973), p. 245.

LARB Contributor

Martin Hägglund is the Birgit Baldwin Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is the author of four books and his work has been translated into fifteen languages. His most recent book, This Life (2019), won the René Wellek Prize and is the subject of a special issue of The Philosopher.


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