Free Time and Paid Work

By Benjamin KunkelJuly 15, 2020

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


FOR A FELLOW democratic socialist to venture a critique of Martin Hägglund’s book risks churlishness. Here, after all, is magnificent case for democratic socialism that succeeds in wresting the indispensable slogan of freedom away from the publicists for liberal capitalism who seemed to own the word in the first decades after the Cold War. “Free Markets and Free Men” was, typically, the title of a 1988 lecture by Milton Friedman — the freedom of the former, he argued, guaranteed the freedom of the latter — and in 1999 President Clinton just as typically gushed “if you believe in free markets and free societies, you have to believe that everyone should freely have the chance to live their dreams.” Lent a temporary plausibility by the unfree character of a defunct state socialism, this expansive rhetoric, pioneered by libertarians on the right and later adopted by neoliberals of the center left, attempted to satisfy the public with an extraordinarily pinched definition of human liberty: maximum freedom of international capital in the form of both finance and factories (never mind that the factor of production known as human labor was by no means equally free to slip across borders), together with the freedom of electorates to ratify this arrangement once every few years. This new ideology of freedom naturally ignored the fact the people are much less than free if they can’t survive without selling their labor power to enterprises that dictate their activities and schedules in line with the coercive laws of capitalist competition.

Freedom of capital is the (wage) slavery of human beings. Much of the achievement of Hägglund’s This Life is to reiterate this traditional Marxist position with newfound philosophical rigor and existential urgency. As Hägglund argues, it is our limited time as mortal beings that alone confers meaning on what we do, and value on what we cherish. If I were instead the immortal inhabitant of some eternal realm, no action of mine would signal any particular commitment, since I would have all the time in the world to carry out an infinite number of infinitely various projects, rather than a tragic few; and nothing I love would matter to me as it does so keenly today, since the objects of my devotion would be as invulnerable to damage and destruction as myself. (Hägglund does not quote Wallace Stevens but might have: “Death is the mother of beauty.”) The meaning of our lives is what we do with them, and the great crime of capital is to deprive us of the freedom to employ our scarce time as we like.

The crux of Hägglund’s argument for democratic socialism comes toward the end of his fundamental chapter on “The Value of Our Finite Time.” The increasing productivity of labor across recent centuries is “potentially emancipatory,” since a historic maximum of material wealth can now be created with a historic minimum of labor time. In principle, this should afford us ample free time to “develop ourselves as” — in Marx’s phrase — “‘social individuals.’” In practice, our potential emancipation withers on the vine: most people still spend 40 hours a week, if not twice that, submitting to the asocial requirements of private capital accumulation, and this goes not only for wage laborers but also for the informally employed, who in their waking lives must place imperatives of survival before any impulses of fulfillment. Hägglund summarizes his case for democratic socialism by paraphrasing Marx: “[W]e have to be the subjects of production — planning and directing it for our purposes — rather than being subjected to production for the sake of capital.” The goal is to found a society that shrinks down as far as possible what Marx called “socially necessary labor time” (in which we must do as we are told) and magnifies as far as possible what Hägglund calls “socially available free time” (in which we might do as we please).

Leftists should be grateful for Hägglund not only for recuperating the cause of freedom for the radical left but also for implying, through the existential register of This Life, that democratic socialism is properly the cause of everyone — including the comparatively well paid, the “privileged,” even the working rich — whose mortal schedule and daily priorities take shape as capital demands and not as they would wish. It hardly detracts from Hägglund’s accomplishment that his argument is not without flaws. Two in particular stand out.

The first and lesser flaw in Hägglund’s argument is that it could easily be appropriated by the idle rich. If life in any kind of social formation constitutes, in the phrase of Marx that Hägglund cites, “an economy of time,” why shouldn’t rentiers, with no employer to report to, prefer a capitalist economy of time over any kind of socialism? Such wealth not only grants the wealthy more freedom than others can claim on any given day, but more days altogether. Longevity, as Fredric Jameson has pointed out, is a form of class struggle, and (especially at a time when new biophysical technologies may grant the rich double or triple the number of days that others can expect from their lifetimes) there is every chance that a rentier who recognizes life as an economy of time will do his or her best to ensure utmost longevity on their part, no matter the expense to the life expectancy of the proles. Already today we perceive this dynamic, which a kind of capitalist bio-apartheid threatens to inflate into even more grotesque inequities.

To be sure, Hägglund contends that “your own actual freedom depends on the freedom of others. For you to be genuinely recognized as having achieved a social status by virtue of your own deeds […] others must have socially available free time to engage with who you are and what you do.” On these grounds, it would seem that no one can be free until everyone is. But why shouldn’t a rich man feel that a sufficient portion of the population (say one percent) has enough free time to amply appreciate him for whatever he does with his? Not to mention that one needs very little free time to admire and applaud the achievements of musicians, entrepreneurs, athletes, etc.

It seems to me that the trouble for the rich is that class society corrupts their free time with sensations, conscious or not, of guilt and futility. And yet in spite of the suicides, addictions, mortal frivolities, and terminal bad faith that plague the rich today, I don’t know how to articulate philosophically my intuition that an ordinary citizen under democratic socialism would be happier than even an exceptionally rich person is today. It seems that Hägglund doesn’t know either, but This Life would have been a stronger book had it demonstrated the existential bankruptcy of capitalist wealth, no matter how abundantly endowed with free time the wealthy may be.

A second and more important objection to Hägglund’s book arises from his vague and somewhat evasive conception of democratic socialism. He imagines democratic socialism as a condition under which, quoting Marx, “[i]t is no longer labor time that is the measure of wealth, but rather disposable time.” (Marx uses the English phrase.) It courts hubris to accuse Karl Marx of a want of dialectical thinking, but this formula of Marx’s — little more than a slogan hazarded in an uncompleted text — ignores the mutually interdependent or, in other words, dialectical relationship between necessary labor time, on the one hand, and disposable or free time, on the other. Time that is free or disposable in the sense of being devoted to the enjoyment of individual purposes (e.g., playing the piano or loafing on a lawn) can only exist on the material basis of time spent reproducing the means of enjoyment (e.g., manufacturing, delivering, and tuning pianos, or seeding, fertilizing, and mowing lawns) on the part of people who in most cases would rather be doing something else.

The classic formula of Marxism defines the labor process in terms of a certain quantity of labor applied to a certain quantity (and kind) of means of production. Free time — or the consumption process, you might call it — likewise consists of a certain quantity of leisure applied to a certain quantity (and kind) of means of enjoyment. The potential contained in free time depends, that is, not only on the number of free hours at our disposal, but also on the physical and institutional means of enjoyment at hand. (The free time of an amateur pianist, for example, loses much of its value in the absence of a piano.) In consequence, the value of social production can’t be derived simply from the sheer number of free hours that society as a whole has to enjoy; it also depends on the quantity and kind of means of enjoyment available during those hours. And if more means of enjoyment are felt to be necessary, by a democratically constituted society, for the sake of better free time, then socially available free time may be reduced in consequence, to be replaced by more, not less, socially necessary labor. In other words, it’s hard to conceive of worker-citizens fully enjoying their freedom, during some hours, without their being subject, during other hours, to the unfreedom of performing socially necessary but personally unfulfilling tasks.

Hägglund essentially wishes the problem away. Under democratic socialism, he writes, “[s]ocially available free time is […] both the means and the ends of emancipation.” The neat formula contains a dramatic and unlikely proposition, namely that under democratic socialism the autonomous activities of everyone during their free time would furnish the material conditions necessary for the full enjoyment of anyone’s free time. In other words, a harmonious equivalence would arise, without having to be formally established, between the desire of amateur pianists to play the piano, and the desire of piano makers, piano movers, and piano tuners to furnish amateur pianists with the means to play.

Such a spontaneous harmony between the simple, brief, and pleasurable use of various objects of enjoyment and the complex, time-consuming, and onerous activity required to furnish these objects is exceedingly implausible. The minimization of socially necessary labor time and maximization of socially available free time that is envisaged in This Life looks like a mere pipe dream unless we suppose that a democratic socialist society would, after abolishing wage labor done for the benefit of capitalists, retain the institution of “paid labor” (as the ecosocialist thinker André Gorz called it in his visionary work, Critique of Economic Reason [1989]) that is done simply because society must compensate individuals for performing tasks that are socially necessary without being personally fulfilling. It appears inevitable, as Gorz stresses, that in any complex mass society, whether capitalist or socialist, much if not most productive labor must be performed not for the sake of the personal satisfaction of any individual in particular but merely because society requires that someone in general carry it out. Socially necessary labor may thereby be reduced as far as possible but can’t be altogether abolished. Hägglund concedes the point but flees its implications.

Moreover, because the society envisioned by Hägglund embodies a democratic socialism, not all of its citizen-workers will necessarily uphold the socialist conviction that the purpose of society is to ensure adequate and equal free time for all. Some may instead consider that a better purpose for society would be to restore capitalism, so that society’s surplus product might be privately disposed over in the form of personal riches or used to glorify one or another of the religions that Hägglund rejects. Presumably a democratic socialist society might nevertheless compel able-bodied dissidents to perform socially necessary labor in order to claim their full share of the total social product. The existence of paid work would by no means rule out the guaranteed minimum income for all, whether idle or productive, that is a feature of Hägglund’s democratic socialism; it would merely stipulate that undesired work be compensated with a desired wage.

But this is not Hägglund’s notion of how socially necessary labor should be accomplished under democratic socialism. He would prefer a system of voluntary labor contributions, performed for the sake of social meaning rather than material compensation:

If the time we spend in the realm of necessity — e.g., doing some form of labor that is necessary to sustain our life together — can be seen as socially shared and as contributing to the expansion of our collective realm of freedom, then even tedious forms of labor become expressive of our commitment to lead a free life. For example, my spending an hour per week mopping classroom floors and running the dishwashers in the cafeteria could itself be expressive of my commitment to being a university professor …

The example is tellingly inapt: menial labor performed in the cozy institutional setting of one’s true vocation. The social relationship implied is a communal one, of some hundreds or at most thousands of people, many of whom are at least nodding acquaintances, and often colleagues and friends. Needless to say, this is not the kind of relationship any of us can have with a complex society consisting of millions of far-flung people. The idea of all the socially necessary labor of a complex mass society being accomplished simply as an “expression” of one’s abstract commitment to freedom is a nice but not very plausible one.

Voluntarist visions, like Hägglund’s, of spontaneous cooperation as the basis of social reproduction have a further shortcoming. This is that they sentimentalize informal human relations. Yet the whole history of social formations (many of them lacking legally formulated and officially enforced labor exactions) as well as one’s own personal experience testify that labor is often the more successfully compelled the less our intimates and communities have any formal employment contract to enforce. Demands made by a boss, no matter how exploitative, are necessarily limited: so much work for so much pay. The expectations of a family or community may in effect be limitless. If the exploitation of wage laborers under capitalism has been bad enough, that of the wageless, especially women doing uncompensated reproductive labor, has often been worse.

Such a critique suggests that the eradication of capitalist wage labor need not abolish paid work altogether for a revolutionary advance to take place. This kind of transformation would constitute a far more plausible left program than Hägglund’s misty imaginings of a democratic socialist millennium in which desires to perform socially necessary labor and desires to enjoy personal free time somehow automatically coincide. Our secular projects — commitment to which, Hägglund rightly insists, illustrates and realizes our spiritual freedom — gain strength when their fulfillment appears concrete enough that we can intend it, and just likely enough that we can attempt it. Hägglund’s democratic socialism, in which free time and socially necessary labor blur into one another, and no institution is specified for exacting from citizens any contributions of work in exchange for abundant free time and ample means to enjoy it, is a utopian image in the bad sense of seeming wish more than program.

Of course, it may be that one day such a society will arise, with social labor performed as unprogrammatically as personal leisure and liberty are enjoyed. There is no way we can know what the final form of democratic socialism may look like. The task for now is to credibly imagine its first form.


To read Martin Hägglund’s response to this essay, click here.


Benjamin Kunkel is the author, most recently, of Utopia or Bust, a collection of essays on contemporary radical thinkers. He is at work on short book on economic growth and degrowth.

LARB Contributor

Benjamin Kunkel is the author, most recently, of Utopia or Bust, a collection of essays on contemporary radical thinkers. He is at work on short book on economic growth and degrowth.


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