Free Time and Free People

By William Clare RobertsJuly 15, 2020

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


ACCORDING TO MARTIN HÄGGLUND, Marx provides us with “the greatest resources for developing a secular notion of freedom.” This assessment hinges on two claims. First, a “commitment to individual freedom” is “the foundation” of Marx’s work. Second, Marx’s particular development of the idea of freedom is more fecund for the project of caring for the secular world than any other. In other words, freedom was central for Marx, and Marx ought to be central for our understanding of freedom.

I am very much in agreement with both of these headline claims, and, therefore, very sympathetic to Hägglund’s project. But the devil is in the details, and I would like to specify both what freedom meant for Marx and what Marx might mean for our freedom struggles in slightly different terms than Hägglund does. To sum it up in a phrase, I want to prise open a distinction between two interpretations of Marx: Hägglund’s Marx, the democratic socialist; and my Marx, the social republican. I then want to ask whether these two Marxes might be married — or, at least, made to cohabit — without being conflated.

In order to do this, I will pursue three questions: one Marxological, one conceptual, and one political. (1) Is Marx’s commitment to “the free development of individualities” identical with his commitment to individual freedom? (2) Is the socialist critique of liberalism fully immanent, in the sense that it simply exposes liberalism’s own self-contradictory attachment to forms of social mediation that thwart the liberal commitment to individual freedom? (3) Are the political institutions of socialism best understood as “how we express our priorities and our conception of value”? I think the answer to each of these must be “no,” and that this entails some significant — but friendly — amendments to Hägglund’s democratic socialism.


As Hägglund eloquently argues, the free development of individuals — what Marx called “real freedom” — depends upon free time, or “how much time we have to lead our lives.” Free time, as Hägglund also argues, is not idle time, or time free from work, free from commitment, or free from the constraints that come with work and commitment. Rather, free time is that surplus of time in which we can commit ourselves to the work we want to do for its own sake. Attention to this — the human use of free time — is the beating heart of Hägglund’s book.

The only consideration I want to add is this: being subject to a dominating power means that your time is not your own, and that your time is, therefore, not free. This is obviously true of the enslaved, who have no free time — even when they have no work to do — since they are always at the beck and call of the slaveholder. But think also of the time- and attention-consuming maneuvers and activities women undertake on a daily basis to avoid sexual assault and harassment in our male-dominated society. Vulnerability to alien power degrades time, eating it up with anxieties and strategies.

I introduce this consideration in order to stave off an easy misunderstanding of Marx’s distinction between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom. If we ask how the line between the two realms is drawn, or what might allow people to move it in one way or the other, there is a temptation to focus on three factors: technology, labor exploitation, and ethics. From within this framework, the realm of necessity may be reduced by applying labor-saving technology, by reducing or eliminating the coercive appropriation of other people’s labor, and by refusing to treat “all my activities merely as means.”

What goes missing from this reading of the freedom/necessity distinction is Marx’s denial that the modern ruling class of capitalists enjoys free time, and that this absence of freedom among the ruling class is not due to insufficient technology, the exploitation of the capitalists’ labor, or to an ethical lapse on their part. This class is made up of “rough, half-educated parvenus,” as Marx puts it, not the free persons of antiquity, because capitalists are market-dominated producers, attentive to the shifting whims of supply and demand, and consequently anxious to accumulate lest they go under.

Marx wants to turn this fact to the advantage of the workers’ movement. Labor organizations should fight for shorter working days in order that the workers themselves will have the time and resources to educate and develop themselves politically, but also so as to keep the market pressure on capitalists high. This will, Marx argues, speed both the development of productive technology, as competition on productivity heats up, and the concentration of capital, as less capital-intensive firms go under. This strategy hinges on the capitalists’ domination by the market and consequent lack of free time.

Market domination, therefore, is central to Marx’s understanding of the dynamics and harms of the capitalist mode of production. His arguments in this regard can, and should, be extended. If domination by the market corrodes and destroys free time, this is not because of some special quality of the market but because of the typical quality of domination. I am dominated wherever I am vulnerable to uncontrolled interference from another or others, whether or not they exercise their power of interfering. Being dominated gives agents a special set of reasons to consider in their actions: How will my dominator(s) react to what I am doing? Will they use their power against my projects? How? Regardless of what I want to do, a new sort of uncertainty or anxiety hangs over my plans, intentions, and desires. Therefore, to Hägglund’s argument that “anyone who is committed to being an agent is committed to increasing her realm of freedom and decreasing her realm of necessity,” we can add that she is equally committed to decreasing the domination to which she is subject.

For this reason, it is not enough for Marx to say, as he does in the manuscript for Volume Three, that increasing the realm of freedom requires, as a prerequisite,

socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.

It is crucial to add, as he did in Volume One, that “the shape of the social life-process, i.e., of the material production process, only strips off its mystical haze when it becomes the product of freely associated human beings, standing under their conscious, methodical control.”

What is really distinctive about Marx’s political project is not his desire for capacious and equitably distributed free time, or his belief that we should exercise conscious, methodical control over the material production process. These are widely held socialist goals. What is distinctive is that he holds free association among producers to be the fundamental precondition for both of these goals. Marx’s free association evokes the free city of republican thought, an association of people, insulated from dominating power, who cooperate in ordering their social and natural world. This is what Marx — following the working-class militants of 1848 — called the social republic, or the republic of labor. It is a social republic because it extends republican government — “the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers” — into the heart of society, the factories and workshops.

None of this contradicts anything in Hägglund’s reconstruction of Marx. But it is absent, and I worry that its absence betrays an apolitical tendency in Hägglund’s democratic socialism. Individual freedom, for Marx, was both the freedom to develop one’s powers and capacities in an open-ended way and the freedom from domination that is the prerequisite for free development. Association free from domination is the political basis of socialism on Marx’s account.

Hence, my answer to the first question: individual freedom from domination ought not be identified with “the free development of individualities,” since it is a prerequisite of this free development.


Even with this amendment, my argument supports Hägglund’s contentions that individual freedom is of fundamental importance to Marx, and, further, that this underscores the proximity between Marxian socialism and liberalism. At several points in This Life, Hägglund portrays this proximity in Hegelian fashion: Marx’s critique of liberalism is an immanent one that takes liberalism’s own principle — individual freedom — and shows how this principle is incompatible with liberalism’s commitment to capitalism. Liberals must choose, then, the true object of their fidelity: freedom, or capitalism?

I am resistant to this move, however. It makes liberals out to be either socialists-who-haven’t-yet-realized-it or bad-faith actors, who talk about freedom, but actually care only about higher rates of profit. I certainly think there are some liberals who fit each of those descriptions, but I also think that there are liberals who understand freedom in a genuinely different way. The disagreement between liberals (of this sort) and socialists (of Hägglund’s sort) is deeper than Hägglund’s presentation lets on, and, therefore, Hägglund’s critique does not, I think, touch these liberals in the way that an immanent critique aspires to.

Hägglund’s text betrays what I think is the real fault line, in chapter six, when he claims that Hayek “reduces freedom to liberty.” By this, Hägglund means that Hayek believes people are free so long as they are not “directly coerced.” This distinction between freedom and liberty, however, appears nowhere else in Hägglund’s book. This passage, therefore, seems to evince a slight anxiety about how Hayek fits in to the immanent critique of liberalism.

This anxiety is reinforced by the surrounding argument. Hayek comes up in the course of Hägglund’s argument that “the major liberal thinkers of political economy — Mill, Rawls, Keynes, and Hayek — unwittingly concede that the capitalist measure of wealth distorts the values to which they themselves are committed.” According to Hägglund, the tension (or contradiction) between the capitalist measure of wealth and the values held dear by liberals is resolved, at the level of theory, by the “dream of what Mill called ‘the stationary state.’” The stationary state, according to Hägglund, is the imaginary point at which capitalism and the profit motive will have done the work they need to do — increasing the technological powers of production and the wealth of the world — and can be set aside for the sake of living a more satisfying or fulfilling life, pursuing higher and more noble ends than making more money. Liberals like Mill, Keynes, and Rawls are compelled to posit some such end of capital accumulation, according to Hägglund, for it is only thereby that they can square their actual, substantive values with the existence of a social system that subordinates all values to the pursuit of surplus-value.

Hayek, however, does not dream of a stationary state. And so, when Hägglund come to Hayek, he is forced to change tack, and he introduces the freedom/liberty disjunction in place of a discussion of Hayek’s imaginary resolution of the contradiction. This should make us pause. After all, Hayek is not the only liberal thinker of political economy that refuses the stationary state. Adam Smith saw the stationary state — a country that had attained the “full complement of riches which […] its situation […] allowed it to acquire” — as a fateful eventuality, in which “both the wages of labour and the profits of stock would probably be very low.” For Ricardo, the stationary state was a threat, something to be avoided by liberalizing the economy and increasing the volume of trade. For Herbert Spencer, social evolution had no upper limit, and liberal policy would ensure continuous growth and progress. For Chicago School neoliberalism, the growth of value is synonymous with innovation, and a steady-state economy is, therefore, synonymous with a world in which there are no new ideas, or no opportunity to communicate new ideas. Paul Romer, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics, has pushed this line of argument the furthest.

In short, there is a long tradition of liberal thinkers of political economy — a tradition of which Hayek is, in many respects, representative — that do not evince any of the conflicted feelings about perpetual economic growth that Hägglund finds in Mill, Keynes, and Rawls. Even if the socialist critique of the Mill-Keynes-Rawls line of liberalism is wholly immanent, it does not follow that the socialist critique of the Smith-Spencer-Hayek line will be. I think this is what lies behind Hägglund’s sudden introduction of the freedom/liberty distinction: the intuition that the liberal commitment to individual freedom is not, in the case of Hayek, et al., at odds with the liberal commitment to capitalism.

So what is going on here? If I were to briefly characterize this other liberal tradition, I would say that its center of gravity is a categorical opposition to private coercion and violence. It accepts the need for a central state because centralizing coercive force allows for its deployment to be regulated by commonly acknowledged laws. When the rules for deploying force are simple, universal, and public, and discretionary coercion is minimized, then two things happen. First, people are compelled to enter into voluntary exchanges and contracts in order to pursue their aims. Second, concentrations of power and resources become not only harmless but salutary, since they allow people to do new and creative things even while they do not — since the private use of force is off the table — give the wealthy and powerful the ability to hold sway over the poorer and less powerful. Even monopoly power, on this view, is not a problem — unless it is over basic necessities — since, in an otherwise competitive market environment, monopoly prices spur innovation and the entry of other suppliers into the market. State capture is a consistent concern, however, since that is where the coercive power lies.

This strand of liberalism is not obviously touched by Hägglund’s immanent critique, for Hayek is neither half-hearted in his embrace of the profit motive nor disingenuous in his commitment to individual freedom. So long as profit-seeking behavior remains within the bounds set by the law, Hayek does not think it is incompatible with any liberal values at all. So long as the state is restricted to promulgating simple, universal rules and providing basic public goods, Hayek thinks that the freedom of each is compatible with a similar freedom for every other.

To be absolutely clear: Marx is critical — highly critical — of this sort of liberalism! But his critical confrontation with it takes place on the grounds of the historical dynamics of the capitalist economy and of political struggles over power, not at the level of its adherence to shared principles. Marx and Hayek disagree about how the world works. This disagreement — and the conditions under which it might be adjudicated — are obscured, I think, by focusing on the supposed contradiction between the value of free time and the capitalist measure of social wealth. And this has consequences for how we think about socialist politics, consequences to which I will now turn.


One of the most important contributions of Hägglund’s book is that it demonstrates how central the economy of time is to Marx’s thought. This has been neglected on the left, and its neglect has given rise, as Hägglund points out, to the theoretically and politically disastrous conflation of overcoming capitalism with overcoming finitude. Adorno is not the only critical theorist to pine for the utopia of absolute plenitude, or to treat scarcity as the necessary and sufficient cause of class domination. As Hägglund rightly argues, this particular species of utopia is not merely unattainable, but “undesirable and incompatible with the fragile possibility of freedom.”

An interesting side-effect of Hägglund’s reading of Marx is that it highlights a heretofore neglected point of contact between Marx’s critique of political economy in the 1850s, ’60s, and ’70s, and the marginal utility theory that was simultaneously revolutionizing bourgeois economics. Marginalism, and the neoliberal economics that grew out of it, take the scarcity of time to be one of the most fundamental axioms of economic analysis. Perhaps Marx and the marginalists are much closer to one another than anyone has appreciated. (Even I. I. Rubin, who undertook the best examination to date of the relation of Marxism to marginalism, says nothing about time as a category.) I am not in a position to stage this confrontation here, but I do want to explore a political dimension of the question.

The economy of time does not work the same way in all contexts. In particular, it matters whether we are talking about (a) an individual agent prioritizing and pursuing their own projects, (b) a group of agents agreeing to prioritize and pursue a set of common projects, or (c) a number of agents, individual and/or collective, trying to accommodate one another’s various projects without agreeing upon an overarching set of priorities or a common project. Call these, respectively, the situations of (a) individual action, (b) collective action, and (c) coordination. My concern is that Hägglund’s construal of democratic socialism tends to treat the economy as a problem of collective action, and thereby covers over the special problems of coordination. In this way, Hägglund’s democratic socialism reproduces, in inverted form, one of the major shortcomings of neoliberal theory. Neoliberals often act as if coordination can and should crowd out all collective action. Socialists should not make the opposite error of thinking that collective action can and should crowd out all coordination.

The basis for my concern is that Hägglund seems to presume a correspondence between the purposes pursued by subsystems in the economy and the purpose of the economy as a whole. So, for example, Hägglund slides from saying that “[u]nder capitalism, the purpose of our economic production is already decided,” to saying that “what matters above all is to generate a ‘growth’ of capital in the economy.” However, the purpose of production at the level of the individual firm is not to generate growth in the economy as a whole, but to secure a profit sufficient to stay in business for another quarter, or to increase market share, or the like. The growth of capital in the economy as a whole is supposed to be a by-product of good institutional design and a free market, not an additive result of everyone pursuing and attaining profit. Individual producers and firms are just as profit-motivated during a depression as they are during a boom, but the depression is marked by a contraction of capital in the economy. Even in a booming economy, many businesses will fail to make a profit, and many people will pursue projects that are not even remotely likely to realize a profit. Macroeconomic policy and performance are not tightly chained to — much less epiphenomenal of — microeconomic motivations.

The imperative of economic growth is strong, I agree, but it is not due to an isomorphism between subsystems and system. Rather, it is a governmental imperative. On the one hand, liberal governance only seems to work under conditions of economic growth. Recession and stagnation bring increased social conflict, and, with them, increasingly authoritarian and conflictual politics. On the other hand, securing the conditions for capital accumulation are necessary in order to prevent capital flight and the collapse of both tax revenues and the ability of the government to finance its operations on the bond market.

As a consequence of seeing the macroeconomy as an expression of the microeconomy, when Hägglund turns to outlining the case for and principles of democratic socialism, he often writes as if democratic socialism will require both an ethical transformation on the part of everyone and a single collective decision-making process about how to structure the economy. Thus, he tells us that “[t]he first principle of democratic socialism is that we measure our wealth — both individual and collective — in terms of socially available free time.” This seems to imply that everyone in a democratic socialist state must be a democratic socialist, or that every individual measure their wealth in terms of socially available free time. Similarly, the second principle of democratic socialism — collective ownership of the means of production — implies, for Hägglund, that “we cannot have private property in the abstract sense that transforms property into a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit.”

Hägglund rightly criticizes Fredric Jameson for excluding “institutions of freedom” from his vision of socialism. But I would challenge Hägglund to amplify this insight. Institutions of freedom do not simply decide upon common purposes, and are not, therefore, exhausted by “collective projects of self-determination.” Institutions of freedom also include processes by which we negotiate not to collectively determine our purposes and come to terms with one another’s projects without trying to fit them into some overarching common pursuit.

I believe that Hägglund would agree with this inclusion of institutions of coordination among the institutions of freedom. He is explicitly sensitive to the fact that “our practical identities and their order of priority […] must remain at issue and possible to change.” He also insists, rightly, that “the exercise of spiritual freedom must include the possibility of criticizing or rejecting the established forms of participation.” Both of these principles imply that consideration of the public good must be agnostic about certain elements of individual and collective agents’ pursuits.

But what I want to push is (a) that this public agnosticism about how people lead their own lives is going to have to extend to people buying and selling property for profit, and (b) that this — buying and selling property for profit — should not be made into the substance of capitalism. There is every difference in the world between saying that socialism is incompatible with commodities being the general form of wealth, and with labor-power being a commodity, on the one hand, and saying, on the other, that socialism is incompatible with the existence of commodities, buying and selling, and profit. The former is compatible with the perspective of spiritual freedom Hägglund defends. The latter is not — it is too perfectionistic and moralistic in its conception of what makes capitalism and socialism the systems they are.


This brings me, finally, back around to Marx’s relation to liberalism. In the second section of this paper, I emphasized liberalism’s categorical opposition to private coercion. Implicit in the third section was another feature of liberalism: its specification of the public sphere as the sphere in which divergent projects are accommodated. This is just the flip side of the abhorrence of private coercion, since it attempts to remove the power of coercion from any agent or group pursuing any particular project, and to reserve it for the public authorities who are supposed to ensure only that everyone can go about their own business.

Marx’s social republicanism — which I outlined in the first section — relaxes the liberal stricture against non-state actors using coercive force; it is hospitable to the collective efforts of the dominated to coercively oppose their domination. But, for the same reason, it is congenial to the liberal notion that the public authority should not be treated like an enterprise association of the whole population. The state’s claims to manifest the popular will evince, in Marx’s words, a “cult of the people” that occludes the forms of social domination that divide the people against itself.

In this way, Marx’s social republicanism pulls against democratic socialism. We can put it in the form of a dilemma. If the democratic state exists, with its invocations of popular self-determination, then so does capitalism, with its particular form of class domination. If, on the other hand, social life is permeated by democratic decision-making, then the state, with its fictive unity and its attendant imaginary of the sovereign people, withers away. The various local communities, and their federation under higher national and international elected bodies, will differ from one another in what they want to pursue, and these local, national, and international authorities will also come into conflict with the various democratically managed workplaces. There will be no single, unitary forum in which these conflicts will get ironed out, by democratic deliberation, into one plan for the economy.

This, to me, is the blind spot of all democratic socialism, a blind spot it shares with much democratic theory. Neither before nor after the construction of socialism is there a single forum in which “we” would take definitive decisions about “the form of our life together” or about “the purpose and practice of our economy.” Institutions of coordination — markets, constitutions, electoral parties, contestatory elections, bargaining fora — will have to knit together the various collective and individual agents. Democracy, from this perspective, is critically important as a check on these institutions of coordination, to keep them from dominating the forms of life that they are supposed to enable, just as it is crucial within the various collective projects. But democracy cannot constitute a single collective agent, “responsible for organizing and legislating the form of our life together.”

At its best, political democracy allows the organized masses to control what political officeholders can or cannot do with their institutional power. This is a wonderful thing, for it frees the organized masses from the political domination of the state, “replacing the haughty masters of the people by always removable servants.” But democracy always remains a way of checking and controlling power; it is never a mode of collective self-legislation or self-expression.


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


William Clare Roberts is associate professor of political science at McGill University. He is the author of Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton University Press). 

LARB Contributor

William Clare Roberts is associate professor of political science at McGill University. He is the author of Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton University Press). 


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