Socialism for Liberals

Jodi Dean on whether you should spend your time on “This Life” by Martin Hägglund.

Socialism for Liberals

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


SOCIALISM WAS THE REAL WINNER of the 2016 election in the United States. Thanks to Bernie Sanders’s campaign, an idea that many presumed to be dead catapulted back onto the political stage and nearly stole the show. Four years later, socialism is everywhere — profiled in mainstream news outlets; flourishing in its own newly energized ecosystem of magazines, conferences, parties, and podcasts; at the top of polls tracking debt-burdened millennials’ rejection of capitalism; and playing a key role in local, state, and national elections, whether as the commitment to equality driving insurgent campaigns or the perennial specter haunting the right’s worst nightmares. Since his 2019 State of the Union address, Trump has harped ceaselessly on socialism as America’s enemy number one even as the country’s most popular programs are those slapped with the socialist label.

So which socialism? Like any idea with mass circulation, socialism means different things to different people and parties. For well over a century, the international left has debated socialism’s meaning, content, and practical implementation. In its current popular renascence in the United States, the term stretches from 20th-century state socialism to Roosevelt’s New Deal; from command economies and centralized planning to small-scale cooperatives and a tax on the rich; and from revolutionary anti-imperialism to reformist securing of past public projects. Issues in the contemporary discussion include chattel slavery’s contribution to the global development of capitalist industry, the diversity of the working class, the importance of unwaged and socially reproductive labor, the double-edged sword of technology, and the enormous challenge of climate change, not to mention the classic questions of reform and revolution, party and union, and the state that never quite manages to wither away.

Martin Hägglund’s addition to the debate is a vision of democratic socialism as a secular faith. For most socialists, the invaluable contribution of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is the way they knit together working-class struggle and the critique of capitalism developed by ethical and utopian socialists. Marxian socialism, communism, is the fighting theory of the working class, a weapon in the class struggle. In contrast, Hägglund’s secular faith jettisons class struggle and returns to the spiritual and moral concerns of an earlier generation of socialist reformers. For Hägglund, democratic socialism is a commitment to securing the spiritual and material conditions for free life.

The three tenets of democratic socialism as secular faith are: The measure of societal wealth in terms of socially available free time; collective ownership of the means of production; and the distributive principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need” (a paraphrase of Marx’s classic definitions of communism). The latter two tenets suggest that Hägglund is on the side of the revolutionaries. Collective ownership of the means of production is an exponentially more radical demand than, say, the call for a universal basic income (UBI), and Hägglund’s critique of UBI is persuasive and necessary. Similarly, “from each according to ability, to each according to need” necessitates the revolutionary transformation of a mode of production anchored in extortion as well as exploitation. By making the ability to secure goods and services dependent on access to the wage, capitalism presents as a choice what is actually coercion: you can choose whether to work, but if you choose not to you won’t have food or shelter; in short, you will die. By abolishing the wage, democratic socialism expects each to contribute to collective well-being but disconnects this contribution from questions of distribution. Rather than advocate revolution and pursue the corresponding lines of analysis and organization, however, Hägglund supports transformation through revaluation of social wealth as socially available free time. This is a project for the philosopher, unencumbered by the messy entanglements of party or movement. His vision of democratic socialism as a secular faith is thus less revolutionary than it is a commitment to the liberal values he claims “we” already have but are somehow unclear about. As he says, the three principles of democratic socialism “make explicit what is implicit in the commitment to equality and freedom through which we are already trying to justify our liberal democracy and our capitalist economy.” So instead of being deeply divided and unequal, capitalist society for Hägglund is characterized by shared commitments that simply haven’t been realized.

Hägglund draws on Marx. But he purports to “deepen” him by revealing and supplying the spiritual core missing from Marxist materialism. This move is less a deepening than it is a distortion, the undermining of materialism with idealism. Where Marx theorized fundamental material division — the antagonisms of bourgeoisie and proletariat, town and country, use and exchange — Hägglund posits an underlying unity of ideals, “our” faith in profit and “our” misconceived notion of value. He thus sees the contemporary political challenge not in a global capitalist system, held in place by imperialism (that is, US military force, a few powerful states, and corporate and financial monopolies), exploiting and immiserating the majority of the world’s people as it plunges headlong into the catastrophe of planetary warming. He sees the problem as what “we” value.

Hägglund claims to have discovered an “originary” notion of value presupposed in Marx’s classic analysis of the value form. It’s more accurate to say that Hägglund substitutes the specific substantive value of an individual’s finite lifetime for Marx’s critical category of value as an effect of generalized processes of exchange. For Marx, value can never appear directly. It’s always relational, the product of histories of multiple interlocking processes. There is no “essence” to value. Rather than finding a hidden truth to these processes, Hägglund inserts a different notion of value altogether, the finite lifetime of the individual. His argument is that the pursuit of profit in capitalist societies privileges the valuation of labor time when what should be valued is free time, the time in which the individual is free to pursue their individual goals. Capitalism has the wrong notion of value.

Hägglund thinks that his originary account of value not only improves on Marx but also gets at the inner truth already promised by liberalism and capitalism. The justification for liberal democracy, he says, is that it allows each to live a free life. The justification for capitalism is that it increases social wealth. Once social wealth is revalued as free time, as it will be under democratic socialism, the liberal ideal can be realized.

That what’s really at stake for Hägglund is realizing liberal and capitalist commitments makes sense of his strange democratic socialism. Where most socialists are committed to meeting social needs, he is concerned with individual free time. 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 left behind. And where much of the left is committed to opposing imperialism and building international solidarity, Hägglund makes clear in the list of cities that close out his book that his vision is limited to the United States.

There may be some who might benefit from reading this book. Organizers working to strengthen an international socialist movement don’t need to make the time.


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


Jodi Dean teaches political, feminist, and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited 13 books, including The Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party, both published by Verso.


Featured image: "Socialist latte" by matryosha is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

LARB Contributor

Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited 14 books, including Crowds and Party (2016) and Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (2019), both published by Verso.


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