JULY 15, 2020
To find LARB’s symposium on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, click here.
MARTIN HÄGGLUND’S This Life makes a spiritual, humanist case for socialism. This instantly elevates his work above the various anti- or post-humanist varieties of socialism that have paradoxically flourished in the academic humanities over the past several decades. Such works come at you dense with jargon, applying poorly understood economic theories to a mechanistic vision of the operation of abstract historical forces.
By contrast, Hägglund argues in wonderfully lucid sentences that socialism is a question of human-scale values. Freedom requires the subject to “ask herself hoe she should spend her time.” And this freedom in turn depends on liberation from our imprisonment in degrading, meaningless, poorly paid, and/or socially and environmentally destructive forms of work. Choose socialism, Hägglund argues, because your time on earth is short and precious, and capitalism systematically wastes it. The style of Hägglund’s thinking about socialism, its constant intimacy with basic, existential concerns, represents a model for how a literary and philosophical perspective might illuminate some of the most pressing problems of our time.
Joseph North, in his important recent book, Literary Criticism, has similarly described the political value of literary study in terms of the freedom to live a richer life. But this kind of approach is still fairly distinctive. Why have intelligent humanists avoided this path for so long? Why, since Althusser blazed this sorry trail, have so many performed contortions to keep the project of socialism from touching existential questions? From the perspective of Hägglund’s style of thought, it is easy to perceive the ridiculous quality of a literature-department Marxist like Fredric Jameson, with his bizarre misunderstandings of basic economics obscured by nearly impenetrable prose. But perhaps Jameson’s generation feared opening the question Hägglund so confidently and clearly raises. And perhaps this fear wasn’t entirely irrational.
Let’s return to the formulation of Hägglund’s I quoted at the outset. “Freedom is the capacity to ask what we ought to do with our time.” Hägglund wants to argue that socialism is simply the freedom to decide what we want to do with our lives. But it is quite obviously not. The freedom to do whatever we want is a capitalist, not socialist, freedom. There are strong arguments for why a socialist approach to health care, for example, would simply level some economic inequalities and provide better health for the community. But this isn’t a spiritual case, and it’s not the case Hägglund makes. He argues that socialism is the order appropriate to spiritual freedom. He defines spiritual freedom in terms of a life led according to personally meaningful commitments. All the book’s many examples of such commitments — from the care of a child to the writing of a book — present people making their lives matter through creative, interpersonal engagement.
But what if what I want most is to have a more expensive car than you? What if I’d prefer to spend my time not working my boring job at the post office, but collecting rare examples of high-powered automatic rifles? What if I want to spend my days gambling? Fulfilling any of these desires would, in different ways, motivate an economic system that would be more accurately called capitalist than socialist. No matter how democratic Hägglund’s socialism is, I doubt it is democratic enough to support these kinds of commitments.
So Hägglund is in the position of having to say to people: a commitment to having a better car than my neighbor isn’t a good commitment. It’s not a good use of your time. It’s a waste of your time, and it will make you miserable, along with everyone else. Many of the ways people currently spend their free time are bad. You should instead devote your finite lives to the kind of creative, interpersonal engagement that makes our world a better place.
Yet Hägglund doesn’t appear to entirely recognize that his position entails such claims. He doesn’t distinguish between better and worse ways of spending one’s free time, at least not as explicitly as the structure of his argument calls for. He largely avoids it. And the means he uses to avoid it are the same venerable means used by Marxists from Engels to Jameson: the labor theory of value. Early on, Hägglund claims that he doesn’t believe in the labor theory of value, but this is only because he imagines this theory entails a transhistorical argument that value must always be measured in terms of labor. But when people describe the old Marxist labor theory of value, they are describing the position Hägglund in fact holds.
His argument goes like this. Time is valuable under capitalism; it is the source of the value of the various commodities we fill our empty lives with. Since our time is the ultimate source of value, then a system that restores our time to ourselves by abolishing wage labor simply returns the source of what we value — our time — to us. Hägglund’s prose gets uncharacteristically cramped in presenting this position.
The measure of social wealth in terms of free time is not an ideal that I impose as an external alternative to the measure of social wealth in terms of labor time. On the contrary, the value of having time in the realm of freedom — the value of disposable time — is the real measure of wealth because it is internal to the value and measure of labor time in the realm of necessity.
This argument serves an important function for Hägglund. It ensures that he doesn’t need to distinguish between better and worse ways of spending our free time. Therefore, he is able to make the case for socialism without violating what Marx called capitalism’s “dogmatic” form of equality. This is an 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.
There are two problems with Hägglund’s commitment to the labor theory of value. The first is a technical problem. Value in capitalism is not a matter of socially necessary labor time, and therefore the value of free time isn’t “internal” to capitalist valuation. Hägglund is not alone among humanists interested in economics in imagining that the weakness of neoclassical economic models means that the 19th-century theory of value displaced by those models is therefore correct. I recommend chapter 17 of Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics as a lucid explanation of the flaws of the value theory Hägglund adopts from the perspective of a progressive economist. Perhaps Hägglund will discover a way to save his theory from these objections. At any rate, it will be useful for him to have an idea of the kind of arguments he will have to overcome.
In a fundamentally humanist book such as Hägglund’s, these technical economic issues are not important in themselves. I would be happy to ignore the weak grasp on economics by a writer with such a penetrating and humane grasp of literature and philosophy. Economics is only important here because it serves a fundamentally philosophical function in This Life. The labor theory of value, by making the value of free time look self-evident, enables Hägglund to avoid showing us why we should value free time more than the kind of work and rewards capitalism offers us, which in turn involves arguing for the value of certain ways of spending free time over others.
The value of things in our capitalist society depends partially on what people want. We don’t need to descend into technical economic or psychological questions about the dynamics of desire to grasp this basic point. We need simply to recognize that part of the movement from capitalism to socialism will involve a transformation of desire. Hägglund quotes Marx’s vision of socialism as making possible the “free development of individualities […] scientific, artistic, etc.” A particular conception of the good life underlies and supports this idea. One of the many virtues of Hägglund’s book is its wealth of examples of such projects. These examples may make it seem obvious that all people will naturally throw themselves into the oceans of free time socialism offers, eager to advance their various positive projects for self and world improvement. But I’m not so sure.
I have no doubt that I personally present an example of someone unusually prone to bad desires. At various times of my life I have a) been addicted to heroin b) gone broke buying worthless consumer goods c) engaged in heroic, albeit unsuccessful, efforts to one-up my close friends, and, lest you imagine that this kind of thing is an artifact of my distant past, d) spent over 300 hours of the year 2018 playing the computer game Slay the Spire (according to my Steam account, which irritatingly tracks these hours).
I would be the first to agree that the kinds of worthy projects that Hägglund describes are better than the kinds of things I’ve spent too much of my life doing. But insofar as I’ve succeeded in turning some of my time from worthless pursuits to better pursuits, this has been through processes — some of them court-mandated — that can be loosely described as “educational.” Without various forms of re-education, not only would my free time not be more valuable to me than one of the several meaningless jobs I’ve held in my life, it would certainly be less valuable.
Hägglund takes socialism to offer a certain kind of life, a different and better kind of life than capitalism offers. But in calling this kind of life “spiritual freedom,” he doesn’t devote enough attention to the hard problem here. The hard problem is how to make the case that some forms of life, and some kinds of desires, are superior to others. If one doesn’t want to restrict socialism’s benefit to the people (unlike myself) who naturally want to do good things, one must then consider how to embed these values in educational institutions of various kinds.
Hägglund writes that the “transformation of our practices should be determined by our democratic participation rather than be dictated to us by the dynamic of capital.” He thus suggests that decisions about the kinds of projects our society will support will be circumscribed by democratic decision-making at the collective level. But this presents another hard problem. The distinctiveness of liberal capitalism is that it is neutral about the worthiness of individual desires. Those desires are generally coordinated through markets, not through collective institutions. I can drive a big gas-guzzling, carbon-emitting SUV if I want, as long as I have the money to pay for it and can afford the taxes a reasonably progressive liberal order will place on gas.
A move to democratic socialism of the kind Hägglund envisions, on the other hand, will involve introducing people to a challenging concept: your individual desires will be bound by the results of collective decisions in a much more intense manner than is the case under capitalism. You’re going, for example, to have a lot more free time now, and the choices of things to buy on Amazon are going to be a lot smaller. The endlessness of human desire, which constitutes the theory of capitalism, and which drives its increasingly empty “dynamism,” will be limited, will be shaped and constrained in a socialist order. You can’t waste your time if you want, at least not in some of the principal ways we waste time now.
It is possible, of course, to argue for a kind of socialism in which people can buy whatever they want, in which Amazon’s virtual shelves are stocked just as high as now, perhaps through enhanced redistribution schemes that leave markets intact, but ensures that market power is more democratically distributed. But Hägglund envisions a more radical form of socialism, one that will genuinely liberate our time. At the heart of his book is the idea that free time is more valuable than working in order to accumulate mountains of consumer goods and services. This is socialist freedom. Advocating for this socialist freedom, however, means transforming some — perhaps most — of the desires that currently drive capitalism. The desire for a more expensive car than yours, for example. The desire for a smart phone with a bigger screen.
To be clear, I am in favor of this transformation. I strongly support eliminating what David Graeber calls “Bullshit Jobs” to make way for better ways of life. I support stopping the treadmill of empty consumerist novelty. But the spiritual case for free socialist time requires a willingness to move beyond the capitalist equality that views all desires equally. And this in turn requires making the kinds of arguments that Hägglund mistakenly believes the labor theory of value renders unnecessary.
I will conclude with a brief reflection on how Hägglund’s arguments for socialism interact with his arguments against religion. As a Buddhist, I appreciate his bracing attacks. Buddhism isn’t attacked often enough. It’s like the charming puppy of world religions. Who could be against Buddhism? Yet without the kind of attack Hägglund mounts, we Buddhists risk imagining that being a Buddhist means that we don’t have to give anything up. But as Hägglund shows, the Buddhist doctrine of no-self renders my commitments to various worldly entities in some ways suspect. Because as a Buddhist I seek to lessen my attachments, and to weaken the hold of my self over my life, I am therefore less totally committed to the objects of my love.
Reflecting on Hägglund’s challenge, I find that some of my projects — my commitment to fast cars, for example, or my effort to get in the top 100 scores on Slay the Spire — do seem somewhat at odds with my Buddhist perspective. In these cases, I do actually want to lessen my interest in these activities. But other commitments — to my partner, for example, or to literature, seem different. These commitments seem to me to be enhanced by a spiritual practice that requires that one submit one’s mind to regular submersion in emptiness.
I meditate each day, observing, as the Zen saying has it, my thoughts and my life dying and being reborn hundreds of times a minute. This is a religious, even a mystical experience. Afterward, if I’m reading, or writing, or hiking, or hanging out with my partner, I sometimes experience less interference from myself. There seems less of me in those experiences. The experience itself seems to soak up all of my life, so that there’s little room left for either the fear of death, or the interest in going on, that Hägglund takes to constitute secular faith. Yet I think there’s more love, and more creativity, in such moments than in the moments when I identify more strongly with myself, when I grasp my finite life as the ground of possibility for beauty, love, or art. Hägglund makes a beautiful case that Knausgaard’s My Struggle is a testament of secular faith. Some of the time — maybe even most of the time — I feel myself to be the actor in a personal drama not entirely unlike the one Knausgaard has exhaustively documented. But the best parts of my life tend to lie outside this drama.
Zen meditation thus seems to me one of a diverse range of practices — which might range from education in the arts to adequate mental health care — that seek to transform desire, and the subject of desire, sometimes in dramatic, sometimes in very subtle ways. I think 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.
This essay contains material from the second chapter of Clune’s A Defense of Judgment (University of Chicago Press, 2021).
Michael W. Clune is the critically acclaimed author of the memoirs Gamelife and White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin. He is currently Samuel B. and Virginia C. Knight Professor of the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University, and lives in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.