MARTIN HÄGGLUND’S This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is a gift. It is a book that will become an important touchstone for democratic and left politics, as well as our debates on the contradictions of capitalism. It is not afraid to move beyond familiar critiques of our economic crises to ask fundamental questions of values and ideals, or, to quote the title of the last book Martin Luther King Jr. published while alive: where do we go from here?
Months after that still-neglected book was released, King was gunned down on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel. King came to Tennessee against the advice of his closest aides, in an attempt to bring resources, reporters, and resolve to the city’s striking black sanitation workers. The catalyst for their strike was not simply their poverty wages, but more fundamentally, that the danger and disregard in which these men toiled had led to the gruesome and unnecessary deaths of their colleagues Echol Cole and Robert Walker. In inclement weather, Memphis’s black sanitation workers were frequently forced to seek refuge inside the back of their trucks because they were banned from making shelter stops in white residential areas. Treated with disgust by their white neighbors and laboring in decrepit equipment, Cole and Walker are best understood as casualties of a cruel and contemptuous measure of value, who drew their last breaths inside a garbage-strewn maw of one of the city’s many malfunctioning sanitation trucks.
It is fitting that their story, and King’s attempt to place Memphis’s sanitation workers at the center of a “revolution in values,” sit at the conclusion of This Life. “So often,” King complained in 1968 in Memphis, “we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs.” For Martin Luther King Jr., these kinds of practices reflect a society fundamentally at odds with what is truly valuable. Against this order, King declared the necessity of building a world where all forms of socially necessary labor could be performed with self-respect and recognition in a truly cooperative society. “One day,” King warned, “our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
At times, King sought to link our inability to recognize the dignity of such work and the people who performed it to forms of reification and ideology that we inherited from a sordid history of coerced labor and economic exploitation. In his last presidential address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967, King insisted that “[a] nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will ‘thingify’ them and make them things. And therefore, they will exploit them and poor people generally economically.”
What Hägglund teases out from King, connecting him to the Marxist tradition’s talk of reification and exploitation, is that the question of what we value is not simply a question of imagination. We need to do more than think differently or show more effusive appreciation for the working poor. Our attributions of value (the cost of commodities, the worth of labor) or the ways we treat our fellows more like objects, things, or commodities than equal persons, are embedded in and overdetermined by social structures that constantly impose such relations as natural, inevitable, or rational. It is, in the face of these forces, King’s persistent raising of the fundamental question of worth, his outrage at the existing measure of value, and his insistence that a revolution in value is needed that makes him an important interlocutor for This Life’s account of “democratic socialism” despite King’s lack of public identification with that label.
In a book that picks a number of battles, one of its most jarring is its insistence that true democratic socialism must go far beyond anything like the New Deal revivalism of Bernie Sanders. Above all, democratic socialism is distinguished, on Hägglund’s account, by its “fundamental and practical revaluation of the capitalist measure of value.”
In a powerful reconstruction of Marx’s critical theory, Hägglund argues that under capitalism the “essential measure of value” is “socially necessary labor time.” Identifying a “contradiction” at the heart of this measure of value, which undergirds wage labor and commodity exchange alike, Hägglund argues that we treat labor time as a cost to be compensated precisely because “we value our finite lifetime as our own free time, which we in principle could devote to an activity that is meaningful in itself.” Our freedom and free time, moreover, are so valuable precisely because of our finitude — our impermanence, fragility, and interdependence.
Tragically, this measure of value also works insidiously to lead us astray from our freedom. It structures the horizons and terms of our politics, constraining what democratic deliberation can even be about in most instances. Even progressives, he argues, usually fail to “grapple with the fundamental question of value in the mode of production.” These critics are enamored with the hope that redistribution, representation, and regulation might tame the excesses of capitalism, but for Hägglund, their stalwart defense of democracy is too little, too late. “For political democracy to be actual — for us to actually be able to negotiate the form of our life together,” as Hägglund writes, “the purpose and practice of our economy must itself be a matter of our democratic deliberation.” The purpose of economic production itself should be up for debate, not always already decided in favor of maximizing profit at the cost of freedom.
While Marx is a more obvious fellow traveler along this path, it is a testament to Hägglund’s reach that he aims to recognize what Martin Luther King Jr. might bring to this endeavor as a public philosopher. It is not, of course, unprecedented to consider King a “democratic socialist.” Scholars like Cornel West and bell hooks have long accented King’s critique of capitalism, while others, like Thomas Jackson, have exhaustively explored the continuity of his skepticism toward capitalism from his youthful days in seminary. Even in King’s earliest public writings, despite the pressure of editors and the atmosphere of Cold War hysteria, his criticisms of capitalism remained strident. In a sermon from Strength to Love (1963), he charged that “capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless.”
And, as Hägglund emphasizes, King extended this criticism at times to the notion of value undergirding capitalism itself. “The profit motive,” King warned, “when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cut-throat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. It can make men so I-centered that they no longer are Thou-centered.”
Key for Hägglund is King’s plea that, in the face of such tendencies, what is desperately needed, at home and abroad, is “a radical revolution of values.” But what precisely might that entail? Like Hägglund, who defends the Marxian principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” King was repulsed by the juxtaposition of profound affluence and degrading poverty in America. Such poverty “has no justification in our age,” King declared, and an economic system that imposes deprivation in the midst of affluence is “as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization.” Further, both Hägglund and King share the long-standing left critique of merely “formal” rights that are not buttressed by social cooperation and shared social wealth. Hägglund also recognizes an important and often overlooked strain of King’s thought that treats the “democratic” control of the economy as a far more open-ended and citizen-oriented than the more familiar description of King as a champion of labor unions or constitutional entitlements suggests.
King’s vision for democratic politics entailed not just voting, but a wide range of actors participating in economic decision-making through nonviolent direct action, dedicated venues for robust civic participation, and even arbitration. By the late 1960s, for example, King celebrated the development of welfare and tenants unions, not simply as vehicles for promoting particular interests, but as a significant moment in the history of democracy itself. Invoking the successes of groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in organizing public housing residents and welfare recipients, King saw them as pioneering “new methods of participation in decision-making.” In this vision of democracy, the market value of housing, the ownership of utilities, the connection between work and wages, and metropolitan budgeting would all be subjected to democratic deliberation and the forceful action of the citizenry.
While King’s democratic radicalism does not assail private property (for many, the sine qua non of socialism), it does raise important tensions for Hägglund’s democratic socialism. In King’s last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he looks beyond his long-standing interest in the bargaining parity of labor and capital to emphasize the inevitability of structural dislocations and unemployment in capitalist economies. The goal, for King, is not to put people to work in any remunerative job, by any legal means necessary. Instead, it is to expand precisely what Hägglund describes in This Life as the “realm of freedom.” “[T]he work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought,” King declares, quoting Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879), “is not done to secure a living.” “It is not,” he continues, “the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.” It is a question of dignity, King insists, that “the decisions concerning [one’s] life are in his own hands, when he has the […] means to seek self-improvement.”
Yet, to do this, King argues, we will likely need to introduce a guaranteed annual income. Hägglund, by contrast, is largely critical of this policy. Advocates of universal basic income, he argues, “never question the measure and production of value under capitalism but focus only on the distribution of wealth across society.” However, we might read King’s advocacy as precisely the sort of intervention necessary, not as an end in and of itself, but as part of a dialectical struggle toward a “revolution of values.”
The role of race is particularly important here. Hägglund mentions King’s claim that the evils of poverty and racism overlap, but one way that race works is by ideologically masking the structural character of unemployment and the coercive character of most wage labor. The racialization of unemployment makes joblessness appear, to many citizens, as a mark of pathology or grievance-driven free riding, rather than a feature of advanced capitalist economies. Under such ideological cover, many of the forms of resistance or rebellion against the existing labor regime and its judgments of value are misapprehended as sullenness, unprofessional attitudes, criminality, or lack of intelligence — all dripping with racial signifiers.
This was Marx’s fleeting, if underdeveloped insight in the Grundrisse (1857–1858), where he excoriates a plantation owner who advocated for the reintroduction of “Negro slavery” in post-emancipation Jamaica because freed blacks “content themselves with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption, and, alongside this ‘use value,’ regard loafing (indulgence and idleness) as the real luxury good.” For these freedpersons, Marx argued, “capital does not exist as capital, because autonomous wealth as such can exist only either on the basis of direct forced labour, slavery, or indirect forced labour, wage labour.” Implicit in Marx’s mockery is that the race and condition of these freedpersons made their practical defense of the “realm of freedom” unintelligible to many so-called liberals and humanists of the day, who lent their intellect to championing discipline and coercion instead.
Gender is perhaps an even more compelling example. The category often masks the value and difficulty of work associated with “femininity.” Above all, the idea that women find their natural flourishing and self-realization primarily in child-rearing and homemaking (a view the early King held), allows such work already to be described as “spiritual freedom,” masking coercion and exploitation. To illustrate how deeply these currents run, even This Life calls upon examples of child-rearing and care work as the main examples of “spiritual freedom” in opposition to “necessity.”
If racism, sexism, and other ideologies distort our distinctions between freedom and necessity, or the universal worth of “free time,” how might we learn to see otherwise? Instead of treating basic income as an end in itself, why not treat universal basic income as one element or stepping-stone in a suite of demands meant to lead toward a better grasp of the very distinctions Hägglund calls on us to restore: freedom and necessity, interdependence and independence, democracy and domination. Perhaps we should treat the basic income demand as a way of expressing the equal worth of all members of society and the finite time of our lives? Might it serve a pedagogical and instrumental function, retraining our attention to the structural pathologies of real-world capitalism (e.g., unemployment) or the value of activities (e.g., child-rearing) currently pursued outside of the existing conception of value, shot through as it is with racial and sexual ideology?
These questions of politics are outside of the main orbit of This Life, which is ambitious enough as is, but when Hägglund invokes King as a socialist ally, principles of political action inevitably impinge on how far we should accept that categorization. After all, whatever King’s commitment to a “revolution in values,” he always insists that this revolution be a nonviolent one. While it is clear from Hägglund’s account that he deeply admires King’s work in deepening democracy and leading direct action against economic injustice, he does not, however, say much about the question of political violence.
This question, of course, places King at odds with many in the socialist (especially Marxist) tradition. For King, nonviolence had metaphysical and secular foundations. The former related to the sacredness of human personality and the inviolability of human dignity. The latter was tied to, among other pragmatic considerations, a judgment that democracy and nonviolence are immanently connected. In his 1964 Nobel Prize Lecture, King declared violence “immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding […] to annihilate rather than to convert,” which “leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue.” It is this ultimate commitment to communication, persuasion, and redemption that makes King’s political ethics democratic, even as it deploys some measure of restrained coercion and disruption.
This matters for Hägglund insofar as King’s nonviolence is among the central pieces of evidence for denying King’s affinity with Marxism. King criticized Marxism for its refusal to treat certain rights and principles of respect for human personality as fixed points in democratic life. He thought leaving such commitments subordinate to the ends of class struggle, however noble a goal, was a recipe for injustice and abuse. Reading This Life, especially with its invocation of King, one wonders if Hägglund would share this commitment to a democratic politics of nonviolence as another principle of democratic socialism. Should democratic socialism not fervently seek out every method of coercive, contentious politics that, nevertheless, tries to hold fast to the possibilities of persuasion, reconciliation, and one’s own possible misguidedness, in search of justice and respect for our fragile individuality? An answer here would go a long way toward clarifying his stance in the debates between socialists and radical liberals who lay claim to King, as well as the debates among socialists on whether nonviolence is, ultimately, a philosophical and political error.
Of course, the starkest contrast, for most readers, between Hägglund and King is religion rather than violence. As scaffolding toward the defense of democratic socialism, the first half of This Life critiques “religious faith,” by which Hägglund means those stances toward the world that “devalue” our finite life as “a lower form of being” (e.g., as lacking, illusory, fallen, etc.). Instead, religious faith favors some kind of transcendence or eternity, or, seeks to absolve us, ultimately, from “the pain of loss.” Hägglund contends such faith is self-undermining. What it means for beings like us to care for or value our lives, strivings, or objects is inextricable from dwelling on both their “irreplaceable value” and their potential loss or destruction. “The aim of religious striving,” Hägglund insists, at least in its fullest expression, “is to attain a complete security, where one no longer has to rely on an uncertain faith and can let go of all concern.” Against the claims of those who would resurrect political theology for its purported motivational force and the sense of “fullness” it might provide our lives, Hägglund defends a “secular faith,” that by contrast, refuses to aspire to, or even idealize, a form of life beyond the possibility of loss or the need for concern.
This account of religion, which relies heavily on the high philosophical literature of Protestant Christianity, will hopefully provoke vigorous debate from scholars of other traditions about whether this account of religious faith holds generally. For King, however, this division between religious and secular faith that Hägglund sets up seems to miss something far more vital to the question of political theology and motivation in African American Christianity than the aspiration to be absolved of loss and finitude.
This is perhaps best exemplified in King’s sermon “Shattered Dreams,” which engages the condition of finitude forthrightly. “[F]ew, if any, of us live to see our fondest hopes fulfilled,” King proclaims, noting that “shattered dreams are a hallmark of our mortal life.” Moreover, King shares with Hägglund the judgment that the appropriate response is not “detachment” from life or a “fatalism” that treats God as the sole “determiner and controller of destiny.” King, like Hägglund, believes such views deny human freedom and personality. But how might we appropriately face this inevitable finitude and failure and go on, as Hägglund puts it, without falling into nihilism or bad faith?
King offers two answers that do not always fit neatly together. One suggests that if we die without receiving “the earthly promise,” God shall nevertheless “lead us down that mysterious road called death and at last to that indescribable city he has prepared for us.” “Our earthly life,” he declares, “is a prelude to a glorious new awakening, and our death is an open door that leads us into life eternal.” This is the kind of “religious faith” that raises Hägglund’s ire. Even if it manages to provide some motivation to struggle for justice, convincing us to risk our lives in effect by offering us something greater in our afterlives, Hägglund worries that this mode of faith devalues this life and ultimately weakens our sense of what is at stake in the here and now and truly worth sacrificing for. In this sense, Hägglund’s critique resonates with a line of argument trenchantly pressed by Malcolm X, who mocked the concept of heaven and hell in African American Christianity: “The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re dead, while this white man has his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars right here on this earth!”
It is the nature of such metaphysical arguments that death must provide their final adjudication, but one can readily see the force of Malcolm’s critique, even where it only concerns the question of motivation and struggle. Their force, in large part, lies in calling us back to the value of “this earth” and the horror that we might lose the possibility of a freer, more fulfilling existence “right here” by fleeing our finitude for fantasy. The power of Malcolm’s message was often lost in his own theological visions of divinely ordained racial retribution and black sovereignty, but there are times when the socialist dream of interracial fraternity in service of the total overcoming of capitalism seems similarly millennial.
In this sense, Hägglund’s language of faith, although sure to rankle socialists of a more “scientific” ilk, is probably apt. “Faith” permits us to ask, what judgments are we permitted to suspend, what hopes are we permitted to nourish, in search of a greater, yet unpromised, glory? This question is tightly related to the motivational one at the heart of much African American political theology, namely, why should black people — given their own finitude — sacrifice or struggle for ideals of freedom and justice in the face of likely defeat and near certain despair? Can we find faith in others, especially those who have consistently ground such hope into dust beneath their own avarice and disregard? What could sustain us while we work to build such solidarity?
If not the hope of an “indescribable city” or “life eternal,” perhaps King’s other ideal of religious faith, namely that we are in solidarity with something divine when we are on the side of the right and the good. This is not a religious faith that seeks to absolve us of loss, or even inure us to the burdens we bear; it is the belief instead that even “in life’s most confining and oppressive cells,” God is with us. Rather than deny our finitude, it aims to steel one’s resolve to struggle on in the face of profound isolation, abandonment, and oppression. It provides a measure of inner peace, in King’s words, “amid the howl and rage of outer storm.” In King’s rendering, this is the essence, of both early Christianity and African American Christianity, forged alike in the crucibles of oppression and enslavement. These traditions, he contends, are “living examples of peace that passeth all understanding” and exemplify the “hope of freedom” in a “seemingly hopeless situation.”
When reading such passages, my mind drifts to harrowing moments of the Civil Rights movement — King being kidnapped for hours, held in the back of a Florida police car with a German Shepherd inches away; Fannie Lou Hamer, being beaten mercilessly by two Mississippi prisoners on police orders; Fred Shuttlesworth and the Birmingham community, persevering through endless bombing and terrorism. Frankly, what unsettles me any time my secularism grows confident and strident, is the way that these people describe their turn to prayer in these darkest moments of isolation and anguish. A secular interpretation is, of course, ready at hand — “God” is a placeholder for a solidarity yet to come, or a signifier of fidelity to communities of struggle and traditions of resistance. Such renderings may even be enough when resistance is surging, intergenerational trust seems resilient, and civic reconciliation seems possible.
Yet, in those moments where it seems that one has truly been forsaken by her fellows and forced to bear the fullest burden of society’s contempt, the idea of a God that is with you, hoping against hope that you might endure and that something more just might emerge from that endurance, remains a powerful source of sustenance and survival. This is the idea of religious faith embodied in a song like “A Balm in Gilead,” which King would sing in times of despair:
Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.
In such “midnight” moments, when talk of eternal peace and milk-and-honey streets would become sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal, it is difficult to imagine Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow travelers in the struggle for justice, soldiering on without this faith holding them and their impossible cross aloft.
To read Martin Hägglund’s response to this essay, click here.
Brandon M. Terry is assistant professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies at Harvard University. A graduate of Harvard, Oxford, and Yale, Brandon is a scholar of African American political thought, political philosophy, and race, politics, and culture. He is the editor, with Tommie Shelby, of To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Harvard University Press, 2018).