What Is Democratic Socialism? Part III: Life After Capitalism

By Martin HägglundJuly 15, 2020

What Is Democratic Socialism? Part III: Life After Capitalism
To find LARB’s symposium on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, click here.



THE IMMANENT CRITIQUE of capitalism in the second part of my response has led us to the question of what it would mean to overcome the measure of value that governs our form of life and achieve an emancipated society. This is the question at the center of William Clare Roberts’s response to This Life. Roberts has a profound and original understanding of Capital, which he develops in his path-breaking book Marx’s Inferno. Roberts’s reading of Marx — and his response to my book — proceeds from the republican ideal of freedom as non-domination. As he argues, “being subject to a dominating power means that your time is not your own, and that your time is, therefore, not free.” Roberts cogently demonstrates that the capitalist market is a source of such domination, since we must subject ourselves to “the shifting whims of supply and demand” rather than being able to deliberate freely regarding what should be produced. For us to achieve freedom from domination, the capitalist market must be overcome in favor of what Marx calls a “free association among producers.” As Roberts points out, “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.”

Roberts claims that the republican element of Marx’s thought is absent from my account, but in fact I seek to ground his republicanism on a deeper level. The cause of domination under capitalism is not reducible to market relations but inherent in the mode of production itself. Under capitalism, we are all dominated by the collective priority of generating profit, since that priority is inscribed in how we measure and produce the capital wealth that sustains our lives. Contrary to what Roberts claims, my argument here does not presume a direct correspondence between macroeconomic and microeconomic aims. The purpose of profit operates differently on different levels of the economy, which often are at odds with one another. But the point is that the priority of profit — on every level and in all of its contradictory manifestations — is a social form of structural domination that makes us unable to own the responsibility for our actions. As a capitalist producer, I must try to make a profit, regardless of what I believe would be valuable to produce for the sake of the social good. Likewise, as a worker, I must subject myself to a job that allows me to earn a living wage, regardless of which forms of labor I believe would contribute to the social good. Whether we are capitalists or workers, the cultivation of our abilities and the satisfaction of our needs have no inherent value; what matters is whether our abilities and needs can be exploited for the sake of profit.

For the same reason, the overcoming of capitalism requires not only a negative freedom from domination but also a positive freedom to lead our lives in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another. Roberts elides this notion of freedom as mutual recognition, which is the key to my immanent critique of liberalism. To lead a free life, it is not enough that we are exempt from coercion and granted the liberty to make choices. Actual freedom requires that we participate in fundamental decisions regarding the purposes that determine our range of choices and for the sake of which we lead our lives. Moreover, since all forms of choice and decision are social, we must be able to affirm our participation in social institutions not as a means to our freedom but as the exercise of our freedom. In short, to achieve actual freedom we must recognize ourselves in the laws to which we are bound. This form of collective self-legislation does not require that I as an individual was part of originally instituting the laws, or that we actually vote about everything. However, we must be able to recognize the laws that govern our life as expressions of our own commitments and as in principle contestable or transformable through our democratic participation.

Roberts rejects my appeals to collective self-expression and self-legislation, since he thinks these notions entail that we must be “a single collective agent” that deliberates in “a single forum” and imposes uniform collective action. This is a fatal misunderstanding. Collective self-legislation is not a matter of uniform collective action but of the norms that govern our form of life and to which we hold one another in our practices. Collective self-legislation is not optional but a condition of possibility for any form of society. There could be no form of social life — and no one could understand herself as a social being — without a form of collective self-legislation that renders our social relations intelligible in light of shared norms. Our social norms do not have to be codified in an explicit legal code but are necessarily at work in how we relate to one another in practice.

Hence, the question is not if we should be the subjects of collective self-legislation but which kind of collective self-legislation should govern our lives. Capitalism is itself a form of collective self-legislation, which only exists because we recognize and place demands on one another in terms of being consumers of commodities who own capital, earn a wage, or are unemployed. That we participate in the collective self-legislation of capitalism does not depend on our psychological beliefs but is built into our practical self-relation. Even if we profess an anti-capitalist ideology we have to acknowledge and in practice assent to the social norms of capitalism, since otherwise we could not make a living.

Because Roberts misunderstands the meaning of collective self-legislation, he rejects my argument that “we” are “responsible for organizing and legislating the form of our life together” and that “we” make decisions about “the form of our life together” as well as about “the purpose and the practice of our economy.” Without the notion of collective self-legislation, however, it is impossible to understand that capitalism is something that we are doing to ourselves and that can be overcome only through our forms of collective action. Because the generation of profit is our self-legislated purpose under capitalism, which determines how we materially reproduce our lives in our social practices, we cannot overcome its power through mere individual will or a change of the official worldview of our society. Rather, we must practically transform how we sustain our lives all the way down to our production of the goods that we consume.

As Roberts himself is well aware, the development of capitalism has made clear that we are globally interdependent. For Marx, such a global “we” is a necessary requirement for the post-capitalist form of life he calls communism, which would coordinate production and consumption on a planetary scale in accordance with the cooperative principle “from each according to her ability, to each according to her need.” Accordingly, in Marx’s Inferno, Roberts affirms a vision of communism as a “global republic” or a “global federation of republics,” where self-governing cooperatives are coordinating their production in relation to evolving needs. [1] As Roberts acknowledges, “trying to imagine a global system of interdependent cooperatives managing all production by nested communal deliberation certainly gives rise to all manner of questions and doubts about matters logistical and procedural.” [2] Yet these are questions we need to be asking and Roberts rightly emphasizes that they should not be conflated with the questions that arise in relation to the vision of “a global and technocratic command economy,” which wrongly has been ascribed to Marx.

Hence, in responding to Roberts’s challenge to “amplify” my understanding of the “institutions of freedom” in a post-capitalist form of life, I will elaborate my vision of global democratic socialism in relation to his vision of global republicanism. Roberts and I agree with Marx in calling for the overcoming of the state as a social form that maintains a division of classes. In the vision that Roberts presents in his response, the withering away of the state gives rise to “local communities,” which are joined in a “federation under higher national and international elected bodies.” The local communities interact globally through “institutions of coordination — markets, constitutions, electoral parties, contestatory elections, bargaining fora.” Democracy for Roberts 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.” Under global republicanism, social life is thus “permeated by democratic decision-making,” which enables a check on what “office-holders can or cannot do with their institutional power.” Democratic mechanisms are operative all the way from the self-governed cooperatives — where the workers hire (and can fire) their own managers — to every level of governing bodies, where the elected officials can always be recalled by their constituency. The persons who serve on the elected bodies are not career politicians whose control of legislative mechanisms leads them to think of the state as their own instrument of power and become “haughty masters of the people.” Rather, they are “always removable servants” of the ones who have elected them.

Roberts’s laudable ambition is to free us from “the political domination of the state,” which he rightly identifies as a “form of class domination.” As I show in This Life, under capitalism we cannot actually deliberate democratically on how best to serve the common good. Even prior to any manipulation of the political process, we must prioritize the interests of capitalists, since there can be no production of wealth without the profits of privately owned enterprises. Even the interests of wage laborers themselves are shaped by the interests of the owners of capital, since everyone who works for a wage or is unemployed depends on the continued growth of capital to make a living.

Hence, under capitalism, even the most democratic state is in the service of class domination. However, such a notion of the state is not the defining form of collective self-legislation (as Roberts assumes in dismissing all appeals to collective self-legislation as “fictive” mystifications that occlude “the forms of social domination that divide the people against itself”). Rather, the state as an organ of class domination is a historically specific form of collective self-legislation, which can be overcome through the overcoming of capitalism. For life after capitalism to have any determinate form, we must achieve a democratic form of collective self-legislation rather than abandon all forms of collective self-legislation (in which case there would be no society and no social individuals at all).

Thus, when Roberts denies the possibility of a democratic form of collective self-legislation — “democracy always remains a way of checking and controlling power; it is never a mode of collective self-legislation or self-expression” — he is doubly mistaken.

First, Roberts’s conception of democracy as a check on power is itself a form of collective self-legislation, since it requires that we acknowledge the normative authority of democratic mechanisms in our society. It is certainly true that “institutions of freedom” — as Roberts recalls — “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 over-arching common pursuit.” Yet even the determination of what should not be determined collectively must be part of how we determine the overarching form of our society and thus a form of collective self-legislation.

Second, the overcoming of capitalism requires a form of collective self-legislation where democracy is not merely a means to checking power but enables us to recognize our shared form of life as an end in itself that is constituted by our democratic participation. It is telling that Roberts posits democracy as a means for “the dominated to coercively oppose their domination,” which reveals that the state in Marx’s sense has not actually withered away in Roberts’s global republicanism. As long as there is a structural conflict between those who dominate and those who are dominated, the form of the state that Marx criticized is still at work. The overcoming of the state as a form of social domination requires that the authority of our laws no longer derive from the coercive exercise of power. Rather, we will take ourselves to be obligated because we can recognize that obeying the laws which govern our shared form of life is an exercise of our freedom. [3] To be clear, an essential part of being free is the ability to contest any given law, but in doing so we will no longer oppose the law as a form of domination. Rather, we will debate and pursue new forms of holding one another accountable.

Roberts concedes that the institutions of coordination under global republicanism “will have to knit together the various collective and individual agents.” However, he does not say anything about the principles that will govern the institutions of coordination and the form of life into which we will be “knit together.” Most strikingly, he rejects the principle that both Marx and I specify as a condition of possibility for a post-capitalist form of life: collective ownership of the means of production. Roberts mistakenly assumes that such collective ownership entails that there must be “a single collective decision-making process,” which establishes “one plan for the economy” and thereby “covers over the special problems of coordination.” Instead he holds that we can overcome capitalism without overcoming the buying and selling of property for profit (i.e., commodity production). Indeed, he maintains that we must allow for “the existence of commodities, buying and selling, and profit.”

These are untenable claims, which are truly surprising coming from such a sophisticated reader of Marx. [4] Marx’s work systematically demonstrates that the overcoming of capitalism requires the determinate negation of private property. If there is buying and selling of commodities, there cannot be free association among the cooperatives, since they will be competing for profits rather than coordinating their interdependent production. To abolish buying and selling for profit is not to restrict our freedom (as Roberts has it) but to make possible coordination without domination.

In Marx’s Inferno, Roberts himself argues that a post-capitalist form of life requires a democratic mode of production, where the economy is “managed by deliberation and debate” both within and among the freely associated cooperatives. This mode of production rules out not only capitalism but also “market socialism and the bureaucratic central planning of state socialism” in favor of global cooperation, governed by a universal federation of republics. [5] Even though Roberts does not acknowledge it, such cooperation hinges on a shared identification with the collective project of a post-capitalist form of life that is sustained globally. For coordination to be a matter of cooperation rather than market-driven competition, the freely associated producers must be identifying with the global form of life as an end in itself, which is expressive of their own commitment to lead a free life and thus a democratic form of collective self-legislation. For us to be able to take responsibility for our production and consumption, we must own what we do in the concrete sense of being accountable for our actions rather than in the abstract sense of having the right to make a profit.

Hence, the cooperation that Roberts envisions requires a global form of life that is governed by the principles of democratic socialism. The principles cannot be posited as an ideal that is external to the lives we lead, since in that case they would have no grip on us. Rather, I make explicit how the principles are implicit in the commitment to equality and freedom through which we are already trying to justify our democratic practices. The commitment to equality demands that we pursue our labor from each according to her ability, to each according to her need; the commitment to freedom demands that we measure our wealth in terms of socially available free time; and both of these demands can be met in practice only if we own the means of production collectively, employing and developing them for the benefit of our shared lives rather than for the sake of profit.


To grasp the status of the principles of democratic socialism, we must distinguish the general from the abstract and the concrete from the particular. The principles do not appeal to an abstract utopia that will resolve political questions once and for all. Rather, they specify the general principles in light of which any democracy must form and maintain itself in order to be democratic. Likewise, the principles do not impose a particular blueprint for how to organize our economy. Rather, they specify the concrete transformations of the economy that must be enabled rather than disabled by any democratic institution.

Thus, under democratic socialism different communities can actualize the principles in different ways. The content of socially available free time is not given but must be developed in concrete historical practices; the collective ownership of the means of production can be organized in an indefinite number of ways; and our abilities as well as our needs can evolve along different trajectories.

Following my terminology in This Life, I describe the self-determining communities as “states” but they could equally well be called “communes” or “republics.” As Marx underlines, the crucial task “consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.” [6] To subordinate the state to society is to transform its functions in such a way that the state no longer has a right to coercive sanctions, which radically changes the domain of state law. Rather than policing people’s lives in terms of coercion and competition, the state serves to facilitate people’s lives in terms of coordination and cooperation.

For example, the state is in charge of building and maintaining roads — as well as devising traffic regulations — but if you are guilty of speeding you are not punished by the state. Rather, part of being educated as a driver is learning to recognize the authority of traffic laws to which you hold yourself. For the same reason, your virtue as a driver is not reducible to simply following the law but requires a form of practical wisdom that allows you to judge when the situation calls for breaking the law (e.g., driving over the speed limit in response to an emergency). The necessity of practical judgment opens the risk of being wrong, but the punishment is “nothing but the sentence passed by the culprit on himself,” [7] who is receptive to being corrected by virtue of recognizing the law as a rational constraint established by democratic procedures. You may disagree with the speed limit, or hold that we should drive on the other side of the road in our state, but you express your views by participating in electoral processes, which can include being a candidate to serve as an (always removable) administrator in the department of public transportation or as an (always removable) legislator in the assembly. Likewise, Marx argues that the state should not be the “educator of the people” but rather be tasked with “specifying the means available to elementary schools, the qualifications of the teaching staff, the subjects to be taught, etc. by a general law, as is done in the United States.” [8] There can be “state inspectors to supervise the observance of these regulations,” but their role is not to coercively enforce the regulations, which must be concretely actualized by the school staff itself.

The state is thus an organizational unit, which names both a legislative body and the society as a whole, which can vary in geographic and demographic size. If you live in a state (e.g., “California,” to follow Marx’s favored example of the United States), the state as a whole should include the forms of infrastructure, education, health care, and cooperative producers that are required for a self-determining society. However, within the state as a whole there is a great degree of decentralization, since the jurisdiction of the state as a legislative body is circumscribed to coordinating functions. The state does not legislate regarding the institutional forms of filial partnerships and it does not decide in a top-down fashion what the cooperatives should produce. Rather, forms of the family and decisions about production must be free to develop in a bottom-up way, where the agents themselves learn to justify to others how they are leading their lives, in giving and asking for reasons. [9]

The same distinction between a legislating body and society as a whole exists on the global level. Under democratic socialism, I identify not only as a citizen of a particular state but also as a global citizen, since the nation-state has been overcome and we can move freely from one state to another. The states are joined in a federation that functions as a legislating body in the service of global coordination, with elected representatives from all states of the world working on administration and legislation concerning questions of global cooperation. In light of the Marxian commitment to offer “each individual the opportunity to develop all her faculties,” [10] serving as a representative should in principle be open to anyone on a rotating basis, to prevent the role of administrator or legislator from being reified and to maintain a living relation to the experience of working in other parts of society.

As on the local level, there is a great degree of decentralization on the global level, where the form of the federation marks both the interdependence and the autonomy of the member states. Thus, different states can cultivate a wide range of different abilities and needs, which transform the content of socially available free time and entail new ways of organizing the collective ownership of the means of production. However, because of the shared identification with global democratic socialism as an end in itself, there is agreement on the level of the principles themselves.

The agreement is not held together by coercion but by the rational recognition that the principles are conditions of possibility for a flourishing form of global life. The rational recognition is a historical achievement of the overcoming of capitalism, through which we have learned that actual freedom is incompatible not only with the institution of slavery but also with the institutions of producing for profit and working for a wage. For the first time in history, we have a global form of life that has been achieved through an explicitly intentional form of collective action: a worldwide revolutionary transformation that spans generations and that we reaffirm through our practices. The reaffirmation is not automatic or static, since the question of how to enact the principles of democratic socialism must remain at issue and our answers can be transformed or challenged by others. The principles are not abstract universals but must always be actualized and justified in concrete practice. [11]

Thus, there is a constitutive possibility of disagreements and conflicts, but the form of conflicts is no longer predicated on the opposition between individual and collective interest. Our political debates and deliberations are based on competing conceptions of how best to serve the interests of society as a whole, rather than on competing private interests that are put forth in the name of society as a whole. By the same token, our form of life must be organized in such a way that there does not have to be an antagonism between serving our own interests and serving the interests of society as a whole. Under democratic socialism our global cooperation is not merely a means to our freedom but is itself an exercise of our freedom.

The challenge, then, is to develop forms of participating in and contributing to our shared economic life, without relying either on undemocratic central planning or the capitalist purpose of profit. In This Life, I pursue these questions via an immanent critique of the most powerful defender of capitalism against socialism: Friedrich Hayek. Roberts dwells at length on how my engagement with Hayek relates to my immanent critique of liberalism, but he misconstrues the relation and does not address my actual arguments vis-à-vis Hayek. [12] This is all the more curious since my immanent critique of Hayek is centered on precisely the issue of coordination that Roberts himself is raising. As Hayek reminds us, the coordination of supply and demand is a constitutive problem for all forms of economic life. Neither an individual agent nor a central planning authority can master all the variables of economic planning, since the economy essentially depends on forms of practical activity that cannot be predicted in advance. Central planning is thus bound to be out of sync with actual needs and demands. What is required is rather a form of economic planning that allows for “the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality” and recognizes that individual actors possess “unique information of which beneficial use might be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.” [13]

Hayek locates the solution to the problem in the price system, since the price of a commodity reflects the relation between supply and demand. In a “free” market, the price of a commodity supposedly communicates the level of supply (to the buyer) and the level of demand (to the seller). The price system would then hold the key to “a rational economic order,” since it would allow for the relevant information to be transmitted between the different members of the economy, who reciprocally determine supply and demand. Hayek fails to see, however, that a capitalist market economy cannot be a rational economic order. As a capitalist, I do not price my commodities in an attempt to “communicate” how efficiently I actually can produce them. If it is more profitable to restrain my production capacities and create an artificial scarcity, I will do that instead. Likewise, as a capitalist, I am not trying to obtain the right kind of “information” about the actual needs of the population, so that my supply can meet the relevant demands. My aim is rather to manipulate the demand — through marketing and other means — for the sake of maximal gain.

The manipulation of supply and demand for the sake of profit is not a moral failure of individual capitalists, but an effect of the measure of value to which we are collectively committed in sustaining capitalism. Many of the productive abilities we could develop are aborted because they are not deemed to be profitable and many needs are engineered to make us purchase more commodities rather than to provide satisfaction. Indeed, by the lights of capitalist production, we can have good reasons to engineer commodities in view of having them break sooner rather than later, so that consumers are forced to buy the commodity again.

Hence, it is no accident that supply and demand come apart under capitalism, both through the overproduction of commodities we do not need or cannot afford and the underproduction of goods we do need but cannot purchase. This is the key to my immanent critique of Hayek. For the price mechanism to be what Hayek claims it already is — a rational means for communicating the relation between supply and demand — we must overcome the capitalist measure of value.

A rational price mechanism cannot be based on the buying and selling of commodities but must enable producers to communicate their supply — and consumers to communicate their demand — without being dominated by the purpose of profit. Only then can we rationally develop and deploy information technologies, which will serve to calculate the variables of production and consumption. To take a simplified example, under democratic socialism a globally operative software program can enable producers to assess, record, and adjust their supply in light of demand, while at the same time enabling consumers to assess, record, and adjust their demand in light of supply. Local factors such as transportation costs and scarce resources will themselves be part of the information that is globally processed. Given the reciprocally constituted information, a cooperative that produces shoes can own their responsibility for the rate of supply, and the consumers of shoes can own their responsibility for the rate of demand. The “price” of the shoes will not be a matter of how much we have to pay for them but will reflect the normative “cost” of producing a pair of shoes relative to what we value (including environmental costs and the impact of our production on other species). The standards that determine the calculation of costs will not be given once and for all, since we will recognize that we are responsible for what we take to be valuable and thus accountable for the standards that we institute to determine the calculation of costs. For example, the standards for calculating the cost of producing a certain type of goods can be altered in light of what we learn about changing environmental and social conditions.

What we “value” as a society — what we owe to each other, to other living beings, and to the ecosystem on which we all depend — will then actually be reflected in how we measure the costs of our production and consumption. As a producer, I will be confronted with the normative question of the best way to supply shoes, not on the basis of which practices are most profitable but on the basis of which practices are most beneficial for the social whole. As a consumer, I will be confronted with the normative question of whether to demand a new pair of shoes, not on the basis of whether I have the money to purchase them but on the basis of whether I can justify the demand relative to our shared cost of living. For example, if a pandemic ravages one part of the world — or spreads across the globe — the costs for alleviating that situation will be reflected in how we calculate our general cost of living at that historical moment, as a practical expression of our commitment to global solidarity. In light of a rational price mechanism, every individual actor will both be able to take responsibility for what we value in general and be responsive to the contingency of concrete circumstances. [14]

Hence, what I call the revaluation of value entails a transformation of the motivational structures that shape what we supply and what we demand. Under capitalism we learn to supply in light of what is profitable, and our demand is shaped by the vagaries of the commodity form, which does not call for our reflective endorsement but rather veils the social and environmental costs of what is being sold. As a result, we are formed as subjects through practices of mutual misrecognition. We have good reasons not to trust either ourselves or one another, since it is built into our form of life that we exploit one another (and ourselves) for the sake of profit. In contrast, under democratic socialism we will grow into citizens in a society that is built on institutional practices of mutual recognition, through which we learn to see our relations of dependence and take responsibility for our obligations as expressions of our freedom. Of course, individuals can still misrecognize their relation to others or disavow their obligations, but reasons for mistrust will be the exception rather than the norm in a form of life where we learn to work for the common good and can recognize our cooperative participation in society as an expression of our freedom rather than as a restriction.

To be clear, the shared commitment to the common good does not entail a communitarian will that imposes itself and makes everybody act the same way. On the contrary, what we learn is to be self-determining members of society, for whom the demand for individual satisfaction is built into the conception of the common good and who regard critical debate over how we should sustain the common good as a virtuous activity. The point is not to impose a general consensus, but to sustain a form of life that makes it possible for everyone to take responsibility for questions of production and consumption.

Thus, Roberts is right to point out that my vision of democratic socialism requires “an ethical transformation” of who we are, but the argument is not “moralistic” (as he alleges). Moralism reduces ethical virtue to a matter of individual conscience. In contrast, my Marxian point is that our ability to take responsibility for our actions is inseparable from the social and material conditions of the society in which we are formed. In a minimal sense, we have always been responsible for what we do, since who we are and who we ought to be has always been at issue for us. But the degree to which we can own our responsibility is essentially related to our historical mode of material production.

Nothing makes our predicament clearer than the climate crisis in which we find ourselves. By now it is a commonplace to say that “we” are responsible for destroying the ecosystem to which we belong. The moralizing and psychologizing approaches seek to explain the ecocide with reference to our supposed “human nature,” which is ascribed an inherent selfishness and greed. Yet the fundamental problem is neither selfishness nor greed but the form of social-historical life on which we all depend. Under capitalism, “we” cannot actually own and take responsibility for the economic life that we ourselves reproduce through our practices. To sustain our form of life we must prioritize doing what is profitable, even at the expense of doing what we know needs to be done. We may profess that we value our lives — and the life of other species on the planet — as ends in themselves. But as long as we produce for profit and work for a wage, we are in practice subordinating ourselves to a measure of value that treats all forms of life as means for the “growth” of capital wealth. No individual can break the hold of this measure of value on her own. Only organized collective action that overcomes private ownership of the means of production can achieve an emancipated form of life, where we will learn to be free in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another and the fragile ecosystem of our shared planet.


To read part one of Martin Hägglund's "What Is Democratic Socialism?," click here.

To read part two of Martin Hägglund's "What Is Democratic Socialism?," click here.

To read William Clare Roberts’s essay on This Life, click here.


Martin Hägglund is professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale University. He is the author of four books and his work has been translated into a dozen languages.


Featured image: "Walmart, Great Value, Window Cleaner" by Mike Mozart is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


[1] Roberts, Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 242.

[2] Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, p. 255. My quotation in the next sentence is from the same page.

[3] As Lea Ypi has argued in a recent important essay on Marx: “If laws were to render us fully free, they would also emancipate us from the need for a coercive authority that enforces laws.” See Ypi, “Democratic Dictatorship: Political Legitimacy in Marxist Perspective,” European Journal of Philosophy, 2020: 1–15, p. 12.

[4] See, for example, Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse: “It is just as pious as it is stupid to wish that exchange value would not develop into capital, nor labor which produces exchange value into wage labor” (p. 249).

[5] Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, p. 246.

[6] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” trans. Joris de Bres, Marx, The Political Writings (Verso, 2019), p. 1038.

[7] Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, in Collected Works of Marx and Engels vol. 4 (Lawrence & Wishart, 2010) p. 179.

[8] Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” p. 1041. My quotation in the next sentence is from the same page.

[9] The elaboration of my vision of democratic socialism is deeply indebted to conversations with Jensen Suther. In particular, my account of the overcoming of the state as a form of social domination and the emancipated relation to socially necessary labor — as well as to laws/obligations in general — has benefited from Suther’s path-breaking work on the relation between freedom and necessity in Marx, which pursues a dialectical overcoming of the opposition between right and duty. See Suther’s forthcoming book Hegel’s Materialism: The Logic of Critical Theory.

[10] Engels, Anti-Dühring, in Collected Works of Marx and Engels, vol. 27, p. 280.

[11] My account of the local and global functions of states under democratic socialism responds not only to Roberts but also to the profound essays on This Life by Conall Cash and Lea Ypi. My notion of the state as an organizational unit for coordination and cooperation (rather than coercion and competition) seeks to answer Cash’s question regarding what the function of states would be “if these states are not each organized around the control of territory for the purpose of the control of profits.” Likewise, my vision of a global federation of decentralized states (or “communes” if one prefers that term) sketches a response to Ypi’s question regarding what “a Marxist theory of Sittlichkeit would look like.” See Ypi, “The Problem of Agency: A Response to Martin Hägglund’s This Life” in The Philosopher (Autumn 2019): 17-20, and Cash, “Socialism For Our Time: Freedom, Value, Transition.”

[12] Roberts assumes that my notion of freedom is equivalent to the liberal idea of liberty, which leads him to reduce my immanent critique of liberalism to “the conflicted feelings about perpetual economic growth” and the self-contradictory dream of a stationary state evinced by Mill, Keynes, and Rawls. My critique of the latter, however, is only one strand of my immanent critique of liberalism. Roberts does note that my critique of Hayek explicitly distinguishes the liberal idea of liberty from the notion of freedom as mutual recognition, but Roberts thinks this distinction “appears nowhere else in Hägglund’s book.” In fact, however, the notion of freedom as mutual recognition underpins all my arguments in This Life.

[13] Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in Individualism and Economic Order (University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 78, 80.

[14] My argument here can helpfully be compared with Jasper Bernes’s insightful account of the decentralized forms of planning that would be possible in an emancipated post-capitalist society, with “sensors, circuits, algorithms, and processors” allowing for “efficient coordination and communication” that enables

people to measure and track the location of resources. But instead of centralizing control, such technologies would distribute and decentralize it, reconciling mutual objectives with the fundamental veto power and autonomy of groups and individuals at all scales. Instead of using the calculations of super-computers as instruments of compliance, they might be instead used to distribute planning across multiple sites. (Bernes, “Planning and Anarchy,” The South Atlantic Quarterly, January 2020, p. 71)

On Bernes’s account, such forms of planning entail “the end of all prices” (p. 71) which is true if we understand prices in terms of the measure of value that “reduces every activity to a single value and single form of optimization, that of minimal labor-time” (p. 70). Yet, since Bernes acknowledges that there are “many other ‘values’ that people will seek to increase or decrease — ecological, salutary, aesthetic” (p. 70), his own account requires the revaluation of value that I pursue and the corollary notion of a rational price mechanism, which will enable us to “reckon with a plurality of units and a host of objectives” (p. 71).

LARB Contributor

Martin Hägglund is the Birgit Baldwin Professor of Humanities at Yale University. He is the author of four books and his work has been translated into fifteen languages. His most recent book, This Life (2019), won the René Wellek Prize and is the subject of a special issue of The Philosopher.


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