Capitalism or Freedom: A Symposium on Martin Hägglund’s “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom”

MARTIN HÄGGLUND’S This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is an unusual work of philosophy. Written by a scholar acclaimed for a highly technical engagement with the deconstructive thought of Jacques Derrida, This Life was published in 2019 by a trade press — Pantheon Books — and was written for a general audience. Yet it is not a work of popular philosophy — that is, it is not a popularization of Hägglund’s academic work. It is, instead, a work that upholds the strictest academic standards of rigor while also being highly readable and lucidly argued.

This Life is an original argument for what Hägglund calls secular faith (the subject of the first half of the book) and for democratic socialism (the subject of the second half). In the first half, Hägglund argues that religious ideals of eternal life and divine incontestable authority are not only empirically wrong but logically incoherent and contradictory. They presuppose a vantage point of eternity from which our actions and commitments supposedly take on their meaning. But, as Hägglund seeks to show, any divine being would, intrinsically, be unable to care for anything. To care for something is to recognize its (and your own) destructibility. We can only care for what is subject to permanent and irreversible loss. Immortality is therefore not only impossible but incoherent and, in its incoherence, necessarily undesirable. Major world religions are not incoherent by some external standard of secular rationality. Rather, they are internally contradictory, wanting even — and especially — by their own fundamental commitments.

This is an argument not only about the logic of care but also about the entailments of living in time. Our lives matter, Hägglund argues, because they are finite, and this constitutive condition turns out to have profound ethical and political implications. Indeed, our finitude, our responsibility as social individuals to own the time of our life, suggests that we cannot be free under the current economic order. We are existentially responsible for our lives — we must, at every moment, make our lives — but capitalism entails that our free time (the time in which we make our lives) is the prize for subjecting ourselves to the wage. That is, we are only allowed to own our lives to the degree that we subordinate ourselves to the command of profit and commodity production. An emancipated society, by contrast, would enable us to own not only our free time outside the time that we labor but would also, necessarily, give us democratic control over the institutions, ways of life, and modes of socialization that govern our life in common. The world of work, as much as the world of leisure, would require democratic self-governance. This is what Hägglund calls democratic socialism.

As in his case for secular faith, Hägglund’s method for making his argument for democratic socialism is not to apply an external standard of value to capitalism and find it wanting by that standard, but to engage in a form of immanent critique through which This Life aims to show that capitalism fails to live up to a standard of freedom that its own operations implicitly and explicitly avow as an ideal. After all, in paying a wage in the first place the employer acknowledges that the time of the laborer has intrinsic value, and to give it up requires compensation. But that recognition is also, at the same time, a demand — on pain of starvation, homelessness, and death — that laborers alienate themselves from their free time. By contrast, democratic socialism would entail an emancipatory revaluation of the values according to which we organize our shared finite time (which is, necessarily, the only time we have or will ever have).

This, anyway, is the argument of This Life. Whether Hägglund’s account holds up to rigorous scrutiny is an open question. This Life has already been widely discussed by journalists and academics; James Wood has praised the book in the pages of The New Yorker, and a variety of scholars have subjected the book to careful analysis. The book has even been the subject of a special issue of the longest-running public philosophy journal in the United Kingdom, The Philosopher. The premise of this symposium is that Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism requires further analysis and elaboration. Though all are broadly in sympathy with the project of confronting or overturning capitalism, the participants in this symposium adopt a variety of critical perspectives on the political arguments of This Life.

Drawing on the political example of Martin Luther King Jr., which informs the conclusion of This Life, Brandon M. Terry argues that religious faith might, in fact, contribute something to a socialist politics, especially when considering the rationale for nonviolence as a preferred tactic in the struggle for freedom. Walter Benn Michaels, meanwhile, suggests that questions of faith are, in fact, irrelevant to socialist politics. What matters are your political commitments, not your views on eternity. Hägglund’s attempt to ground his account of socialism upon an immanent critique of religion is, by this light, superfluous, and we should just get on with the hard work of redistributing wealth.

Benjamin Kunkel argues that This Life fails to adequately grapple with the question of socially necessary labor. Who, in the end, will produce and maintain the world in which we dispose of our free time? And what regime of socialization might plausibly inculcate a commitment to engaging in such acts of social maintenance? How, to take an extreme example, might one persuade the loafing capitalist rentier that they would be better off in the world that Hägglund envisions? Michael W. Clune asks a similar question but adds that Hägglund’s reliance on Marx’s account of the labor theory of value (the claim that only socially necessary labor time can count as an ultimate source of value under capitalism) undermines the philosophical foundation of the project. The real problem This Life faces, Clune argues, is making a substantive normative case for what its author values (and for the institutions that will enforce those values) to those who say — sincerely and in good faith — that they value what capitalism has to offer. Jodi Dean wonders whether and to what degree Hägglund’s account will have any relevance at all for projects of emancipation. It is at best a “socialism for liberals,” and not of much use for serious activists. William Clare Roberts, finally, questions whether a unitary form of collective decision-making is a coherent ideal. Either there will exist a global state, in which case some form of class domination will persist, or there must be a variety of projects, geographically dispersed, operating at different scales, founded on very different normative grounds, that will flourish (and compete) across the planet.

In his extensive response, Hägglund not only defends his core claims and corrects misreadings of his position, but also builds upon the project of This Life, elaborating a vision of how a global socialist society may actually operate. In an age of renewed economic crisis, escalating popular uprising, and ongoing climate catastrophe — an age in which the very heart of the capitalist world economy has, with astonishing speed, come to seem fundamentally unstable — the debate over what form a post-capitalist future should take is more pressing than it has been since the 2007/2008 financial crisis (which seems mild by comparison). Many paths lie open to us, and many competing visions for a post-capitalist world have previously risen and dissipated, but to choose wisely among them, to differentiate between worthy and unworthy post-capitalist projects, we must articulate the grounds of our actions as rigorously as we can.

This is the task toward which this symposium contributes.

Lee Konstantinou

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