Book Review: “This Life” by Martin Hägglund

By Derrick Crowe
August 2, 2019

The problem with pushing back against Donald Trump is that he is an avatar for the spirituality of our time. A very large portion of the American population identifies with the ruling class, and thanks to Daddy’s money and a slew of cameos in pop culture in the 1980s and 1990s, Trump has successfully branded himself as the ruling class. If he were a principle given flesh, he’d be The Profit Motive.

Because Trump has become synonymous with the ruling class and with business in the minds of the public, all sorts of corruption gets excused by the people who idolize him. He scammed contractors? That’s just business. Declared bankruptcy? Just business. Paid hush money to prostitutes to hide his infidelity? Business. Emoluments? Business. Constant lies? There’s a sucker born every minute, and it’s just business. Whatever Trump does in service of profit, in the spirit of the age, those actions are excused.

And why wouldn’t they be? He’s the ruling class. We want to be the ruling class. He’s not “violating norms.” He’s showing the way. And he is supported by oligarchs on one side and an overwhelming mass of evangelical spiritual leaders on the other. Maybe a better way of putting it is that in the true spirituality of the age, Trump’s exploitative behavior is the Way, the Truth, and the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

I’ve just finished reading “This Life” by Martin Hägglund, which asks what it means to challenge the spiritual cause of our age–profit–with an alternative secular spirituality organized around democratic socialism.

The book has two main parts dealing with secular faith and spiritual freedom, respectively. The former, secular faith, is a concept that boils down to asserting that “our finite lives–and the generations that may carry on our finite legacy–are ends in themselves.” As Hägglund put it in a recent interview on this topic, this is an act of faith specifically because we believe, but cannot prove, that a finite life is worth living even though it entails suffering and loss. The expression of that secular faith is putting one’s self at stake in the work of sustaining your own life and the life of the community. Through his readings of Augustine, C.S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, and others, Hägglund shows that religious practices and religious wisdom are often organized around a secular heart, deeply concerned not with “pie in the sky,” but with our shared, finite, fragile lives together.

Hägglund sets this secular faith over against religious faith, which treats our finite lives as a means to an end (eternal salvation, nirvana, etc.). What’s left when secular faith is screened out is shown to be contradictory and deeply undesirable, rendering the choices and identities of the redeemed essentially meaningless in the face of endless or timeless existence or an annihilating cosmic unity. What does it matter what choices I make if I am an essentially eternal being with infinite time–meaning there is literally no such thing as an opportunity cost? What does it matter what I’ve done with myself and who I’ve become if I’m to be absorbed into or stripped of any concerns not directly focused on a divine consciousness?

The takeaway from the first half of the book is that this life matters on its own. It is not a means to an end, and that means you are not a means to an end, either.

After the first half of the book defines secular faith and establishes that what you do with your time in this finite life matters, the second half of the book builds a concept of freedom as being free to ask what one ought to do with one’s finite time, and having that question have a real bearing on the activity of one’s life.  To be spiritually free, I need to be able to act on the insight that secular faith has given me: that I am finite, that I matter, and that my community matters. Freedom, as Hägglund says in a recent interview, “is the ability to recognize yourself in what you do and the institutions of life.” And it’s here that secular faith collides with the major impediment to spiritual freedom in our time: capitalism and the spiritual purpose of profit around which we have organized our society.

Drawing on and clarifying Marx’s writings, Hägglund shows that capitalism should be seen as a historical achievement whose persistence now stands in the way of both the further expansion of human freedom and the survival of life on Earth. “Capitalism,” he writes, “is a historical form of life in which wage labor is the foundation of social wealth. The deepest stakes of Marx’s critique of capitalism reside in his critique of the measure of value that is entailed by the dependence of society on wage labor…Under capitalism, the production of wealth depends on living labor time [as opposed to the “dead labor,” technology, infrastructure, etc.], which is the source of the surplus value that is converted into profit and gives rise to capital growth. What distinguishes the capitalist mode of production is wage labor for the sake of profit, which entails that socially necessary labor time becomes the essential measure of value.”

Attempting to clarify Marx’s insight against the poor applications of it by others writing in the Marxist tradition, Hägglund writes:

“Marx does not subscribe to a general labor theory of value, which holds that labor is the necessary source of all wealth. Rather, Marx argues that the production of wealth under capitalism entails a historically specific measure of value (socially necessary labor time), which contradicts that value of free time and must be overcome for the sake of our emancipation.”

The critique that Marx lodges against capitalism is an immanent critique, i.e. drawn from capitalism’s own principles. Under capitalism, we developed the idea of freedom and equality; under capitalism, it’s not possible to achieve freedom and equality. If we value freedom, we should be working to curtail the amount of time spent in what Hägglund refers to as the “realm of necessity,” i.e. work that we have no choice but to do, and expanding the “realm of freedom,” in which we can pursue work that reflects our identity and our values.

But here’s the problem: humans have gotten really good at producing the basic goods required for subsistence. As Hägglund puts it, you could say that we generate more lifetime than we need to sustain our life. That should be a good thing! As the author puts it, that should mean that the realm of necessity has shrunk relative to the realm of freedom. Capitalism, though, works against this. Through its measure of value, capitalism requires we treat ourselves and each other as means (labor time) to an end (profit). Because capitalism measures value in terms of socially required labor time and because it depends on growth for survival, it cannibalizes and commodifies our free time and our environment.  Capitalism introduced the idea of our time having value–but its function over time is also to sharply curtail our ability to ask, “What should I do with my time?” Because one only gets paid, essentially, for one’s working hours, one’s free time has literally no value through the eyes of the capitalist system.

“The very calculation of value under capitalism, then, is inimical to the actualization of freedom. Indeed, the deepest contradiction of capitalism resides in its own measure of value. Capitalism employs the measure of value that is operative in the realm of necessity and treats it as though it were a measure of freedom. Capitalism is therefore bound to increase the realm of necessity and decrease the realm of freedom. Even when capitalism potentially expands the realms of freedom by reducing the socially necessary labor time, we cannot actually recognize the expansion of the realm of freedom under capitalism, since disposable time is not allowed to serve as the measure of social wealth. The form of activity that is only intelligible as a means (necessary labor time) is treated as though it were an end in itself, and the actual end (free time) is not recognized as having any value at all.”

Responding to Marx’s critique, Hägglund calls for a revaluation of value that would replace socially required labor time with socially available free time. This is a push to move to the next system beyond capitalism in the same way that capitalism pushed beyond feudalism. That next system is democratic socialism.

Hägglund’s definition of democratic socialism is much more precise than the nebulous  definitions operating inside U.S. politics right now, and he makes a precise distinction between social democracy and democratic socialism:

“What I call social democracy comprises any form of socialism or Marxism that limits itself to redistribution and does not grapple with the fundamental question of value in the mode of production. Democratic socialism, by contrast, requires a fundamental and practical revaluation of the capitalist measure of value.

He defines democratic socialism has having three essential principles:

  • We measure our wealth–both individual and collective–in terms of socially available free time.
  • The means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit.
  • “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Hägglund takes most forms of Marxism to task for restricting their critique to “the capitalist mode of distribution” instead of interrogating “the measure of value that informs the mode of production itself.” When this happens, he writes:

“The production of value through proletarian-based labor is seen as a given condition, and socialism becomes a matter of distributing the wealth generated by proletarian labor in a more equal way across society. Socialism is thereby reduced to a mode of political administration and economic distribution, which leaves the mode of production and the measure of value intact. This is exactly what happened in the Soviet Union, which managed to betray all of Marx’s fundamental insights.”

What Hägglund is proposing here is a full exorcism. While he recognizes the importance of social democratic welfare programs based on redistribution, he points out that publicly funded programs based on taxing the wealthy can only ameliorate, but never solve the basic contradiction at the heart of a society that claims to value freedom but organizes itself around a measure of value that cannibalizes freedom and the environment in a totalizing, and ultimately totalitarian, exercise.

While reading this book, I was struck by the similarity of Hägglund’s reading of Marx–elaborating on Marx’s critique of capitalism on its own terms–with the strategies of those who use the language of our national founding documents to call for a full reckoning with the betrayals of the principles contained therein in our national policies and culture. It’s a kind of critique that honors the achievement and then uses the achievement to advance the frontier of that achievement to another horizon.

Hägglund’s achievement in this book, in essence, is to show that only by correcting the contradiction at the heart of capitalism can we affirm that all are equal, and all possess unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we want to solve the contradiction between the way we live and the things we claim to value, we have to thank capitalism for its insights, and then let it go.