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The Spiritual Case for Socialism

A new book attempts to deepen the philosophical dimension of a revived left.

Illustration by Max Löffler

Any human identity is made up in part of beliefs about how to live—what is admirable, worthwhile, shameful, precious. These are not abstract opinions, but are better understood as parts of who we are, distinctions that guide us through the world as surely as a sense of up and down or near and far. And they are full of consequences. We decide every hour which chances are worth taking, which attachments worth making, which tedious tasks are worth the reward. The questions add up: What shall I do with this hour, this morning, and with what they amount to, my one life? What shall we do together?

by Martin Hägglund

Pantheon, 464 pp., $29.95

Making our choices count is, however, far from straightforward, and this is the subject of Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Hägglund, who teaches literature at Yale, aims to give fresh philosophical and political vitality to a longstanding question. He argues that to live well requires two things: We need to face our choices with clarity, and we need the power to make choices that matter. He makes a forceful case that religion keeps believers from confronting their responsibility for the meaning of their own lives, by displacing ultimate questions to a higher plane. Meanwhile, capitalism denies us the power to make important choices, since we are each to varying degrees compelled to spend our time on things that we do not choose and that don’t carry meaning for us.

Ranging from discussions of the nature of eternity to arguments about who should control the means of production, Hägglund puts forward a single, sustained picture of the situation we all face. To free ourselves spiritually, he proposes that we adopt what he calls “secular faith”: a commitment to our finite lives and fragile loves as the sole site of what matters, the setting for all the stakes of existence. Achieving material freedom is a more logistically complex project. The only social order compatible with spiritual freedom, Hägglund believes, is democratic socialism. Only when return on investment ceases to be the measure of value can the polity decide for itself what counts as valuable, what kind of activity should be rewarded and cultivated.

For a work that aims to outdo everyone from preachers and self-helpers to political pundits and economists, This Life spends little time orienting itself to 2019. There are no assertions about internet tribalism, resurgent populism, or the spiritual void of modernity; there isn’t even a Trump cameo. Yet much in the book will resonate with a democratic left that has gained strength in the seven-plus years since Occupy—in Black Lives Matter and the Sanders campaign, in the vision of the Green New Deal, in the Fight for $15 and in North Carolina’s Moral Mondays. This Life attempts to deepen the philosophical dimension of this left and to anchor its commitments in a larger inquiry: What kind of political and economic order can do justice to our mortality, to the fact that our lives are all we have?

This Life is anti-religious from stem to stern. Its strategy, however, is not to show that theism is unscientific, as the “new atheists” have tended to do. Nor does it remind readers of all the atrocities committed under the banner of religion, as Christopher Hitchens did in God Is Not Great. Instead, Hägglund follows a humanistic tradition that sees ideas of God or gods as displaced expressions of thwarted human wishes. The notion of a kingdom of God, of divine grace, of seeing each other face to face instead of through a glass darkly—all are ways of trying to express what people could be to one another. Hägglund doesn’t discard the religious impulse so much as try to separate the desire for meaning and community from doctrine and metaphysics.

In making his target “religion,” Hägglund takes aim at any system of thought that finds the answer to human suffering outside this world, whether in the philosophical indifference of Buddhist nirvana or in the eternal life of Christian heaven. As different as these are, they each represent attempts to locate the real stakes of existence elsewhere, safe from a reality where we love people who will sicken and die, devote ourselves to work that will fail or be ignored, and identify with institutions and countries that grow corrupt and do terrible harm.

Hägglund sets out to show that this is a kind of bad faith, a failure to reckon clearly and honestly with our predicament. Our experience of caring for people we will lose and projects that will fail or fade is what makes us human. If we got to heaven or nirvana, we would no longer be persons in any sense that we could recognize, no matter whether we imagine those ideal places through folk images of an eternal family reunion or through high-theological concepts of timeless unity with God. Although the dream of becoming bodhisattvas or angels expresses a very human wish to cease our suffering and loss, if we understood it more clearly we would see that it is also a wish to dissolve our humanity.

Hägglund wants to turn readers back to a brief lifetime of perilous caring. “Whether I hold something to be of small, great, or inestimable value, I must be committed to caring for it in some form.” This, he judges,

is a question of devoting my own lifetime to what I value. To value something, I have to be prepared to give it at least a fraction of my time.… Finite lifetime is the originary measure of value. The more I value something, the more of my lifetime I am willing to spend on it.

Hägglund gives a few examples of what this means for him. The most vital of these is his choice to spend time writing a book—a commitment of several years for an author who believes time is the most precious thing, and whose political project might well be crushed by resistance or snuffed out by indifference.

In identifying time with value, This Life can at times sound strangely like an economics textbook. For a neoclassical economist, any choice to spend—money, effort, attention—comes with “opportunity costs,” the paths not taken. Thus a person’s choices comprise a pattern of trade-offs: time spent earning wages versus time with family, the prospects of law school versus the sense of purpose in nursing work, keeping a dangerous job rather than risk unemployment. Modern economics assumes that prices reflect these priorities, pinpointing in dollars and cents how much of X someone will give up in order to have Y. Superficially at least, economic reasoning, the elite common sense of our time, is as much concerned with the stakes of our choices as This Life is.

Hägglund doesn’t entirely discard this reasoning. Instead he deepens it. To take free choice seriously, he argues, we need a conception of freedom that is not tied to selling our time and talents at the market rate just to go on living. We are in “the realm of freedom,” writes Hägglund, when we can act in keeping with our values. By contrast, we are in the “realm of necessity” when we adopt an alien set of priorities just to get by. A great many of the choices most people face under capitalism fall within the realm of necessity. How do you make a living in an economy that rewards predatory lending over teaching and nursing? Or how do you present yourself in a workplace that rewards competition and often embarrassing self-promotion?

Economic thought treats these choices as if they were just as “free” as Bill Gates’s next decision to channel his philanthropic spending to this group or that. Hägglund sees it differently: Our economy keeps its participants locked in the realm of necessity for much of their lives, draining away their time in unfree activity. In the realm of necessity there is very little opportunity to spend our lives on the things we care for, to devote ourselves to what we think most worthwhile. Economic life may be a tapestry of choices, but as long as it directs its participants toward goals they do not believe truly worthwhile, a life of such choice is a grotesque of freedom.

Hägglund formulates his criticisms of this system by taking liberal values more seriously than many liberals do. He shares the liberal conviction that people have to determine the meaning of their lives by individual reckoning. But he contends that a liberal who fully understood the meaning of this commitment would become a socialist. This is because the market economy dictates answers to the most important question—what is our time worth? To be free is to be able to give your own answer to this question; but in our lives, the answer comes to us in the form of wages and such potent monstrosities as the rate of return on investment in our human capital. These dollar-and-cent measures make decisions for a boss or owner as for a worker: Mind the bottom line, or “market discipline” will replace you with someone who will.

The market presses some people closer to the bone than others, but it drives everyone, because it is a system for determining the price of things, among them time itself, and substituting that price for any competing valuation. You cannot exempt yourself, except in the rare case where you have “won” enough or inherited enough—and even then you are the exception, an odd rich person with economic power over others’ time, not one in a society of free equals.

Instead of occasional exceptions, we need collective self-emancipation into a different regime of value. Hägglund defines his ideal—democratic socialism—as a system of public ownership of productive resources in an economy that aims at maximizing “socially available free time,” that is, making the realm of freedom as large and inclusive as possible. His democratic socialist society would create institutions that let us learn without incurring insurmountable debt, and work without fearing poverty or untreated illness. It would not make its members trade their time for mere survival. He invokes Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”

Hägglund can give the impression of gliding over the problems this society might face. There is always some work that not all that many people really want to do, unwelcome but socially necessary labor. There is no way around emptying bedpans, caring for the severely demented, sorting recycled goods, providing day care for other people’s children, picking lettuce, cleaning up after concerts, and so forth. Hägglund writes that under democratic socialism “we will be intrinsically motivated to participate in social labor when we can recognize that the social production is for the sake of the common good and our own freedom to lead a life,” making such labor “inherently free.” Yet it is hard to imagine the voluntary caretaking of others’ needs that sometimes happens in families and religious communities scaling up to the national or global level solely “through education and democratic deliberation.”

Readers who have these doubts, Hägglund writes, “should consider their lack of faith in our spiritual freedom.” It is an important response, if not a decisive one. The certified best minds of their times have believed democracy a recipe for anarchy, women’s equality a monstrosity, and so forth. Every age invents respectable formulas to convert local limits of imagination and experience into universal limits on reality. A book that presses against these limits does more service than one that dresses them up with libertarian bromides and a little evolutionary psychology, as too many of our “big thinkers” do. Hägglund’s question is not which marginal tax rate would be compatible with incentivizing effort in 2019. It is how to think about the basic ordering of the world. To the extent that readers find his argument persuasive, it is up to them to make it useful.

Can a religious person who believes the ultimate stakes of existence are cosmically elsewhere also invest this life with the moral urgency that it merits? Hägglund argues vigorously that they cannot. But in practice the world is full of activists who are religious and who seem to square the circle in their own lives. Many of them say that their sense of the goodness and moral weight of this life, and their motive to uphold and transform it, arise from experiencing the world as infused with divine love, as a creation. For my part, I would not have taken this observation so seriously before I spent nearly 15 years living in the South among activist friends and movement leaders whose work is entirely stitched into religious community, language, and feeling.

Whether or not Hägglund needs to save devotion from religion, This Life presents a vital alternative to certain kinds of nihilism that today’s politics can produce—when the news brings weekly updates of dire climate forecasts and America seethes under Trumpism. It is now almost ordinary to remark in casual conversation that things are pretty much over, that we are just waiting for the catastrophes and the resource wars to begin in earnest. In a decade or three, when we watch the floods at the coasts, the inland droughts, and the waves of refugees breaking on the border walls of Europe and the United States—or even shattering the walls—we will at least have seen it coming. There is a weird satisfaction in being among the ones who saw that capitalism is at once too venal and too powerful, or humanity at large too shortsighted and tribal to survive.

Nihilism has minor chords as well as major ones. It might be that, with so much disaster so thoroughly forecast, you will judge that the only thing to do is to draw up the bridges and look out for your own: spend college angling for a hedge-fund job, or stockpile rifles and ammunition, and hope that, whether with a MacBook Pro or a six-shooter, your grandchildren will be among the lucky few who can defend a secure spot in New Zealand or Montana. If you aren’t heroically inclined, you may simply look out for your own without hatching much of a plan for their future.

If you feel the pull of this kind of thinking, Hägglund wants to persuade you that this is bad faith. We are creatures who care, whose nature is to grow infinitely attached to finite things. What we truly believe is worth our time, the natural things and the cultural forms in which we find the richness of this life, gives us an imperative to take responsibility for them.

This book might be, in other words, not so much about why to be an atheist as how—how to embrace emotionally hazardous forms of existential commitment as weighty as religious devotion, and without the nominal assurances of religion. It is also perhaps less about why to be on the left than about how. I am not sure that anyone who has signed on contentedly for growing inequality mitigated by a little redistribution will be moved to democratic socialism by Hägglund’s conception of freedom. But for those who start with some version of his politics, the idea that we should be fighting for control over our time might prove powerful. What does “free college” or “Medicare for all” come down to, other than saying that our lives should be our own to use well, not parceled out in years of debt service and cramped by fear of future medical bills? What is the Green New Deal but an explicit engagement with the value of life, an effort to secure a humane future in a world where we do not live by exploiting one another?

The old labor slogan—eight hours for work, eight for rest, and eight for what we will—sticks around because control over our time really is the beginning of all other forms of autonomy. To understand our lives this way can illuminate rather abstract considerations, tying them to the most immediate, felt concerns of a finite life. What are we fighting for? For more of the only thing we will ever have, the time of our lives. Why do we fight for it? Because it goes so fast, and, for a human being who faces the tragedy of our situation, there can, and should, never be enough of this life.