Socialism Beyond Equality

Socialism Beyond Equality

We need to think not only about beating the 1 percent, but also about the kind of world we want to build, the kind of existence we want to have on this earth.

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom
by Martin Hägglund
Pantheon, 2019, 464 pp.

In February 1965, the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions organized a conversation on utopias between Michael Harrington and Wilbur H. Ferry. Harrington had achieved considerable public recognition with his 1962 book The Other America, and Ferry was one of the leading American thinkers on automation. Both had signed, a year before, the memorandum for a “Triple Revolution,” which argued that a “cybernation revolution” would so reduce working hours that workers would have to reimagine what to do with their time.

Harrington and Ferry worried that if work declined, a technologically dehumanized “consumer society” might be the result. How, they asked, could we imagine a society that allows us to increase the time we spend on meaningful activities? What we needed was a new sphere of activities that were neither “production” or “consumption” but “creative.” Harrington contended that we had to stop thinking “of leisure or free time as something that is simply free, and a matter of choice. It is not. . . . One has to be very serious about having fun.” The crucial problem for a progressive utopia was not just about increasing individual consumption choices through redistribution, but to define how we should live together.

Fifty years later, Martin Hägglund has once again raised these profound questions in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom.

 

Hägglund, a professor of comparative literature at Yale University, articulates a Marxist vision of democratic socialism: a post-capitalist system in which the state is subordinated to the democratic interests of society as a whole, rather than the private interest of a few. This would require collective ownership of the means of production, established through a global alliance of democratic states. What makes his utopian vision original is the sharp distinction he makes between a critique of capitalism focused on distribution and one challenging the purpose of production (how we produce, and what we produce). In other words, Hägglund argues for going beyond social democracy, which he believes only looks at the outcomes, to reevaluate the “capitalist measure of value,” which informs the process of production in the first place.

Hägglund places human values at the center of his work, which he claims are often ignored by theorists on the left. But where religious conservatives and reactionaries have recently attempted to embed capitalism within systems of traditional religious values, Hägglund argues that democratic socialism demands a radical form of atheism.

The question of how one should live their life, according to Hägglund, can only be answered intelligibly if one believes that this life on earth comes to an end at death. ...


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