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. “If I believed that my life would last forever,” he states, “I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time.” Death is what gives life a sense of urgency. This sense of finitude—the temporality and fragility of our lives and the world in which we live—requires what Hägglund calls “secular faith,” in a life committed to persons and projects that might be lost.
But do people really base their human relationships on an awareness that they could be lost at any moment? The fight to stop climate change provides a striking example of a situation that requires secular faith. But outside of apocalyptic crises, wartime, and the psychological traumas of abandonment, it is not obvious that awareness that what is most important to us might be lost should be the motivating force for sustaining our collective existence. Yet for Hägglund, the reality of loss and death provides the basis for a utopian vision of society. Our dependence on one another, and the fragility of our lives, calls us to develop institutions that provide social justice and material welfare.
Hägglund’s arguments about religion have stirred debate, with some claiming they are unnecessary for his political vision. Religious faith, according to Hägglund, prevents its adherents from seeing finite lives as ends in themselves; in times when they act as if those finite lives do matter, Hägglund believes they are abandoning the precepts of religious faith in favor of secular faith.
Hägglund pushes this argument so far that he elevates Martin Luther King Jr. as an exemplar of secular faith. This forces Hägglund into an awkward reading of King’s speeches and writings, stripping away their theological significance on the grounds that their radical critique of capitalism embodies a secular political vision. Hägglund’s theology of death leads him to argue that any common ground between liberation theology and secularism results only from the secular qualities of the former. Religious theologies that promote social justice and material welfare, or the freedom to organize our shared life together, are not really practicing religious faith at all.
These questions of faith lay the groundwork for the basic political principle in This Life: we need free time to deliberate how our collective existence should be ordered. Freedom is getting to decide what matters in our finite lives. The problem with capitalism is that it robs us of the free time to engage the question of what makes our life worth living—“the question of what we ought to do with our time.” If we allow capital growth and accumulation to define our values, then increased productivity will not result in an increase of free time for all. Under capitalist production, the gains from technological advancement are rarely the object of collective deliberation. What is needed is not just redistribution, then, but to overcome the “capitalist measure of value” and extend democracy into the economic sphere. Hägglund imagines democratic socialism as a project designed to “decrease the realm of necessity”—the labor time necessary to satisfy our needs—and increase “the realm of freedom”—the free time we have to pursue autonomous activities.
Hägglund’s rich understanding of democratic socialism goes beyond income distribution. Yet his emphasis on decreasing the realm of necessity marginalizes the struggle to transform the content of work itself, which is not likely to disappear anytime soon. We should not only try to reduce “necessary labor,” but to make it more meaningful. Studies have demonstrated that most people do consider their work important and meaningful, and not just as a means toward other ends. And technology can help to transform its quality. The problem of technology, then, is not only about the “free time” it could make available, but also about how it is used in the workplace.
Hägglund explicitly advances a vision that goes beyond “a social democratic critique of neoliberal capitalism,” epitomized by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which social justice amounts to countering inequality while accepting the supremacy of the market in distributing goods. The root of the problem, however, can be traced back to the demise, in the 1940s, of welfare economics and the delegitimization of the state as a collective decision maker. The vast majority of economists became convinced that the price system was the most efficient mechanism for allocating goods. While the New Deal order remained dominant until the late 1960s, social questions were reframed around poverty and providing a basic minimum income to everyone. This shift narrowed the left’s political imagination, downplaying the importance of democratic deliberation and embracing the idea of “consumer democracy.”
Given Hägglund’s ambitions to transcend this paradigm, it is surprising that he seems to characterize progressive taxation as well as public employment, housing, healthcare, and education as simply forms of redistribution. While there is a sharp difference between public collective provision and cash transfers, Hägglund depicts them as mechanisms to redistribute wealth without touching on production. He writes that the “welfare system literally lives off the wealth generated by wage labor,” as if collective provision or social rights were just costs financed by the “productive sphere” of capitalist production. In his view, public services “do not contribute to the ‘growth’ of our social wealth as measured under capitalism,” and therefore will be “vulnerable to the neoliberal critique that they cause the economy to shrink and eliminate jobs that are vital for those members of society who are the most in need and deserve the chance for social mobility.”
This is misleading in two crucial ways. First, it’s obvious that we produce more wealth than nineteenth-century capitalist societies did, while at the same time allocating far more wealth for social welfare. In fact, social rights and collective provision are generally linked with higher employment rates and productivity. Welfare can’t be understood as simply a “cost” for capitalism; it is also source of wealth. Would defunding public schools boost growth and profit rates? What about healthcare? Obesity alone costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars in reduced productivity. If the U.S. government funded programs to reduce obesity, that would increase the country’s economic output. Of course, that wealth would be partially captured by higher profits—but that is why taxes are so important. The problem with welfare, in other words, isn’t that it is unproductive, but that in the absence of progressive taxation, its long-term benefits increasingly flow upward. The welfare state is not simply a tool to control the working classes, but neither does it pose an existential threat for capitalism. It is a set of institutions that has profoundly altered class relations and the reproduction of capitalism itself.
Second, Hägglund’s analysis misses the historical impetus behind postwar welfare states. They were not just about redistribution, but were shaped by an understanding of equality embedded within the larger ideal of a post-“laissez-faire” society. In his landmark 1920 study The Economics of Welfare, Arthur C. Pigou argued that economic welfare was not a good “barometer or index” of overall welfare. For economists like Pigou or Alfred Marshall before him, welfare was not only about the amount of goods and their distribution but also the provision of knowledge, leisure, safety at work, freedom, health, as well as meeting nonmaterial needs such as participation or citizenship. To maximize this sort of welfare, the state needed to create collective provisions through public ownership of key industries and services—guided not by market rules but rather by democratic deliberation. Education, healthcare, and other public services became mechanisms for society to decide collectively how it wanted to reproduce itself. Even cash transfers, like unemployment benefits, family allowances, or pensions, were never just cash transfers. They were designed to transform the labor market—to allow society to shape the definition of work—by deciding, say, that children and people older than sixty-five should not be part of that market.
H. Tawney’s 1931 book Equality sought to articulate such a vision, beyond “the division of the nation’s income into eleven million fragments, to be distributed . . . among its eleven million families.” Tawney argued for “the pooling of [society’s] surplus resources by means of taxation, and the use of the funds thus obtained to make accessible to all, irrespective of their income, occupation, or social position, the conditions of civilization which, in the absence of such measures, can be enjoyed only by the rich.” We cannot, he added with irony, calculate “the contribution to culture of the reading room of the British Museum” by simply “dividing the annual cost of maintaining it by the number of ticket holders.”
The welfare state, in other words, can meet much of the vision that Hägglund advocates, by shaping our freedom in collective terms and following democratic deliberation rather than individual choices on the market. Over the last century, this institution has effectively, increased the “realm of freedom” while reducing, after considerable class struggles, the “realm of necessity.” Continuing threats to shrink or privatize the welfare state are not just about redistributing wealth to the already rich, but about reducing the room in our societies for democratic deliberation.
All that said, This Life opens fascinating questions for a left that has been, in recent decades, too narrowly focused on the share of the pie rather than on how we can lead meaningful lives. Hägglund reminds us to not only think 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. For that, we need to not only envision a world with less inequality, but also one with new institutions that sustain our lives. As Hägglund writes, “the exercise of freedom” is always “formed by social institutions.” This Life calls us to think deeply about a political project that gives us all the time and space to decide what matters.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He is writing a book for Columbia University Press titled Raymond Aron and Cold War Liberalism.
Daniel Zamora is a sociologist at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He is currently writing an intellectual history of basic income.