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The Sophist

What’s at Stake: This Life by Martin Hägglund

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” The opening line from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis captures the condition of alienation in the modern world. Samsa feels estranged from himself, and his subsequent loss of value in the eyes of his family and his boss further dehumanizes and strips him of his identity. 

Two of the biggest intellectual movements of the 20th century, Marxism and existentialism, both sought to counter this disenchantment either through a proletarian uprising, which would seize the means of production, or by following the dictum  “existence precedes essence” to give agency to the subject in defining itself. Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities Martin Hägglund builds on both of these traditions in his latest book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. 

In short, he argues that secular faith is a prerequisite for the system of democratic socialism through which we attain spiritual freedom. The first half of the book critiques faith not on the grounds that God does not exist but on the grounds that religious faith actually leads to a meaningless life, “one that does not matter for its own sake but serves as a vehicle to attain salvation.” Conversely, a secular faith that requires us to commit to our practical identities and remain vulnerable to pain, loss, and failure during our mortal lives is what makes our lives matter in the first place. In this understanding, our finitude is not an obstacle to be overcome but rather the source from which we generate meaning for ourselves. Put more succinctly, “life can only matter in light of death.”

Hägglund shows that this secular faith is at work even in the writings of religious thinkers like C.S Lewis and Augustine. Most dramatically, Hägglund takes Søren Kierkegaard’s analysis of the binding of Isaac and says that if Abraham really had faith in God, “he can stand there with Isaac’s severed head in his hand and still believe that he will live happily ever after with his son.” Only a secular faith that believes in the value of a unique, finite life can actually explain the moral horror of Isaac’s death. Hägglund inverts Fyodor Dostoevsky’s musing that if God did not exist everything would be permitted; instead, Hägglund suggests that it is actually a religious faith in God’s commands that makes anything—even the most egregious moral wrongdoing—permissible

Hägglund argues that the project of religious faith can be reduced to the pursuit of salvation in an afterlife. As a result, he can define any action by religious people that is not motivated by a desire for salvation as being actually motivated by underlying secular faith. In this way, Hägglund creates the conditions for his own analysis to be correct. Hägglund’s strategy does not mean that his points on secular faith are without merit. We just have to acknowledge that his criticism of religion arises from the defeat of a fairly reductive definition of religious faith.

From here, the book highlights the need for spiritual freedom, which is the ability to not only question what one ought to do but also whether one should do what one supposedly ought to do. As opposed to natural freedom where the ends are pregiven, spiritual freedom is a condition of not only being responsible for your actions but also of the normative principles driving your actions. Spiritual freedom flows from secular faith because by recognizing our finitude as the source of meaning in this life, we must choose our ends and put ourselves at stake in them. 

In contrast, religious faith which finds meaning in the infinite afterlife relegates us to a state of natural freedom. The key to maximizing spiritual freedom is to reduce what Karl Marx calls the realm of necessity and to increase the realm of freedom in order to spend more time doing things we consider ends rather than things that are just a means to an end. To do this, Hägglund contends, we must overcome capitalism in favor of democratic socialism and reevaluate our notion of value. This reevaluation would require us to recognize socially available free time rather than socially necessary labor time as the ultimate end in itself. 

He reaches this conclusion after a careful reading of not only Marx and G.W.F Hegel but also economists like Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Piketty. Hägglund’s main line of criticism is that inherent in the capitalist dynamic is the creation of unhealthy wealth inequality for which redistribution is not an actual solution. The capitalist system cannot be the solution as long as the wealth generated by capitalism is the root of the problem. Hence, we need to reevaluate the basis of monetary value itself. 

From these observations, he derives the three principles of democratic socialism: to measure wealth in terms of socially free time, to own the means of production collectively, and for each person to participate in labor according to their ability and according to their needs. 

Cognizant of the chequered history of some of these ideas and their implementation, Hägglund actively notes he is not providing a blueprint for the institutions of democratic socialism since those must come from an “ongoing democratic process.” His punting of the means to achieve these ends to gradual change fits with an earlier reference he made to Neurath’s boat. We are already at sea and can only replace societal norms and structures one plank at a time so as not to sink. Häggland is careful not to call for revolution. 

The examples he gives of democratic socialism in practice are meant to highlight how almost mundane and unrevolutionary they are, such as using technology to create more socially available free time by displacing human labor or choosing to voluntarily participate in socially necessary labor like doing the dishes. Yet a revolutionary edge remains. For instance, he says that under democratic socialist principles, you may still own property like a home, but you may not sell it for a profit. You own it in the sense that it has value to you as a person, but you cannot capitalize on that value. 

There is a degree of implausibility in Hägglund’s picture of how altruistic the spiritually free man will be, of how seamlessly necessary labor (that technology can’t just wish away) will get done without a monetary motive, and of how people will be optimally self-satisfied in their own pursuits. Democratic socialism seems to need a reduction of human desire and jealousy to function, but I doubt that the arduous philosophical process of confronting our finitude and living spiritually free can sufficiently ablate these stubborn elements of the human psyche. 

In Hägglund’s reluctance to articulate institutional forms of democratic socialism or a clear path to get there, he actually presents an elusive utopia that we just have to believe in. We have to believe that everyone not only can but also will convert to a secular faith and do their share of necessary labor (i.e not become a freerider) in a democratic socialist state. We also have to believe that we should abandon capitalism and traditional religion—two forces that can motivate people to work for the common good—to test this hypothesis. Perhaps the ongoing democratic process can resolve these fears, but the reevaluation of value he proposes is no small change. We should work to maximize people’s free time, but basing the foundation of the world’s economy on that concept without a surer schematic feels potentially destructive.

Secular faith has great appeal as does spiritual freedom, and capitalism certainly has structural issues, but I’m not ready to place my faith in democratic socialism. That said, This Life is well worth the read not only for its engaging ideas but also for the virtuosity Hägglund demonstrates in weaving together such disparate voices from across philosophy, literature, and political economy. Political philosophy aside, Hägglund reminds us that this life matters because we make it matter.