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The Goods of the Earthly City

Humans are the only mortal creatures – this is a doctrine that Hannah Arendt found in the pre-Socratic Greeks. In their vision, the gods are immortal, while the lives of the animals and plants belong to the species rather than the individual and thus attain what Arendt calls “immortality through procreation.” Some animals might be unique individuals rather than mere stages in the life of a species. If so, they like us are mortal. The point is that mortality requires individuality.

Does the dependence run the other way? Does individuality require mortality? The theme of Martin Hägglund’s book, This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free, is that it does. Not only the generic plants and animals but even the immortal gods must lack proper selfhood. The self is the product of the choices we make at every moment – choices about what to do and who to be. The freedom to make such choices is what Hägglund calls spiritual freedom. To be alive is to possess this freedom. But eternal life – at least if we knew it was eternal – would destroy any motivation for choosing. There would always be time to deliberate further. Without being forced to choose, we wouldn’t be spiritually free. “I must”, Hägglund concludes, “be animated by the anxiety that my time is finite, since otherwise there would be no urgency in trying to be someone and trying to do something” (192). Hägglund uses this argument to attack religion. He defines as religious: “any ideal of being absolved from the pain of loss” (47). To long for this may be very human, but it is simply misguided in Hägglund’s view. Without the pain and fear of an ultimate loss, he insists, the urgency of choice would be missing, and with it the very essence of life: “Suffering and loss are not merely necessary steps on the way to bliss or inescapable, unfortunate conditions; they are intrinsic parts of what makes life worth living” (48). *** Religion is not Hägglund’s only target. The other is capitalism. His critique of capitalism is worked through an engagement with Marx. To me this seems more opportunistic than inspired; it dresses up Hägglund’s existentialist philosophy as a radical anti-capitalist intervention and thus plays into the current zeitgeist. Hägglund begins from Marx’s premise that, under capitalism, value is constituted by labour time. Marx uses “value” as a scientific term: it refers to the economic power of a commodity to command a price on the market. But Hägglund elides it into an ethical term, as though Marx were saying that under capitalism we only value labour time, in the sense of finding it good or desirable. Thus he aligns Marx’s critique with Nietzsche’s ideal of revaluing all value: changing what we ethically value. The problem with capitalism, Hägglund tells us, is that by ethically valuing labour-time we fail to value free time: time in which we express our “spiritual freedom” by choosing our own social and individual activities. This calls for a revaluation: a collective decision to appreciate the importance of free time rather than labour time. As Hägglund reads him, Marx’s “critique of capitalism makes sense only in light of his commitment to the freedom of social individuals to lead their own lives” (225). Having reduced Marx’s analysis of economic value to an ethical judgement, Hägglund reduces his positive project to a piece of collective life-coaching: Capital becomes an expanded edition of Bertrand Russell’s "In Praise of Idleness".

Artwork by Nora Grant

Hägglund does take on some of Marx’s economic analysis when he proposes that capitalism not only values the wrong things but is also contradictory – it undermines itself. Again, however, Hägglund reads this in an opportunistic way. He suggests that the fundamental contradiction of capitalism lies in the fact that increasing levels of worker-exploitation – more labour, less free time – bring about a situation in which the economy as a whole is unable to purchase its own gross product. Marx criticised this sort of underconsumptionist model, found in Sismondi and Rodbertus, as much too crude. Meanwhile the increase in exploitation was not, for Marx, the source of crisis but only a symptom of it. Hägglund doesn’t seem interested in Marx’s analysis as such; he wants to make the decline in workers’ free time the central problem of capitalism so that he can return to his own ethical argument about the value of spiritual freedom. The upshot of this is not really Marxist at all; it is a piece of lay sermonising in the tradition of John Ruskin. As Ruskin enjoined us to recognise that there is no wealth but life, so Hägglund asks us to recognise that true wealth lies in socially available free time: time that is available to spend in social activities. Realising the true value of this free time, he optimistically predicts, will allow us to overcome capitalism: …the overcoming of capitalism requires that we measure our wealth in terms of what I

call socially available free time. As long as our measure of wealth is socially necessary labour time, machine technologies cannot produce any value for us by virtue of their own operations (259- 260). In other words, revolution will come from a collective rethinking of our work/life balance.

If I have made this sound naïve, it’s because I really think that it is. Hägglund’s vision is for a form of “democratic socialism”, in which each of us determines how she wants to spend her time – how to exercise her spiritual freedom. We then determine collectively how to provide what each of us needs for our free activities. Suppose, then, that one person chooses to exercise his spiritual freedom by writing novels in a seaside villa with indoor plumbing. Then what? Will there happen to be a hundred others who choose to exercise their spiritual freedom by laying roof-tiles in the burning sun and digging fatbergs out of sewers? Hägglund repeatedly gestures at “technology” as the solution here. Right now we are prevented from designing technology that would free up our time because we “values” labour time too much. Hägglund’s argument seems vulnerable here to a Marxist critique: by Marx’s reckoning no piece of machinery can give out more labour-time than went into it (or perhaps into the machine that made it, or the machine that made that one, etc.). So how can technology free up time for all of us? Even if machines could somehow generate free time for everyone, we must ask who would control them and allocate their output. Hägglund proposes that we can “democratically” decide how to allocate resources and divide up socially necessary labour tasks. If so, I wonder why we haven’t done this already. The notion that we just needed the right philosophy book to convince us to revalue value is unconvincing to say the least; it’s not as if we’re all mesmerised workaholics. The real barrier is the difficulty of making such a democratic allocation work. If the process of validation doesn’t work through market mechanisms, will every economic dispute have to go to public referendum? It seems inevitable that allocation will be determined through power-struggle. Those with more power in the system will impose socially necessary tasks upon those with less power. Our problem was never that we failed to generate enough “free time”; the modern super-rich could afford to buy thousands of us into early retirement if they wanted to. Although Hägglund rejects redistributive reforms as inadequate, since they fail to “revalue value”, he never explains how the allocation of free time can be determined if not through power-struggle. And his critique of religion makes me wonder if he might be comfortable with it being determined in that way. ***

A hint comes out when he engages with Saint Augustine. Augustine proposes that our love of worldly and temporal things belongs to a fallen and sinful state. Even when we possess these things, we know that they will be lost. Our happiness in them is haunted by fear and sorrow. They are shot through with their future absence, and so they only half-exist. This applies to our mortal life itself, which is, Augustine says, a living death or a deathly life. True life – pure life, unmixed with its negation in death – would be eternal life. And pure happiness must reside in an eternal good beyond all loss.

Hägglund’s reply to this is uncompromising. Unless we fear the loss of something, we can’t value it. “Caring about someone or something requires that we believe in its value, but it also requires that we believe that what is valued can cease to be” (10). Thus it is metaphysically impossible to care about Augustine’s promised eternal and certain good. Hägglund makes this claim as if it is obvious and repeats it many times. But it isn’t obvious to me. Augustine uses the word “frui” – enjoyment – to describe our relationship to the ultimate good. A child can enjoy the sunshine – indeed can enjoy life – in blissful ignorance of its transience. Is it really impossible to care about something without believing that it will be lost? Hägglund doesn’t prove it; he simply insists: “The precious quality of joy is inseparable from a sense of its precariousness” (82).

If he were called upon to justify this claim, I think he would point again to his emphasis on spiritual freedom. His critique of Augustine’s notion of eternal enjoyment is that: “Being absorbed in eternity there would be nothing left for you or me to do” (86). In heaven, we would have no choices, merely enjoyment. And individual choice – spiritual freedom – is the real source of value for Hägglund. This is why he wants free time to be the basis of value. Really this is the ethos of the “heroic” society, which Augustine knew very well. For Augustine it was identical to the sin of pride. An eternal good would not be enjoyable to a prideful man, because possessing it would involve no assertion of himself – no expression of his choice and his striving. This is why Augustine believed that to love our true good we must renounce self-love. We must give up the egoistic ethos of the heroic society and open ourselves out to an eternal good beyond ourselves.

For Hägglund there is no such good – what we must pursue is spiritual freedom. But a great deal hides in this. If freedom is so fundamental, how do we answer its central question? What should we do with our time? Who should we try to be? Spiritual freedom, Hägglund tells us, is not natural freedom – not freedom to follow “imperatives that are treated as given” (175). Rather, it “requires the ability to ask which imperatives to follow in light of our ends, as well as the ability to call into question, challenge, and transform our ends themselves” (175). Neither imperatives nor ends are given to the spiritually free being as the basis for her choices. But then spiritual freedom can’t be the expression of her true character. For in that case her character would be an end treated as given, and her freedom would be merely “natural”: the consequences for action of a pre-existing nature. To be “spiritually” free, she must make herself at every stage and decide, as the Existentialists used to say, “in the undecidable”.

Augustine himself encountered this freedom and wrote “quaestio mihi factus sum” – “I have become a question to myself”. But while Hägglund celebrates this condition as the very essence of life, for Augustine it was the path to sin, destruction, and – most importantly – conflict.

When we are spiritually free, our choices can’t be determined by anything inside us. There we find only the question we have become to ourselves. How, then, are we to be guided? If we don’t seek guidance in God, we have little choice but to be guided by other people. Others appear as beacons to our emulation, signalling with their desires and strivings the worldly goods that are worth desiring and the worldly status that is worth striving for. Hägglund quotes a crucial passage from Augustine, which warns against attachment to worldly goods because: “They tear the soul apart with contagious desires” (85). In defending this attachment against Augustine’s warning, Hägglund overlooks the significance of the word “contagious” (pestilentiosis).

Augustine notes that worldly goods – consumable goods but also invidious forms of social status – are in limited supply. When humans give in to contagious desires for these, they will become rivals for the same objects and frustrate each others’ desires, even as they provoke those same desires through contagion – this is the “double bind” explained so eloquently in the works of René Girard. Augustine saw that this could only lead to conflict:

The earthly city … has its good in this world … And since this is not the kind of good that causes no frustrations to those enamoured of it, the earthly city is generally divided against itself by litigation, by wars, by battles, by the pursuit of victories, that bring death with them or at best are doomed to death.

As Augustine saw it, the only escape from conflict lies in pursuing the goods that cannot be lost by anyone else’s enjoyment of them. These non-rivalrous goods are the eternal goods:

[I]f you only love what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten and are not tormented in any way by jealousy. You are loving something, after all, for which all the more abundant gratitude is felt, the greater the number of those who come to love and obtain it.

Hägglund finds it impossible to value such goods, since they are by definition those that carry no risk of loss. For him there can only be the perilous and rivalrous goods of the earthly city, since only by securing and protecting uncertain goods can we assert our spiritual freedom. And so Hägglund ends up affirming the implicit ethos of our world – an ethos competition, struggle, and self-assertion. The very notion of resting content with what we are and what we have is unthinkable: we must strive and struggle or there is no value at all, since all value derives from the exercise of “spiritual freedom”. Peace, in fact, is unthinkable – a consequence that Hägglund draws quite explicitly: “to rest in peace is not to be fulfilled: it is to be dead” (81).


Return now to Hägglund’s “democratic socialism”. How do we allocate resources and free time? Who has to do the socially-necessary work? What does it mean to say that these questions will be answered “democratically”, if not that they will be settled through the instruments and institutions of Augustine’s earthly city: litigation, wars, and struggles for supremacy? Such a society would be full of uncertainty and striving, struggle and loss – the elements Hägglund regards as essential to life. It would be a rich environment for the exercise of spiritual freedom, since there would be risk everywhere and peace nowhere.

Isn’t this the earthly city we already have? “The precious quality of joy”, says Hägglund, “is inseparable from a sense of its precariousness”. Well, nobody could accuse our society of stinging on the production of precariousness. Nor is the value of “spiritual freedom” unknown to the world or hidden behind an excessive reverence for “labour time”. Otherwise why would the self-help shelves be stacked with books about the power of choice, empowerment, being your own boss, and the secret to early retirement?

In the end, Hägglund’s philosophy reads much less like a recommendation for a new sort of society than a symptom of the one we already have. “Spiritual freedom” – the freedom that mortality is meant to give us – lies at the foundation of our frenzied consumerism and treacherous “labour market flexibility”. It is the apotheosis of individual choice for the sake of choice. I can’t find much in it to support a proper critical analysis of capitalism, nor to truly console us in the face of death and loss. Despite its avowedly leftist pedigree, the book’s commercial success is no mystery. Hägglund is selling what we were already buying.

Alexander Douglas is a lecturer in the School of Philosophical, Anthropological, and Film Studies at the University of St Andrews. He studies early modern rationalism, particularly various forms of Cartesianism and especially that of Spinoza. He is also interested in critiques of political economy and is the author of The Philosophy of Debt (2015).

Website: Twitter: @alexxdouglas



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