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"The Time of Our Lives": A Conversation with Martin Hägglund (Keywords: Faith; Freedom; Society)

Night sky Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

Anthony Morgan (AM) To start with a very broad question, what inspired you to write This Life?

Martin Hägglund (MH): I wanted to respond to our historical moment by writing a book that addresses fundamental philosophical questions of life and death, but also offers a new political vision. We live in an epoch when the fundamental questions of how we should organize our society – of how we should live and work together – are felt with a new urgency. There is a widespread sense that capitalism is inimical to our lives, but also a lack of orienting visions of what an alternative form of life could be. What we are missing are not indictments of capitalism, but a profound definition and analysis of capitalism, as well as the principles for an economic form of life beyond capitalism (the principles of democratic socialism). This is what I seek to provide.

At the heart of my book is an argument for why spiritual questions of freedom cannot be separated from material conditions of labour, and why the existential meaning of our lives cannot be separated from the economic organization of our society. The questions I take on have traditionally been understood in religious terms: “What constitutes a good life?” “What makes life worth living?” “What is worth dying for?” I seek to show, however, that these questions are better answered within a progressive secular framework.

AM: This Life speaks to our current moment, but it is also deeply rooted in a dialogue with philosophical, literary, political, and religious traditions. Why are these traditions important?

MH: I believe that we cannot build a progressive future if we do not grasp the past from which we have emerged – that is what motivates both my teaching and writing. So in the book, I seek to develop a new philosophical and political vision of an emancipated secular life, not by simply rejecting the past but by engaging in depth with a wide range of traditions: drawing on philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel and Marx; literary writers from Dante to Proust and Knausgaard; political economists from Mill to Keynes and Hayek; and religious thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard and Martin Luther King, Jr.

AM: I imagine that many readers will be surprised at how you use the terms “faith” and “spiritual.” Let’s start with “secular faith.” Why use the word “faith” at all when it is so burdened by religious association (like sin, for example)?

MH: I actually think it is a big mistake to assume – as many people do – that the originary meaning of faith is religious belief. Faith is not primarily faith in something but the practice of sustaining a commitment. Just think of how pervasive the vocabulary of fidelity and betrayal is, in the way we make sense of ourselves and what we do. Any commitment is something with which we have to “keep faith,” as we say. And that is also why we say that you are “unfaithful” when you fail to sustain or betray a commitment.

It is a big mistake to assume – as many people do – that the originary meaning of faith is religious belief.

So, in the most general terms, what I am calling secular faith does not designate a particular attitude to life, but rather the practical activity of sustaining any commitment. We need the vocabulary of faith, because questions of fidelity and betrayal are at stake in all forms of commitment.

However, it is a matter of secular faith because what we are committed to does not exist independently of our practices. It must be upheld by us, on pain of falling apart. I’m here using the term “secular” in a very capacious sense and in accordance with its etymological root: the secular is the worldly, the temporal, the historical. In my sense, everything that depends on our historical practices is secular.

AM: According to your model, is it possible to bring secular and religious faith into constructive dialogue, or are they irreconcilable frameworks?

MH: In a fundamental sense, all forms of faith are secular because the object of faith is always dependent on the practice of faith. Whatever the object of faith may be – the institutions we’re trying to build, the communities we’re trying to achieve and maintain, or even personal love relationships – these things don’t exist independently of the way we are sustaining and devoting ourselves to them. In that sense, everybody practices secular faith. I’m not trying to divide the world into religious and secular people. The book is not about what divides us, but about what we have in common. We all practice secular faith by virtue of sustaining any commitment.

What I am calling religious faith, however, is the additional idea that there is a special object of faith, like God or eternity, something that ultimately doesn’t depend on the practice of faith, something that ultimately exists independently and eternally. For example, what Buddhist texts call the “unconditioned” state that is the destiny of an Arahant or Buddha after death; an ultimate “cessation” in “the sorrowless and stainless bliss” of final nirvana, which would be the release from all forms of practical activity. Such a release, however, would be the end of our lives.

To own up to our secular faith, by contrast, is to recognize that everything depends on the fragile life we sustain together. It only exists through the way we sustain it, and it can fall apart if we fail to sustain it. But that risk is intrinsic to why our commitments and actions matter in the first place. Whatever you care about, whatever you are devoted to, you both have to believe that it is intrinsically valuable and that it is fragile and finite – otherwise you would not care about it. Everyone therefore has a lived experience of secular faith, whether they know it or not, when they sustain commitments and projects.

In contrast, the religious idea that the highest good, the highest object of faith, is not itself fragile and not itself dependent on our practical activity – that idea is what I want us to let go of. I want to show that the best insights and practices in religious traditions are implicitly secular, and can enable us to recognize that the highest good is this life that we share. Such recognition, however, requires not merely a theoretical but also a practical transformation of our social form of life. When Marx was faced with the question, “Why do we have these various religious ideas of heaven or eternity,” his answer was that our actual historical form of life is unsatisfying and not what it ought to be. But if we had a satisfying form of social life, then those religious ideas of something beyond our fragile social historical life would wither away.

On the religious conception, regardless of how satisfying and emancipated our shared life becomes, we’re always going to long for something beyond this world, for eternal rest.

I think that’s right, but Marx doesn’t give an account of why it is right. To ground Marx’s argument, one has to overcome the religious idea that we dream of something beyond this life because it is inherently unsatisfying to lead a finite life. On the religious conception, regardless of how satisfying and emancipated our shared life becomes, we’re always going to long for something beyond this world, for eternal rest, whether the emptiness and stillness of nirvana or the harmony of heaven.

So one thing I’m trying to show is that those visions of an eternal life cannot actually fulfill what we desire and what we’re committed to in leading our lives. My argument thus provides the ground for Marx’s claim that if we transform our social conditions we will be able to let go of religious ideas of eternity and will be able to fully avow the importance of our life together as the highest good. Where is the love? Not above us but between us. Where is the responsibility? Not above us but between us. It’s not vertical; it’s horizontal.

AM: This recognition of our life together as the highest good is linked to your notion of spiritual freedom. But what is “spiritual” about it? Why not just freedom?

MH: Just as I think it is a big mistake to assume that faith should be understood in religious terms, I think it is a big mistake to assume that “spiritual” questions should be understood in terms of the supernatural or in terms of some kind of contemplation that makes you rest in peace. On the contrary, I am arguing that spiritual questions – questions of what ultimately matters, what is truly valuable, and of what we ought to do with our lives – are better understood in secular terms.

Pineapple Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

AM: How do you distinguish between the natural and the spiritual, or natural freedom and spiritual freedom? Are humans not also natural? Is our spirituality not simply an evolved facility? Where is the dividing line? In short, to what extent are you an anti-naturalist?

MH: I’m emphatically a naturalist philosopher, in the sense that spiritual beings on my account essentially are living beings who have evolved from and remain essentially dependent on nature. As I underline in the book, my account of the traits of spiritual life renders intelligible how they have evolved from the traits of natural life, which in turn have emerged from nonliving matter. The natural freedom of other animals provides a freedom of self-movement, but only in light of imperatives that are treated as given, and ends that cannot be called into question by the agent itself. In contrast, we are animals who are characterized by spiritual freedom, in the sense that it is not given for us who we should be and what we should do. Rather, for us there is always implicitly – and potentially explicitly – a question of what we value, of what is worth doing with our time. And one of the things I am trying to show is that only someone who grasps herself as finite can be in the grip of these questions and lead a spiritual life. The question of what I value and what I should do with my time can matter to me only because I grasp in practice that my life is finite and dependent on a fragile material body. If I believed I had an infinite time to live, the urgency of doing anything would be unintelligible to me.

AM: This question of individual agency is an important theme in your book. But what is an individual? How is it constituted? To what extent is it determined is it by the social world, and how free can it become from the social world?

MH: On my account – and this is an absolutely crucial argument in the book – there is no opposition between sociality and individuality. There is not first an individual and then society, or the other way around. Rather, it is in our nature to be socially formed. Precisely because our natural constitution does not establish who we should be and what we should do, who we are and who we can be is a matter of our social formation. For the same reason, being free is not a matter of being free from a social world but being free to engage, transform, and recognize ourselves in the social norms to which we are bound.

There is not first an individual and then society, or the other way around. Rather, it is in our nature to be socially formed.

AM: Is this what you mean when you underline in the book that we are essentially social beings?

MH: Yes, we are essentially social individuals because it is impossible to be anyone without the recognition of others. I cannot even try to be someone – for example, a citizen, a philosopher, a friend – without some normative conception of what it means to be recognized by others as a citizen, a philosopher, a friend. Even if I am trying to be a recluse or a hermit, this requires a normative conception of what it means to be a recluse or a hermit. Such conceptions are never invented from scratch by an individual, but depend on socially shared norms into which we are habituated. I can transform the norms through my practice, but in doing so I am always in principle answerable to others and held to account for myself. This is not a restriction on my freedom, but a condition of possibility for my freedom.

AM: In the book, you maintain that our commitment to leading a free life – our spiritual freedom – requires the overcoming of capitalism. Why?

MH: To lead a free life, it is not enough that we have the liberal rights to freedom. We must have access to the material as well as the pedagogical resources that allow us to pursue and cultivate our freedom as an end in itself. What belongs to each one of us – what is irreducibly our own – is not property or goods but the time of our lives, which is always shared in a social form. This is why the question of habituation is so important, since it is through social habituation that we learn how to engage the question of what is worth doing with our time. If we live and work in a society where the dominant way of relating to one another is to compete for resources – as it is under capitalism – we will understand ourselves primarily as creatures who are competing for resources, at the expense of other possible ways of learning to live with our interdependence.

AM: Marx is a central figure in your critique of capitalism, but he was not anti-capitalist in a simple sense. As you emphasize in the book, he argued that the idea of a generally shared freedom and equality only became possible as a result of capitalism. Please can you explain his argument here?

MH: Marx argues that capitalist societies, at least in principle, mark a form of progress relative to previous forms of social habituation – for example, societies that keep slaves who are systematically denied ownership of their time, or serfs who are bound to a given master for their livelihood. Specifically, the social form of wage labour paves the way for a generalizable idea of the freedom and equality of all individuals. While many forms of slavery and subjection have, of course, persisted under capitalism, it is an economic system which in principle recognizes that all of us “own” our lifetime. Moreover, our lifetime is socially recognized as inherently “valuable,” insofar as we are compensated with a wage for the “cost” of our labour time. Nevertheless, under capitalism, we still cannot treat our lifetime as an end in itself, since our lifetime serves as a means for the end of accumulating surplus value in the form of capital.

AM: Can you clarify this link between lifetime and value under capitalism?

MH: On the deepest level, I seek to show that the measure of value under capitalism is self-contradictory. The reason we can experience certain forms of labour as a negative cost is because we are committed to having time to lead our lives as an end in itself. So the positive measure of value really should be how much time we have to pursue the projects and fulfil the obligations that we can recognize as inherently valuable. This is what I call “socially available free time”, which requires a form of society that in its principles is devoted to our lives as ends in themselves. But under capitalism the commitment to socially available free time is contradicted, since the expansion and cultivation of socially available free time does not generate any wealth according to how wealth is measured under capitalism.

Let me take a simple example that I elaborate at length in the book. Let’s say that in a village we develop more and more efficient technologies for acquiring water, and we end up with a well in the middle of our village. As a result we are wealthier in an existential sense, since we have freed up time to do other things besides go and get water out of necessity. But if the water is not produced through wage labour and it doesn’t cost anything to buy the water – in short, if the water is not commodified – then the production of water is not generating any wealth in the capitalist sense. In terms of the capitalist measure of wealth, the liberating function of the well is worthless, since it is not generating any profit.

AM: So, under capitalism, the profit motif entails that we must employ people in wage labour and we must get people to buy commodities. Is that the problem?

MH: It is a symptom of the problem, which on the deepest level resides in how we measure value under capitalism. Under capitalism, the production of wealth depends on the generation of profit. The very functioning of the economy requires the production and consumption of commodities that are sold for profit, which is only possible if there are workers who earn a wage that they can use to buy the commodities.

Any question about what would be meaningful and valuable and important to do for ourselves and our society is structurally subordinated to the question of what is profitable.

As a consequence, any question about what would be meaningful and valuable and important to do for ourselves and our society is structurally subordinated to the question of what is profitable. This priority given to profit is not reducible to an ideological worldview; it is a matter of how we materially sustain our lives in any capitalist society. Under capitalism, everyone has to prioritize the generation of profit, because that’s the only way that any wealth is produced in the first place.

AM: You distinguish socialist projects built around the redistribution of wealth from your vision of democratic socialism, which requires what you call the revaluation of value. Why do you think redistribution is not enough?

MH: To be clear, I am not against redistribution and reform. It is very important to make things less terrible than they are. But I am trying to show that while we can be engaged in and committed to struggles for various kinds of reforms or redistribution, we have to hold open our understanding of the deeper problems with how we measure value in our society in general. We have to ask: How is the wealth that we distribute generated in the first place?

What Marx shows is that the very production of wealth under capitalism requires inequality, exploitation, and commodification. It requires unemployment as a structural feature, it has an inherent tendency toward crises, and so on. Those problems can’t be solved by redistribution, since the wealth we are redistributing is itself produced by those unequal relations.

Accordingly, I argue that our commitment to freedom and equality calls for a revaluation of the capitalist measure of value. The revaluation in question requires not only a theoretical but also a practical transformation of the way we lead our lives. All the way from our organization of labour and our technological production of goods to our forms of education, we need to pursue a revaluation that recognizes our finite lifetime as the condition for anything to matter and for anything to be valuable. To this end, I outline a new vision of democratic socialism that is committed to providing the conditions for each one of us to lead a free life, in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another.

AM: Although This Life is deeply visionary you want to distance it from certain socialist accounts that are considered utopian, e.g. that of Theodor Adorno. Which utopian ideals do you endorse, and which do you reject?

MH: One thing that is often said about Marx and Marxists is that we are just replacing heaven with communist paradise, imagined as a state in which all our problems are resolved. What I’m trying to show is that democratic socialism should not be understood as a state in which all our problems are resolved. Rather, democratic socialism would enable us to own the question of what is worth doing with our time – both individually and collectively – in order to do justice to our fragility and our interdependence, not in order to overcome it. Even if we achieve an emancipated society, we are always going to have to sustain and justify the form of life to which we are committed, on pain of failing. Without such a risk, democratic socialism would not be a living project.

Martin Hägglund is Birgit Baldwin Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale. His book, This Life, was published in 2019 by Profile Books (UK) and Pantheon Books (US).

Interview by Anthony Morgan, editor of The Philosopher.


From The Philosopher, vol. 107, no. 4 ("This Life"). If you enjoy reading this, please consider making a small donation.

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