top of page

Time and Timelessness: Responses to Martin Hägglund's This Life


Of all the major religions, Buddhism enjoys the greatest respect and popularity among those who seek a model for a “spiritual life.” Even the prominent atheist Sam Harris turns to the meditational exercises of Buddhism in his bestselling book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion. This popularity is understandable, since Buddhist meditation practices can be employed to great effect for secular ends. In particular, there has been success in adapting various forms of meditation techniques for cognitive therapy as well as for practical forms of compassion training. If you learn Buddhist meditation techniques for such therapeutic purposes – or simply for the sake of having more strength and energy – then you are adapting the techniques for a secular project. You engage in meditational practices as a means for the end of deepening your ability to care for others and improving the quality of your life.

The religious aim of Buddhism, however, is to help sentient beings to achieve “liberation” from all forms of “suffering,” which requires being “released” from life itself. In Buddhist metaphysics, everything that is subject to birth, aging and death is held to be fundamentally “unsatisfactory” (a matter of dukkha), whereas true satisfaction requires being released into “the sorrowless and stainless bliss” of final nirvana, which is an “unconditioned” form of existence beyond all forms of conditioned existence (In the Buddha’s Words, 223).

Such an idea of eternal bliss recurs across religious traditions, but in many strands of Buddhism there is a remarkable honesty regarding the implications of eternal bliss. Rather than promising that your life will continue, or that you will see your loved ones again, final nirvana entails the ultimate “cessation” of all life activities. The aim is not to lead a free life, with the pain and suffering that such a life entails, but to be released from the need to lead a life at all, in favour of the timeless bliss of nirvana. What ultimately matters is not to do anything and not to be anyone; what ultimately matters is to be liberated from life, so that one can rest in peace.

The Buddhist conclusion may seem extreme when stated in this way, but in fact it makes explicit what is implicit in all ideas of eternal bliss. Far from making our lives meaningful, any form of eternal liberation would make it impossible to lead any form of life, since our actions would have no purpose. This problem can be traced even within religious traditions that espouse faith in eternal life. An article in U.S. Catholic asks: “Heaven: Will it be Boring?” (1975). The article answers no, for in heaven souls are called “not to eternal rest but to eternal activity – eternal social concern.” Yet this answer only underlines the problem, since there is nothing to be concerned about in heaven. Concern presupposes that something can go wrong or can be lost; otherwise we would not care. An eternal activity – just as much as an eternal rest – is of concern to no one, since it cannot be stopped and does not have to be maintained by anyone. The problem is not that an eternal activity would be “boring” but that it would not be intelligible as my activity. Any activity of mine (including a boring activity) requires that I sustain it. In an eternal activity, there cannot be a person who is bored—or involved in any other way—since an eternal activity does not depend on being sustained by anyone.

Eternal bliss is therefore not only unattainable but also undesirable, since it would eliminate the care and passion that animates our lives. What we do and what we love can matter to us only because we understand ourselves as mortal. This self-understanding does not have to be explicit but is implicit in all our practical commitments and priorities. The question of what we ought to do with our lives – a question that is at issue in everything we do – presupposes that we understand our time to be finite. For the question of how we should lead our lives to be intelligible, we have to believe that we will die. If we believed that our lives would last forever, we could never take our lives to be at stake. We would never be seized by the need to do anything with our time. We would not even be able to understand what it means to do something sooner rather than later in our lives, since we would have no sense of a finite lifetime that gives urgency to any project or any activity.

Hence, mortality is the condition of agency and freedom. To be free is not to be sovereign or liberated from all constraints. Rather, we are free because we are able to ask ourselves what we ought to do with our time. All forms of freedom – the freedom to act, the freedom to speak, the freedom to love – are intelligible as freedom only insofar as we are free to engage the question of what we should do with our time. If it were given what we should do, what we should say, and whom we should love – in short: if it were given what we should do with our time – we would not be free.

The ability to ask this question – the question of what we ought to do with our time – is the basic condition for what I call spiritual freedom. To lead a free, spiritual life (rather than a life determined merely by natural instincts), I must be responsible for what I do. This is not to say that I am free from natural and social constraints. I did not choose to be born with the limitations and abilities I happen to have. Moreover, I had no control over who took care of me; what they did to me and for me. My family—and the larger historical context into which I was born – shaped me before I could do anything about it. Likewise, social norms continue to inform who I can take myself to be and what I can do with my life. Without social norms – norms I did not invent and that shape the world in which I find myself – I can have no understanding of who to be or what to do. Nevertheless, I am responsible for upholding, challenging, or transforming these norms. I am not merely causally determined by nature or norms but act in light of norms that I can challenge and transform. This is what it means to lead a spiritual life. Even at the price of my biological survival, my material well-being, or my social standing, I can give my life for a principle to which I hold myself or for a cause in which I believe.

At the heart of my freedom, then, is the ability to ask myself what I should do with my time. Even when I am utterly absorbed in what I do, what I say, and what I love, the question of what I ought to do must be alive in me. Being involved in my activities, I must run the risk of being bored or dissatisfied with what I do – otherwise my engagement would be a matter of compulsive necessity. Being devoted to what I love, I must run the risk of losing it or giving it up – otherwise there would be nothing at stake in maintaining and actively relating to what I love. Most fundamentally, I must live in relation to my irrevocable death – otherwise I would believe that my time is infinite and there would be nothing at stake in dedicating my life to anything.

Any form of spiritual life must therefore be animated by the anxiety of being mortal, even in the most profound fulfillment of our aspirations. Our anxiety before death is not reducible to a psychological condition that can or should be overcome. Rather, anxiety is a condition of intelligibility for leading a free life and being passionately committed. As long as our lives matter to us, we must be animated by the anxiety that our time is finite, since otherwise there would be no urgency in doing anything and being anyone.

Even if your project is to lead your life without psychological anxiety before death – for example, by devoting yourself to Buddhist meditation – that project is intelligible only because you are anxious not to waste your life on being anxious before death. Only in light of the apprehension that we will die – that our lifetime is indefinite but finite – can we ask ourselves what we ought to do with our lives and put ourselves at stake in our activities. This is why all religious visions of eternity ultimately are visions of unfreedom. In the consummation of eternity, there would be no question of what we should do with our lives. We would be absorbed in bliss forever and thereby deprived of any possible agency. Rather than having a free relation to what we do and what we love, we would be compelled by necessity to enjoy it.

In contrast, we should recognize that we must be vulnerable – we must be marked by the suffering of pain, the mourning of loss, the anxiety before death – in order to lead our lives and care about one another. We can thereby acknowledge that our life together is our ultimate purpose. What we are missing is not eternal bliss but social and institutional forms that would enable us to lead flourishing lives. This is why the critique of religion must be accompanied by a critique of the existing forms of our life together. If we merely criticized religious notions of salvation without seeking to overcome the social injustice to which religions respond, the critique would be empty and patronizing. The task is to transform our social conditions in such a way that we can let go of the promise of salvation and recognize that everything depends on what we do with our finite time together. The heart of spiritual life is not the empty tranquility of eternal peace, but the mutual recognition of our fragility and our freedom.

Martin Hägglund is Professor of Comparative Literature and Humanities at Yale. His book This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free was published last year by Profile Books.

Twitter: @martinhaegglund

A prominent theme of Martin Hägglund’s This Life is the relation between spirit and life, which is also a central theme of three philosophers Hägglund finds especially compelling: Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, all of whom endorse conceptions of spirit that make it metaphysically continuous with natural life. For these thinkers, as for Hägglund himself, this topic also concerns the nature of freedom – that is, of spiritual freedom, the kind of freedom appropriate to human beings. For those who espouse the metaphysical continuity of spirit and nature, one constraint on a satisfactory account of freedom is that there must be something in nature that approximates the freedom of spiritual beings. Before addressing Hägglund’s account of this isomorphism, it is important to get clearer on precisely what he takes spiritual freedom to be. With the aim of thinking with rather than against Hägglund, I will argue that there are tensions, or at least ambiguities, in how he conceives of spiritual freedom.

Describing Hägglund’s account of spiritual freedom as beset by internal tensions is not the worst thing one could say about it. Human freedom is a complex phenomenon. Of the three philosophers mentioned above, Hegel is the most sensitive to the complexity of human freedom, and in this respect, as in many others, Hägglund is deeply influenced by him. Hegel deals with this issue by distinguishing various types of freedom and showing that they are jointly realizable. The main claim of his social philosophy is that the institutions of Western modernity have made the realization of freedom in all its guises not merely possible but actual. Another philosophical possibility, of course, is that the various dimensions of human freedom are so complex that realizing them together is impossible. This would amount to a more tragic view of human existence than Hegel settles for, and Hägglund is firmly on Hegel’s side of this issue: human existence is finite but not for that reason tragic. It is not, in other words, the case that some of the fundamental aspirations of spiritual beings can be realized only by sacrificing others.

Let us begin with Hägglund’s initial characterizations of natural and spiritual freedom. Most forms of animal life are said to possess a certain kind of freedom, or self-determination, because they are capable of “self-movement” in the pursuit of ends deriving from their own nature, in this case, biological self-maintenance and reproduction. What distinguishes natural from spiritual freedom is that the former “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”, while the latter “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).

If one focuses on these lines alone, it can appear that Hägglund offers a standard Kantian definition of spiritual freedom: to be free is to have the capacity to set ends for oneself, including the values in light of which one sets one’s ends. Missing from this definition is something that Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche build into their conceptions of spiritual freedom, namely, some relation to life that counts as free. For these thinkers, spiritual freedom is inseparable from life activity, or the reproduction of biological life. It is important to note, however, that Hägglund says that spiritual freedom requires the ability to decide how to pursue our ends, as well as the ability to question those ends themselves. In other words, spiritual freedom requires, as one of its conditions, the ability to set and evaluate ends, but it is not exhausted by that ability. I take Hägglund to claim, following Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, that spiritual freedom involves more than merely taking up a certain subjective relation to one’s ends, but that it also requires some worldly realization. Indeed, this must be Hägglund’s view if the importance he accords to democratic socialism – which surely is not merely an external condition of being free but a form of life within which spiritual freedom is positively realized – is to make sense.

Artwork by Nora Grant

For Kierkegaard, on the other hand, spiritual freedom consists entirely in a subjective relation one has to one’s own agency, and this makes him more a follower of Kant than of Hegel. Hägglund provides a long and interesting discussion of Kierkegaard, which raises the question of how the latter’s picture of freedom fits together with the Hegelian strands of Hägglund’s larger vision. These appear to be incompatible with Kierkegaard’s exclusive emphasis on subjectivity, as expressed in the claim that “what renders the world meaningless – or meaningful – is not an objective feature of what there is but proceeds from the degree of your attachment to what you see” (97). For the Hegelian tradition, in contrast, there are substantial objective constraints on being able to find what you do meaningful, and Hägglund clearly wants to endorse this element of Hegel’s legacy. At best, Kierkegaard’s vision of spiritual freedom might be taken by Hägglund to impose certain subjective constraints on spiritual freedom. Hegel himself is moved by a similar thought in his treatment of the subjective elements of Moralität. Presumably Hägglund envisions a similar appropriation of Kierkegaard’s conception of freedom, although it is not entirely clear what he wants to retain from that conception and how it fits in with his larger picture of spiritual freedom. What, then, beyond the mere capacity to set one’s ends, is required for spiritual freedom? One clue to Hägglund’s answer might be his claim that “secular faith is the condition of freedom” (11). This characterization of freedom goes beyond the earlier one because it makes it clear that freedom is not a mere capacity that, as Kant would have it, every rational being possesses simply by virtue of possessing practical reason. If secular faith is the condition of spiritual freedom, then the latter is not something we simply have but something we must win for ourselves (through secular faith). But because secular faith, too, might be taken to consist simply in a subjective orientation towards one’s finitude and towards one’s particularity – echoes, again, of Kierkegaard – this does not yet explain how or why spiritual freedom must be realized in the world to be complete.

One concept that plays an important role in Hägglund’s vision of spiritual freedom appears in his discussion of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle: “the struggle is how to make this life your own.” This suggests that spiritual freedom involves appropriation, where this, at least for Hegel, consists in making something your own that was previously “other,” although only on the further condition that what you appropriate also retains for you a part of its initial otherness. The appropriation involved in spiritual freedom cannot be a mere swallowing up of the other; to relate spiritually to one’s other is to see it as at once oneself and not oneself, a relation Hegel describes as “being at home in the other.” The mark of spirituality, then, is the enduring of contradiction, in this case the ambiguity involved in relating to something you take to be both you and not you. Hegel’s most illustrative example of such a relation is love, in which I see my beloved as part of me but without forgetting that we are also separate persons. What, though, does appropriation have to do with realizing spiritual freedom in the world, as opposed to merely internally? If freedom consists in establishing a relation to something that retains some of its quality of being “other,” then my freedom can be fully realized only if it has some existence external to me. Presumably, the spiritual freedom realized in democratic socialism will involve our ongoing activity of participating in, and thereby reproducing, social institutions that we can recognize as “a home.” If we want to bring spiritual freedom in relation to natural freedom, we might recall that for Hegel, even nonhuman animals, through their life activity, are constantly engaged in negating the otherness of the world and making it “their own.” One way they do this is by taking up elements of the surrounding world that first appear in a form they cannot immediately use and working them into a form that can serve their own life purposes. But they also make the world into a home more literally: beavers build dams; bees build hives; birds build nests – all of which is to say that they both negate and preserve the external world in a way that enables them to be at home within it. For Hägglund, I take it, the spiritual analogue of dams, hives, and nests is democratic socialism (230).

Another way Hägglund characterizes spiritual freedom is related to appropriation without being precisely identical, namely, “recognizing yourself in what you do” (129). Freedom in this sense is realized in activity that gives expression to one’s practical identity, an idea one finds in Kant and, more forcefully, in Hegel. This vision of freedom is not incompatible with other conceptions of freedom discussed by Hägglund, but it emphasizes something different from the conception of freedom as setting your own ends. Here the emphasis lies not on how you come to adopt the ends you act on but on whether what you do expresses “who you are,” where, as both Kant and Hegel hold, “who you are” may not be something you choose or explicitly adopt. The final component of spiritual freedom I want to discuss concerns an ambiguity in Marx’s discussion of freedom in post-capitalist society with respect to whether spiritual freedom is most fully realized within the sphere of life activity or externally to it. According to one (Hegelian) strand of Marx’s thought, life remains a constitutive element of free spiritual activity, such that the latter consists in a variety of ways in which subjects relate freely to life, including to their own nature as living beings. In the domain of the social, spirituality is at work wherever humans engage in activity that reconciles their natural neediness with their aspiration to be free. On this view, the form of social life appropriate to our nature is one in which every life activity is a site of freedom and every expression of freedom addresses our needs as living beings. This ideal animates Marx’s early thought, for which unalienated labour, the hallmark of “true human emancipation,” satisfies both our material needs and our aspiration to be self-determining, and, as a well-known passage in Capital attests, it is also present in his later work. As depicted in this passage, spiritual freedom is realized when cooperative activity responding to material needs is both transparent and self-organized. This vision of freedom gives full due to human finitude, taking into account our material neediness and dependence on others in satisfying those needs. In the very same passage, however, Marx claims that “true” freedom arises only once the needs of life have been taken care of, implying that activity directed at satisfying those needs can be free only in a limited sense. What motivates Marx to say this is the thought that material production is “determined by need and external purposiveness,” where, by the latter, he means activity that has only instrumental value for the person undertaking it. This, however, confuses two concepts that need to be held apart, namely, activity that satisfies the needs of life, and activity that is undertaken only for an end outside itself. It is wrong to think of activity that serves the ends of life as necessarily less meaningful, less “for-its-own-sake” than activity divorced from our nature as living beings. There is an unfortunate residue here of the Kantian view that needs imposed on us by nature are necessarily a source of unfreedom. Even if there are human activities done only for their own sake and unrelated to natural need, why consider them higher expressions of freedom than what can be had in our everyday activities of labour and family life, as long as these are organized and affirmed as meaningful by us? In other words, what makes alienated labour unfree is its purely instrumental significance for the labourer, not the fact that it serves the ends of life. Mostly Hägglund appears to agree with this, identifying Marx’s “realm of necessity” with labour that is “merely a means” (214), although at times he fails to distance himself clearly enough from Marx’s confusion. ***

I have distinguished six ways of thinking about spiritual freedom that are not obviously compatible: 1) the capacity to set ends and to revise them in light of values we freely espouse; 2) a purely subjective attitude – attachment – to who one is and what one does that renders my activity meaningful; 3) appropriation: establishing a practical relation to something “other” that rids the other of its otherness without, however, completely eliminating it; 4) recognizing yourself in what you do; 5) reproducing life in a way that is transparent, self-directed, and valued as an end in itself; and 6) activity not determined by the needs nature imposes on us and done purely for its own sake. These distinctions raise several questions: Are all of them conceptions of spiritual freedom for Hägglund? Is it plausible that all six conceptions can be realized in a single form of life? Which are most intimately related to the main concept of This Life, secular faith? Hägglund’s answer to the second question might be, following Hegel, that these various conceptions – extending from Hegel to Kierkegaard to Marx – are all dimensions of spiritual freedom and that “true” freedom involves realizing them jointly. If so, that is a further illustration of the non-tragic character of Hägglund’s vision of a finite but spiritually free human existence. Frederick Neuhouser is Professor of Philosophy at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of a number of books, including Foundations of Hegel's Social Theory: Actualizing Freedom, and is currently working on a project about the idea of social pathology in 18th, 19th, and 20th century social philosophy.

One of the most interesting and persuasive arguments Martin Hägglund makes in his wonderful new book This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free is that democratic socialism (not reformed liberalism, and not social democracy) is the only political form that recognizes spiritual freedom as an unconditional secular value. Democratic socialism enables human beings to recognise and appreciate their own vulnerability and finitude by creating forms of social organization that liberate them from the contradictory reassurances of religion, and that put “socially available free time” at the centre of a new set of freedom-enhancing democratic practices and commitments. Democratic socialism is, for Hägglund, “a political transformation of the economy”, a transformation that requires “a revaluation of what value is”, and that enables us to recognise “socially available free time as an end in itself” (294). The vision he defends emerges from an immanent critique of liberalism, a critique that does not oppose one abstract ideal to another, but that takes seriously liberalism’s commitment to the freedom of individuals and goes on to illustrate how the very institutions that for liberals are supposed to realise that freedom end up suppressing and undermining it (225).

Socialism shares with liberalism a commitment to the individual as the fundamental unit of moral concern. It also shares with liberalism the aspiration to specify the conditions under which we can be effectively free, as well as the emphasis on the mutual dependence of human beings in the social realisation of effective freedom. Yet liberalism entrenches these commitments in market-based institutions that prioritise a type of wealth creation based on the exchange of labour power and the extraction of surplus value. Democratic socialism, on the other hand, is built around three core principles: firstly, that we measure our wealth, both individual and collective, in terms of socially available labour time and create democratic institutions adequate to express that value (302); secondly that “the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit” (304), and thirdly, that it is based on institutions that realise the Marxist principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (307).

I agree with everything Hägglund says about the desirability of democratic socialism. In what follows, I will focus on two questions that, as will become clearer, are interconnected: 1) his strategy of justification and 2) the problem of agency. I will develop these issues by probing the relation between liberalism and democratic socialism in relation to the three core principles he advocates. It is important to start with the first because, as I see it, Hägglund’s understanding of the relationship between liberalism and democratic socialism is at the heart of his subsequent analysis of the core socialist principles, and constitutes what I see as the main gap in his book: the absence of a more nuanced account of democratic agents in charge of democratic socialist transformation.

Hägglund plausibly suggests that socialism and liberalism overlap in their commitment to an idea of individuals as ends in themselves, and to spiritual freedom as an unconditional value (225). But I wonder what exactly liberalism means here. In so far as it means a set of views (sometimes in tension with each other) of how social and political institutions ought to be arranged and which includes (but is not limited to) recognising the authority of the state and the value of commercial society, I think he is too quick to credit liberalism with the invention of the secular idea of the ultimate worth of individuals (226). That idea seems to me to be a product of the Enlightenment, and more specifically of the discovery of the “autonomy of reason” sometime around the late 17th and 18th centuries, an effort which was in turn the result of a number of not exclusively liberal, often not even proto-liberal, and sometimes, possibly, anti-liberal debates trying to articulate a new understanding of the human being free from the burdens of religion and tradition.

We can, of course, endlessly debate when the Enlightenment started, how widely shared the thesis of the autonomy of reason was, and what contribution to the emergence of these ideas was made by the Copernican revolution, or by narratives of travelling the New World, or by the legacy of the analysis of Christianity during Humanism and the Renaissance. Or we can turn our focus to the transformations of feudal societies, the emergence of the modern state, or the legacy of the wars of religion, to mention but some of the historian’s favourite narratives. But it seems clear that the idea of spiritual freedom is grounded in an Enlightenment critique of authority, and to assimilate that account to a “liberal” critique runs the risk of rendering us blind to how liberals often utilized Enlightenment conceptions of morality to advance profoundly immoral ends in other parts of the world. It also runs the risk of obscuring currents of the Enlightenment that inspired radical republican or democratic critiques of liberalism and of concealing the emancipatory impact that Enlightenment ideas had in other non-liberal parts of the world – as many recent critics highlight when discussing the relation between freedom and modernity in Hegel’s theory.

Artwort by Nora Grant

Liberalism was, of course, inspired by these Enlightenment ideas as it built on the autonomy of reason a powerful legal, social and political apparatus through which the ideas of individual freedom and equality acted as an important vehicle of self-correction. But liberalism does not own freedom and equality, and if we assimilate such ideals to a liberal tradition we fail to understand how liberalism often corrupted them, or put them at the service of projects of imperial conquest and domination that not only failed to achieve what liberals purported to achieve but also contradicted the spirit of freedom as self-emancipation on which they were premised. I emphasise all this, not to set the record straight on the relationship between liberalism and the Enlightenment, as it is impossible to do justice to the complexity of that relation in the space of this short reply. Rather, the main reason I raise the question is that I worry that this interpretation of the relation between liberalism and Marxism has relevant implications for how we assess the role of the state, in particular the modern liberal state, in relation to the core values of democratic socialism. The problem of agency in realising these values is to my mind the least developed part of This Life, and it may be worth raising some questions in hope of advancing the future debate. Hägglund rightly emphasises that the main reason that liberal social and political institutions cannot realise their own commitment to freedom is capitalism, and the fact that the type of wealth creation that capitalism enables fails to realise the value of free time. He is also right to emphasise that this is the reason why even progressive liberalism and social democracy are inadequate solutions to the problems posed by wealth creation under capitalism: they both fail to realise that the problem is not how to distribute particular goods but how to change relations of production so that such relations are no longer based on the extraction of surplus value in the form of socially necessary labour time.

My worry is that there is too much economic reductionism in this critique of capitalism. In reading the book, I often could not help thinking that Hägglund’s formula for democratic socialism is liberal democracy minus capitalism, and if we could only strip liberal democracy of capitalism we would come up with the right form of social organisation. It is no coincidence that his three principles all emphasise goods that a democratic society should realise, but are largely silent on the agents and institutions through which such goods ought to be brought about. His framework tackles the difficult problem of wage labour under capitalism and gives us excellent answers in the direction of the revaluation of value, common ownership of the means of production, and the institutionalisation to the ability/needs principle. Both his critique of progressive liberalism and his critique of social democracy are essentially focused on the realm of wealth creation and on the horizons that democratic socialism opens up. In both cases, he misses the critique of the state, and fails to analyse how the institutions of the liberal state, and the relations between states in the international sphere, are an intrinsic component of how capitalism is organised, such that it is impossible to transform the latter without transforming – possibly transcending – the former. When that critique of the state is taken into account, the problem of agency in bringing about democratic socialist transformation comes to the fore. How is democratic socialism going to come about? Which agents and institutions are going to be in charge of these transformations? What is the role of social class in this account? How are those agents whose surplus labour is extracted in the course of commodity production related to each other and to the rest of society? How do they relate to the conditions of their own oppression? What role does the nation play in their self-understanding? What is the role of territorial sovereignty in stabilising capitalist relations on a global level? When these questions are answered, a different line of critique of progressive liberalism and social democracy can be developed. The reason their solutions are deficient is not only that their reflections on value are confused but that their analysis of political agency is limited to the reform of the state, and to the power structures and representative institutions associated with the state. Both see the state as a vehicle of social transformation without realising how capitalism and the liberal state are mutually constitutive. But what about democratic socialism in Hägglund’s version? Does democratic socialism need the state? What does the theory have to say about unequal technological development in different areas of the world and the impact of these inequalities on the possibility of developing labour-saving technologies? Should we wait for developing markets to modernise fully before democratic socialism becomes a realistic prospect? What impact do theories of imperialism have on his analysis of crisis and over-production, and on the possibility of developing a unified theory of class and class struggle? Are these theories even necessary? Do they have global scope? Who is the “owner” behind collective ownership of the means of production? Should we think about needs and abilities along global dimensions, national, supranational or regional ones? It is of course impossible to have an answer to all these questions in a book that is already so rich and thought-provoking. The reason I mention them here is to put pressure on Hägglund’s analysis of the relation between the liberal state and capitalist relations of production, and also because I am interested in how a Marxist theory of Sittlichkeit (ethical life) would look. What kind of social institutions does spiritual life require to be realised in democratic socialism? To what extent would this Marxian analysis of Sittlichkeit be continuous with Hegel’s theory of the state, provided the latter could solve the conflict with civil society? To what extent would it give us a radically different account of social and political institutions, and of forms of communal association where spiritual freedom is realised without the need for coercion backed by law? Although Hägglund engages relatively little with Marx’s theory and critique of the state, or with his analysis of social classes, his remarks in the conclusion of the book do to some extent turn to questions of agency and political transformation. The pages exploring the relation of Martin Luther King to the socialist tradition are beautifully written and will give many progressive liberals and social democrats a source of inspiration. But I wonder if the radical thesis that Hägglund’s book so persuasively advances is best served by that concluding example and the focus on the actions of one individual who understood that the quest for democracy is inseparable from the quest for socialism, and sought to organise collective action through processes of civil disobedience in one particular state?

Democratic socialism has a long history of focusing on the agency not of individuals but of collectives, and their engagement with power – the power of capital but also of states. It also has a long tradition of discussing problems of means and ends, of how to fight political and economic power, and of how to mobilise working classes both nationally and internationally. Yet questions of transition are barely mentioned in the book, and while Marx’s elaboration of the “ability and needs” principle is part of a larger engagement with progressive movements and forces of his time, that dimension is almost entirely absent in Hägglund’s book. Perhaps one might respond that this is a book of philosophy and not politics, and so the question of agency belongs elsewhere. But that analysis of the division of labour is one that socialists have never accepted, and, I think, for good reason.

Lea Ypi is Professor in Political Theory in the Government Department, London School of Economics, and author of Global Justice and Avant-Garde Political Agency.

Twitter: @lea_ypi

Interest in Marx in the academic world has been on the rise in recent years, and the idea of “socialism” – if not exactly Marx’s socialism – is back on the mainstream political agenda in the U.S. for the first time since Eugene Debs ran for president in the early twentieth century. Marxian journals like Jacobin have received favourable coverage in The New York Times, and the youngest congresswoman in American history is a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who owes her current superstardom in large part to her willingness to characterize her proposed solutions to poverty and global warming as “socialist.” Yet this resurgent interest in Marxian ideas should be taken with a grain of salt. Those who espouse them offer withering criticisms of income inequality and the “immorality” of billionaires, but little in the way of explanation of the institutional forms and social conditions that systematically produce inequality and billionaires. So, what exactly does it mean to be a Marxist? What does Marxism commit us to and what sorts of commitments does it rule out? What would it mean to provide a truly adequate critique of the capitalist form of social life, a critique that would amount to more than an idle and unfocused airing of discontents?

It is one of the many virtues of Martin Hägglund’s This Life that it addresses these urgent questions head-on and with maximal clarity. While it contributes in several crucial ways to the clarification of what the commitment to Marxism entails, I want to focus on what the book has to teach us about the distinctly philosophical nature of the question of an adequate critique of capitalist modernity. Specifically, I want to address two aspects of Hägglund’s book: its philosophical method and its “timeliness.” These things may seem to be unrelated: aren’t philosophical claims supposed to be about what’s true, regardless of the historical circumstances under which they are made? But Hägglund’s book has Hegelian aspirations, and is as such subject to Hegel’s famous description of philosophy as “its own time grasped in thought.” Understood in light of Hegel’s thesis, philosophy is not reducible to history (as is sometimes thought), but it also isn’t simply exempt from it or unconstrained by it. That raises the question: what does Hägglund’s philosophical approach tell us about who we have become?

First, I want to briefly suggest some of the ways in which This Life bears on the Marxism/philosophy issue. Hägglund’s book is divided into two parts, one on “secular faith” and the other on “spiritual freedom.” Roughly, these two parts correspond to distinct theoretical approaches, a therapeutic approach that focuses on religious faith as the fundamental paradigm of individual self-alienation, and a transformative approach that considers the adequacy of the shared practices and institutions that make up the capitalist form of life. Drawing on the post-Kantian philosophical tradition, Hägglund’s book does not argue for a specific “worldview” but rather aims to provide an account of the “categories of intelligibility” that underlie agency – the concepts required for making sense of what it means to be an agent.

The first half of This Life is devoted to an explication of the idea of secular faith, which seeks to grasp the fundamental dynamic of any commitment, whether religious or secular. Hägglund defends a picture of human life as fundamentally fragile and mortal, and as dependent on intersubjective relations of recognition. Our commitments are a matter of faith because they are constitutively vulnerable to the possibility of failure and must be practically sustained. Whether or not I am the writer I take myself to be, for example, is a question not of how “certain” I am, but rather of a provisional belief (“faith”) that is manifest in my doings that I am getting myself right. Being a writer depends on how and whether I am recognized as a writer by other writers, thinkers, critics and so on – those whose authority I implicitly recognize just in trying to play a role in our shared institution. By the same token, our faith is “secular” because the values and commitments with which we keep faith are not independent goods mandated by an immortal god but ends that we give ourselves and that are thereby anchored in this essentially social and historical, finite life.

To reiterate, it is crucial that Hägglund’s categories not be understood along psychological lines, as if secular faith were a particular worldview, something we could choose to have or not. Rather, without secular faith the ideas of “choice,” “action,” and “commitment” would be unintelligible. Accordingly, the notion of “religious faith” is itself an unconscious, internally conflicted form of secular faith. As Hägglund shows, religious faith demands the subordination of our earthly projects and attachments to the idea of an eternal life, invulnerable to loss and death. The therapeutic aim of the first part of the book is to ask believers whether their own ideals of community, integrity, and value actually accord with their commitment to a religious vision of salvation. A life without the possibility of failure and loss would not actually be a life, since there would be no reason to do anything, to act or to forbear from acting: the ultimate end of religious faith is empty, undermining the very possibility of sustaining an end, as well as any form of reconciled community.

The analysis of secular faith in part one paves the way for the account of spiritual freedom in part two – Hägglund’s path-breaking contribution to our understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of Marx’s critical theory of the capitalist form of life. I want to highlight two key lines of argument in part two. First, Hägglund develops a distinction between natural life and spiritual life, between the freedom of the living (“natural freedom”) and the freedom of the rationally alive (“spiritual freedom”). A crucial feature of this account is that rationality is not “added to” or simply other than natural life, but is rather a distinct way of being a living being. Like the other animals, we live by striving to live, by resisting what we take to be painful and by pursuing what we count as good, but unlike our others, what counts as self-maintenance for us is a matter of what we can justify to one another. Our purposes are thus not given in advance, as if hard-wired by nature. Rather, our purposes are norms that we count as reasons for acting – reasons that are as such subject to contestation and change. We negotiate our goods collectively, in complex institutional processes, over historical time. It is in our nature to change our nature.

Second, Hägglund employs the philosophical account of life to provide a powerful new reading of Marx’s critique of capital. By drawing on the formal resources developed in the earlier part, Hägglund is able to deduce the transcendental structure of economic life (the form of collective self-maintenance specific to spiritual beings). What distinguishes the modern economic form – capitalism – is the “emancipated” character of wage labour: we all own our own labour power, and can (or rather must) exchange it for a wage on a purportedly free market. In an important move, Hägglund distinguishes between value as a category of intelligibility and the historically specific measure of value under capitalism, labour time. As Marx argues, if labour time is the measure of social wealth, then it follows that capital must strive to increase the amount of surplus value it extracts, by decreasing the amount of time workers labour on their own behalf. Capital accomplishes this feat through investment in technological innovation, which renders labour increasingly superfluous as a means to collective self-maintenance, even as capital itself continues to require surplus value to keep itself afloat. Following Moishe Postone’s important thesis that capitalist domination is not primarily a matter of the exploitation of one class by another, but rather a matter of the self-undermining dynamic of wage labour itself, This Life demonstrates the practical necessity of a “revaluation of value,” of the abolition of wage labour and of the transformation of the very form of our shared economic life.

Artwort by Nora Grant

A key feature of Hägglund’s book lies in its implicit demonstration of the inseparability of the therapeutic and the transformative aspects of critique. On the one hand, Hägglund’s therapeutic approach to the question of religious faith takes up a classic object of Marxian critique and addresses its basis in lived reality. Marx famously argues that religion is the “opiate of the masses,” both in the sense that it ameliorates the pain of immiseration and in the sense that it tranquilizes the working class. The religious ideal of eternal life has motivational force precisely because it carries the promise of fulfilment beyond the bounds of “this life,” as structured by modern institutions. By addressing himself to the believer, Hägglund takes seriously the first-personal experience of capitalist contradiction and the real reasons individuals have for continuing to endure the pain. On the other hand, challenging the prevailing “redistributive” models of economic change, Hägglund shows that the only way to realize the very ideals of equality and freedom is to transform our mode of production by abolishing wage labour. Yet far from representing an ideal external to the standpoint of the religious believer, Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism is meant to make good on the promise distortedly expressed in the religious idea of salvation. As a form of life in which we could actually see ourselves, identify with our work, and share a sense of purpose and value, democratic socialism would represent the transformation of society required to complete the therapeutic overcoming of religious faith.

Artwort by Nora Grant

Hägglund recalls us to the self-undermining form of modern social life and, in light of that structure, shows us why reformist and redistributive political proposals will always be insufficient for achieving an emancipated form of life. Moreover, as I have argued, Hägglund seeks to provide a philosophical justification for Marx’s vision of emancipation. Such justification is not simply an empty academic exercise, but is itself an attempt to transform the practice of theory: how we think about the world, so the claim goes, itself ought to change.

As Hegel argues, it is a distinctive feature of rational agency that what we are for

ourselves is essential to what we are in ourselves. Part of what it means to be a teacher is that I take myself to be one. If I didn’t so take myself, it would be a kind of mistake or misunderstanding for others to recognize me as one. The implication for theory is that our philosophical self-understanding is partly constitutive of who we are practically. For example, if we understood ourselves on a Humean model, as subject to the vagaries of desire, we could not take ourselves as agents of change – we could not take the required steps to achieving emancipation. By contrast, in making the philosophical case for our freedom, Hägglund is able to argue that democratic socialism is what we require of ourselves. In aiming to transform our theoretical self-understanding, This Life aims to expand our practical field of vision. If it can be shown that we must understand ourselves as free, then it can also be shown that we are responsible for our form of life. In sustaining capitalism, we do not fail to fulfil an objective ethical imperative or to satisfy the demands of human nature; rather, we fail to fulfil the definitive modern value, our commitment to leading a free life.

But this does raise the crucial question, famously posed by Lenin in the title of his text from 1902: What is to be done? And that raises a series of related questions: How did we get here? If capitalism is so painful, why haven’t we overcome it? Why were the revolutions in the 1910s unsuccessful? Why, exactly, has it been so hard to get Marx right? Is it just a question of bad readings and misinterpretations? And why does it seem that the political imagination of the Left has contracted over the course of the past century, instead of expanding? A little over one-hundred years ago, socialism was not only on the agenda across Europe, but there was a Leftist intelligentsia that firmly believed that philosophical reflection was indispensable for political organization. What went wrong, and why is a project like Hägglund’s necessary today?

In a recent review of This Life, which provides an illuminating account of Hägglund’s inheritance of Marx, Conall Cash points out that what the book lacks is a theory of transition, a theory of how we will get from “here to there” – from capitalism to democratic socialism. I would suggest, however, that this is not really a matter of theoretical “incompleteness,” but rather reflects something essential about our historical situation – a situation in which the political task of broad institutional transformation has been superseded by calls for perennial resistance and/or reform. If the Left has become more reconciled to the status quo, if the working class is more assimilated than it has ever been (for better or worse), then critical theory has, in effect, lost its object – it has become a political movement in need of resources for orienting itself. But the divorce of theory from praxis has created a new opportunity for theoretical self-reflection; if we have fallen back behind the political revolutions of 1848 and 1917, it is not inconceivable that we might have returned to the philosophical moment of 1807, when Hegel wrote his Phenomenology of Spirit – a moment that we are compelled to repeat with a historical difference.

Hägglund’s text prescinds from the issue of “what must be done” because the theory of transition must have as its critical object a reality in which a transition is already being practically envisioned. Nevertheless, This Life is neither utopian nor conformist: it does not offer a “blueprint” for a better life or a set of prescriptions for reforming capitalist institutions, but rather begins to make the transition – precisely by recalling us to a largely forgotten concrete possibility for change.

Jensen Suther is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at Yale. His dissertation takes up the question of freedom in a tradition that stretches from Kant to Heidegger, in order to offer a new interpretation of novels by Kafka, Mann, and Beckett as giving form to the contradictions of freedom in modernity. His work has appeared in Telos and Mediations.

Twitter: @jensensuther​



bottom of page