The subtitle of Martin Hägglund’s new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, indicates its ambition. In the first half of This Life, Hägglund undertakes a critique of conventional religion, as well as of any philosophical outlook that understands our finite lives to derive their value from an infinite, unlimited being. Hägglund recommends instead what he calls “secular faith.” As he illustrates in a chapter contrasting Augustine’s Confessions with Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, this is a faith based on our recognition that “eternal life is not only unattainable but also undesirable.” Even many putatively religious people, Hägglund contends, show through their actions that they believe their lives and projects have meaning in themselves, quite apart from their belief in immortality or eternity. Moreover, for secular people, it is important to acknowledge that finitude and failure—the fact that we will lose those we love, that our projects may come to nothing, and that we ourselves will die—are not defects to be addressed by the right spiritual or philosophical perspective but conditions of the possibility of the lives we lead meaning anything to us at all.
Once we have made this acknowledgement, Hägglund argues we will come to see that our ultimate value and resource during this life is time—the time we have to spend with the people we love and to pursue the projects that are meaningful to us. Accordingly, in the second half of the book, he undertakes a critique of capitalist society based on the way it compels us to sacrifice our time on the altar of “surplus value.” “When I sell my labor time to someone else for a wage,” Hägglund writes, “I am therefore necessarily selling my own life.” Primarily through his readings of Hegel and Marx, Hägglund develops the view that, to do justice to the idea of our “spiritual freedom”—which he defines as the ability to ask “which imperatives to follow in light of our ends, as well as to … transform our ends themselves”—we will need to create a society that prioritizes the creation of free time over that of surplus value. This society will measure wealth not by its GDP or any other strictly economic criteria, but rather by the amount of “socially available free time” it is able to produce, which we can then use to “pursue and explore what matters to us.” Such a society Hägglund calls “democratic socialism.”
At a time of renewed enthusiasm for socialism and radical democracy on the left, This Life has been heralded as making the “spiritual case for socialism” (Jedediah Britton-Purdy, the New Republic), and for inviting Marxist socialists to “think through their ultimate premises” (Samuel Moyn, Jacobin). The book has also received some criticism for its arguments against religion—a thread picked up in the exchange below, between the University of Chicago philosopher and Hegel scholar Robert Pippin and the author of This Life, Martin Hägglund. Beyond the viability of Hägglund’s translation of “faith” into a secular context, Pippin explores the attempt to harmonize Hegel and Marx in the second half of This Life. At issue is the question of whether, for a society to achieve freedom in the Hegelian sense—that is, to “make the idea of freedom actual”—it would be necessary or sufficient for it to overcome the main tenets of market capitalism: wage labor, private property, the orientation of the economy toward surplus value. Both sets of remarks are adapted from a colloquium on This Life hosted by Yale University on March 29th. —JB