Conall Cash — Socialism For Our Time: Freedom, Value, Transition (Review of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom)


by Conall Cash 

This article has been peer-reviewed by the b2o editorial board.

Review of Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Pantheon, 2019)


Capitalism and religion: incontrovertible opponents, or strange bedfellows? If we understand religion as a perspective which defines mortal, temporal existence in negative relation to an eternal order of meaning, capitalism’s devotion to endless growth, and its ceaseless effort to commodify all features of the natural world and of our individual selves may seem to thwart the eternal stasis that religious life calls us towards. For a critic of modernity such as Max Weber, this conflict produces the essentially tragic nature of the modern “disenchantment of the world,” brought about by capitalism as a process which erodes the traditions that had given individuals a sense of their place in a universal, perpetual order. The loss of eternity then appears as a loss of all experience of fundamental meaning and a retreat into the throes of relativism, leaving us to live the uniquely mundane existences of those who can no longer access a realm of meaning once available to our forebears. Capitalism and modernity are from this perspective indeed defined as atheistic, and the atheism which they offer is the negative experience of losing a vision of eternity which could make us bear our mortal and limited existence.

For Martin Hägglund, in his important new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, the perspective represented by Weber drastically fails to grasp the questions posed by modernity and secularism. Most significantly, its tragic anti-modernism fails to grasp the ways in which capitalism in fact continues to reinforce the premises which enable religion to hold traction in society and to negate the value of life itself. For Hägglund, even in our supposedly secular age we need to take seriously Karl Marx’s claim that “the critique of religion is the premise of all critique,” and to understand why Marx’s critique of capitalism “is intertwined with his critique of religion,” and why we “cannot understand one without the other.”[1] This entails a sharply distinct conception of atheism from Weber’s, which Hägglund considers in fact to be a tacitly “religious” atheism (17).

For Hägglund, capitalism and religion have one essential feature in common: they both devalue the finite time of our lives. Grasping the full meaning of this claim is the key to unlocking the profound moral and political inspiration of this far-reaching book, which moves across its 400 pages from a defence of “secular faith” as an alternative to religious faith, to a defence of “democratic socialism” as the necessary form of economic organisation in which the value of our finite lives can be respected. Rather than condemning either religion or capitalism on the abstract grounds of moral utopianism – or the abstract rationalism of the ‘new atheism’ – Hägglund carries out what he calls an immanent critique of both, working from an analysis of what they themselves claim to value, so as to show that they require upholding contradictory beliefs and are incapable of providing us with the things we profess to care about.

The religious devaluing of our finite lives demands a deeper critique than the one made by traditional atheism. As we have just seen with Weber, such atheism considers the absence of God as something realistic which we must have the “courage” to accept (17), but remains a devastating loss, damaging our sense of ourselves and the meaning of our lives. Already in his 2008 book, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, Hägglund proposed an alternative philosophical understanding of the premises of atheism. While traditional atheism has “limited itself to denying the existence of God and immortality,” thus conceiving of mortality as “a lack of being that we desire to transcend,” what Hägglund calls radical atheism involves showing that such immortality, such fullness of being, is not only inexistent, but undesirable.[2] It is undesirable because there could be no experience of life, or care for anything at all, for an immortal being. To want to keep on living is to want to remain in the mortal condition of someone who cares about what they do with their time, not to be relieved of this condition in immortality.

As Hägglund remarks by way of Derrida, it is not that “God is dead,” but rather, “God is death”: the idea of a being that lives without the ineradicable danger of its own destruction undermines itself from within, since such a life would have no reason to desire, strive, or care for anything, and would thus be indistinguishable from death.[3] The desire to “live on” after one’s death is inconceivable as a desire to escape mortal finitude, since nothing that could ever belong to life could ever be experienced by a non-temporal, non-mortal being. For example, as Hägglund explores in the first chapter of This Life, the lover who mourns their dead beloved and dreams of being together with them again after death is dreaming not of immortality, but of a prolongation of mortal existence. Love comes into being, and is sustained, insofar as I care about my life, what I do with it, and who I spend it with – a care that would be meaningless if life were without end. The desire I express in wanting to be reunited with my beloved is not a desire for eternity, but a desire to prolong our finite time together, to keep this fragile thing, our love, together for a while longer, in the mortal condition that is the only one which could ever give it any sense or any life.

This Life expands upon the idea of radical atheism by developing an alternative foundation for ethics on the basis of our recognition of the fragility of mortal survival. Hägglund calls this “secular faith,” a practice of keeping faith with the finite and fragile things we value as ends in themselves, rather than seeing finitude as something which limits them. Once we recognise that immortality is a non-category — because God, or any immortal force however defined, doesn’t just not exist, but is a concept in complete contradiction with that of existence — we can start to recognise what we are truly doing when we engage in ethical reflection and action. Ethics is in fact always about striving to preserve the things we value within the mortal realm of finitude, and implicitly recognises that these things are fragile and that their survival is not guaranteed. For this reason, ethics as such contains an implicit critique of religion, and secular faith would make this critique explicit.

Religious faith fails to do justice to ethics by devaluing mortal life, positing immortality as the realm wherein everything lost will be redeemed, and purporting to save us from the fragility and uncertainty of mortal commitments. In doing so, it makes ethics in principle impossible, by undermining any reason to care about the things and people of this world as ends in themselves. As Hägglund argues, the deepest level of religion’s undermining of the true basis for ethical life is its effort to transcend the temporal basis of existence, instead of recognising that existence, and ethics, are incoherent without such a temporal condition. For it is only by being subject to time that I can care about pursuing things; only by being subject to mortality that I am free to choose what I value and what I am prepared to give up my time for and even risk my life for; only by being subject to a fragility without guarantees of salvation that I can care about anything or make a commitment. Hägglund’s approach to ethics in terms of a secular faith which recognises the absolute absence of guarantees calls to mind, amongst others, the thought of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who writes of the experience of commitment that “History makes irresolute opponents possible because it is itself ambiguous.”[4]

Secular faith recognises that, in trying to act ethically, what we are doing is keeping the values we believe in alive, for they have no existence except that which is given to them by finite individuals. Thus, secular faith not only restores the value of our own ethical activity by making it an end in itself rather than a means to the end of serving God; it also restores the extreme importance and fragility of this activity. If I do not act to keep the things I believe in alive, they may cease to exist forever. As Hägglund remarks, this puts the lie to the famous declaration from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. In fact, “the truth is the other way around” (169): if God exists, everything is permitted, because everything will ultimately be redeemed and the good will never be lost. The non-existence of God means that nothing but our own efforts will stop the things we believe in from disappearing from the world, forever (and even our efforts will never provide any permanent guarantee), and thus it demands of us that we only choose actions we consider justifiable. The absence of God is thus the foundation for ethical responsibility.

Atheism is now a banal enough perspective that it may be easy to miss the significance of Hägglund’s argument. What is at stake in the dismantling of the idea of immortality, not just as empirically unjustifiable but as logically contradictory, is more than the sober recognition that I will cease utterly to be when I die. Rather, both radical atheism and secular faith require us to recognise that everything is fragile and at ineradicable risk of extinction, insofar as it must exist in time in order to exist at all. What the idea of secular faith demands is that we recognise that, since to exist is to exist temporally, it is also to exist in a state of fragility and in constant relation to disappearance. All concepts of the eternal and the permanent, even seemingly non-religious ones, therefore have to be dispensed with.

It is possible, after all, to accept one’s own mortality without this changing the fundamentals of how one thinks about the meaning of one’s life: I can believe, for example, in the necessity of progress which will go on beyond my death, making it an iron rule equivalent to that of God. Or I may believe in the opposite, in the inevitability of destruction, in nature taking its revenge on all human projects. Hägglund’s point is that even this attitude has not decisively broken with religious faith, since it continues to deny the irreducible importance of our finite existence by appealing to something necessary, immutable, and beyond control. For much the same reason, Hägglund clearly distinguishes his own position from that of the most famous of anti-religious thinkers, Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche seeks to resolve the problem posed by mortal finitude and the fragility of life by means of “amor fati,” a love of fate or embrace of necessity, where one would accept one’s incapacity to control what happens and embrace the inevitability of death. As Hägglund points out, paradoxically, Nietzsche’s amor fati is a way of protecting oneself against suffering, because this love of fate is for Nietzsche a form of “strength” which saves one from experiencing suffering as suffering, loss as loss. “Fate” becomes another concept of the eternal, and embracing death becomes another way of denying the value of finite life, just as religion does. Secular faith, by contrast, demands that we “remain vulnerable to a pain that no strength can finally master” (49). To live according to the insight of radical atheism, that immortality is undesirable and at odds with any and every conception of life, requires taking the fragility of ourselves and of everything that we value seriously, by doing our best to preserve and extend the things we value into the finite future. It means refusing anything that dampens our experience of the fragile character of temporally bound existence, including the abandonment of freedom and risk implied by the “strength” of amor fati.

Hägglund’s distinction between ethical life as a care for our finite time and a religious thought which denies its value emerges most strongly through his analysis of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, where the Danish philosopher affirms the faith shown by Abraham in accepting to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God’s command. The story of Isaac is the extreme consequence of the contradiction between religious faith and responsibility to finite life. God’s command that Abraham kill his son demonstrates that the perspective of immortality “has nothing to teach you about moral responsibility,” for an immortal being would be incapable of understanding any moral question (170). To be bound to morality is to be bound to the knowledge that time, and thus our actions, are irreversible, that the risk is always there that everything may be lost, and that the lives we care for are precious because they are irreplaceable. Abraham could not love Isaac without the knowledge of Isaac’s absolute singularity and the preciousness of his unique life. In accepting God’s command, in pledging faith to one whom he believes, against all evidence and all care, must be right, Abraham renounces the entire matrix in which moral decisions can be made or conceived.

While extreme, the story of Isaac brings out a logic at work in all religious faith and all ideas of eternity: they negate the value of a life that is precious because it is finite. It is beside the point to criticise this argument by indicating, as does James G. Chappel in a review of This Life in Boston Review, that many people experience their religious faith as an enhancement of their commitment to the world we live in. Hägglund’s point is that as soon as we conceive of an eternal force such as God as a presence in our lives who helps us care for finite things as ends in themselves, as soon as we speak of God’s virtue as one which allows us to do good in this world, we are implicitly acceding to secular faith, and the idea of God or eternity does not have anything to offer our moral vision. Hägglund’s aim is to show that the best of who we are and what we do never requires the idea of eternal life, salvation, or bliss, for when we act ethically towards others as ends in themselves – rather than because we believe it will please God, or that it will help us become worthy of Him – we act according to an implicit recognition that finite life matters absolutely, because the time in which it takes place is irreversible and untranscendable, and cannot be held in any permanence even in the mind of God, since this permanence would be sheer annihilation and death.

The idea of the eternal is inimical to every form of care, responsibility, and moral action, inimical to the very conditions in which these things are even comprehensible. For this reason it is misplaced to criticise Hägglund’s approach to religion as purely pertaining to Western monotheism, as Chappel also does. Hägglund’s engagement with the idea of nirvana via the Buddhist theologian Steven Collins makes additionally clear that what is at stake is not a particular way of defining the eternal, but the idea that finite life is a lack which the notion of eternity can allow us to cope with, which is equally alive in a religion without a God such as Buddhism. If a genuine counter-argument were to be made to Hägglund’s account of religious faith, it would have to respond to this general definition of the eternal and its making of finite, embodied life into a means rather than an end in itself; and it would have to respond to Hägglund’s argument that religious believers themselves misrecognise the value of their own ethical behaviour when they appeal to a transcendent force as its inspiration and justification.

It is true that Hägglund’s perspective is philosophical rather than sociological, and in a world in which persecution on religious grounds continues apace (including explicitly ‘atheistic’ oppression of religious groups, such as the oppression of the Uyghur in China), it would be immensely irresponsible to use his argument to condemn religious believers themselves, or to flatten the cultural and historical distinctions that inform the life of particular religious communities. But to do so would be to misunderstand the nature of his argument, which aims at an immanent critique showing that a secular perspective can allow us to consciously own our own care, our own ethical commitments, and calls upon religious believers to reflect on whether their faith truly allows them to affirm these commitments. When religious believers see God as virtuous because He enables them to do good in this world, they are taking this world as an end in itself and are therefore acting on secular rather than religious faith – just as, if you say that God would never command the killing of Isaac, “you profess faith in a standard of value independent of God, since you believe that it is wrong to sacrifice Isaac regardless of what God commands” (170).



Hägglund’s perspective is thus diametrically opposed to that of Weber which I sketched above. For Weber, the decline of religious faith in modernity is a tragic loss of what made a meaningful life possible. What Hägglund argues by contrast is that the overcoming of religion does not leave us with a lack, but with a tremendous gain: through it, we have gained the capacity to find meaning in our lives ourselves, through the very same finite condition that threatens us with the potential loss of all meaning. Secular faith makes it possible for us to fully recognise what religion has distanced us from, namely, “the value of our finite time.”

For Weber, as Hägglund points out in his Introduction, it is precisely this experience of temporal finitude that sunders all meaning. In his lecture “Science as a Vocation,” Weber particularly emphasises that death ceases to be “a meaningful phenomenon” in modernity, because modernity’s commitment to progress means that we can no longer die “fulfilled by life,” as could the subjects of pre-modern societies who saw themselves as part of an “organic cycle” (15). Instead, once we affirm the secular project of progress, death can only be experienced as a meaningless interruption that cuts us off from access to everything we value, and whose finality renders a life devoted to this secular progress meaningless, since death will interrupt it once and for all and prevent us from ever experiencing the “end” of progress. Secular progress entails the acceptance that time is a mundane, unidirectional phenomenon in which every present passes away. It refuses the idea of organic cycles of life, instead judging each life on the basis of its contribution to something that ceaselessly outstrips the individual and is fundamentally indifferent to any individual’s intrinsic qualities.

The critique of the notion of historical progress has a strong lineage on the left. It is easy to see why: progress is a central feature of the Enlightenment conception of a gradual emancipation from irrationality, and has often been put in the service of an ideology of ceaseless development, fitting all too easily with the capitalist (and Stalinist) doctrine of perpetual growth. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in his theses “On The Concept of History,” the acceptance of such a notion of progress by social democratic parties involved a drastic depoliticisation of the workers’ movement, and an acceptance of the basic ideological features of capitalism within the oppositional movement itself.

But everything depends here on how we conceive of this progress. Progress as a necessary development implies that it will go on independently of our interference, just as Hägglund has shown that for religious faith, nothing we do impacts the object of our faith in itself. If, instead, we identify progress as a project of secular faith, we are not defending a necessary movement whose goals are pre-defined and transcendent, but our own commitment to the mortal survival and improvement of the things we believe in, to a progress towards our own chosen ends whose realisation depends on us, and which can never be guaranteed. This likewise allows us to see that the evanescence of the present is not a loss that makes fidelity to the past or to the suffering of the downtrodden impossible. It simply demands that we take seriously the weight of our own effort to keep faith with a past that is gone, aware that in keeping it alive we are also changing it, fitting it to our own context, since we are keeping it alive for us. This is not a tragedy, but a condition of relating to anything at all.

Perhaps the greatest challenge Hägglund sets himself is to rescue Marxism for what he identifies as the secular project of temporal finitude and the erasure of the eternal. This same text of Benjamin’s might be seen as a canonical expression of the view within Marxism that Hägglund’s project opposes, a view according to which Marxism needs a non-secular (what Benjamin would call theological) conception of time in order to sustain itself. Benjamin proposes here that the idea of progress entails a conception of “homogenous, empty time” which must be “filled” with a “mass of data.” He opposes to this the “now-time” or “messianic time” he associates with revolutions, an experience of time not as an empty container that is “filled” with various contents, but as an absolute present or “standstill,” qualitatively distinct from the linearity of homogenous, empty time. Benjamin argues that such a conception of time as a heterogenous field punctuated by qualitatively different moments can allow us to repoliticise the past, as the fullness of these moments or “monads” can be reawakened in the present.[5]

Concepts like “messianic time” counter capitalism’s quantifying logic with appeals to something irreducibly qualitative. But as Hägglund argues, we can affirm qualities – the things that we value – only by freely choosing them, against the backdrop of the ceaseless falling away of the present, which is what makes choosing possible in the first place, since complete self-presence would cancel out any need to choose. In other words, a genuinely qualitative experience of time does not refuse, but accepts and affirms that time entails succession without consummation, without the salvation of eternity or a fully present “now”. The “emptiness” and non-consummation of time, the fact that it makes impossible any total self-presence, any final unity of the self or of the world, because we are always falling away from and redefining ourselves, is the most basic condition of possibility for freedom. The dull feeling that sometimes hits us when we are confronted with the emptiness of a time that we no longer know how to fill with meaningful activity is a perennial risk of living a free life, the risk that we will commit ourselves to something that will fail and leave us unfulfilled, something that we will cease to find meaningful. We have to understand this risk and this challenge when we decide what to commit ourselves to, rather than imagining that this temporal condition could ever be transcended, or that we would want it to be. It is because time offers no salvation that it matters what values we choose, what qualities we affirm as our own. On a societal level, it is the way that different forms of economic organisation do, or do not, make it possible for individuals to experience themselves as free beings possessed of time of their own, which should be at the core of how we evaluate these economic systems ethically.



For Hägglund, the question of capitalism’s achievements, its limitations, and the possibility of founding a post-capitalist society on the basis of an alternative conception of value, hinge directly on the question of free time. Capitalism’s lasting achievement is that it has made the experience of what it is to have free time possible on a general scale. Wage labour establishes the principle that a certain amount of my time is given over to an employer to do what they ask of me, while the rest of my time is, formally speaking, my own, to do what I like with. I as an individual am not fundamentally defined by my assigned social role, in the way that a serf or a slave is, and this allows for the experience of free time. Such an experience of time is an essential condition for individuals to be able to understand themselves as free, to be able to call into question their behaviours and their norms, and to change these norms and pursue new, self-chosen ideals. Any romantic hearkening back to a time of “enchantment” in which individuals may have experienced time “qualitatively,” in the sense that they felt themselves fully in sync with the temporal rhythms of natural cycles or the collective meaning of social rituals, is fundamentally reactionary, because such concepts of enchantment and quality depend on the unfreedom of individuals to choose these experiences or to reflect upon them. The eradication of such forms of unfreedom is the great historical virtue of capitalism, in which “all that is solid melts into air.”

But capitalism never realises the promise it offers of freeing up time to be used for pursuing self-directed ends. We know this experientially, by the fact that our dependence upon wage labour is not decreasing, that however exponential society’s technological growth, working hours do not decrease; or when they do, they produce the crisis of unemployment rather than the opportunity of increased freedom. Hägglund reconstructs Marx’s analysis of the internal dynamic of capital with admirable clarity, showing that this failure of capitalism to fulfil the promise of free time is not a contingent or historically particular limitation, but a necessary feature of it as an economic mode of production.

Under capitalism, the measure of value is the socially necessary labour time of the production of commodities. As Hägglund argues, the labour theory of value, as Marx uses it, does not involve claiming that labour is a metaphysical or transhistorical essence that creates a mystical thing called value, as if this process were a natural phenomenon outside the domain of our control. The labour theory of value explains how we value things under capitalism; but it is entirely possible that we could value things in a different way, and the possibility of democratic socialism depends above all on such a “revaluation of value”. Just as his immanent critique of religion showed that the things we affirm in religious faith can only ever be truly valued and cared for by means of secular faith, Hägglund will likewise show in his immanent critique of capitalism that capital, even while being unable to value our finite time, implicitly recognises it as what we value most fundamentally whenever we participate in economic life. This is what is at stake in the difference between the capitalist measure of value as “socially necessary labour time,” and the measure of value Hägglund argues can be the basis for democratic socialism, which he calls “socially available free time.”

Capitalism cannot value our free time, because it can only recognise human labour as a source of value, and so is compelled to exploit it and ceaselessly reduce our free time. The clarity of Hägglund’s approach allows him to provide definitive critiques of the economic theories which have claimed to overcome Marx, most notably the marginalist theory of neoclassical economics, as well as the contemporary work of Thomas Piketty. What all such theories have in common is a lack of concern for production, reducing the sphere of economy to the distribution of goods, while seeing production as something natural that cannot be questioned or changed. While theories of supply and demand like that of neoclassicism may explain the spatial dynamic of how goods circulate within an economy, they can say nothing of the temporal dynamic of how the economy grows, how at the end of the process of production and circulation there is more wealth in the whole system than there was before, enabling the increased investment of capital.

This is where the labour theory of value, provided that it is understood as a description of the internal dynamic of the capitalist process of valorisation rather than as a metaphysical and transhistorical vital force, remains valid and unsurpassed. Human labour is not innately more valuable than machine production, for example. It is simply that because under capitalism the only way to sustain the economy and keep society functioning is to increase the profit of capitalists – since these are the only people who can employ workers and thereby spread wealth under this system – the measure of value has to be a measure of growth, and this growth has to come at a cost. There is one factor in the capitalist process of production and circulation that is an absolute cost: the lifetime of those living beings who do productive work.

An economic system organised around profit and growth – not because of the individual selfishness of capitalists, but because this is the only way capitalism can sustain itself as an economic form, and the only way human society can sustain itself as long as it accepts capitalism – can only ever measure value in terms of cost, and for this reason the sustaining of capitalism will always and necessarily involve the eating up of the lifetime of workers, not for a purpose that is chosen by us as a society, but for the undemocratic purposes of an economy that rules over society itself. This is why capitalism is organised around human labour as an absolute source of value, and why no matter how much growth it produces, it will never be able to stop demanding more labour time and devouring the time of our lives. By starting from the point of view of our finite time as our most precious resource, Hägglund has reconstructed Marx’s critique of political economy with the utmost clarity, shearing it of the metaphysical trappings of so many readings.



Yet even as capitalism measures value only in terms of the cost, the loss of our finite time through socially necessary labour time, the very fact that it counts this time as a cost recognises implicitly that this finite time is what we truly value. Socially necessary labour wouldn’t be valuable if it were not defined in opposition to something positive, beyond necessity, namely the time that belongs to us to use in the “realm of freedom”: time which is valuable as an end in itself rather than as a means to the end of gaining something else. Capitalism “treats the negative measure of value as though it were the positive measure of value and thereby treats the means of economic life as though they were the end of economic life” (257). The crucial question for Hägglund’s vision of democratic socialism is, can we turn this positive value – the value of our finite time as living beings – into the economic measure of value? And if so, what would this look like?

The immanent critique of capitalism in Marx, rearticulated through Hägglund’s understanding of the finitude of lived time as the measure of all value, leads to an alternative conception of value based in exactly that which capitalism sees only as a cost: ‘socially available free time’. Democratic socialism is the name Hägglund gives to an economic form that would make socially available free time its measure of value, fulfilling the promise that capitalism presents by implicitly grasping that the time of finite life is the measure of all value, while failing to realise it. “We are already committed to the value of free time,” Hägglund writes; what we need is to realise this commitment as a society, in the way that we socially recognise what is valuable. Socially available free time is free because in it we are able to pursue ends which we choose ourselves; it is nonetheless socially available, since it is our social bonds that make this time available to us and give it meaning.

If I didn’t live in society and didn’t require recognition from others for fulfilment, free time would have no intrinsic value for me; I might use it to engage in play or rest, but I could not grasp it as my own time, to devote to commitments that I choose for myself. Such a limited experience of freedom is proper to what Hägglund calls the domain of “natural freedom” shared by all living beings, to the extent that they have a surplus of time beyond that which they have to devote to staying alive, time which can be used to freely engage in purposive activities in which they respond actively to their environment, making decisions based on their experience. However, while beings that live solely within the realm of natural freedom can question the means by which they pursue their aims (for example, by choosing to hunt in one area rather than another, on the basis of experience of their environment), they cannot question and redefine these aims themselves.

Socially available free time, by contrast, is premised on a positive conception of freedom, which Hägglund articulates as the “spiritual freedom” that human beings show themselves to be capable of. Spiritual freedom involves the capacity to bring one’s own received norms into question and to choose to pursue others of one’s own choosing. As a form of “practical self-relation” in which we are capable not just of changing our behaviour to reach our goal, but of changing what counts for us as a goal at all, spiritual freedom is only presently observable in human beings, but it does not refer to an essence. Just as with the early Marx’s notion of species being, the only “nature” implied by spiritual freedom is that “there is no natural way for us to be and no species requirements that can exhaustively determine the principles in light of which we act” (177). This definition of spiritual freedom is not necessarily limited to human beings, since it is defined as a practical form of self-relation and not as a biological or anthropological essence. If another animal, or a form of life created technologically, were to exhibit such practical self-relation, they would be included in the domain of spiritually free beings.

Spiritual freedom is directly tied to temporal finitude and the fragility of embodied life, as these are necessary conditions for our capacity to reflect on our norms and choose new ones. Human beings are spiritually free because we possess not only a surplus of time beyond that required for physical survival, but also the ability to choose what ends we will devote our finite time to pursuing. The complexity of an economy is always a reflection of spiritual freedom, as the most basic defining condition of an economy is the fact that we have a finite time of life and an interest in using that time for the pursuit of self-directed ends. Democratic socialism, then, as well as realising the implicit promise of capitalism to value our free time, will realise that which is implicit in economic life as such, namely the fact that we possess the capacity to choose what we care about and to live according to this end. The democratic part is essential because spiritual freedom can be realised only through making production subject to democratic decision, through collective ownership which organises production around the things that society collectively decides are needed, rather than what a capitalist can make profitable. Nobody can realise their capacity to choose their own ends, to own their own life in its finitude, if their choices about what to do and who to be are limited to the range of occupations that can provide profit to a capitalist. Under capitalism, even if I get to pursue a career I care about, the degree of my freedom is sustained only by the overall wealth in society, which can only be produced through exploitative wage labour in which people have to work for the purpose of capitalist profits.

Spiritual freedom makes a concrete and essential task of the popular assertion that no one is free until all of us are free, by showing that my freedom quite literally depends on the freedom of other people to recognise it. If I create an artwork and show it to you, this work cannot be recognised as the creative act of a spiritually free individual unless the viewer is free to decide for themselves whether they find it a good or interesting work. If I am your employer, and you have reason to believe that expressing a low opinion of my artwork will lead me to fire you, then I myself have lost the socially recognised freedom to be valued for who I am, rather than for the power I can wield to limit your freedom: “For any one of us to be recognized as free, others must have their own free time to confirm or challenge our self-conception” (322).

This is what is at stake in making socially available free time our measure of value: in recognising the ownership of our finite time as a democratic right, we in turn recognise this free time as something that society makes possible, and individuals are able to see their own ends, their own cares, present in the objective form of social institutions. Now that production is no longer organised on the basis of profit, social institutions see their purpose as both to free up time and to provide settings for its meaningful use through democratically chosen ends that individuals can relate to in their freely chosen ways. Once socially available free time is recognised as a social value rather than merely an individual care which we can pursue during the time that an employer doesn’t demand that we give up to them, freedom can be conceived of not only negatively but positively. “To lead a free life it is not sufficient that we are exempt from direct coercion and allowed to make choices. To lead a free life we must be able to recognize ourselves in what we do, to see our practical activities as expressions of our own commitments” (299).

The transition from socially necessary labour time to socially available free time as our measure of value is thus a new way of articulating the idea of alienation, and its overcoming. No concept in Marxism is more debated than this one, and one of the great virtues of This Life is that it helps reframe our understanding of it, by defending the need for a critique of alienation while removing it from the metaphysical and even religious framing in which both Marxists and anti-Marxists have often placed it. A certain Marxist tradition has turned human labour into a metaphysical essence, declaring that capitalism has alienated this essence by removing labourers’ control and ownership of their products, turning our creative labour into abstract, homogenous work carried out for the end of profit. This analysis, which claims (falsely, as Hägglund demonstrates) an allegiance to the young Marx’s 1844 “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts,” then affirms that communism or socialism will reclaim that lost essence and allow us to relate immediately to our own innate creative capacities, our own needs and desires. On the other hand, many Marxists have been understandably skeptical about the metaphysical essentialism involved in such an analysis, and jetissoned the idea of alienation altogether. Most famously, Louis Althusser proposed that a definitive “epistemological break” took place between the early, “humanist” Marx concerned with alienation, and the mature Marx who embarked on a radically new, “scientific” project of the critique of capital. The great limitation of this position, however, was and remains its incapacity to provide any moral vision of why socialism would be a good thing. The allergic response to the theory of alienation resulted in a theory that could be highly astute in its approach to political strategy, but almost entirely empty of the emancipatory vision that could make such politics meaningful to large numbers of people, or make it even in principle democratic.

Hägglund of course refuses the traditional Marxist view of labour as a creative human essence that has to be returned to us so that we can be our true selves again, perhaps in the way that people were during the time of “primitive communism”. The concept of spiritual freedom shows that we have no true self except that which we make through a continual process of revaluing our own values, deciding for ourselves what we are through the way we live, against the backdrop of our finite limits. Likewise, the notions of radical atheism and secular faith demonstrate that the idea of a living being bearing a permanent essence is logically incoherent, for to exist and to relate to oneself and others is necessarily to be exposed to fragility and change by virtue of existing in time. But he nonetheless affirms that capitalism is an alienating form of economic life, and that democratic socialism will overcome this alienation. Capitalism is not alienating because of any particular content to what it valorises, and the particular needs or desires we experience within capitalism are not simply ‘false,’ since – as Marx already shows with the notion of species being – our needs and desires are historical through and through. Rather, capitalism is alienating because it is formally incapable of valorising our ends – whatever their specific content – as ends in themselves, but instead valorises the means of sustaining life – profit – as though it were an end in itself, while our lives appear as the means to the end of creating profit. This means that under capitalism, “we are all in practice committed to a purpose in which we cannot recognize ourselves, which inevitably leads to alienated forms of social life” (300). We do not need to make any normative claims in advance about which particular practices of contemporary society are “human” and which ones are not – an absurd and dogmatic approach that would fix post-capitalist society in our own image – in order to recognise that our life is alienated under capitalism, because by definition it does not recognise this life as valuable.

By contrast, the unalienated labour of democratic socialism is to be carried out on the basis of aneignen, Marx’s term which Hägglund translates as “making something your own.” Such a society makes it possible “to make your life your own by putting yourself at stake in what you do” (319). This is why true democracy is only possible once production is organised democratically. Otherwise, our democratic participation in public life cannot ever open up the question of what ends we as a society wish to pursue, and we cannot fully live according to our spiritual freedom. This radically new form of democracy will not get rid of socially necessary work, since our finite and embodied life will always require some amount of effort on our part to maintain it. But the work we carry out under democratic socialism will be free, since it will be valued as an end in itself, rather than as a mere means to the accumulation of profit. Even when I participate in forms of socially necessary labour that I don’t personally find fulfilling, I understand this work as contributing to the increase of socially available free time. What matters is that in such a society, “we can make sense of why we are doing what we are doing,” in a way that capitalism constitutively refuses us (308). By grasping free labour in terms of our freedom to commit to the labour we perform on the basis of who we take ourselves to be, rather than the compulsion to carry out labour as a means to the end of profit, Hägglund restores the vital importance of Marx’s critique of alienation, away from the static essentialism and normative dogmatism that both supporters and critics of this concept have ascribed to it.

Capitalism and religion, then, both produce alienated forms of life, where we are compelled to treat our own lives as a means rather than as an end in themselves. Yet they both bear the seeds of their own overcoming, if we pay attention to what those subject to religious values or capitalist imperatives actually say and do. Nothing we could ever value could ever matter to an eternal being, and what we truly desire in keeping faith is not eternity but mortal survival through the extension of our finite time. Likewise, capitalism’s own internal dynamic shows that profit is not something that living beings value in itself, but attains the form of value by virtue of how it exploits the cost that we put into it, which is the cost of our finite time that is sacrificed to wage labour. It is this finite time and our freedom to use it that is at the root of all value, and both secular faith and democratic socialism provide the normative framework for living in a way which recognises explicitly this value that hitherto existing economic and spiritual forms have only implicitly grasped.



Hägglund makes clear that his concern in This Life is not to offer a political program for how we will transition from capitalism to democratic socialism, but rather to outline its possibility and its desirability, by showing how the values of democratic socialism are trapped in inverted form in the dynamic of capital itself. Nonetheless, we can consider what some political implications of his analysis may be, and where it may be worth pushing his perspective in the direction of specifically political approaches to the transition beyond capitalism. This also involves considering his perspective’s relation to those thinkers within the history of Marxism who have attempted to theorise this transition.

Specifically, his critique of many forms of “traditional Marxism” bears a certain relation to the thought of Moishe Postone, whom Hägglund references with some admiration, but also criticises significantly. What Hägglund and Postone share is that, in identifying human labour-power as the source of value within capitalism only, rather than as the transhistorical source of all value, they both sharply criticise the idea of ‘emancipated’ proletarian labour as the source of value within a post-capitalist society, often entailed in ideas of socialist society as a “workers’ state”. In Hägglund’s case this allows for an extremely clear-sighted critique of all twentieth century forms of actually existing socialism as the antithesis of Marx’s vision of the overcoming of capitalism, writing that, “Under Stalinism, the state effectively becomes one giant capitalist that wields its power over the citizens by forcing them to do proletarian labor in order to survive” (273). This is because the ceaseless compulsion to increase proletarian labour and its exploitation is intrinsic to a mode of production which sees human labour-power as the source of value, and no redistribution of this wealth via a universal state which has overtaken the role of private capital will change this basic condition. For Postone, the conclusion to draw from the fact that the valorisation of proletarian labour is not the source of emancipation from capitalism, but of our subjection to it, is that “the working class is integral to capitalism rather than the embodiment of its negation,” and that struggles for proletarian emancipation are not even in principle a tool for capitalism’s overcoming.[6]

It seems unlikely that Hägglund would agree with this final claim. In his critique of Postone, Hägglund recognises that Postone’s perspective, which sees the dead labour of technology as “the key to emancipation,” is insufficient, because it does not grasp that the transition to socialism “requires a transformation of our normative understanding” of what we as a society produce things for (276). In Postone’s account, “historical agents do not have the power to change anything,” whereas Hägglund emphasises that it is up to us to transform our concrete understanding of our own ends if we are to overcome the capitalist valorisation of labour-power: no level of accumulation of technological dead labour will do it for us, since dead labour has no normative ends in itself.

Hägglund nonetheless agrees with Postone that the aim of a post-capitalist society “is not to glorify proletarian labor but to overcome it” (276), and his arguments to this effect are convincing, for reasons already outlined. This does however provoke the question of who specifically is to see their own interest in carrying out the overthrow of capitalism and the transition to socially available free time as the measure of value. As Hägglund shows only too clearly, within capitalism the proletariat is as dependent on the system of wage exploitation as employers are, since avoiding economic collapse requires that the purchasing power of the overall population is sufficient to pay for the commodities sold on the market, so as to generate capital for further investment in the form of the employment of labour-power. Redistributive mechanisms such as a Universal Basic Income do nothing to counteract this dependency, because “only wage labor in the service of profit can generate the wealth that is distributed in the form of a UBI” (287). For this reason, “it does not make sense to argue that the problem is capitalism and at the same time argue that the solution is the redistribution of capital wealth” (383). Under such a system, time not spent producing profit for a capitalist is still considered wasted time, even if the amount of this waste is distributed somewhat more evenly; but the compulsion to economic growth through wage exploitation as the only means of generating wealth under capitalism means that systemic pressures will continue to undermine even this degree of redistribution, which can never be won definitively within a capitalist system.

Thus the objective interest of workers overall within capitalism is to continue working for a wage. To the extent that democratic socialism would get rid of the means of fulfilling this objective interest, it is unclear how the majority of actually existing workers are to see it concretely as the fulfilment of their own freedom. Hägglund does state, in This Life’s moving conclusion on the thought and political practice of Martin Luther King, that the general strike is a vital political tool which, “more than any other form of collective action, … makes explicit the social division of labor that sustains our lives” (378). One cannot imagine Postone making such a statement, and this difference reflects Hägglund’s far greater grasp of politics as the sphere in which the transition to democratic socialism must be fought out. Still, the “making explicit” proposed here as the major import of the general strike seems to imply that this political work is done for a viewer, who will be made to see what the nature of our economic system is, compelling them to act in order to change it. While this viewer may include individual workers themselves, in the way Hägglund articulates it there is not a privileged role for the working class in this process of political change, since the general strike in and of itself doesn’t change things but only makes explicit what is already there, and since within a capitalist framework it appears simply as an effective tool for the improvement of wages and conditions, rather than the overthrow of capitalism and of labour-power as the measure of value.

Hägglund certainly does not reduce workers to the status of objects, and grants an important place to their struggles. But he does not here articulate the general strike in terms of the power of those who strike, the power to shut down capitalist self-reproduction which results from their power to make this process function in the first place, and which they themselves attain greater consciousness of through striking. If looked at in this light, the working class can be understood as the concrete subject of human emancipation from capitalism: but this requires granting that this class will retain its value-producing role during a transitional period where some form of workers’ self-organisation will take charge of production, since there would otherwise be no compelling social basis for them to transition away from proletarian labour, towards an economic form that would rid them of their specific power as a class – a power that is of course tied to their exploitation. Hägglund does not want to argue this, because it appears to be an example of the ‘traditional Marxism’ criticised by Postone, which turns proletarian labour from the means of our subjection to capital into the means of our emancipation from it, a perspective whose ultimate consequence is seen in the Stalinist regimes, where an oppressive state compelled an intensification of proletarian labour, completely abandoning Marx’s vision of democracy through collective ownership and decision-making about the production process itself. But it is unclear how his agreement with Postone on the question of emancipation from proletarian labour is to accord with his political assertion, in disagreement with Postone, that concrete human subjects living within capitalist societies will bring about the transition to socialism through a transformative practice that they see is in their own interest.

To be clear, I believe that these two propositions can be brought into accord, and that the way to do so is to grant a transitional role to the proletariat as proletariat, meaning that their labour-power will continue to be valorised during such a period, during which the proletariat’s attainment of political power will allow it to direct its own production. Hägglund may disagree with this, but whatever his answer may be, an important question left open by This Life is to articulate which concrete subjects will carry out the transition to socialism, and how their interest in doing so is to be understood. Hägglund should hardly be faulted for not providing such an articulation in This Life, for his book’s universal moral force, showing that capitalist society as a whole is self-contradictory and prevents the social realisation of freedom (which would also be the basis for its individual realisation), does not itself require a more specifically political account of how particular social groups are to recognise the transition to democratic socialism as their own task to be carried out in their own interest. But the perspective opened up by Hägglund ultimately requires a further interrogation of these questions.

A second and related political question emerges with regard to Hägglund’s conception of the state. Hägglund argues, with Hegel and against many of Marx’s statements, that a free society will not eradicate the state, but will be one in which this state will persist while being subordinated to society, made to serve our interests, such that “the laws of the state… are seen as contestable and transformable by us” (232). Hägglund thus defines the state in the most general sense as “some kind of collective self-legislation” (267). Given that who we are only ever makes sense in light of our spiritual freedom as social beings, in which we make our own commitments the object of questioning, rather than subordinating ourselves to them as to an iron law, our freedom cannot entail taking leave of any “collective self-legislation,” as this would be to return to a level of merely negative liberty as the absence of coercion, without any positive institutional context for us to seek recognition of ourselves as social actors. In this regard, some form of state in a post-capitalist and truly democratic society is both possible and necessary, since it is only through the “reinvention” rather than the abolition of the state that such a society can attain “any determinate form” (267).

A question emerges, though: where are the borders of this state to be drawn? Hägglund writes that, “since capitalism is global, the overcoming of capitalism ultimately requires a global alliance of democratic socialist states” (268). Yet we may ask, what would be the political function of such a division between states (even if “allied”), if these states are not each organised around the control of territory for the purpose of the control of profits? If one state possesses the technological means to reduce socially necessary labour time and thereby increase socially available free time in a particular sphere which other states don’t possess, will this not be experienced as an advantage for the citizens of that state? If this technological means is enabled by a particular natural resource within the borders of this state, will its administrators not see reason to protect that resource as their own property, and will other states not see reason to infiltrate it in order to gain access to it, and ultimately to take some form of control over that state’s territory? It is hard to imagine a reason for the existence of a global system of states except as a reflection of competition for territory and resources as inputs for the accumulation of profit.

What of the alternative, of a single, global, democratic socialist state? Insofar as a society in which spiritual freedom is recognised will require “some kind of collective self-legislation” so that we can recognise ourselves in our institutions and democratically enact their evolution, such a form of state seems to make sense. But what remains unclear is how such a state would be administered and how it would be made democratic. Collective ownership of the means of production will not cancel out the existence of institutional forms in which we participate, such as an institution of laws or of justice; and the familiar Marxist response which brushes off these particulars by saying that the community will resolve such questions organically is crude and unacceptable, exemplifying the ‘religious’ version of the theory of alienation and the myth of “primitive communism” as the basis of what we will ‘return’ to. But collective ownership will surely cancel out the need for a distinct social layer of state administrators. Certain individuals may be assigned the role of organising different institutional functions, but these assignments would be democratically shared, and a limited part of any individual’s practical identity, thus not allowing administrators to form into a group whose control of the mechanisms of the state leads them to think of it as their own instrument, and to wield it to their own ends, or to the end of private profit.

The question is whether the idea of the state remains coherent if there is no longer a particular social group, with particular privileges and particular powers, that administers it. Inasmuch as the spiritually free individuals living under global democratic socialism have a democratically shared power over the institutions in which their free projects can be recognised and debated, what need could there be for any overarching social apparatus to organise these democratic institutions? I would suggest that a state in this sense only has a social basis as a mechanism for maintaining the power of a ruling social group, while complementarily increasing the privilege and influence of this state apparatus itself and its functionaries. A democratic socialist society founded on the basis of democratic control of the economy would thus not require a state, and this overcoming of the state is thinkable without lapsing into the fantasies of immediacy and final reconciliation of the community with itself, which Hägglund is rightly opposed to because of their fundamental basis in unfreedom.

This may seem a semantic concern, but I believe it has relevance to the question raised earlier, that of the political process of transition away from capitalism. A way in which this process was articulated in the Marxism of figures such as Lenin was with the idea that a socialist “workers’ state” would intrinsically give way to communism as the “withering away of the state.” This argument may be debated, but its advantage is that it grasps the seizure of the state as the political act of particular social groups who recognise their own power to seize it and their own interest in doing so, and then tries to argue that genuine democracy will emerge (leading the state to wither away) after the exploitative class has been defeated politically through the expropriation of the power that it has held through the state. In other words, it provides a logic for how the specific and limited class interests of groups within capitalist society can transition to a democracy of collective ownership, otherwise known as a “society without classes,” and it does so by positioning the state as an object of political struggle for the power of mutually hostile social groups over each other, and hence as something that will have no function in a society of the kind Hägglund describes as democratic socialist. The danger of this approach to the state as an instrument of potentially impartial, democratic administration, rather than as intrinsically an instrument of rule, is that it can lead to envisioning that society as a whole is to be the subject of the transition to socialism, as though “we” (a word which, in keeping with the compelling and electrifying moral call to arms of This Life, appears often in its pages) as a society would decide to redefine our measure of value, and thereby pass from a capitalist to a democratic socialist state.

To be clear, Hägglund does not harbour any illusions that this transition will not involve painful struggle and hostile reaction, or that capitalists will simply give up their social position through appeals to their spiritual freedom. But his approach does not always show the theoretical tools required to overcome politically the perspective which would see actually existing society as a whole as the subject of transformation. The limitations of his accounts of the state and of the transition to democratic socialism are related, in that both show a limitation in his conception of who, as really existing actors within capitalist society, will see this transition as something they both can carry out and desire to carry out. The ultimate question – which no one has yet been able to answer adequately, but which the history of Marxism has posed and can still help us to think through – is how to square the recognition that a democratic society must be one that is emancipated from human labour as our source of social value, with the equal recognition that the achievement of such a society is impossible without the political activity of the proletariat as proletariat, in forms such as the general strike, whose political efficacy is a result of that group’s social power and their threat to capitalist rule. Responding to this requires developing a theory of transition, a theory which could add to what, already in Hägglund’s work so far, stands as one of the most morally and politically compelling intellectual projects of our time.


Conall Cash is a PhD candidate in French at Cornell University, with a research attachment to the Laboratoire Sophiapol at the University of Paris – Nanterre. He is writing a dissertation about Merleau-Ponty and French Marxism.

[1] Martin Hägglund, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019), p. 329. Subsequent citations given in text.

[2] Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[3] Hägglund, Radical Atheism, p. 8.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror: An Essay on the Communist Problem (Beacon Press, 1969), p. 78.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Concept of History.” Selected Writings Volume IV (Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 389-400.

[6] Moishe Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 17.


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