Necessity, freedom and anxiety

MANY critics of today’s society concentrate on neoliberalism, taking it to be a kind of Capitalism on steroids. If only it could be overcome, then Capitalism itself can be tamed and shown to have a human face as wealth is redistributed and the Welfare State rebuilt. A previous blog – Death of a superhero – Homo Economicus? – demonstrated how the definition of value pioneered by Adam Smith, Ricardo and Marx was turned upside down to help create the theory of Marginal Utility, which in turn led to our ‘superhero’.

But according to the Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund in This Life – Why Mortality Makes Us Free, this sort of analysis misses the point. What is needed is not a reversion to the idea of surplus labour value or what Hagglund calls socially necessary labour, but a ‘revaluation of value’. At the heart of the book is what he calls secular faith, that is a faith in our finitude as opposed to the eternity embodied in religious faith. His fundamental argument is that faith in God and/or the eternal is incompatible with a genuine commitment to and caring for people. This does not mean that people of faith don’t help people but that if we can appeal to the eternal then, ultimately, nothing matters except eternity itself and love of God. “This becomes salient when we are moved to acknowledge our deepest commitments, making explicit what is implicit in our passion and pains,” he writes. And again: “This secular faith, I argue, opens the possibility for all passion and meaningful engagement,” which is shut down by a belief in the eternal and the indifference it can engender in the here and now. Certainly, faith and a belief in God can inspire one to do good deeds, but ultimately one is doing good in the name of God or one’s faith rather than for people. In short, he argues that we should concentrate on freedom in this world rather than salvation in the next.

Provocatively, Hagglund identifies ‘spiritual freedom’ not in the realm of the eternal but in secular faith as he defines it. Spiritual freedom entails the ability of the agent to ‘ask herself how she should spend her time and be responsive to the risk that she is wasting her life’.

The second half of the book takes a decidedly radical political turn building on his concept of secular faith, drawing heavily on the work of Karl Marx and in the process rescuing him from the perversions and distortions of his thought in various disastrous 20th century social experiments. In This Life Marx is rehabilitated as a radical humanist whose aim was to reduce what he called the Realm of Necessity and enhance the Realm of Freedom – individually and collectively. Hagglund heavily criticises left-leaning critics of Capitalism, including liberals and social democrats, for restricting their criticism to the redistribution of wealth created by socially necessary labour. What is needed, according to Hagglund, is a ‘revaluation of value’, echoing Nietzsche, such that wealth is not defined by the amount of profit generated by socially necessary labour but, rather, by the amount of socially free time we can create while reducing the quantity and increasing the quality of the former.

Unlike Smith and Ricardo, Hagglund claims, Marx saw Capitalism as a historically contingent ‘form of life in which wage labor is the foundation of social wealth’. As such ‘capitalism does not reflect an original state of nature and does not finally determine who we can be’. Hagglund adds that the ‘capitalist measure of value is inimical to the production of real social wealth, since it valorizes socially necessary labor time rather than socially available time’. Hence, while redistribution, welfare and concepts like the Universal Basic Income (UBI) can be emancipating and should not be discouraged, ultimately they accept the fundamental value system underlying Capitalism.

His solution is what he calls democratic socialism, which relies on three main principles: 1) that we measure our wealth – both individual and collective – in terms of socially available free time’ and embrace the ‘dead labour’ of machines to enable this; 2) the means of production should be collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit, which does not, however, commit us to ‘top-down model of central planning’ but is a necessary ‘condition for the reciprocal determination of part and whole in the economy’; 3) the principle formulated by Marx – ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. According to Hagglund, this allows us ‘not only to live our lives by satisfying our needs but also to lead our lives by cultivating our abilities’.

The spiritual freedom that Hagglund writes about as part of a secular faith in the finite also means that we have to face head-on the existential anxiety that it necessarily engenders because of the risk of failure that it embraces. Spiritual freedom entails risk and the ever-present danger that a long-standing commitment – like love or political activism – is vulnerable to loss and failure. Yet, according to Hagglund, if we are committed to spiritual freedom we cannot have recourse to anything that insulates us from this risk – like religion or even ancient Greek principles like Stoicism. There may even come a time when one’s entire life’s project comes to be recognised as a failure or even a waste of time in which case a kind of existential death occurs as your life’s purpose dies. It’s a huge risk and one that anyone who has lost a loved one or whose political project is crushed will recognise. The question then becomes how to dig oneself out of this existential risk and the terrifying prospect that it might not be possible!

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