We're all going to die. How we should spend our time before we hit our expiration date has been a main concern of philosophers from Ancient Greece to the present day, when most people are familiar with moral philosophy thanks to The Good Place. The question is how we can find meaning and purpose in an existence that can seem meaningless. The answer that Martin Hägglund, a professor of comparative literature at Yale, comes up with in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, is democratic socialism—which can only be achieved, he notes in his introduction, "through a fundamental practical revaluation of the way we lead our lives together."
"Under capitalism," he continues, "we cannot actually negotiate the fundamental questions of what we collectively value, since the purpose of our economy is beyond the power of democratic deliberation."
For Hägglund, democratic socialism and freedom go hand in hand—to have the former, we need to rid ourselves of the constraints of capitalism. His aim, essentially, is to have enough resources publicly owned that each of us can do what we want and consequently advance humanity, instead of being shackled to system that probably doesn't operate well any longer. (Or perhaps never did.)
The book is an exploration of how we should be spending our (limited) time that ultimately asserts, as the New Republic stated in a review, a "spiritual case for socialism." It's an argument that connects a rejection of all forms of religious belief to the abuses and constraints of capitalism. At the crux of the thesis is what Hägglund labels as secular faith. "To have secular faith," Hägglund writes, "is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down."
He's most concerned with how we structure our days and what we value, and though his book is explicitly anti-religion, it lacks the bombast of the so-called New Atheists. It's at once a broadly accessible and academic volume (it's set to be the topic of conferences at Harvard, Yale, and NYU), and tackles timely issues—climate change, the rule of the billionaire class, the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, our increasing focus on work—without seeming ripped from the headlines.
VICE talked with Hägglund about the rise of socialism in the United States, Americans' relation to work, critiques of religion, and how we might all improve society going forward.
VICE: This Life seems embedded in the times we live in without bludgeoning the reader over the head. There isn't anything, for instance, relating to Donald Trump. Was that intentional—writing a book that calls for a new way of living, at a moment in our history when it seems as if our institutions, our governments, our religions are on the brink of collapse? Or did it simply become more "relevant"—meaning Americans were talking more and more about socialism—after the 2016 presidential election?
Martin Hägglund: When I started working on the book six years ago, I did not know how timely it would end up being (I was even advised against speaking of "democratic socialism" at the time, since people thought it would be off-putting to most readers). From the beginning, though, I knew I wanted to respond to our historical epoch, in which social inequality, climate change, and global injustice are intertwined with the resurgence of religious forms of authority that deny the ultimate importance of these matters. My way of responding was to write a book that addresses fundamental philosophical questions of life and death, but also offers a new political vision.
One effect of our historical moment is that the idea of socialism is now said to be "hip" among the younger generation. How do you feel about that?
The interesting thing with our current moment is that the fundamental questions of how we should organize our society—of how we should live and work together—are felt with a new urgency. I think it is an important moment, but for it to gain substance we need much deeper analyses of what we mean by capitalism and socialism. There is a widespread sense that capitalism is inimical to our lives, but also a lack of orienting visions of what an alternative form of life could be. What we are missing are not indictments of capitalism, but a profound definition and analysis of capitalism, as well as the principles for an economic form of life beyond capitalism (the principles of democratic socialism). This is what I seek to provide in the book.
Much of this work focuses almost exclusively on the conception of time—which is a nice way of saying we’re all going to die one day. Did you have a moment in your life when you accepted that? Will a majority of people ever be able to accept finitude? I’m asking, partly, because I’m curious if you believe people could actually embrace what you're suggesting, or if, in the end, they're too afraid of death?
Well, first of all, I don’t think we can or should overcome our fear of death—or more precisely, we cannot and should not overcome our anxiety before death. 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 trying to do anything and trying to be anyone. What I do think we should let go of are religious ideals of being liberated from finitude—whether in Christian eternal life or Buddhist nirvana or some other variant. Rather than try to become invulnerable, we should recognize that vulnerability is part of the good that we seek. In my book, this is a therapeutic argument as much as it is a philosophical one. The therapy will not exempt you from the risks of being committed to a finite life. You cannot bear life on your own and those on whom you depend can end up shattering your life. These are real dangers. But they are not reasons to try to transcend finitude altogether. They are reasons to take our mutual dependence seriously and develop better ways of living together.
Would you suggest ridding all religion from the world? What's wrong with it?
It is very important to my approach that the critique of religion is careful and emancipatory, rather than dismissive. The practice of religious faith has often served—and still serves for many—as a helpful communal expression of solidarity. Likewise, religious organizations often provide services for those who are poor and in need. Most importantly, religious discourses have often been mobilized in concrete struggles against injustice. In principle, however, none of these social commitments require religious faith or a religious form of organization. A central example in my book is Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. By attending closely to King's political speeches and the concrete historical practices in which he participates, I show that the faith which animates his political activism is better understood in terms of secular faith than in terms of the religious faith he officially espouses.
If we are committed to abolishing poverty rather than promising salvation for the poor, the faith we embody in practice is secular rather than religious, since we acknowledge our life together as our ultimate purpose. 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 forms of 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. What we are missing is not eternal bliss but social and institutional forms that would enable us to lead flourishing lives.
You mention that Karl Marx had "no nostalgia for the premodern world"—do you believe we're alive right now with little sense that we can form our own history, and don’t have to be subject to it?
The reason Marx had no nostalgia for the premodern world is that he was committed to making the modern idea of freedom a living reality—to fulfill the promise that each one of us ought to be able to lead a free life. In recent decades, the appeal to freedom has been appropriated for agendas on the political right, where the idea of freedom serves to defend "the free market" and is largely reduced to a formal conception of individual liberty. In response, many thinkers on the political left have retreated from or even explicitly rejected the idea of freedom. This is a fatal mistake. Any emancipatory politics—as well as any critique of capitalism—requires a conception of freedom. We need to rehabilitate a sense that we are forming our own history and that we can form it in a different way. To live a free life, it is not enough that we have the liberal rights to freedom. We must have access to the material as well as the pedagogical and institutional resources that allow us to pursue our freedom as an end in itself. To this end, I outline a new vision of democratic socialism that is committed to providing the conditions for each one of us to lead a free life, in mutual recognition of our dependence on one another.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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