Socialism and the meaning of life

What’s the meaning of life?

It’s the biggest question anyone has ever asked, and there is no easy answer. It’s even harder to answer if you consider this possibility: That this life — the here and now — is all we have. There is no heaven nor hell, no eternal beyond, no consciousness of any kind after death. We are thrown into existence, we live for a while, and then we pass away into nonexistence.

If all of that’s true, how should we spend our time? What should we care about? And most importantly, what do owe each other?

A new book, called This Life, by Yale philosopher Martin Hägglund somehow tackles all of these questions and much more. For Hägglund, the best religious and philosophical traditions all implicitly recognize that the highest good, the thing we’re really after, is this life that we share together. And that means we have to think about meaning and commitment with this truth in mind.

This is Hägglund’s point of departure, and it leads him through the history of religious and political ideas and finally to a deep critique of capitalism and the values that undergird it. In the end, Hägglund argues that some form of socialism is the only political project that takes the human condition seriously because, unlike capitalism, it allows us to devote ourselves to projects that we actually care about as opposed to selling our labor — and time — for the sake of profit and survival.

This excerpt is part of a much broader conversation Hägglund and I had on The Ezra Klein Show. To hear the full version, click here or find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Sean Illing

Why is “How should we spend our time?” the most important question humans beings can ask?

Martin Hägglund

Because that is the question that underlies and informs all the other questions we’re asking. Everything we commit to is inseparable from this question of what we think we should do with our time and what our priorities are. We show our valuation of things by devoting our time to them. And, of course, sometimes it turns out that we were wrong. That something wasn’t worth our time. That it was a waste. But all that just shows that every question about value and worth goes back to this question about what’s worthy of our time.

Sean Illing

You’re focused on time in part because death plays such a huge role in the argument you want to make. Now, most people, even most atheists, concede that heaven would be lovely if it existed, but you reject this. Why is the possibility of life after death, however unlikely, a bad thing?

Martin Hägglund

I don’t think death is a blessing; I think life is a blessing. I don’t want to die, but it’s only by virtue of being mortal, of running the risk of death, that things can matter at all. So the reason I don’t think heaven or eternity or Nirvana is desirable is precisely because it would be the same thing as death. Built into any meaningful life is the reality that it can be lost.

Sean Illing

Couldn’t we spin this argument the other way: If death is final, why does any of it matter? I agree with you that death makes life all the more sacred, but I understand why someone might stare into that abyss and find it unbearable.

Martin Hägglund

Absolutely, and I’m not dismissing these sorts of feelings or dispositions.

What you were just recounting was this very familiar existential trope of thinking, “Well, when I contemplate that all of this is going to get lost, I fall into despair.” But very interestingly, the despair at the prospect of dying wouldn’t even exist if you didn’t already believe in the significance of the thing that was going to be lost, which is your life.

So a distinction I’m trying to make is that the desire not to die, which makes the prospect of death so terrifying, actually comes not from a desire for eternity but from a desire for what I call living on. So the impulse for eternity is really better understood as a commitment to prolonging and sustaining life. And not just living longer but living better, living fuller.

Sean Illing

There’s an interesting paradox here. If you’re right that death is what gives life its meaning and shape, and I think you are right, then why is it that death is something almost everyone refuses to think about? Most people live their lives as though it will go on forever, which is to say we take so much of it for granted. The things we waste our time on, the way we use our attention, is absurd in light of the fact that one day this will all end.

How do you make sense of all that?

Martin Hägglund

It’s not that death gives life meaning; it’s just that it’s only in light of death that we can even be gripped by the question of whether our lives are meaningful or meaningless. Questions like “Am I wasting my life?” or “Is my life worthy or good?” require a relation to death because otherwise it wouldn’t matter.

Sean Illing

Do you think that the religious belief in eternity or the hereafter prevents people from doing what is necessary to improve this life right now?

Martin Hägglund

I want to be careful here because obviously people can derive a sense of meaning and purpose from their religious beliefs and their religious commitments. But the big question I’m trying to ask is, what is required for us to recognize our life together as the highest good? I argue in the book that what truly matters is how we treat one another in this life and that the highest good is the communities we build and the way we recognize and take care of one another.

The problem with many religious traditions is that they consider the highest good not to be this fragile life we have together but a state of being that would transcend that.

I want to show that the best insights and practices in these traditions can be better understood in secular terms, and if we develop that fully, we will develop the resources to recognize that the highest good is this life that we share and we should think about meaning and commitment in those terms. Where is the love? It’s between us. Where’s the responsibility? It’s between us. It’s not vertical; it’s horizontal.

Sean Illing

You actually go further than most in the book and argue that moral responsibility would be impossible without a secular understanding of freedom.

Martin Hägglund

What I’m calling secular faith is something that is shared by everyone implicitly in practice. These fundamental notions of moral responsibility, the golden rule, are only intelligible in terms of what I’m calling secular faith because it requires both that you believe in the intrinsic value of yourself and others as ends in themselves, so that they should be treated as ends in themselves. That’s a condition for taking responsibility.

But that also means that we must grasp that they are finite and fragile because if they weren’t then it wouldn’t be of such deep and profound and irrevocable importance how we treat one another. So I think our sense of responsibility, our sense of care, is already built into our understanding of ourselves and of others. I just want to make that explicit.

Sean Illing

You’re not interested in disproving God or championing capital-R Reason. You’re saying that lurking in every well-meaning religious believer is actually a secular humanist who doesn’t yet recognize herself as such. What do you want a religious person who comes to your book in good faith to take away from it?

Martin Hägglund

The first thing to say is that a helpful way of thinking about what I’m doing in the book is deepening Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. Marx was faced with the question, “Why do we have these various religious ideas of heaven or eternity?” His answer was that our actual historical form of life is unsatisfying and not what it ought to be. But if we had a satisfying form of social life, then those religious ideas of something beyond our fragile social historical life would wither away.

I think that’s right, but Marx doesn’t give an account of why it is right. To ground Marx’s argument one has to counter the religious idea that we dream of something beyond this life because it’s inherently unsatisfying to be a finite, fragile, vulnerable human being. On the religious conception, regardless of how satisfying and emancipated our shared life becomes, we’re always going to long for something beyond this world, for eternal rest, whether the emptiness and stillness of nirvana or the harmony of heaven.

So one thing I’m trying to show is that those visions of an eternal life cannot actually fulfill what we desire and what we’re committed to in leading our lives. My argument thus provides the ground for Marx’s claim that if we transform our social conditions we will be able to let go of religious ideas of eternity and we will be able to recognize that our life together is the highest good.

Sean Illing

Capitalism values time in the sense that someone has to pay us for it, but it doesn’t value the ability to spend our time in ways that aren’t connected to survival or money. Everything turns on wealth and profit and property, and you’re defined by what you own, what you possess. It’s the most spiritually impoverished way of being I could possibly imagine.

Martin Hägglund

Yes, but the thing about Marx is that, even though he’s very critical of capitalism and thinks it has to be overcome, he also thinks it was a form of progress compared to previous forms of life. And the question of time is at the center of that.

There’s a contradiction here because, on the one hand, capitalism is the first social form of life which recognizes that everyone’s time is valuable in the sense that you have to pay someone to do something rather than just enslave them. What you’re saying to the enslaved person is that you don’t own your time at all; I own you and your time.

So capitalism, at least minimally, recognizes that our time is important. Even if you’re not a capitalist or don’t own any property, you at least own the time of your life. In other words, there’s a negative recognition that your time is valuable because it costs something to buy it, and this is a qualitative shift that capitalism makes possible.

Sean Illing

Can you say a little more about Marx’s critique of capitalism and why it was both a necessary step on the way toward something like socialism and why it had to be discarded in order for us to really own our time in the way you think we should?

Martin Hägglund

Well, Marx asked, how did we come to embrace this idea of everyone’s right to freedom and equality? And the answer is that capitalism helped gives us this language, this way of thinking, because this mode of production, of buying and selling our labor on the market, couldn’t be justified by race or caste or any of these things.

But this is where the contradictions emerged for Marx. While we’re all formally equal under capitalism in terms of our rights to sell our labor, we’re still unequal because we have different amounts of capital. So we’re minimally free in that no one can just enslave us or force us to do something, but we’re only free to sell our labor in order to survive.

This is progress over the old feudal system, and it helps to establish the importance of freedom and equality, but it can’t really deliver it in any meaningful way. Because if I don’t have sufficient capital, then I have to sell my time to a capitalist who employs me and who decides the purposes of production.

And even if you’re a capitalist producer, you’re not really free to ask, “What would be the best thing for me to produce given the actual commitments and values I have and what would be good for our society?” Instead, you have to create something that is profitable.

Sean Illing

The distinction between actual democratic socialism and social democracy is crucial to you — why?

Martin Hägglund

It has to do with the depth of our critique of capitalism and whether it’s limited to how wealth is distributed, or the more fundamental question of how wealth is actually produced under capitalism. What we need is the transformation of the very measure of value in our society such that we would actually produce and work, not for the sake of profit, but for the sake of what we can recognize and affirm as the common good.

As long as we’re just talking about redistribution of wealth, then we will always be beholden to the production of capital and the priority of making profits, which generate the wealth that you can then tax and redistribute.

Sean Illing

I agree with you for the most part, but by the time I got to the end of your book, I felt … stuck. You diagnose these problems and they all seem true to me. All we have is this life and so much of it is wasted on pointless drudgery, which means in a very real way that our lives are being stolen from us. And yet this is the world we have, even if it’s not the world we want, but I don’t know how to get from this world to the world you imagine, and I’m not sure you do either.

Martin Hägglund

Well, like Marx, I’m trying to show that there’s a contradiction in the form of life we have, and we have to understand why it’s a problem before it can be overcome. But you’re right about the uncertainty about the transition. I don’t pretend to have an answer to that in the book.

I consider a book like this groundwork for approaching that question in a new and better way. Because if we don’t have a rigorous account of what capitalism is and how it works, and why it is inimical to our freedom, and if we don’t have an account of why we need a revolution and what the principles of that revolution would be, then we have no chance of achieving that transformation.

What’s interesting about our historical moment is that for the first time in a long time, these fundamental questions about how we should organize our economy, how we should live and work together, are being reopened in a profound way. And there’s a vague sense that there is something called capitalism that there’s something wrong with and there’s something called socialism that we need. But there’s very little clarity about what we mean by capitalism and what its contradictions are; and what we mean by socialism and why it would be a better form of life. Those are questions I am providing answers to in the book, and in light of those answers I want to open the further question of how the transformation could be possible.

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