True to Life: An Interview with Martin Hägglund
Martin Hägglund speaks about This Life, his new book about love, grief, wealth, and Karl Marx.
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom is a book about love, grief, wealth, and socialism. It is both “an accessible and moving statement of an existentialist theory of human commitment” and an entreaty to devote ourselves to the political project of building a socialist world.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Hägglund about Karl Marx, C. S. Lewis, St Augustine, Martin Luther King Jr, and how democratic socialism — not liberal capitalism — can fulfill our shared commitment to the values of freedom and democracy.
First I should say that I loved the book. I was attracted to it because of its political content, but it turned out to be a very reassuring meditation on life and mortality for me, as someone who couldn’t muster faith in the afterlife if I tried.
I’ve always sort of suspected that not believing in heaven actually has its upsides; that despite filling me with dread, it also forces me to take advantage of my finite life. But I’ve never encountered such a rigorous philosophical argument to this effect.
So let’s start there. You define spiritual freedom as the ability to freely ask and answer the question of what we should do with our time. You argue that religious faith, or the belief in an eternity in heaven, poses problems for spiritual freedom in part because it answers this question for us: we should spend our time trying to set ourselves up for the afterlife.
You give us an alternative in the idea of secular faith, a devotion to this life, not the next. What is secular faith, and how does it enhance our capacity to experience spiritual freedom?
What defines secular faith most fundamentally is that the object of faith is totally dependent on the practice of faith. Whatever the object of faith may be — the institutions we’re trying to build, the socialist revolution we’re trying to bring about, the communities we’re trying to achieve and maintain, or even personal love relationships — these things don’t exist independently of the way we are sustaining and devoting ourselves to them.
In that sense, everybody has secular faith. I’m not trying to divide the world into religious and secular people. The book is not about what divides us, but about what we have in common. We all have secular faith.
Whatever you care about, whatever you’re devoted to, you both have to believe that it is intrinsically valuable and that it is fragile and finite — otherwise you wouldn’t care about it. Everyone therefore has a lived experience of secular faith, whether they know it or not, when they sustain commitments and projects.
What I’m calling religious faith is the additional idea that there is a special object of faith, like God or eternity or Nirvana, something that ultimately doesn’t depend on the practice of faith, something that exists independently and eternally. It’s the idea that finite life is not enough, that there has to be something beyond it.
If the highest object of religious faith is something eternal, then the highest object of secular faith is this fragile life we sustain together. It only exists through the way we sustain it, and it can fall apart if we fail to sustain it. But that’s exactly what makes our devotion to it so important.
The crucial question for me is therefore what it would mean to own up to and do justice to our secular faith — both individually and collectively. I also want to show that there are resources for approaching this question within religious texts themselves.
Right, in fact you devote part of the book to a reading of the work of C. S. Lewis, a Christian writer who had religious faith in abundance. You’re particularly interested in his book A Grief Observed, which he wrote when his wife died and he was completely bereft. He believed he would see her again in heaven, but he wanted her back on earth. He found himself longing for their life together to continue. What does that tell us about the tension between religious and secular faith?
The crisis that Lewis is going through after losing his wife is not that he has lost his faith in eternity. It’s that he has come to recognize that even if there were a state of eternity, that actually couldn’t give him what he wants, which is to share this life with his beloved.
He comes to see that part of what makes a love relationship meaningful and significant is precisely that it can be lost, that it’s something you only have a precious limited time to devote yourself to, and that this knowledge informs how you sustain it together. Inversely, he realizes that a state of eternity where there wouldn’t be any pain, suffering, loss, or death means there also wouldn’t be any joy, passion, or any life, because there would be nothing at stake.
So Lewis’s book is a very vivid example of something that I trace throughout This Life. There’s one version of a secular critique of religion that says it would be desirable to have eternal life, it’s just that it’s an illusion. I’m trying to show that it’s not just that eternal life is unattainable. It’s actually undesirable, because if you remove the possibility of death you also remove life, if you remove the possibility of grief you also remove joy. These things go together.
Something that stands out to me is your passing mention of Barack Obama’s response to the Sandy Hook massacre. After the murder of twenty children, he gave a speech with ostentatious religious overtones, saying, “God has called them all home.”
It was a platitude meant to evoke religious faith and soothe mourners, but there’s something cruel about it: these children were irreplaceable and their deaths were an unmistakable tragedy, something Obama himself surely believed. This is a conflict your book gets at: in order to make death more bearable, faith in heaven renders human life theoretically expendable. How does secular faith approach death, by contrast?
Secular faith allows you to fully acknowledge death as death, and as a tragedy. It allows you to acknowledge the real possibility — or painful actuality — of things being irrevocably lost.
And because things can be lost, or have been lost, there’s an imperative to be faithful and to care for the living while honoring the dead. We can then acknowledge that pain and bereavement are something we ought to feel in the face of death. Bereavement is part of doing justice to the fact that when people die they are actually gone.
Even secular people tend to think that we are missing something when we grieve in a secular way, that we’re missing the consolation religious faith has to offer. But I’m arguing that if we fully recognize and cultivate our secular faith, we actually have greater resources to develop the language and the ceremonies that can do justice to the pain we feel. Inversely, within the religious framework you don’t get the vocabulary to express that. Instead you invoke these supposedly consolatory tropes that do justice neither to the extent of the tragedy nor to the depth of our response to it.
In the book I try to show that religious thinkers from Lewis to Martin Luther to Augustine couldn’t make sense of their own experience of grief through a religious framework. That calls out for a secular way of thinking about and expressing grief both individually and communally.
When I was reading, I was thinking about what I want people to say at my funeral. I’d rather my loved ones not say, “She lived a life that God would smile upon and he will surely let her into heaven.” I would much rather them say, “She enriched all of our lives during her time with us, and the things she cared about live on after her and are better for her devotion to them. And it’s a tragedy that she’s gone. We wish she were still here.”
Yes, and that’s the heart of the experience of mourning, whether you’re religious or not. I’m trying to show that a secular perspective can give us the resources to express the conflicts and tragedies that we’re already living through.
Let’s move onto love, which is intimately tied to mourning, as Lewis’s case clearly shows. Augustine advises that cupiditas — in your words, “when you love someone for her own sake or when you are devoted to the flourishing of a shared, secular world as an end in itself” — is a lesser form of love.
He seeks to channel that feeling into “a love of God’s eternal presence” instead. The latter is a religious approach to love, and it seems very dissimilar to what most of us mean when we say “I love you.” So, is pedestrian love an expression of secular faith?
Yes it’s a very vivid example, and that’s why I come back to it in various registers throughout the book. Even the phrase “I love you,” like you said, is a very poignant expression of secular faith, because when you’re saying “I love you,” you’re not stating a fact that exists independently of your commitments. On the contrary, you’re undertaking a commitment. And that’s something with which you have to “keep faith,” as it were.
And that’s also why we say you can be “unfaithful.” In this case it is a secular faith because, again, the object of faith doesn’t exist independently of your commitment to it. The relationship only exists through the practice of sustaining it.
You have to always be asking questions like, “Should we continue to sustain our relationship? Are we sustaining it in the right way? Do we need to transform our conception of who we should be for one another?” All of those are questions of spiritual freedom, because they are questions of how we should spend our time and how we devote ourselves.
I think even secular people want to get married sometimes partly to outsource some of that intense responsibility. I even feel that myself, a desire to make the relationship feel more independent, to be able to point at it and say, “Well this relationship is established and it’s contractual.” But even for people who are married, it’s still a continuous practice of devotion and commitment.
Right. There’s a tendency in love relationships to forget that what the relationship is — who we are — depends on what we do. Our love is not something that exists independently just because we moved in together or got married. It’s always something we have to cultivate, and that lives or dies by virtue of what we do.
One thing you do in your book is you really try to imagine how one could locate meaning in a state of eternity. I found myself agreeing with you as I was reading, like yeah, everything that gives my life meaning is meaningful to me because time is slipping away. The things I care most about are delicate, which means I have to show up for them and give my attention to them, and I derive deep satisfaction from actively demonstrating that care.
We can’t imagine, in an afterlife that never ends, that we would be able to have any sort of practice in relation to the world that would deliver us the same meaningful experience.
Absolutely, and I think this is very relevant to the whole question of revolution and socialism. One thing that’s often said about Marx and Marxism is that we are just replacing heaven with communist paradise, a state in which all problems are resolved. What I’m trying to show is that socialism is not a state in which all problems are resolved. It’s a state of existence where we can fully own the question of what to do with our time, in order to do justice to our fragility, not to overcome it.
One thing that haunts every political movement is the awareness that it could all fall apart. We may not achieve what we are striving for, and even if we do, it’s always going to be fragile. The risk itself will never go away, and in fact is a necessary part of why we care about any project in the first place. Even if we achieve an emancipated society, we’re always going to have to sustain the forms of justice to which we are committed at the risk of failing to do that, and that’s part of what makes it a living project.
Seen in this light, it’s not that socialism answers all our questions. It’s that it makes those questions answerable in a way they aren’t currently. At the moment, most people don’t get to answer the question of what to do with the bulk of their time, because capitalism means they have to sell their labor to somebody else for a wage in order to survive, and it’s often not labor they find meaningful, it’s labor from which they are alienated. This is why you see a connection between socialism and spiritual freedom.
You view Marx as someone whose views constitute the logical extension of secular faith — that is, if secular faith is all about valuing every individual’s one finite life, then Marx is asking necessary questions about how society is arranged to best support people in freely asking and answering the question of what to do with that life.
Marx thinks about time and freedom on a very fundamental level. He started from the fact that all living beings generate a surplus of time. Living beings don’t spend all their time surviving, they have some free time to do something else.
But what interests Marx from early on is that unlike other animal species that we know of, we can treat that extra time as free time and ask ourselves what we ought to do with it. What is worth doing?
This is the basic motivation behind Marx’s critique of capitalism and his call for a different form of social life. To lead a free life, it’s not enough that we have formal rights to freedom. We must also have access to the material resources and the forms of education that allow us to own and engage the question of what we ought to do with our time together. What really is our own is not property or goods, it’s the time of our lives.
To be free also does not mean to be free from all limitations or constraints. To be free is to be able to devote ourselves to something we identify with and care about. So that might mean working really hard, but working in a way where we can see the point and the purpose and the meaning of what we’re doing. This is opposed to what Marx calls alienated labor, where our labor is not an expression of what we’re committed to, we’re just doing it as a means to an end, in order to survive.
And people will need to do tedious work under socialism. But the difference is that society would be arranged in such a way where it’s clear that the reason we do this work is to keep society running, both for ourselves and as an expression of devotion to one another and our shared world.
Yes, this is an important argument, which I develop at length in the book. If you can grasp and affirm the purpose of what you are doing, then the quality of socially necessary labor is itself transformed. If I’m doing something that’s not the most exciting thing but I can understand its point and its purpose, if I can see that doing it actually contributes to the common good in an intelligible way, then I can affirm that what I’m doing is inherently valuable, even if is difficult and demanding.
By contrast, I seek to show that the very measure of value under capitalism is self-contradictory. The reason we can experience certain forms of labor as a negative cost is because we are committed to having time to lead our lives as an end in itself. So the positive measure of value really should be how much time we have to pursue the projects and fulfill the obligations that we can recognize as inherently valuable.
This is what I am calling “socially available free time,” which requires a form of society that in its principles is devoted to our lives as ends in themselves. But under capitalism the commitment to socially available free time is contradicted, since the expansion and cultivation of socially available free time doesn’t generate any wealth according to how wealth is measured under capitalism.
Let’s say that in a village we produce more and more efficient technologies, and then we have a well in the middle of the village. In this case we are wealthier in an existential sense, because we now have time to do other things besides go and get water out of necessity. But if there is no need for wage labor to generate this water and if it doesn’t cost anything, then the production of water isn’t generating wealth in the capitalist sense.
If we measured wealth differently, we might create technologies that allow us to have more free time and more freedom to ask what we should do with it. One socialist principle is the idea that technology should exist for humans, not that humans should exist to create and power profitable technology.
This principle extends to the question of democracy, too. “In democracy,” wrote Marx, “human being does not exist for the sake of the law, but the law exists for the sake of human being.”
Following Marx, you argue that capitalism is a hindrance to democracy as such. This has important implications: if capitalism hinders democracy, and democracy describes a state in which human beings decide collectively what to do with our time, does that mean that capitalism is also a hindrance to spiritual freedom?
Yes, Marx takes the ideals of freedom and equality, which are built into the idea of democracy, very seriously. In the book I try to show that he takes these more seriously than liberals do. His call for overcoming capitalism shouldn’t be understood as a call for abolishing democracy, but making actual democracy possible.
Actual democracy would require that our political debates and our deliberation about the common good can actually be about competing conceptions about how we would best serve the interests of society as a whole. Under capitalism, what happens instead is that there are competing private interests that are put forth in the name of society as a whole.
Under capitalism, we all have to prioritize those private interests in some way. We have to prioritize the ability of corporations to generate profit, because that’s the only way that wealth is generated in the first place. Even workers themselves, their interests are shaped by capital, because everyone who works for a wage depends upon the growth of capital wealth in order to make a living, because there has to be someone to employ you.
Our deliberations are therefore constrained in advance by the need to facilitate the generation of profit. Whatever debates we have about how to redistribute that wealth are secondary to those constraints. Any question about what would be meaningful and valuable to do for ourselves and society is structurally subordinated to the question of what is profitable. Under capitalism, the priority given to profit is not reducible to an ideological worldview; it is a matter of how we materially sustain our lives.
This is why you make this argument in the book that democratic socialism is not just about redistributing the existing wealth in society. You argue that a kinder capitalism won’t do — to realize this vision of human flourishing, we need a total transformation in the way we measure wealth. Why isn’t a progressive agenda of redistribution sufficient to accomplish the task at hand?
Let me first say that I’m not against redistribution or reform. It’s very important to make things less terrible than they are. But I’m trying to show that while we can be engaged in and committed to struggles for various kinds of reforms or redistribution, we have to hold open our understanding of the deeper problems with how we measure value in our society in general. We have to ask: How is the wealth that we distribute generated in the first place?
What Marx shows is that the very production of wealth under capitalism requires inequality, exploitation, and commodification. It requires unemployment as a structural feature, it has an inherent tendency toward crises, and so on. Those problems can’t be solved by redistribution, because the wealth you’re redistributing is itself produced by those unequal relations. When we understand this, we see that reforms can be very important but must also be means toward the end of a true social revolution in how we lead our lives together.
Struggles for reforms have an important function in that, if waged deliberately and under the right circumstances, they can awaken people’s consciousness that they’re being exploited, their time is being misallocated, and their spiritual freedom is being curtailed.
So for example, in 2014 only 21 percent of Americans polled were in favor of single-payer healthcare, but in 2018 that number jumped to 70 percent. And that’s not because their healthcare costs got significantly worse in those four years. It’s because Bernie Sanders popularized the demand of Medicare for All. It’s because someone was agitating for this reform as a legitimate option, and suddenly it seemed possible to people where it wasn’t before.
In that way, some struggles for reforms can be about promoting the idea that change is possible, and putting people in motion around that change in a way that leads to greater class consciousness and power, which are necessary to accomplish a true revolution.
Definitely. It’s just as much of a mistake to reject reforms because they don’t live up to revolution as it is to settle for reforms and rule out the necessity of revolution. Both of those options are wrong-headed. We have to think about the interrelationship between reform and revolution.
I’m critical of treating redistributive reforms as a solution to the basic problems of capitalism, and I show in detail why we ultimately need a revaluation of value rather than a mere redistribution of wealth. But I don’t want to imply that reforms are meaningless. On the contrary, it is quite possible to make changes that are valuable in terms of improving the quality of people’s lives, as well as in terms of consciousness raising and mobilizing toward greater transformations.
This is intimately tied with the question of secular faith, because in order to make any revolutionary change, we need to make people feel committed to spending their time on this earth trying to make that revolution happen. And all of us who are taking this really seriously have to contend with the fact that this project will outlast us, that we won’t live to see it through. We have to keep a kind of secular faith in the socialist project.
Yes, and one thing I want to do in the book is to show that this project is about the values we already share. Marx is trying to show that the values of freedom and equality, which liberalism tries to use to justify capitalism, are misdirected — capitalism actually undermines those values.
Liberalism and capitalism can’t live up to those ideals. The socialist political project is then about being true to those commitments to freedom and equality we already have. It’s a matter of finding a foothold in what we are already devoted to.
And yes, like you said, the commitment to sustaining a political project that may never come to pass — and if it does it will happen after you’re gone — that is a very vivid example of secular faith.
The conclusion to your book looks at the writing and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. He was of course a reverend, and his language is overtly religious. But you view King as someone who, like Marx, was deeply committed to secular values.
You draw our attention to his final speech, the night before he was murdered, when he addressed striking sanitation workers in Memphis. A couple of important passages from his speech are:
It’s all right to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the New Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preachers must talk about the New New York, the New Atlanta, the New Philadelphia, the New Los Angeles, the New Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
And his final words:
I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Why should we be convinced that King, who spoke until the very end about God and heaven, was actually an ambassador of secular faith?
One of the many functions King has come to serve after his death is as an example people roll in to say, “Look, actually fully successful political commitment is bolstered and sustained by religious faith.” But as I’m trying to show in the book, even those who identify as religious have secular faith. And there are many aspects of religious practices and communities that are actually better understood in terms of secular faith.
In many religious contexts, the real object of devotion is not an independently existing God, but the congregation itself, the community you build by recognizing the dignity and intrinsic value of human life. This is for me the practical truth of congregational life. Through the practice of coming together and recognizing each other’s dignity, people can become devoted to improving their shared conditions in this life, and come to recognize that project as the highest good.
What I’m trying to show with King is that even the political speeches where he’s using religious language, he’s often using terms like “God” not to name an eternal Savior but as a name for the idea of social freedom for all, an idea that we have legislated to ourselves and to which we hold ourselves. So instead of taking the lesson of King to be that we need religious faith to sustain our political commitments, the lesson is the secular faith at the heart of emancipatory struggle.
In King’s final speech, one way you could see it is that he’s trying to show that political struggle is a fulfillment of God’s commandments and desires. But you convinced me that we should see it another way. He’s using the language of God, the highest object of religious devotion, to turn our attention to the secular struggle for emancipation on earth and elevate it to the level of the sacred.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to show, the secular truth buried in the religious language — and the secular truth is that what is most sacred is our life together and how we sustain it.
In the final speech he has that amazing turn you recalled and that I analyze in the book: he’s transforming the idea of the new Jerusalem, which is a classic religious trope for eternity, into the idea of the new Memphis. The new Memphis is really the promised land for which we are holding out, but it depends on us.
King knows this will not happen in his lifetime, but he’s still devoted and committed to it. It’s not a vertical commitment to something up above and beyond us, but a horizontal commitment to something we can achieve.
He even says in this speech, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.” But why would you like to live a long life if you’re feeling assured you will get your reward in heaven? You must be devoted to this life in order to want to continue it.
Yes and he also says that he’s seen the promised land, and “I may not get there with you.”
Right, if the promised land is an eternity in heaven, then he will get there with us. But this is the moment when it becomes abundantly clear that the promised land is actually here among the living, and we will get there after he dies.
Part of what’s really important about that passage to me is that he’s choosing to risk not living a long life. Spiritual freedom means the freedom to ask yourself what is worth doing with your life. And part of that can actually be choosing to sacrifice your life for a cause to which you are committed, a project that will outlast you.
So even though you don’t want to die, you can decide that what you believe in is worth the risk. And that is an act of devotion, which is only possible for a mortal being.