The Varieties of Religious Experience

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom Martin Hägglund. Pantheon. Hardcover, 464 pages. $29

“Praise the world to the Angel, not what’s unsayable.” Thus spoke Rainer Maria Rilke, waxing a bit Nietzschean. It’s something of a commonplace in late modernity: the exaltation of the finite and transient—“things that live on departure,” Rilke says—and the concomitant demotion or denial of the eternal. The opposition grounds Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Wallace Stevens pares it down to an epigram: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

Or as the philosopher Martin Hägglund explains in his rather exasperating new book, “Life can matter only in light of death.” This thesis is expounded in This Life’s first half, “Secular Faith,” which argues that the religious promise of salvation inhibits commitment to worldly life, which according to Hägglund is the only life there is. Only insofar as the objects of our concern are perishable can we genuinely care about them; this care, committed to the world because it lives on departure, is secular faith. “If you truly believed in the existence of eternity,” Hägglund writes, “there would be no reason to mourn the loss of a finite life.”

And only by practicing secular faith can we commit to the project of “Spiritual Freedom” outlined in the second half of the book, which entails the abolition of capitalism’s value relations and the construction of what Hägglund calls “democratic socialism” (by which, confusingly, he means something other than what is commonly known as democratic socialism).

Both parts of This Life suffer from basic misapprehensions, but the second half is far better than the first, because Hägglund recognizes that capitalism must be abolished if humans are to lead free lives, that what gets called “socialism” these days is merely a more equitable version of capitalism, and that Moishe Postone got Marx right.

For Hägglund, any perspective on the world that counsels indifference to or seeks to entirely overcome its vicissitudes is essentially religious, whether God-directed or no, in that it turns its back on this life and dreams of a better one. Thus Stoics, Buddhists, Christians, skeptics, and Theodor Adorno are all religious believers. But this is predicated on an idea of religion as a source of “faith in eternity.” We tend in the West to associate religion with belief in a world after this one because of Christianity’s long hegemony; however, religion as a set of human practices is and has always been compatible with a conviction that death is final. Perhaps there is some notion of a shadowy underworld—Sheol or Hades—but it is not necessarily imagined as a continuation of personal consciousness, nor is it the focus of spiritual practice. As the theologian David Bentley Hart notes, “the textual, historical, and archaeological evidence clearly shows that the religious impulse in human society has no clear connection at all with hope in an afterlife.” You just can’t extrapolate from those religions whose tenets include “faith in eternity” to religion as such.

So of course Hägglund focuses on Christianity (though mainly on Augustine and Kierkegaard; he avoids thinkers like Robert Jenson, whose conceptions of divine passibility and temporality in eternity would undermine his thesis) and, to a lesser extent, on Buddhism. The latter, he acknowledges, is not at all concerned with eternal life in the same way as Christianity, but since its goal is “to attain the state of nirvana, where nothing matters,” it comes to the same thing: Oh well, whatever, never mind. This reductive reading is supported by a quote from the Dalai Lama, who was asked how a Buddhist “can be worried about our current ecological crisis.” “A Buddhist,” he replied, “would say it doesn’t matter.” Well, folks say all sorts of things. If you search “Dalai Lama” and “climate change,” one of the first results is an article in The Guardian from 2015 entitled “Dalai Lama says strong action on climate change is a human responsibility”: “This is not a question of one nation or two nations. This is a question of humanity. Our world is our home,” the Dalai Lama said. “There’s no other planet where we may move or shift.” Some Buddhist the Dalai Lama is, I guess.

But Hägglund’s understanding of Buddhism as aspiring to a state where “nothing can ever happen” and “detachment is an end in itself” is inadequate, as, e.g., The Diamond Sutra makes clear. Red Pine quotes Vasubandhu’s commentary:

Not only is there no suffering, joy and compassion appear instead. When the sutra says “I had neither a perception nor no perception,” what is meant by “no perception” is a perception connected to compassion.

And this is the point, really: Religious believers just do act all the time in ways that demonstrate they care about and value this life for its own sake. If you tell them that caring about this world makes no sense if they have faith in eternal life, they will look at you like you’re crazy and get on with their work.

But Hägglund is uninterested in the actual lives of believers, as his citation of a thought experiment devised by Phil Zuckerman (“a leading sociologist of secular life”) reveals. Two children are left alone in a room containing an artwork they are informed is valuable and fragile. The first is told not to touch the artwork “because it deserves to be respected in its fragility and because many people would be sad if it were damaged.” The second is told that the school principal, watching from a hole in the ceiling, will punish her if she touches the artwork and reward her if she refrains. The fable is supposed to elucidate the difference between secular and religious models of morality.

This is idiotic. Perhaps there exist religious persons who would never treat an animal with kindness or help an injured child were it not that they fear divine wrath. I have not had the misfortune to know any.

Any or all religious perspectives may well be mistaken about the nature of reality, and religion alone is insufficient to confront such evils as capitalism, climate change, and racism. But religion is not inherently inimical to the work of “social justice as an end in itself.” Hägglund is right that “No one should depend on charity, since everyone should be part of a society in which we are committed to give from each of us according to our ability, to each of us according to our need” (paraphrasing a slogan popularized but not, as Hägglund claims, formulated by Marx). But to suggest that “Only from the standpoint of secular faith . . . can we sacrifice our lives for the sake of something that matters more to us than our own survival” is an insult to, inter alios, Thích Quảng Đức and the other Buddhist monks who immolated themselves to protest the Vietnam War. Presumably Hägglund would say of the monks what he says of Martin Luther King Jr., that in pursuing “the struggle for social freedom as an end in itself, he is therefore committed to a secular rather than a religious cause.” Maybe so. I would not venture to judge. As Thoreau wrote of another American martyr, “He went and came, as he himself informs us, ‘under the auspices of John Brown and nobody else.’”

Hägglund is on firmer ground in the book’s second half, where he provides a clear précis of Marx’s critique of political economy informed by Postone’s meticulous reinterpretation. The point of Marx’s value theory (often miscalled a “labor theory of value,” which is what it refutes) is that increases in productivity and competition lead to increases in a temporal norm of production to which workers must adhere without realizing a proportionate rise in wages. This social average—“socially necessary labor time”—determines the value of products, as distinct from price.

All this is a way of saying that value in capitalism is determined by labor time, and that labor is alienated from what it produces. The point of production is not to increase general social wealth—we produce more than enough to house and feed everyone, yet millions go hungry and homeless—but to increase value for capital. So, as Hägglund puts it, “As long as we measure our social wealth in terms of labor time, technological development is bound to intensify exploitative methods for extracting relative surplus value from workers.” Instead of freeing people to pursue meaningful activity, labor-saving technology throws them into the circuit of unemployment and surplus labor, a pool of desperate potential workers whose numbers keep wages low.

Capitalism “treats the means of economic life”—we need to produce things like housing and food in order to survive—“as though they were the end of economic life.” Hägglund claims that this is not explicit in Marx, but in fact Marx argues that the actual function of the raw materials that go into commodity production is simply to absorb labor, and the commodities themselves are “simply the material shape taken by a given number of hours or days of social labor.” It’s backward: What should be a means of survival (labor) becomes the entire point of life, all in order to enrich a fortunate few. Since abstract labor mediates society in this way, Postone writes, “to say that the goal of production is (surplus-) value is to say that the goal is the social mediation itself”—and not, as common sense would suggest, the production of commodities.

Echoing Nietzsche, Hägglund thus calls for “the revaluation of value”: “The overcoming of capitalism requires that we measure our wealth in terms of what I call socially available free time.” Labor in “the realm of necessity” would be performed only for the sake of human flourishing in “the realm of freedom.” “Increased technological productivity could give everyone more free time to lead their lives, if we pursued technological innovation for the sake of emancipation rather than for the sake of profit.”

Finally, Hägglund outlines three principles of “democratic socialism” (which he does “not define . . . in direct correspondence with any of [its] various historical meanings”): Wealth is measured “in terms of socially available free time”; “the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit”; and, of course, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” I cannot do justice to these principles in the remaining space of this review, but Hägglund is certainly right that mere redistribution of wealth is insufficient to overcome the extraordinary challenges facing our species. A complete transformation of the mode of production is required.

I am not sure, however, that Hägglund has thought through his belief that a democratic state is also required. As William Clare Roberts has argued in a post about Hägglund’s book:

If the democratic state exists, with its invocations of popular self-determination, then so does capitalism, with its particular form of class domination. If, on the other hand, social life is permeated by democratic decision-making, then the state, with its fictive unity and its attendant imaginary of the sovereign people, withers away.

We can debate whether “wither” (Engels’s notion) is realistic (it’s not), but surely Hägglund is rather hasty in asserting that “the state as an institutional form of our lives . . . is not itself something that can be eliminated.” The historical meaning of liberal democracy, after all, is: the state form of the management of capital.

It might sound as if I don’t much care for This Life; on the contrary, I think it is important enough to demand a high level of critique. Hägglund is right about the conversations we should be having, and I share his hope that they will lead to action.


Michael Robbins is the author of two books of poetry published by Penguin and the essay collection Equipment for Living: On Poetry and Pop Music (Simon & Schuster, 2017).