Martin Hägglund: Death is what gives life a meaning, but capitalism makes fruition impossible

A brief analysis of the book “This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free” and its proposal of a democratic socialism

Disclaimer: This is the translation of an article originally published at O Futuro das Coisas

It’s pretty common to see people, in a library, getting curious after reading titles like “The Secret”, “The Physics of the Soul” or anything else that would supposedly surprise us by teaching something new and extraordinary. I think this would be the case for the most recent book released by the Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund.

First of all, it’s important to say that the book was published twice, first with the title “This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom”, and then “This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free”. Finding the answer for this question was the main reason that made me read this book which, as some may say, was actually some kind of “clickbait”.

But not in a bad sense. The first pages of the book are focused on philosophy and religion, thus showing us the Hegelian argument that to live forever is to never have lived at all (i.e., without darkness, there’s no way to distinguish light etc) and it is precisely our finitude that gives us a sense of urgency; it is what allows us to organize and value things.

However, for Hägglund, living a good life is living a life in freedom. To be free though, one needs to have access to basic needs (food, education, safety, housing etc), something that is not always granted and enjoyed by everyone But at this point you are probably already involved by Hägglund’s writing style, so that it is easier to carry on with his train of thought about politics and economics through the proposal of a democratic socialism.

Democratic socialism is not a social democracy or a welfare state. What the author aims to show us is that, under capitalism, it is impossible to live a fulfilling and free life, something that, on the other hand, could be achieved through democratic socialism.

Hägglund cites Marx and his works “Capital” and “Grundrisse” as the main references for his arguments, also because he wants to address how many authors have actually misunderstood the German philosopher. First, Hägglund stresses that Marx was never against technological innovation, but, in fact, he endorsed technology as a means to emancipate human beings from tedious work. Then the writer says that Marx never proposed to solve the problem of social and economic inequality through the distribution of wealth, but rather by subverting the very meaning of value under capitalism.

While Marx writes about surplus value and analyzes how a worker sells their workforce in exchange for wages, Hägglund points out that we are ultimately selling our lifetime. However, under capitalism, the goal is not to simply work to produce basic needs, but rather to surpass that and thus generate profit — that is, the accumulation of wealth and goods.

For the past years, due to new technologies that are digitizing and automating the means of production, we are spending less time to generate the same or even better results, as well as we need less people to do the same work. But just like in the First Industrial Revolution, the imminence of an even more pervasive automation wave is making workers rather anxious instead of hopeful. Since our survival relies on wage and the wage is given in exchange to workforce, when this workforce is performed by a machine, there’s no longer what Hägglund calls “living work”.

In face of machines’ “dead work”, human workers are dismissed. Once unemployed and therefore incapable of accessing a source of survival (the wage), these workers begin to accept cheaper payments and bigger requirements, thus leading to a state of generalized precariousness.

Hägglund says that, under capitalism, crises are actually something necessary to keep the system flowing. When a society is collapsing in unemployment, more people are willing to “accept” any offer that could help or allow for their subsistence. And it is precisely in this context of despair generated by crises that capitalism is able to profit — this is why war and destruction are also important factors for this system.

Insofar work is associated with survival, it is impossible to be free. To address this topic, Hägglund uses terms such as “socially necessary work” and “socially free time”. However, under capitalism, currently all work is socially necessary because we need money to survive.

The time we would have to be “free”, that is, out from our 9 to 5 journeys, would be the time we could be using for leisure or for other activities that we enjoy, but which are not necessarily profitable. However, what actually happens is that this “free time” is often used for another part-time job that complements the income. Time is money and the accumulation of wealth is the ticket to a comfortable future. Addiitionaly, this time could also be used for rest, thus making life a gear that spins solely around work, a work that is performed for survival.

Hägglund considers this a contradiction, because, since life is something finite, we shouldn’t be wasting so much time working for our survival, but rather doing something that is important and makes us happy. And it’s not even necessary to work as much as we do. For the writer, we could have already reached a new political and economic stage if we were already able to subvert a basic meaning in capitalism: the notion of value.

This would be the first characteristic of a democratic socialism, being the second specification the proposal that all means of production should be collectively owned. Hägglund mentions Marx’s argument that waged workers are rather alienated from their production because this is done only after the interests of the capitalist. With the implementation of a collective ownership of the means of production, technically everyone would be working for their own purposes. And in spite of the fact that the means of production are growing increasingly less tangible and physical, it is possible to connect Hägglund’s proposal to the concept of a DAO (decentralized autonomous organization), for instance.

Finally, Hägglund quotes Marx once again: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In other words, the goal wouldn’t be profit anymore, but rather using the time of our lives for something that is meaningful and delightful for us. Similarly to the fully automated luxury communism proposed by Aaron Bastani, Hägglund also stresses that, first of all, everyone should have access to basic needs, so they could actually be free to make choices and don’t depend so much on work and money for their survival.

Bastani speaks, for instance, about asteroid mining and the abundance of extracted resources, which could be turned into wealth to be distributed to every person on Earth, thus allowing them to live their lives like millionaires do today. For Hägglund, however, we shouldn’t be talking about wealth associated with material resources or money: the value actually lies in the possibility of having free time to do whatever one wishes.

Hägglund stresses that work shouldn’t necessarily be something bad and punitive, but that work as a waged activity for one’s survival is something that could be reduced in duration due to our achievements in technological innovation. Still, what we see is that machines are being created not to liberate humans and generate wealth that would allow life to be fulfilling. These machines are rather being designed to make humans lose their jobs, that is, their guarantee of survival.

This way, we fall once again in the formula of profit based on unemployment since, in this context, Hägglund argues that the capitalists will hire new workers that will sell their workforce for a cheaper price because they ultimately need a means to survive. The writer thus suggests that we are creating technologies that only maintain the logic of profiteering, whereas if this notion of value could be displaced from money to free time, then we could be emancipated.

Hägglund finishes his book by mentioning Martin Luther King’s activism and how he had already proposed this subversion of values many times before, though this wasn’t done publicly because his other ideas were already too subversive for that time — to the point that they provoked his murder. In this sense, the writer mentions a popular quote attributed to Marx which says that change doesn’t come through words, but through action.

However, for Hägglund, this statement is false because philosophy is a means to interpret the world and thus propose new viewpoints which, consequently, could lead to change — even if this is just in a subjective manner, at first. Since his proposal is to precisely review and subvert the meaning of value, it is reasonable to start first with an argument and, in this case, his book is very solid when presenting the idea of a democratic socialism.

This is why I said that the book was some kind of “clickbait” (which turned out to be even better than expected), because Hägglund won’t necessarily talk about death from a philosophical perspective. In fact, he even criticizes proposals of radical life extension or eternal life, such as those envisioned by religions but also by Marxist authors like Theodor Adorno.

Hägglund believes that death is something necessary for our lives to have meaning, but in order to make life worth living, to enjoy our only life, we must be free to do and be whatever we wish for. However, under capitalism, this would be impossible.

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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