March 26, 2019

The Spiritual Case for Socialism

“Any human identity is made up in part of beliefs about how to live—what is admirable, worthwhile, shameful, precious. These are not abstract opinions, but are better understood as parts of who we are, distinctions that guide us through the world as surely as a sense of up and down or near and far. And they are full of consequences. We decide every hour which chances are worth taking, which attachments worth making, which tedious tasks are worth the reward. The questions add up: What shall I do with this hour, this morning, and with what they amount to, my one life? What shall we do together?

Making our choices count is, however, far from straightforward, and this is the subject of Martin Hägglund’s book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. Hägglund, who teaches literature at Yale, aims to give fresh philosophical and political vitality to a longstanding question. He argues that to live well requires two things: We need to face our choices with clarity, and we need the power to make choices that matter. He makes a forceful case that religion keeps believers from confronting their responsibility for the meaning of their own lives, by displacing ultimate questions to a higher plane. Meanwhile, capitalism denies us the power to make important choices, since we are each to varying degrees compelled to spend our time on things that we do not choose and that don’t carry meaning for us.


Ranging from discussions of the nature of eternity to arguments about who should control the means of production, Hägglund puts forward a single, sustained picture of the situation we all face. To free ourselves spiritually, he proposes that we adopt what he calls “secular faith”: a commitment to our finite lives and fragile loves as the sole site of what matters, the setting for all the stakes of existence. Achieving material freedom is a more logistically complex project. The only social order compatible with spiritual freedom, Hägglund believes, is democratic socialism. Only when return on investment ceases to be the measure of value can the polity decide for itself what counts as valuable, what kind of activity should be rewarded and cultivated.”

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