Martin Hägglung | Foto: SSE |
“You realize the sun doesn’t go down It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round” — The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize??” 
Why aren’t there life expectancy protests? I asked myself this question often while reading Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, which begins with an atheistic confrontation with our mortality and builds toward a philosophical argument on behalf of democratic socialism. In some countries, and conspicuously in the United States, where I live, there are powerful correla- tions between wealth inequality and inequality of life expectancy. In some cases, the disparity in life expectancy stretches beyond a decade, equaling thousands of days of life. Writing in the New York Times in April 2020, David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez observed, “Rich and poor Americans used to have fairly similar lifespans. Now, however, Americans in the bottom fourth of the income distribu- tion die about 13 years younger on average than those in the top fourth.”  Why don’t we see organized political movements that target the link between wealth and longevity and protest the fact that without a strong system of socialized medicine, a healthy bank balance and secure employment are the only means to ensure not longevity—long life is never certain—but treatment for the injuries and diseases that cut life short? Why don’t we protest the fact that the wealthy tend, as a group, to live longer than the rest of us?
One plausible answer is that life expectancy simply lags after food and shelter, not to mention other basic necessities, in most people’s hierarchies of needs. But even when we are fed and housed, length of life might be too abstract a matter to motivate protests. We need a specific threat to our collective health if we are going to rise up. Exemplary threats might include a government failure to clean up environmental contaminants, the closure of a much-needed hospital, or the state cutting aid programs. Longevity itself often seems too inchoate a thing, and perhaps too personal a matter, to rally people around. I suspect that the idea of life expectancy protests just sounds silly. Still, I ask my questions: if this mortal life is so important, why do we not get more collectively animated about the measure of our years and advocate so that each of us can live as long as is healthfully possible? And why isn’t inequality of life expectancy across class differences an issue to march over? To be clear, these are my questions, not Hägglund’s. His interest in mortality is not exactly about lifespan; it is instead about the way our mortality gives us (in his view) a powerful reason to commit ourselves to worldly projects while abandoning religion’s promise of salvation. According to the reli- gious imagination, he argues, mortal life derives its dignity from its relationship with immortal life. Hägglund wants us to instead see the end of life as the only horizon against which our lives can mean anything at all—not despite the vulner- ability, interdependence, and finitude of our lives but because of them. Through a series of engagements with literary, philosophical, and political readings (among them Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Ove Knausgaard, Karl Marx and Martin Luther King Jr.), Hägglund argues that the value of mortality lies in its power to make us choose the specific commitments that will define our temporal lives. In par- ticular, we should commit ourselves to overcoming capitalism, which forces us to sell our time piecemeal and keeps us from achieving the truer democracy we might have if we could make decisions about our own time. Where Hägglund’s insistence on commitment seems strongly influenced by Martin Heidegger, his arguments that mortality ought to lead us to democratic socialism are strongly influenced by Hegel and Marx. This Life is a passionately argued skein woven out of two strands of originally European thought: Existenzphilosophie and Marxism. Hägglund does not detain himself with the matter of those strands’ past conflicts but charges ahead to demonstrate how they might cooperate in the liberation of our personal and collective time.
In this review essay, I want to simultaneously express empathy for Hägglund’s account of mortality, sympathy for his argument on behalf of democratic social- ism, and deep doubts about his presentation of religion as an effort to transcend this world, which I think is historically underinformed, perhaps on purpose. But first I want to note something curious about his idea of “secular faith.” In asking us to treat our mortality itself as the source of revelatory experiences that compel us to reorganize our lives, Hägglund may ask for too much. Certainly, reminders of one’s mortality are a constant feature of life. I write this review essay during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed about half a million people worldwide as of late June 2020. The news recalls to us each day our mortal fragility and our literal ability to kill one another by transmitting a lethal virus. Because so many COVID-19 carriers are nonsymptomatic, we may not even know we’re doing it. But the news is still full of reports of people taking stupid risks by socializing in public without wearing masks. Even during less fraught times, it seems surprising that human mortality doesn’t motivate us more than it does. Many people have difficulty getting much Du mußt dein Leben ändern out of everyday reminders of aging, like grey hairs, wrinkles, and the chorus of “Mother’s Little Helper” by The Rolling Stones (“What a drag it is getting old”). This is why I became so intrigued by the idea of life expectancy protests, an entirely counterfactual notion that would involve people organizing collectively in hopes of living a little (or a lot) longer, thus making our mortality into a feature of our politics. Hägglund hopes that entirely secular accounts of mortality, such as the one he offers, can motivate us to make radical change. As Knox Peden points out in a review of This Life, in Hägglund’s view, the question underlying any normative determina- tion we make is, “what should I do with my time?”  Hägglund describes himself gazing out at the landscape of his ancestral home in northern Sweden, seagulls flapping against the horizon. “The horizon” is one of Hägglund’s terms for our mortality, too, and the visible horizon is readily recruited as a figure for a limit to life, encompassed by the human gaze in a way that the totality of an individual’s experiences cannot be (200). But horizons are tricky. I borrowed this essay’s epigraph from the song “Do You Realize??” by the band The Flaming Lips; the song is about mortality and the ineluctable passing of life. But as the song sug- gests, human perspectives have their limits. The horizon isn’t really the edge of the world. The sun doesn’t actually go down—“It’s just an illusion caused by the world spinning ‘round.” The fact that life ends may occasionally fill us with a sense of urgency, but mortality can’t tell us what to do. The book opens with an image of the Hägglund family’s house on the Baltic sea: “The dramatic landscape—with its sweeping forests, ragged mountains, and tall cliff formations looming over the sea—is carved out by the descent of the ice from the last glacial period, twelve thousand years ago.” “The rocks under my feet are a reminder of the geological time in which we are but a speck,” Hägglund explains (3). Anyone who is familiar with Heidegger’s interest in landscape and place may feel a certain resonance. From there, Hägglund introduces his book’s core argument on behalf of “secular faith”: “To have secular faith,” he writes, “is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down” (5-6). Secular faith is juxtaposed against religious faith because, according to all religions, our finitude is a lack or imperfection that heaven or nirvana will eventually fix. The proper objects of secular faith are the kinds of things that would disappear without our effort: “the object of devotion does not exist independently of those who believe in its importance and who keep it alive through their fidelity” (7). To put this a bit differently, the essence of secular faith is personal commitment to norms and activities that we define and embrace consciously because they serve our needs and purposes. One obvious example is a marriage bond, which is supported by the secular faith of those wedded; another is the current wave of support for democratic socialism in the US, which is mani- fest in the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America after the 2016 presiden- tial election. To our freedom to choose what we embrace through secular faith, Hägglund gives the label “spiritual freedom,” as opposed to the merely natural freedom of animals like seagulls. All we have is secular faith, spiritual freedom, and the time of our lives itself.
“Secular faith” may seem plausible enough as a model for personal commit- ment and a principle on which to lead a life of worldly purpose, but there is a twist: much depends on how much freedom we retain to do anything besides committing ourselves. If Hägglund’s secular faith means that we have a kind of obligation, in the face of our mortality, to the particular style of valuation and commitment that his secular faith implies, then we aren’t fully free at all. And here the tone of Hägglund’s book is worth mentioning. If given only one word to describe it, I would choose “insistent.” He seems to enjoin the reader to embrace his mode of valuation, but I couldn’t help but experience the constant injunctions to involvement, attachment, and engagement as limiting rather than enhancing my spiritual freedom. Drawing energy and interest from worldly pleasures and human connections, as I do, does not make me think that they can be the sum of my freedom. I can, for example, find value in the very ascetic and world-tran- scending projects Hägglund seems to abhor. Or I can find value in things without naming them as substantial commitments worthy of a lofty term like “secular faith.” If I enjoy listening to pop music or baking bread, the way that I enjoy them matters; I like to do them without thinking to myself, “life is too short for this, I ought to be reading Kant.” Not all of our preferences and desires have much to do with the motif of authentic commitment implied by “secular faith,” and it isn’t obvious that activities are better for us when authenticity motivates and organizes them. “In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise,” W. H. Auden wrote in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” but we prisoners do more than praise. This is not our failure to commit but rather a sign of our greater emotional range. In a response to This Life, Robert Pippin noted that Hägglund seems to be asking for “a massive transformation of the emotional economy of the human soul.”  This is exactly right.
The book is in two parts. The first, which is titled “Secular Faith,” meditates on the implications of the idea of secular faith, in part through close studies of Augustine and Kierkegaard. The second, titled “Spiritual Freedom,” is more primarily concerned with our freedom in the world we share, and it contains an extended reading of Marx, focusing on the idea of human time as the source of all value, and the claim that this idea can set us free. The book concludes with a Hegelian reading of Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism as a form of “secular faith,” surprisingly (and for some, I imagine, offensively) against the grain of King’s self-presentation as a man of God whose activism—indeed, whose social- ism—was an extension of his ministry rather than in conflict with it. It is not so much religion itself that seems to trouble Hägglund as religion as the promise of otherworldly salvation, which he thinks distracts us from worldly engage- ment. In the midst of all this, he seems to argue that even religious faith must, in essence, be secular faith, essentially because we are temporal beings who are incapable of caring for anything (including redemption) that unfolds outside of time. Hägglund’s readings of texts are nuanced and scholarly, and they include stirring meditations on the experience of time, a topic Hägglund has treated in previous works. Especially notable is his examination of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which he establishes as a response both to Augustine’s Confessions and to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Hägglund’s meditations on the way the fragility of our lives seems to demand care are often quite moving; reading him, I was sometimes reminded of Emmanuel Levinas, a student of Heidegger who constructed an ethics out of the vulnerability of other people.
In the second half of the book, Hägglund—through a prolonged reading of Marx—argues that capitalism is the form of life in which we fail to understand what really matters, which is our time itself. A crisis of value results from this, and the idea of freedom “demands that we overcome the social form of wage labor” (237). However, socialism alone does not resolve the problem because merely changing the way the fruits of our labor are distributed among us cannot resolve that crisis of value; it is democratic socialism that allows us to state our values and work together to understand what norms we should collectively share. That’s the utopian hope beneath This Life. Socialism, for Hägglund, is the eman- cipation of our time, which capitalism forces us to sell off and which religion, as the opiate of the masses, once encouraged us to simply give away. Indeed, Hägglund’s argument could be understood as a logical extension of Marx’s view that all criticism begins with the criticism of religion. Fredric Jameson called Marxism “the collective struggle to wrest a realm of Freedom from a realm of Necessity.” Hägglund seems to hope that we can accomplish something similar, understanding mortality as the ultimate substrate of “Necessity.” Democratic socialism, Hägglund thinks, is the kindest and wisest answer to the brevity of life.
It is over the problem of secular versus religious faith that Hägglund often sacrifices nuance. Hägglund reduces all religious thought and experience to the devaluation of this world in preference of the next one. “To have religious faith,” he writes, “is to disown our secular faith in a fragile form of life” (52). As Peter E. Gordon has pointed out in his own review of This Life, even traditions that seem fixated on overcoming death through the salvation of the soul, such as Christianity, have more complicated histories than this suggests. Christianity incorporates not only God’s incarnation in a mortal body but also the Divine experiencing finitude through the suffering of Christ, Jesus. “Even the eternal,” Gordon writes, “cannot remain unscathed.” The resulting attunement to mortal suffering has inspired many Christians to aid the poor and even to conceive of Christianity as having a special option for the poor. The Vatican contains many treasures, but Latin American liberation theologians like Gustavo Guittiérez have led a movement that speaks of wealth inequality as a systematic sin and calls for the faithful to push against that sin—and all this without rejecting the notion of salvation. Other examples abound in other traditions Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism all have their engaged, worldly activists. That Hägglund ignores this fea- ture of religion cannot be a sign that he is ignorant of it—liberation theology, for example, is quite well known—but perhaps it is simply inconvenient for his argu- ment. Or maybe Hägglund wants something that the history of religion seldom provides: a consistency between philosophical intention and worldly practice, a kind of total authenticity—something Heidegger also praised. For Hägglund, the deeds of religious charities are actions taken in bad faith, especially in light of do-gooders’ failure to abjure the world to come. Did I call Hägglund’s book “insistent”? Another word to describe it would be “devout.”
As Gordon also argues, Hägglund often appears to have elevated death to the status of an ens realissimum in the place of God. This, in turn, suggests that he still operates within the metaphysical structures (if not the content) established by Christianity, just as his tone and his key term “secular faith” suggest. This sheds light on the way the idea of “secular faith” seems to secularize an originally religious style of value-claim. I think this is a line of thought worth developing. Gordon seems to imply that Hägglund, for all his avowed atheism and material- ism, still has a tacit metaphysics, one in which there is still something transcen- dental (death, rather than God) that we grant dominion over our lives. This yields a rather flat picture of our moral universe and of our moral options. Since Hägglund writes as though his truth-claims simply outflank those of the religious, this sim- ply makes his truth-claims the inverse of the claims that religious orthodoxies use against unbelievers. This is secularism as dogmatism, so we are entitled to ask questions. I understand that, in Hägglund’s terms, it is because of death that our time seems to have value. But why should our eventual death be the measure of our actions in this life? Does this mean that those actions are not praiseworthy in and of themselves but are so only because they allow us to pursue our desired ends? I don’t think that Hägglund wants to open the door for a consequentialist morality, in which the value of our actions registers in their effects (he is too attached to the idea of the value of our will for this to be the case), but I found myself alert to the possibility. It’s odd when a tacit metaphysical argument opens the way to a form of consequentialism, but the history of philosophy has contained stranger things.
Hägglund seems to turn an is (our mortality) into something with the force of an ought. Or to reason through it more slowly, our mortality gives us a power- ful incentive to turn our various worldly desires, and especially what Hägglund suggests is our spiritual freedom to pursue them, into oughts. All normative determination, he tells us, should stem from our mortality, from our sense that life is too short. But again, mortality doesn’t tell us what’s right any more than it tells that to the seagulls. Perhaps more importantly, it isn’t clear that we’re at our best when dealing with the vertiginous prospect of our mortality; some clas- sic midlife recommitments are the equivalent of a flashy motorcycle or a poorly chosen affair. And sometimes invocations of mortality are a rhetorical cudgel. Life may be too short for bad coffee, but “life is too short for bad coffee” is still an advertising slogan.
What would life look like under Hägglund’s version of democratic social- ism? Although This Life doesn’t spell this out, it is clear that we would reorga- nize our means of production, and social reproduction, in ways that yield more freedom. It’s thus appropriate that late in the book Hägglund engages in a criti- cal reading of Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “Free Time.”  In this essay, Adorno observes that in the developed West, our free time has increased and seems likely to continue increasing; industrialization and technological change are the unnamed but implied lever of change. But Adorno finds free time on its own quite inadequate. He calls it “vacuous.”  For Adorno, real freedom isn’t just free time; it’s free time plus the material and social resources to pursue activi- ties that are ends in and of themselves rather than forms of consumer behavior. Real freedom isn’t defined by hobbies, however much I enjoy my bread baking or pop music listening (the former may, in fact, be what Adorno calls a “pseu- do-activity,” a parody of productive behavior). Instead, it involves activities in which we have something personally at stake because in their fulfillment we recognize something of ourselves. At the end of his essay, Adorno claims to detect, in people’s pleasure at free-time entertainments, an element of disbelief or reservation. He hopes that this might be a sign of maturity (Mündigkeit) and the ability to eventually move from free time to freedom. As Pippin puts it, “What we need is not mere free time. In Hegelese that would be mere negative freedom within an insufficiently determinate institutional structure. Rather, we need socially significant and productive (and respected) work, loving rela- tionships and genuine mutuality.”  We need time, yes, but it takes more than time and free will to learn to recognize ourselves in our activities and through reciprocal relationships with our activity partners. Indeed, our finitude isn’t jus our mortality but our other personal limitations, and out of those limitations comes our need for other people. Taken to its fullest extension, an account of our interdependence might produce a picture of the human as simply not fully human outside of the polis, a current in philosophy that runs from Aristotle to Hegel and beyond.
Was I right, earlier in this essay, to say that there’s no such thing as a life expectancy protest? Yes and no. As I write this review, one particular political slogan is very much in circulation: “Black Lives Matter.” Although it’s true that people don’t organize politically in order to live longer or make equality of life expectancy their central issue, a concern for life and its fragility have stood behind the protests that have swept the US following the police killing of a Black man named George Floyd on 25 May 2020. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is explicitly particularist rather than universalist (the universalist version is “All Lives Matter”) for good reason. Black Americans suffer disproportionately from violence, including at the hands of the police; because of the correlations between race and income distribution, they often have shorter life expectancies too. All this demands recognition. Solidarity in support of the struggles of Black Americans isn’t about the length of life, of course; Black Lives Matter isn’t a life expectancy protest. But it certainly involves protesting the unequal degree to which many Black Americans are exposed to violence, and violence is one way to make life itself an unevenly distributed good. This is one of the most remarkable waves of political protest this country has seen in support of Black lives, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. One must imagine Hägglund happy.
- The Flaming Lips, “Do You Realize??” by Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, Michael Ivins, and Dave Fridmann, track 9 on Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Warner Brothers, 2002.
- David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez, “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus,” New York Times, 10 April 2020.
- The Rolling Stones, “Mother’s Little Helper,” by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, track 1 on Aftermath, Decca, 1966.
- Knox Peden, “Philosophy in Troublous Times,” Sydney Review of Books, 26 May 2020.
- W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams, 6th ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1993), 2:2269.
- Robert Pippin and Martin Hägglund, “Limited Time: Robert Pippin and Martin Hägglund on This Life,” The Point, 22 May 2019.
- See Peden, “Philosophy in Troublous Times,”
- See, for instance, Martin Hägglund, Dying for Time: Proust, Woolf, Nabokov (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).
- Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 19.
- Peter E. Gordon, “Either This World or the Next,” The Nation, 23 September 2019.
- Theodor W. Adorno, “Free Time,” in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture, ed. J. M. Bernstein (London: Routledge, 2001), 187-97.
- Ibid., 191.
- Ibid., 194.
- Pippin and Hägglund, “Limited Time.”
Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft – Cambridge, Massachusetts.
HÄGGLUND, Martin. This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom. New York: Pantheon, 2019. 464.p. Resenhado por: WURGAFT, Benjamin Aldes. Seagulls! On MartinHägglund’s This life: secular faith and spiritual freedom. History and Theory, v.60, n. 1, p.177-184, mar. 2021. Acessar publicação original [IF].