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Martin Hägglund develops a neo-Marxist politics that is deeply informed by qualitative individualism – quite appropriately, since qualitative individualist ideas inform Marx himself, especially in the theory of alienation. Hägglund wants to envision what a social world without alienation would look like.

Possibly the core distinction in Hägglund’s thought is between a “realm of freedom” and a “realm of necessity” – and he identifies time as central to both of these.

I have to drink water to stay alive. If I am required to walk two hours per day to acquire water from a distant well, my activity is in the realm of necessity, since the time I spend walking to the well is not valuable in itself but merely a means for the end of sustaining my life. If I could reduce the necessary labor time by having running water in my house, I would do so. Inversely, if I enjoy walking two hours per day as an intrinsic part of a fulfilling life, my activity is in the realm of freedom, since the time I spend walking is valuable for its own sake. The activity of walking is not merely a means for getting exercise or acquiring water but an end in itself for me, so even if I could reduce the time I spend walking I would not do so. (221)

Wage labour, qua wage labour, is in the realm of necessity: it requires that the finite time of our lives be devoted to work that does not spring from our identities, our selves, our deepest natures. This is true even when we can get paid to do things we love, let alone the situation most of us face in which we can’t. (Hägglund is in the enviable position of being able to teach and read and write about great ideas for a living – but that position must also include grading and committee work.) Hägglund hopes for a democratic socialism that minimizes this realm of necessity to the extent possible, bringing us deeper into the realm of freedom: fulfilling the promises of qualitative individualism that capitalism makes but does not fulfill.

His democratic socialism would rely heavily on technological innovation to automate many tasks that we do out of mere necessity. But it would also require “that the means of production are collectively owned and cannot be used for the sake of profit.” (304) Why? Hägglund agrees with Marx in Capital: “As long as the means of production are privately owned and used for the sake of profit, the measure of our wealth is the amount of surplus value derived from the exploitation of living labor.” Profit-oriented production inevitably will aim to squeeze as much labour out of its workers as possible – as we see in most private knowledge workplaces today, where the 40-hour work week is a thing of the past. Collective ownership means that increased efficiency of production can be used “to liberate more time for all members of society to lead their individual lives”, rather than finding new ways of exploiting surplus labour. (305)

How would that collective ownership be administered? That’s where the “democratic” part of “democratic socialism” comes in. But not just any democracy: it must be a democracy of intellect rather than will, specifically one based on the common good. “Actual democracy requires that our political debates and deliberations—as well as our forms of political representation—are based on competing conceptions of how best to serve the interests of society as a whole, rather than on competing private interests that are put forth in the name of society as a whole.” (268)

Hägglund doesn’t make a point of this (and I doubt he’d put it in these terms given his hostility to “religion”), but it seems to me that such a system would require what Catholic social teaching (since Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno) calls subsidiarity. That is, such collective decisions need to be made at the smallest possible level, so that the decision-making can be genuinely collective and democratic. At a small neighbourhood level, people can actually talk to each other and reason through decisions to make the best one together, a democracy of intellect; get up to the level of a large city or higher, and you have something like our present system that merely adds up people’s perceptions of their private interests, or has them send representatives to do so.

Hägglund does, interestingly, allow for private property: “We can have our own houses, our own computers, our own books, and so on, in the sense that we can use them for our own ends and no one has the right to take them away from us against our will.” But even this allowance, I think, is one informed by Marx – specifically Marx’s distinction between use-value and exchange-value. We can have private property for our own use, but not for exchange as commodities, since that would take us right back to profit-making: “The recognition of your property as your property is not based on your right to its abstract value as a commodity (or as a means for producing commodities), but on your right to its concrete specificity as valuable to you and as useful for you in leading your life.” (305, emphases in original) This distinction already exists in a limited form, as when we put restrictions on renting condos out as Airbnbs: you are entitled to use your property as you like, but not to exchange it as you like.

I have no problem with any of this as far as it goes. I would love to live in Hägglund’s world, and I appreciate efforts to move us closer to it. Such a world would not only remove us from alienation, it would also stop money from corrupting our institutions. My reservations are not so much with the nature of the economic system he outlines as with that system’s relationship to everything else in life. The first and perhaps most obvious question: how do we get there? I see Hägglund paying little attention to the transition from the present capitalist order to the massively different order he proposes, such that the new order looks more like a dream than a goal. He argues that reform of the present system is not enough and instead cites Martin Luther King’s aim to forge “episodic social protest into the hammer of social revolution” (quoted on 333) – but in what way can we even imagine that to actually happen? (That’s not even to ask the question of how we stop that social revolution from turning out like the previous ones, which killed more people than Hitler did.) Marx, at least, seems to think that working as a class in factories will lead people to come together and move collectively closer to his ideal. That idea of Marx’s has been proven about as wrong as can be – even the murderous pseudo-Marxist régimes of “actually existing socialism” didn’t happen that way – but at least he’s got something.

Moreover even if we can get there (and prevent the atrocities that characterized those previous attempts at a related goal), I also think we need to be clear-eyed about the problems that such an economy would not solve. Humans will find a way to exercise dark power-seeking tendencies even there; even the most collective decision-making is still subject to sophistic rhetoric, seduction and other forms of manipulation. And more fundamentally, many of humans’ most pressing problems cannot be solved at the level of economics or politics. I will turn to those next.