If God Is Dead, Your Time Is Everything
Martin Hägglund argues that rigorous secularism leads to socialism.
Hägglund reminds us that King had studied Marx with care while a student, and that he told the Montgomery Advertiser, in 1956, that his favorite philosopher was Hegel. Toward the end of his life, King had begun to insist that society has to “question the capitalistic economy.” He called for what he described as “a revolution of values.” At a tape-recorded staff meeting for the Poor People’s Campaign in January, 1968, King appears to have asked for the recording to be stopped, so that he could talk candidly about the fact that, in the words of a witness, “he didn’t believe capitalism as it was constructed could meet the needs of poor people, and that what we might need to look at was a kind of socialism, but a democratic form of socialism.” King told the group that if anyone made that information public he would deny it.
Hägglund does his usual deconstructive reversal, and argues that King’s religiosity was really a committed secularism. At this point in the book, this looks less like a hermeneutic move than like an expected reality. We read the famous words of King’s last speech with new eyes, alert both to his secularism and to a burgeoning critique of capitalism that had to stay clandestine:
It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.
I finished “This Life” in a state of enlightened despair, with clearer vision and cloudier purpose—I was convinced, step by step, of the moral rectitude of Hägglund’s argument even as I struggled to imagine the political system that might institute his desired revaluation of value. As if aware of such faintheartedness, he ends the book with a beautiful examination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—in particular the celebrated last speech he gave, in Memphis. Hägglund reminds us that King had studied Marx with care while a student, and that he told the Montgomery Advertiser, in 1956, that his favorite philosopher was Hegel. Toward the end of his life, King had begun to insist that society has to “question the capitalistic economy.” He called for what he described as “a revolution of values.”
After the theory and the academic reversals and the grand proposals, Hägglund’s book ends, stirringly, with a grounded account of a man who died trying to use his precious time to change the precious time of oppressed people, aware that the full realization of his vision would likely involve a revaluation of value that could not yet be spoken in America. We still haven’t seen that system, and it’s hard to imagine it, but someone went up the mountain and looked out, and saw the promised land. And that land is in this life, not in another one. ♦
Named a Book of the Year by The Guardian
‘A profound, original, and accessible book that offers a new secular vision of how we can lead our lives. Ranging from fundamental existential questions to the most pressing social issues of our time, This Life shows why our commitment to freedom and democracy should lead us beyond both religion and capitalism.
In this groundbreaking book, the philosopher Martin Hägglund challenges our received notions of faith and freedom. The faith we need to cultivate, he argues, is not a religious faith in eternity but a secular faith devoted to our finite life together.
He shows that all spiritual questions of freedom are inseparable from economic and material conditions. What ultimately matters is how we treat one another in this life, and what we do with our time together.
Hägglund develops new existential and political principles while transforming our understanding of spiritual life. His critique of religion takes us to the heart of what it means to mourn our loved ones, be committed, and care about a sustainable world. His critique of capitalism demonstrates that we fail to sustain our democratic values because our lives depend on wage labor. In clear and pathbreaking terms, Hägglund explains why capitalism is inimical to our freedom, and why we should instead pursue a novel form of democratic socialism.
In developing his vision of an emancipated secular life, Hägglund engages with great philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel and Marx, literary writers from Dante to Proust and Knausgaard, political economists from Mill to Keynes and Hayek, and religious thinkers from Augustine to Kierkegaard and Martin Luther King, Jr. This Life gives us new access to our past—for the sake of a different future.’