Martin Hägglund’s Radical Secularism: “Freedom is Impossible under Capitalism”

What is the meaning of death? Or, as the philosopher would say: finitude? In other words, if live must end - isn’t that the ultimate limit to our existence, the very opposite of freedom? Not at all and quite the contrary, claims Martin Hägglund in his book “This Life”; the fact that we will die constitutes the basis for our freedom.

These and other aspects of Hägglund’s widely discussed book were part of the conversation that Georg Diez, editor-in-chief of THE NEW INSTITUTE, and Karin Pettersson, culture editor of the Swedish newspaper “Aftonbladet”, had with the philosopher – it was the start of their podcast "The New World", a collaboration of "Aftonbladet" and the Institute for Future Studies in Stockholm, introducing new ideas into the old debate about a better future.

Hägglund, a forty-something Swede, teaching literature at Yale, is in a lot of ways the philosopher of the moment - he reclaims a positive existentialism and builds from his concept of freedom a political philosophy that tackles the very idea of capitalism. To put it bluntly: There is no freedom possible within capitalism.

The achievement of “This Life” - and maybe one of the reasons for its success - is that Hägglund arrives at this arguably controversial conclusion by means of a very unideological and close reading of a diverse group of authors, ranging from St. Augustin to Kierkegaard, Adorno and Knausgard - exploring the way that finitude relates to, as the book states it, “secular faith” and “spiritual freedom”.

What Hägglund means with these terms, secular faith and spiritual freedom, and what constitutes his project with “This Life”: He wants to open up the strictly rational worldview of how life and as a consequence politics is seen in secular terms - and introduce both a sense of individual agency and collective responsibility, even connectedness into the discourse around what one might call advanced atheism built on the acceptance of the end.

It is an almost sunny appreciation of death that moves Hägglund’s argument forward - culminating in a vivid interpretation of key texts of Karl Marx, advancing Marx’s arguments into the present and presenting him as a thinker deeply interested in freedom itself; the question is what Hägglund’s reading of Marx means for actual politics today - or more precisely what the political institutions would look like that could actualize such freedom.

We are at a crossroad, this much seems clear; and the question of climate change is at the center of thinking about finitude in a very fundamental way as well as about capitalism. Martin Hägglund, whose seminar at the Humanities and Social Change Centre in Santa Barbara earlier this year had to be cancelled due to the corona virus, offers some provocative insights, moving seamlessly from atheism to Marxism. His book “This Life” has the potential to become a classic for our times.

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