On Actual Freedom: Examining the Revaluation of Value in Martin Hägglund's 'This Life'

My personal journey towards identifying with the principles of democratic socialism began with a common recognition that capitalism is just not working for us. At my core, I don’t believe that human beings are doomed to suffering and unhappiness in this life. Neither do I believe that the capitalist societal conditions we currently live in are the inevitable results of human “nature.” Rather, our grasp of what it means to be human and of what we value is a product of socialization.

Martin Hägglund’s This Life effectively grounds the project of democratic socialism in a critique of capitalism that evaluates the very measure of value that underlies it. Below, I summarize the insights I have gleaned from his work in three sections.

The first section contains a thorough critique of capitalism that shows how and why it reproduces inequality based on the way value is measured within capitalism. This section also shows why capitalist reforms can only be a means to developing a larger vision. The second section articulates a definition of spiritual freedom that we can use to restructure our society and economy, thereby building a philosophical argument for why it is only possible to form ourselves as free beings in a democratic socialist society. Finally, the third section provides a formative (and hopefully generative) outline of the principles that a democratic socialist project would require.

Critiquing Capitalism

The problem with capitalism is not that it privileges value and social wealth. The problem with capitalism is that it distorts the meaning of value and social wealth. The measure of value under capitalism is distorted and self-contradictory, since the means are treated as the end.

An object becomes a commodity when we perform labor to acquire it, whether it be collecting water or making a shoe. The value of a commodity can include:

     i) the purpose it serves (i.e., its use value); and

     ii) the value we assign it when exchanging it for other commodities (i.e., its exchange value).

Long before capitalism, any form of exchanging goods required a standard of measure that allowed us to compare the value of different commodities for the exchange to occur. Aristotle asserted that because unlike things cannot be commensurable (e.g., how can we compare the value of a gallon of water to a pair of shoes?), the exchange value must be “a makeshift for practical purposes.”

It is because of the historical emergence of the notion of equality — that each person should be recognized as equal and free to spend their own time — that we can form a capitalist economy. Because everyone is held to be equal and capable of producing a commodity, the one thing that all commodities have in common is “that they cost labor time to produce.” Hence, capitalism makes explicit that the exchange value of commodities is measured by the labor time it took to produce them. Note, here, that we need to distinguish value from price: where the price of a commodity depends on a variety of factors, its value is measured by labor time.

The notion that our equality stems from the freedom to determine what we do with our time also means that capitalism is an economy of time. Living beings can produce more value in their lifetimes than it costs to maintain their lives; this is why we can ask ourselves the question of what we want and ought to do with our time. Though our finite and material nature necessitates that we labor to maintain ourselves, we have more time than we need for self-maintenance to pursue the activities we want to do. That is, the things that matter to us and that shape how we define ourselves. This extra time allows us to form our belief that we are free beings.

It is also how a capitalist economy can keep growing. Buying and selling is itself a zero-sum game, in which one person’s gain is another’s loss. The surplus value that constitutes a capitalist economy’s growth stems from people producing more than they need to maintain themselves.

Let’s explain this by using a scenario we’re all intimately familiar with:

I start a business in a capitalist economy to provide clean water for people. To extract this resource, I employ people to retrieve water from a well I build. The wage I pay my workers is tied to the cost for my workers to maintain and reproduce themselves, which is necessary for people to do as:

     i) we are finite beings who need to maintain ourselves; and

     ii) labor-power is what enables a capitalist economy to subsist.

Among other factors, the price of the water I sell is tied to the time it takes for an average worker to produce this water under current societal conditions (i.e., socially necessary labor time) — average because an individual worker may take more or less time than others.

I am able to earn a profit from this activity of labor because my workers buy the products of their labor for more than it costs to produce them. I am able to increase my profit when the workers I employ produce faster than the average worker. Assuming that — based on the demands of my workers — I place a cap on the hours in a workday and institute a minimum wage, to continue earning and increasing profit to keep my business competitive, I must convert my profit into capital to invest in technology that would increase my rate of production.

For a time, I am super profitable because I can produce much faster than the societal average. However, this period is inevitably temporary as other business owners will come to acquire the same technology. At this point, something fundamental has changed. Because workers can now produce more gallons of water in the same amount of time, a gallon of water is cheaper for them to buy, which means their average cost of living decreases even while their wages have not increased. The result is that a smaller percentage of the value they produce goes to their wages, while a larger percentage goes to my business (i.e., relative surplus value). This is how I can convert relative surplus value into capital to invest in even more advanced technologies, and so on. Crucially, this is also why capitalism entrenches and reproduces inequality.

More efficient production processes lead to my business needing fewer workers. As society faces growing unemployment, businesses gain more power to stagnate or decrease wages, as well as to pick and choose workers from this “surplus population.”

At the same time, growth in a capitalist economy requires people to consume the commodities that are being produced. When the production of commodities exceeds the purchasing power, or wages, of workers, overproduction occurs and society is driven to expand the consumer market by:

     i) establishing colonies, which ultimately reproduce the same problem of overproduction;

     ii) employing people “regardless of whether the work they do is needed and regardless of whether the work is meaningful for those who labor;” and

     iii) getting people to consume more.

While advanced technologies can reduce socially necessary labor time, leading to more free time for everyone, a capitalist economy requires that this surplus time is converted into surplus value, thereby producing more and more to generate the annual growth that we superficially associate as a positive consequence of capitalism. More than a positive consequence, annual growth based on wage labor is precisely how we measure our social wealth. How we calculate growth in a capitalist economy is dependent on socially necessary labor time; it is surplus time that we convert into surplus value that we convert into profit that then creates capital growth.

Understood in a different way, the supply and demand model assigns a commodity’s value by the scarcity or abundance in the supply of this commodity — where supply meets demand. The very terms “scarcity” and “abundance” are also defined temporally: an abundant supply of water means that the socially necessary labor time required to acquire it is minimal, as determined by the current objective social conditions for producing water.

The categories of supply and demand, scarcity and abundance, are intelligible only in terms of the measure of value established by socially necessary labor time. This measure of value is in turn intelligible only in terms of finite lifetime, which makes it possible for anything to be understood as a cost or as a gain in the first place. Something can be scarce or abundant only for someone who stands to win or lose the time to lead a life that matters to her.

In measuring social wealth as capital, we continually value necessary labor — what should be the means to pursue what we want in our free time — as the end. Hence, the actual end of free time isn’t recognized as having any value at all in a capitalist economy, and individually wealthy capitalists are, in principle, wealthy because they use their wealth to accumulate more wealth.

Now, because increasing the rate of profit is intrinsic to capitalist enterprises, the very dynamic of capitalism is a cycle of crisis. To earn more profit to sustain my water business, I invest in technologies to make production more efficient, thereby increasing the relative surplus value I can extract from the labor of my workers. However, in doing so, the ratio of labor time (i.e., the measure of value I extract from my workers) decreases while the ratio of production time (i.e., nonliving technological productivity from which I cannot extract a surplus value) increases. “The more efficient my technological means of production become, the more my rate of profit tends to fall.”

Hence, unemployment isn’t merely a byproduct of a capitalist economy, but necessary to the capitalist dynamic itself. Because the rate of profit falls the more I convert surplus time into surplus value, the more I need to exploit my workers, over whom I now hold more bargaining power, by intensifying the extraction of their labor and/or by purchasing labor time elsewhere (i.e., exporting production and jobs to cheaper locations). The destructive cycle mandates that capitalism can only sustain itself by increasing the rate of production to make a profit and create capital, which must then be destroyed to continue making a profit: in practice, this is the busts and booms we’ve witnessed.

Defining Spiritual Freedom

The contradiction of capital bears an emancipatory potential within itself. The more advanced our technological powers become, the more manifest it becomes that labor time is an inadequate measure for social wealth. When the process of production is increasingly automated and the need for living labor reduced, “the human being comes to relate more as a watchman and regulator to the production process itself.” This is potentially emancipatory, since it can lead us to develop ourselves as “social individuals.”

To have freedom is to have the ability to ask oneself what one ought to do with one's time. In living, itself a temporal activity, we recognize that we are finite: we care about the risk of failing or losing the object in which we place our sense of secular faith, be it our life, the earth or love. Secular faith, compared to religious faith premised on salvation in eternity, is thereby necessarily temporal. It is because we care about our finitude that we are able to assemble our identities and prioritize the urgency of what we want to do in our life. Hence, what belongs to each of us is our time and, therein, our spiritual freedom to participate in the possible transformations of our purpose. Rather than hoping for a resolution of suffering and a promise of eternal bliss after this life, secular faith is concerned with the liberation of finite life and not from it.

We are each capable of leading our own lives. We are, therefore, each an end in ourselves. This is a core commitment of all liberal thought: that “each individual’s life is of ultimate worth, rather than relative to another life.” In defining this, it’s also important to grasp that humans are social beings. Our practical identities (i.e., who I take myself to be, a standard of integrity that I use to understand how I’m succeeding or failing to be myself) are shaped by socially instituted norms and are therefore inseparable from the societies to which we belong. Even freedom is itself a social-historical achievement, as a sense of independence cannot be achieved independently but is dependent on the recognition of others in a social context.

Historical epochs will always require some economy of time, some form of labor, some form of social relations and some mode of producing or reproducing life. That we are formed as free subjects is “by the institutional practices through which we come to understand ourselves and our inclinations.” And because we are free, how we choose to organize our economy and how we measure the value of our time are open to transformation. In striving for spiritual freedom, which we already do because the division of labor is an issue we’re concerned about, the rational goal is to “reduce the realm of necessity and increase the realm of freedom.”

An actual free society, then, is one in which “we can recognize our commitment to the common good as the possibility for our own freedom.” Being that the state is a collective form of life, an actual free society is one in which there is mutual recognition of the state and the individual such that we are bound by the laws of the state, that are in turn transformable by us. Rather than being subjected to production for the sake of capital, we the workers must be “educated as social individuals who democratically plan the purposes of production,” becoming then the subjects of production so that we can design technology and plan production for our own purposes.

What if we take the real measure of our social wealth as the available free time we have? Instead of regarding unemployment as a problem, could we see it as an opportunity? How could we use the technologies we have to make our necessary labor more efficient so that we can all reduce the need to work, rather than employ and exploit human labor even when it isn’t needed? To be free, then, would mean that we are free to engage the demands of having a practical identity — how we might be succeeding or failing at being a parent, citizen, doctor, athlete or scholar. And that we are free to question our existential identity: how we prioritize our practical identities and how we choose to hold onto them or let them go. Ultimately, we can be bound by the commitments we choose instead of by the necessities dictated by our material needs.

While capitalism has been instrumental in creating the material conditions that make it possible to reduce labor time for the whole society, it is time for us to revalue our conception of value. Labor time must now cease to be the measure of social wealth. We can challenge the norms that govern our lives and change the forms of our state, our collective self-legislation, so that we become actually democratic and actually free: a society in which we deliberate on how best to serve the interests of society as a whole.

Establishing Principles of Democratic Socialism

The idea that wage labor — which by definition is a means — is required for the sense of purpose and meaningful activity (an end in itself) is entirely specious. If we value freedom, what we need is time to figure out who we should be and what matters to us. This requires time to educate ourselves and to deliberate on what should count as meaningful activities for us — both individually and collectively — rather than being prescribed what should count as meaningful activities by what happens to be profitable for a capitalist at the moment.

Having established that a critique of capitalism cannot only be a critique of "the socioeconomic relations that prevent the wealth from being distributed in the right way," but rather a critique of the measure of value underlying the very mode of production itself, we can see how overcoming capitalism requires much more than simply distributing the wealth generated in a more equal way. Though a social democratic welfare state can provide us with universal health insurance and education while restricting inequality and redistributing wealth through a progressive tax, it is categorically impossible to “regain control of capitalism”: the less we exploit labor for the sake of profit, the less wealth there will be to finance the welfare state. The project of building a democratic socialist state, instead, is principally a political transformation of the economy, the revaluation of value.

So, too, do we need to understand that there can be no freedom outside of social institutions. Freedom can only be formed, and thereby achieved, through the social institution of democracy, whereby we recognize that we are each responsible for organizing, legislating, promoting and practicing the principles of our life together. Instead of being answerable to God, we are answerable to each other. The conditions of such a society cannot rest on civil rights alone — having an equal vote in democratic elections — but must also be woven into the purpose and practice of our economy. Only this would allow us to move beyond discussions of how we should distribute our wealth to discuss how we measure our wealth in the first place.

At the same time, while it is important for us to grasp that the "commitment to social freedom for all became possible because of the historical advent of capitalism," it is also now incumbent upon us to realize that there is no natural sunsetting at which point capitalism transitions into something else. As we can see, "even though our material wealth is greater than ever before it is also more unevenly distributed than ever before." It is a dynamic intrinsic to capitalism that the individual capitalists who today possess enormous capital wealth are still seeking to accumulate more. There will not be what liberal political economists consider the "stationary state" whereby we would have accumulated enough capital wealth to finally forego pursuing growth. We must be the ones to revaluate value: to decide that we will develop new forms of technology to serve our purposes rather than profit.

The key to democratic socialism is to have institutions (including educational institutions and forms of political deliberation) that enable individuals to lead their lives in light of recognizing their dependence on others and on collective projects. Moreover, the key to democratic socialism is to have institutions in which we participate because we recognize ourselves and our freedom in their form. The participation in social institutions — including the social labor that we recognize as necessary to sustain our society — should not be secured by coercion but be motivated by our active commitment to participation.

Contrary to the assumption that “all forms of socialism require a form of central planning” that is top-down and undemocratic, a democratic socialist society must also grant us the possibility to refuse to participate. More than the “freedom” we might gain under capitalism — reduced in actuality to the liberty to make choices since we aren’t directly coerced — a democratic socialist society requires that we can engage in making the fundamental decisions that then determine the range of choices we have. How might we imagine and materialize such an institution?

In our collective imagining and practice as the Democratic Socialists of America, we seek to materialize the three principles Hägglund articulates:

     i) Instead of measuring our social wealth in terms of profit and capital, we measure our wealth in terms of the available free time we have.

     ii) To achieve this revaluation of value, the means of production must be collectively owned, instead of privately owned. Note here: collective ownership doesn't restrict us from owning our own things. Rather, we would cease considering our things valuable to us (or our own) because they are commodities that can be sold for profit.

     iii) When delineating necessary labor from free labor, we define each of our practical identities as our own decisions to cultivate our abilities so that we are collectively committed to sharing (and reducing) necessary labor while participating in free and social labor for the sake of our common good and freedom.

As previously established, human beings will produce more in their lifetimes than they consume, hence our notion of — and concern with — free time. Instead of converting this surplus time into surplus value as we do under capitalism, what could our society and economy look like if we regard our surplus time as an end in itself? How might we pool our resources and abilities to create and direct technologies that reduce the amount of labor time needed to maintain us materially?

As just one example, consider an internet that isn't privately owned by monopolistic businesses that artificially slow our internet speeds or otherwise control our usage for the sake of profit. As another example, consider art that is publicly displayed for the enjoyment of all who choose to participate and that cannot be privately purchased and "owned" by individuals.

The idea of democratic socialism isn't a utopia. Just as there is no eventual state that capitalism can reach "on its own," thereby providing us with overabundance, a democratic socialist society exists — just as all other institutions do — insofar as we continually renew our commitment to practicing it. As Martin Luther King Jr. elucidates in what he called "the two Americas," socialism in some regards already exists for the rich where there is "rugged individualism for the poor.” In other words, available free time to devote our lives to what we love and to engage in the question of who we are in a way that doesn't commodify our practical identities as merely "hobbies" within a leisure industry. And yet, our individual freedom is contingent on the freedom of others in our society to engage with us. Any sense of the self and of freedom, after all, isn't first formed before being subjected to an external fate but originates and is externalized from the beginning in material practices. Put succinctly, "if the institutions on which we depend exploit the labor time of others even as they give us free time to lead our lives, then we ourselves fall short of actual freedom."

The world we work towards facilitates true equality of opportunity, possible only by organizing our society to value the free time we each have to shape ourselves and our purpose, and thereby collectively producing the resources that we all need to secure our "material well-being, education, and social recognition." While this requires radical envisioning, our practice is guided by Rosa Luxemburg's argument that the reforms we fight for are a means toward the end of a "social revolution." For us, as democratic socialists, this revolution is towards, made possible by and grounded in articulating who we are as free beings: our own secular faith that we are the leaders of our own lives and therefore of our own social institutions. To end with Marx's words,

Then it will be shown that the world has long been dreaming of something that it actually can make its own, if only it becomes conscious of it. It will be shown that it is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of carrying out the thoughts of the past. And finally, it will be shown that mankind begins no new work, but consciously accomplishes its old work.
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