Written by Martin Hägglund


Review by Gunnel Minett

At first glance this seems to be a book of two halves. The first half deals with our basic understanding of life in terms of a religious versus a secular outlook. The second half of the book discusses capitalism and in particular how to reinterpret Karl Marx’s views on the subject. Initially, it seems as if Hägglund is over-stretching in trying to cover the entirety of human life. However, at the end of the book, the motive for this wide-ranging approach becomes clear. As human beings we are facing a massive challenge in the form of climate change, which threatens the survival of our planet. To deal with a problem on this scale, we need to rethink our whole existence, from the very beginning of biological evolution.

As the current COVID pandemic has taught us, we are extremely vulnerable as a species, although previously insufficiently aware of this. We are used to think of threats as mainly coming from other human beings. Every country in the world spends money on military defences in order to protect themselves, but, as we all learnt in March 2020, a far greater threat to the whole world was rapidly emerging. We did not see it coming. Despite the fact that this is not the first time in human history that a pandemic has had a devastating effect on the world’s population, we seemed to have been totally unprepared for it. We had to move quickly to drastically change the way we live. Fortunately, in this case our knowledge of the human body seems to have been sufficient for scientists to develop ‘a weapon’ against this new threat, in the form of a vaccine. Still, many argue that the pandemic is just a ‘rehearsal’ for the much bigger problem of changing how we manage the environment in order to sustain a habitable planet.

This explains why Hägglund starts his book by going back to the origin of life on our planet and describing how it differs from the dead matter. According to Hägglund all life requires activity to sustain it. Unlike dead matter, all living creatures have a beginning, a middle and an end to their lifespan. For humans, this drive to sustain life, is linked to our understanding of life and death. Knowing that we will not live forever matters to us. However, this knowledge is not necessarily a bad thing since it provides a certain level of urgency: it drives us to be pursue life actively, to make sure we utilise the time we have before it’s too late. (This can be compared with Jaak Panksepp’s SEEKING system, which Panksepp explains is the driving force for both humans and animals. This driving force is behind our motivations and curiosity. To understand the SEEKING system helps us understand the nature of human feelings.*)

Hägglund turns to thinkers such as St. Augustine, Proust, Kierkegaard, Hegel and Knausgård to analyse the relationship between human motivation and our awareness of the inevitability of death. For instance, he looks at Knausgård’s autobiographical writings to highlight the importance of being aware of every moment as something precious that will not last forever and therefore needs our full attention. However, as Hägglund argues, we are simultaneously driven by religious beliefs, which, more or less, invariably promote the notion of eternal life. This focus on eternity, however, diminishes the drive to be active. If urgency ceases to matter, so does meaning in our lives. So instead of religious faith, Hägglund suggests secular faith. He argues that : “The object of secular faith is always a spiritual cause, which moves us to act and determines what is important to us.” As examples of spiritual causes he suggests: “the parental love that focuses our attention, the artistic vocation that gives direction to our aspirations,… or the political cause for the sake of which we are willing risk our lives”. (p.172). He continues: “When we own our secular faith, we acknowledge that the object of our faith – our spiritual cause – is dependent on our practice of faith.” (p.173)

Understanding the difference between religious and secular faith requires the insight that religious belief is insufficient to give our lives a satisfactory direction. We need to co-create the world we live in, to a much larger degree than we are familiar with in today’s society. To explain this Hägglund turns to Karl Marx in particular, to explain capitalism. According to Hägglund, Marx’s views are much misunderstood in both socialist and capitalist countries. These misunderstandings have also produced negative impacts on both types of society. Hägglund suggest that ‘Democratic Socialism’ is a better solution. This involves; shared ownership of our resources, and a better understanding of the difference between ‘price’ and ‘value’. As an example he discusses Martin Luther King’s work to help the poor in America. Although King was a Christian minister, Hägglund argues that he was preaching a secular faith when he told people that it wasn’t enough to talk about “long white robes over yonder”: people also need clothes to wear when they are still on earth. 

One of the features of Hägglund’s Democratic Socialism is some form of universal salary which would enable people to pursue interests in life. Many such interests are not normally recognised in a capitalist system and consequently don’t pay enough to live on. This is, of course, an interesting thought in these COVID times when governments around the world have been forced to pay people to stay at home doing nothing. But it is not only pandemics that may force governments to change in this respect: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is taking over large areas of employment. Previously, the backbone of the capitalist system depended on generating income for the mass of the population, which they then spend on consumption, thus generating further income for others. AI’s disruption of these processes poses another major problems for modern societies. In other words, capitalism requires people to work in order to earn the money which they then spend on the goods and services that capitalism produces. If their work is taken over by machines, then new ways of generating incomes for the people must be found. A universal salary is Hägglund’s solution.

Interestingly this book has become popular around the world. This is not to say that all reviews have been positive. It seems to have created a bit of a ‘marmite effect’ – you either love it or hate it. It has been praised by some as giving “fresh philosophical and political vitality to a longstanding question”. At the same time others have talked about, “… a hair-raising utopia …” which is both “wrong and dangerous”. But whether you love or hate it, the book offers a lot of food for thought at a time when we desperately need to think fast in order to avoid existential risks for the survival of our planet.

*Panksepp, J., and Biven, L. (2012). The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. W W Norton

Profile  Books Ltd, ISBN : 9781788163019