Freeing Up the Time of Our Lives
A commentary based on Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Life and Spiritual Freedom
If we had all the time in the world, if we were immortal, then it wouldn’t matter how we spent our time, for there would always be more of it. But if life is short, then it matters a lot. If everything and everyone we care about is finite, if we and the people we love are mortal and can die at any moment – and will die at some moment – then our value is infinite. Every day and every minute of our finite lives is supremely important. How, then, should we arrange our lives together so that the time of our brief lives is well spent?
In view of our mortality, wouldn’t we want to spend as much of our allotted time as possible doing things we want to do, that are worth doing for their own sake, and to minimize the time we spend doing things we have to do? There is the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity. The realm of necessity is what we have to do whether we want to or not; it includes the activities necessary for maintaining life: cleaning; caring for children, the ill, the injured, and the aged; building and maintaining dwellings and infrastructure; and growing and preparing food belong to the realm of necessity. Some people may enjoy this work, but it has to be done whether we enjoy it or not. The realm of freedom, on the other hand, consists of the activities we choose to do because they are valuable in themselves: athletic activities, art, music, literature, science, and philosophy are examples.
The realm of necessity is unavoidable in any society: stuff that has to be done regardless of whether anyone would choose to do it. There are different ways of getting people to do such work. The Greeks and Romans built their empires with the power of people they enslaved; so did American capitalism. Thus citizens, especially the elites, were free to engage in the arts, sciences, and, of course, politics. Then there are various ways of tying the lower classes to the land, as in feudalism and sharecropping, in which what peasants produce must be shared with upper classes, again leaving the well-born with time to pursue what seemed to them most valuable, such as explaining why God wanted things to be this way.
Does capitalism give us all the right to choose how we shall spend our time? Capitalism got its wealth in the first place by means of slavery in the US and the Caribbean, rapacious colonialism in Africa and Central and South America, and the dispossession of native peoples in the US and elsewhere. Wage labor, though, became the primary way for capital to make money. But although wage labor is called “free” labor, to set it apart from slavery, it is more perceptive to call it wage slavery. Whatever job we do for a wage becomes part of our realm of necessity, not only because we have to do it to stay alive, but because while we’re at work, we are under the dictatorship of our employer. Even the owners and managers of capital, in spite of their wealth, are not free from the demands of capital which requires them to grow their capital by ceaselessly competing for investment opportunities – more land, more resources, more labor and more consumers to exploit. Where can you rest your eyes on things and activities that are not in some way exploited by capital? Like a cancer on the living earth, capital sucks everything, including the time of our lives, into its grasp to the point that the survival of life, and certainly civilized life, is in question.
Is there a way of organizing a society that would expand the realm of freedom and shrink the realm of necessity, so that more of our time would be our own and not under control of others whose interests are opposed to our own? Let’s consider Democratic Socialism as it is laid out in three principles by Martin Hägglund in his book This Life.
First, we make it the purpose of our society to liberate our time from the realm of necessity, to expand the time in which we do what we, individually and collectively, choose to do.
Second, the means of production, the goods and resources we need to maintain our lives together, must be owned and managed democratically, for otherwise we do not control the valuable time of our lives as the first principle requires.
The third principle is familiar: As WEB DuBois phrased it, “the effort to give all people what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute—this is the only way of human life."
Unless we trust that our needs will be met, we cannot freely choose how to spend our time, and we cannot know that our needs will be met unless we cooperate in meeting these needs to the best of our ability. And what we need is not only what we have to have just to live, but also what we need to flourish, and flourish together. We need the means to develop our abilities – our abilities to do the things we find satisfying and the abilities to work together as citizens of a fully democratic society.
Such a society will reduce and transform necessary labor in three ways:
First, a great deal of necessary labor can be done in the realm of freedom when we no longer have to worry about making a living by selling the time of our lives to others. Child care, gardening, and architecture are socially necessary activities, but many people love to do them for their own sake, and would do so in a free society.
Second, the problem with unpleasant but necessary labor today is that those who do it do it because they need the money in order to survive; that makes it hard to “identify with the social purpose of what they are doing.” In a cooperative society, socially necessary labor is “shared by members of society on the basis of their abilities and commitments, with the explicit purpose of contributing to a common good that everyone can recognize as” making their lives better.
Third, since we all participate in necessary labor, we will have good reason to develop and deploy labor-saving technology, whose purpose now would not be to eliminate jobs that people need, but to decrease and enhance the amount of time we spend doing things we have to do.
In capitalist society, most people at some level feel alienated from a society in which so much of the short time we have to live must be given over to doing things that we do not choose to do. We cannot feel at home in a society that is governed, economically and politically, by forces unconcerned with our welfare. People do what they can to carve out a space in this unfriendly space where they can feel more or less safe and comfortable – though many millions of us, some of whom you can see living on our streets, are unable to achieve even this. But very few of us feel any sense of owning or belonging to this society. Democratic Socialism will be the first society that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. Only such a society has a shot at not perishing from the earth.
I’m Clayton Morgareidge for the Old Mole Variety Hour
Image: "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow" by Thomas Cole, 1836. Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia
 Any of these can become necessary. For example, if one’s job is making music, then you have to produce music whether you want to or not. Conversely, something that typically belongs to the realm of necessity can become enjoyable and done for its own sake: gardening or childcare, for example. But from the perspective of society as a whole, growing and preparing food is socially necessary: someone has to do it, while music, art and philosophy can and will be done by those who choose them.
 Hägglund, This Life, p. 310.