Saturday, June 6, 2020

Time, Capitalism, and Philosophy

In America the great battle cry of the anti-capitalists is, "I want my time back." Whenever some young person says, "capitalism sucks," the underlying meaning seems to be a struggle over time: capitalism sucks because it requires people to work long hours to have any kind of decent life. A desire to control our time is at the root of the push for Universal Basic Income, summed up by a squatter I once met as, "Rent is just stealing. You shouldn't have to pay to live." If people had their basic needs met, most would probably choose to work for something better, but that would be their choice; nobody would have to work.

This desire to break the hold of work over our time goes back at least to Karl Marx, who thought the future workers' paradise would feature more leisure and much less work. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote a famous article arguing that by 2020 we should only have to work about 15 hours a week to maintain a middle class standard of living. In 2013 I wrote here about a book by two contemporary economists called How Much is Enough?, arguing that if we could just get off the treadmill of wanting ever more we could focus more on the things that actually make for a good life.

Last year Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund, who teaches at Yale and was vaguely connected to Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, wrote a book called This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom that makes the struggle over our time the central concern of philosophy. Hägglund shares the belief of all the young anarchists that capitalism is bad because it forces us to spend our time on things we hate, which spiritually destroys us.

Hägglund starts from the question of what it means to value something:
Whether I hold something to be of small, great, or inestimable value, I must be committed to caring for it in some form. . . . is a question of devoting my own lifetime to what I value. To value something, I have to be prepared to give it at least a fraction of my time.… Finite lifetime is the originary measure of value. The more I value something, the more of my lifetime I am willing to spend on it.
Hägglund extends this argument into both religion and politics. Hägglund is an atheist who accepts the old existentialist argument that belief in god strips our lives of meaning. If we are really going to live forever, then it doesn't matter what we spend our time on, and therefore it is impossible for us to really value anything. It is the finitude of our lives that gives our choices meaning. Therefore, positing anything eternal – god, heaven, life – demeans us rather than exalting us.
What I do with my time can matter to me only because I grasp my life as finite. If I believed that I had an infinite time to live, the urgency of doing anything would be unintelligible and no normative obligation could have any grip on me.
The part of Hägglund's work that has gotten the most attention is his advocacy of socialism over capitalism. To him, having to work at things we do not value is death to our souls, and the very opposite of freedom. Jedediah Purdy summarizes:
To take free choice seriously, he argues, we need a conception of freedom that is not tied to selling our time and talents at the market rate just to go on living. We are in “the realm of freedom,” writes Hägglund, when we can act in keeping with our values. By contrast, we are in the “realm of necessity” when we adopt an alien set of priorities just to get by. A great many of the choices most people face under capitalism fall within the realm of necessity. How do you make a living in an economy that rewards predatory lending over teaching and nursing? Or how do you present yourself in a workplace that rewards competition and often embarrassing self-promotion?

Economic thought treats these choices as if they were just as “free” as Bill Gates’s next decision to channel his philanthropic spending to this group or that. Hägglund sees it differently: Our economy keeps its participants locked in the realm of necessity for much of their lives, draining away their time in unfree activity. In the realm of necessity there is very little opportunity to spend our lives on the things we care for, to devote ourselves to what we think most worthwhile. Economic life may be a tapestry of choices, but as long as it directs its participants toward goals they do not believe truly worthwhile, a life of such choice is a grotesque of freedom.

The market presses some people closer to the bone than others, but it drives everyone, because it is a system for determining the price of things, among them time itself, and substituting that price for any competing valuation. You cannot exempt yourself.
There is certainly a sense in which this is true; if there are things you have to do, you are not really free.

But how, exactly, is that the fault of capitalism? Even the hunter-gatherers we like to imagine living in a lazy utopia had to work. Lions have to hunt; chimpanzees have to search for fruit and fish for termites. I simply do not understand these socialists who think that under a change of regime we could avoid doing things we don't want to do. Does anybody like cleaning bathrooms or repairing tar roofs? Hägglund recognizes that this is a problem, but he waves it away in the maddening style of all anarchists. Under democratic socialism, he insists, we will deliberate about all these things democratically and learn to value each other's needs and end up wanting to do things like rebuild sewers and change bedpans. Even Purdy, who is something of a left-wing utopian himself, finds this dubious:
There is always some work that not all that many people really want to do, unwelcome but socially necessary labor. There is no way around emptying bedpans, caring for the severely demented, sorting recycled goods, providing day care for other people’s children, picking lettuce, cleaning up after concerts, and so forth. Hägglund writes that under democratic socialism “we will be intrinsically motivated to participate in social labor when we can recognize that the social production is for the sake of the common good and our own freedom to lead a life,” making such labor “inherently free.”

Readers who have these doubts, Hägglund writes, “should consider their lack of faith in our spiritual freedom.”
Well, I have considered it, and I find that my lack of faith in our spiritual freedom is entirely justified. It could well be that under a different system we might enjoy our jobs a little more, or dislike them a little less, but I think a world where people freely do all the work that an advanced civilization requires is a straight-up fantasy.

There is an alternative to our way of living, but I think it necessarily involves being materially poorer than we are. If we did not apply pressure to people to work harder, and relied on everyone's spiritual freedom, we would do less materially productive work and end up with less stuff. I think this is so obvious that I cannot fathom how so many anarchists dispute it. We could have a world with more free time and less pressure to to economically productive work, but that world would have to be less posh than this one.

And to me, this world where we have more freedom but less stuff is within our grasp. We could have it if we wanted to; in fact, plenty of people do have it. All over the world millions of people work less than they could and live materially poorer lives because of that choice. I know people who have opted out of the system, live in poor communities where housing is cheap, do just enough work to get by, and devote themselves to what they really enjoy. This is entirely possible for most Americans and Europeans without any change in the system at all.

The fact that most people do not choose to do this, but choose instead to chase more money or more prestige by investing tons of effort in their careers says to me that Marx and Hägglund and all the rest of them are simply wrong about human nature.

Capitalism is not forcing anybody to do anything. It is the basic rules of mammalian life that force us to labor for our livings, and our own ambition that drives to work harder than we have to for nicer stuff and a higher slot on the totem pole.

So to all the young people out there who want their time back I say this: make it happen. Move somewhere cheap, learn a skill that allows you to earn a sustenance in 20 hours a week, and live your dream. Nobody is stopping you, certainly not "capitalism." As for assertions that we could have a world that is as materially splendid as this one without surrendering our time to the capitalist monster, a world in which we could all be both rich and free, I say, baloney.


David said...

I wouldn't disagree with you overall, but I think you may be overstating the extent to which ambition motivates large numbers of people to work hard, the portion of the population that is ambitious, and the extent to which ambition is part of some general "human nature."

I think a lot of people work hard for other reasons. Some do it so that other people (especially their parents) will not think badly of them, or see them as letting down the family or their family's hereditary status. You could conceivably construe this as ambition, but it's mostly about avoiding loss rather than seeking gain, and much of it is about the projected or real disapproval of others. Then there's the sunk cost motivation--I got the degree, I can't just give it all up (with, again, parents and other scolds pointing fingers about how much they invested in the person in question). Plus our culture does teach habits like obedience, task-completion, and panting after the praise of superiors. I've known people who do things, including work hard, and they report they do it because "everyone said I was good at it" and "everyone said I should do it."

People also do things, including hard and at times dreary things, out of obligation and group or other-identification--consider housework and child-rearing.

None of this is to say that socialism or anarchism is the answer, or that socialists and anarchists don't have the irritating tendencies during argument that you cite. But you could say that the silly fallacy of pro-capitalists is to assume that we're all wannabe titans. I don't think capitalism exists because a majority, or even a third, of us are so many budding Elon Musks. I suspect most of us, particularly after about age 27, don't even like competition or deeply desire to dominate others. In many ways, our instincts are egalitarian, especially in the direction of cutting down anyone who wants to be better than us. Mark Moffett, in his excellent The Human Swarm, reports data that hunter-gatherers spend a lot of their time cutting each other down to size--making sure the best hunter doesn't get too big for his britches, and so on.

And part of what makes people resent capitalism is the feeling that they're working for the profit and glory of another, who likely despises them as inferiors. The hypertrophy of the command-obedience and "dominate the battle space" models of leadership in our society also provoke alienation and resentment.

David said...

I would add that your post reminds me of why I think existentialism is, to use a philosophical term of art, dumb. I'd love the chance to spend a few hundred years seeing whether not-dying takes away the meaning from my life. Plus, if ideas like otherworldly beings and an afterlife deprive life of meaning, then why have billions upon billions of people thought precisely the opposite, for tens of thousands of years? And no, I don't think it's because the priests and kings or the owners of the means of production manipulated them into doing so. And if an existentialist wants to say that it's because most people are cowards, that confirms what I've long suspected, which is that existentialism is largely about vanity.

I'm an unbeliever, but not by choice.

David said...

Ugh, I wish blogger had an "edit post" function. If it did, I'd replace "your post" with "Hagglund's argument."

John said...

I certainly understand that we are put under a lot of pressure to have careers and houses and middle class lives. As I think you understand, my point is that 1) we could ignore all of that if we wanted to badly enough, and 2) it is tendentious to call our whole social system "capitalism" and to assume that "democratic socialism" would remove all the pressures on us to work hard and conform.

David said...

"we could ignore all of that if we wanted to badly enough"

I suppose, in a spirit analogous to liberal "safetyism," I want to make it easier for the faint of heart to "ignore all of that." I don't find an option to be real if one has to be heroic in order to choose it.

Perhaps another way of putting it is that making an option easier is what whole societies do if they want the option badly enough.

David said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of Hagglund's arguments about "democratic socialism." A mixed system is best, as you often argue, and a mixed system is what we have.

That said, I think some course correction is in order, away from the tough-guy capitalism aspect that has been in the ascendant for the last forty years or so.