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Est. April 5, 2002
June 20, 2019 - Issue 794

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Marx and Martin
This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom

"Neither Marx nor King could begin to analyze the
pursuit of freedom and equality without discussing
the wrongs of an economic system that represents
the direct opposition of democracy (freedom and equality).
However, both thinkers considered ways to disable cruel
and unjust policies. Both Marx and King prioritized freedom
on Earth rather than eternity in the elsewhere.
For both thinkers, capitalism was not a given."

The Negro’s experience of the white world cannot

possibly create in him any respect for the standards

which the white world claims to live

James Baldwin,

The Fire Next Time: My Dungeon Shook; Down at the Cross

Committed to freedom and equality, Karl Marx recognized that democracy was the only solution for achieving a constitution for “real human beings” and for “real people” to posit a “people’s own creation,” writes Swedish philosopher Martin Hägglund. As an institution, democracy makes possible the rise of “the profound secular recognition that we are responsible for organizing and legislating the form of our life together.”

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, Hägglund calls on Marx’s critique of capitalism in order to explain why it is that “we cannot invoke religious dogma as the final word in a debate or as the founding authority of law.” For Marx, writes Hägglund, “the law exists for the sake of human beings,” rather than to appease a supernatural entity. On the other hand, while Marx recognizes the right of everyone to have a vote, as “a necessary condition for a truly free society,” he also understood that the achieving of civil rights was not the end of the people’s struggle. Our economy must be front and center in our deliberations about the democracy we want to see come about. “This is why capitalism and actual democracy are incompatible,” writes Hägglund.

It’s the economy that features a measure of value that is “self-contradictory.” In capitalism, Marx understood that what matters is growth—not of humanity but rather of capital itself. The thing and all the things capitalism begets, matters. What is value if not wealth? “If our social wealth depends on the growth of capital, we have no choice but to promote the purpose of profit, since our wealth as society depends on it.”

Human beings are of no worth—not so valuable if poor or homeless or unemployed or someone working two jobs to pay the rent. Thus the pursuit of secular faith or spiritual freedom would seem a luxury rather than a way we could exists as human beings. How is it possible to create new occupations when those occupations are not valued in a society that insists instead that we create occupations “that are profitable on the market, since only such occupations generate a growth of value in the economy”? As Hägglund writes, we need a “revaluation of value” if democratic socialism is ever to “overcome” capitalism. Socialism shouldn’t become “a matter of distributing the wealth generated by proletarian labor in a more equal way across society.”

I think back to how so many Americans welcomed the election of the first black president in Barack Obama. However different racial, Obama engaged nonetheless in the same practice of imperialist and capitalist war and conflict for control of the cultural and political narrative and material resources in which to extract more wealth from the many for the few. The black president deported more migrant workers than did President Bush, Jr. Americans of color endure the continuation of discrimination and police brutality. The economic system, however, was left unchanged, in fact, we can even recall witnessing the practice of socialism for the banks and other too-big-to-fail corporations. The dictates of the capitalist market performed well, for it was business as usual for the black president too.

Coerced proletarian labor,” as Marx noted, is no better than coerced wage labor. The transformation must be politically democratic and economically socialist. In a transformation of the economic system, there’s a focus on freedom. Not Hollywood’s version of freedom, however, where all the clothing comes off and the hair is short on one side and long on the other. The struggle isn’t about superficial change that still is valued on the “free” market.

On the contrary, for Marx, Hägglund writes, “to be free is not to be free from normative constraints, but to be free to negotiate, transform, and challenge the constraints of the practical identities in light of which we lead our lives.” The question we must ask ourselves, Hägglund continues, is “not if our freedom will be formed by social institutions—there can be no freedom that does not have an institutional form—but how and by which social institutions our freedom will be formed.” Institutions, then, writes Hägglund, would enable individuals to lead their lives in light of the recognition that their “dependence on others would result in collective projects” that have value for human beings.

We’d recognize ourselves and our freedom in these institutions, which in turn, wouldn’t require our coercion but rather our commitment to participate in what benefits everyone. Keep in mind that the aim of proletarian labor isn’t to “glorify” it, but instead “to overcome it.” Marx’s motto - “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”- is the condition for the “possibility for genuinely democratic deliberations regarding what matters to us and how we should care for one another,” Hägglund adds.

Democratic emancipation, Hägglund continues, requires the end of religious promises of eternal life as well as the end of the free market promising wealth and equality for all but impoverishing more and more of humanity while destroying our material resources. Hägglund cites Marx’s observation that the call to abandon the illusion “about their conditions,” that is capitalism and religion, is, quoting Marx, a “‘call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.’”

In contrast to democratic socialism, capitalism, Hägglund writes, “we are all in practice committed to a purpose in which we cannot recognize ourselves, which, inevitably leads to alienated forms of social life.” As a result of this social ordering of life, our needs and abilities are secondary to the necessity for us, society, to produce wealth. The capitalist measure of value contradicts and betrays while promising emancipation. It’s emancipation for a few who, in turn, suffer no shame in reminded their flock of poor and middle class workers about eternity—the reward for working hard yet earning less than livable wages.

In contrast to life under the brutal economic system of capitalism, the first principle of democratic socialism would be to measure our wealth in terms of “socially available free time,” Hägglund explains.

What a life that would be?

When I thought about Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., I conjured up an image of Uncle Tom. I’m a teen and anyone over 30-years old was old in 1968. Anyone preaching non-violence was certainly an Uncle Tom. I loved Malcolm and missed him by 1968, a few months after King was assassinated. By 1969, when I joined the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Chicago, and the young Jesse Jackson was our leader, I hadn’t changed my mind about King. He was an Uncle Tom until I stopped in-taking white America’s narratives about itself, contaminated as they still are with doses and doses of toxic innocence.

For Hägglund, too, across the ocean in Sweden, the “middle-class preacher” in pursuit of “middle-class goals” was King. This representation of King, far from radical, is deliberately intended to conceal the radical activist, hated by both the political and religious establishments, particularly after his 1967 Riverside Speech, in which he comes out against the war in Vietnam. King wasn’t preaching about that pie-in-the-sky, by-and-by, but, rather, how our home Earth demanded our attention. Humanity on Earth, life on Earth, perpetually demands our attention, for we should be humble guardians not money-hungry tyrants.

For King, it wasn’t a matter of reforming the state of unfreedom and inequality. As Hägglund notes, the first phase of the struggle, begun in 1955 with the Montgomery boycott, was an all-out blitz against unjust laws, resulting (ten years later) in the overturning of Jim Crow legislation and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There was nothing subtle about the torture and murder of activists or the bombing of churches and homes. Certainly the anger and hatred whites feeling defeated again lead to the second phase, where King exercising far more “radical measures,” isn’t courting the “goodwill” of government, but instead develops tactics to “compel unwilling authorities to yield to the mandates of justice.”

King’s Poor People’s Campaign is one result of this second phase strategy; it’s goal, far from benefiting the middle class, was intended to be a “‘genuine class movement’ transcending racial and ethnic lines to include Native Americans and Hispanics,” poor and working class whites as well as the unemployed. In Memphis, hours before he is murdered, King told the press: “‘You could say we are engaged in a class struggle, yes.’” Why—because “‘something is wrong with capitalism.’” He labored with trying to change the system from within for years, but now, it was a new day!

“‘I feel quite differently, I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revaluation of values.’”

A revaluation of values”!

This isn’t the King the media described before or after his death. As a teen in the North, raised in a Catholic family who believed Baptist to be heathens, for openers, King was a troublemaker. In my family, it was who is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?

In subsequent years, I’ve read King’s speeches and his writings. From my research, arose a phoenix. Sounds like the man read Karl Marx. I’d venture to say I suspect that over time he was less and less religious and more a human being in pursuit of freedom. When I read that This Life concluded with a discussion on King’s pursuit of freedom and equality, I wasn’t surprised.

Neither Marx nor King could begin to analyze the pursuit of freedom and equality without discussing the wrongs of an economic system that represents the direct opposition of democracy (freedom and equality). However, both thinkers considered ways to disable cruel and unjust policies. Both Marx and King prioritized freedom on Earth rather than eternity in the elsewhere. For both thinkers, capitalism was not a given.

For King in particular, “‘the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war’” are all of a piece. Yet, Hägglund explains, King’s “radical legacy” is ignored in cultural celebrations of his birthday and death. It’s ignored in the way textbooks frame his activism and work as examples of a Southern preacher, advocating non-violence. In other words, King became an advocate for the good behavior of African Americans. Hägglund, quotes the late Rev. Hosea Williams, fellow activist with King: “‘there is a definite effort on the part of Americans to change Martin Luther King, Jr. from what he was all about—to make him the Uncle Tom of the century. In my mind, he was the militant of the century.’”

As Hägglund rightly points out, King called for a “redistribution of wealth.” King recognized that the root problem stifling freedom, equality, and justice is “fundamental economics.” Hägglund, citing a speech King gave at the Workers Union of America in 1962, recognizes the activist in King shifting from a liberal stands to a radical one, calling for the complete dissolving of an unjust economic system. King: “‘We cannot create machines which revolutionize industry unless we simultaneously create ideas commensurate with social and economic re-organization, which harness the power of such machines for the benefit of man. The new age will not be an era of hope but of fear and emptiness unless we master this problem.’” All those decades before, King recognized that life in a thing-oriented society produces slaves of hate rather than human beings in pursuit of freedom.

King transformed; he becomes an individual for whom the economic system can no longer appease with the latest technology or fashion. There is something at stake, something worth dying for. After all, freedom is to love while engaged in the battle to overcoming hate.

In Marx’s version of King’s “I Have a Dream,” he speaks of transforming “our understanding of our struggle, our dreams, and our desires,” thus overcoming the contradictions within the practice of religion and politics.” Isn’t this understanding of our reality the lesson that the philosopher King learns about the struggle?

In the long run, Hägglund argues, the struggle, difficult as it is, must be sustained. He considers his own work, his own “philosophical account” as a thinker and writer to be “a part of the revolution, rather than external to it.” “The lives we lead,” Hägglund adds, “the form of society we sustain, will always depend on us and on what we do with our time.” Editorial Board member and Columnist, Lenore Jean Daniels, PhD, has a Doctorate in Modern American Literature/Cultural Theory. Contact Dr. Daniels.
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