Book/Article Reviews, Academic Philosophy

Death, and How Not To “Argue” Against Neoliberalism

I recently reviewed an excellent collection of papers on death and immortality (Michael Cholbi’s *Immortality and the Philosophy of Death*) for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Nestled among the papers on deprivationism, Epicureanism, immortality, and the nature of harm was what looked like a very interesting paper linking Hayekian liberalism to the idea of death as a failure.

Oh, my word, was this paper bad. Not just bad, but willfully, egregiously, aggressively bad.

Here’s what I ended up saying about it….. and this is the very charitable version of my comments that I judged suitable for print (or, at least, pixels):

Beglin’s paper is followed by Beverly Clack’s “Constructing Death as a Form of Failure: Addressing Mortality in a Neoliberal Age”. Clack’s thesis is unclear, but it appears to be that within “neoliberal discourse” death is a form of failure and that this “renders impossible discussion about what it means to be a mortal subject” (p.129). Instead of this approach we should, she asserts, recognize our shared vulnerability, and this will help us prioritize the important things that “emerge from our shared life”, such as “love, relationship, friendship, laughter” (p.129). If this brief precis of Clack’s contribution leaves one wondering what neoliberalism has to do with death being a form of failure and why viewing death in this way makes it “impossible” to discuss “what it means to be a mortal subject” and to recognize the value of things that “emerge from shared life”, reading the paper won’t help.

There is so much that is obviously wrong with Clack’s paper that it is hard to know where to begin. However, for reasons of space a methodological point and a substantive criticism will have to suffice. The methodological point first. Clack cites no proponent of the “neoliberal” view that she criticizes. Instead, her exegeses of this view are drawn entirely from secondary sources that are critical of it. To base criticisms of a position on its critics’ characterizations of it is, at best, intellectually lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest. Substantively (and in part perhaps because she draws on its critics for information about it) Clack gets the neoliberal view badly wrong. It is simply false that neoliberals (who are advocates of voluntary association) hold that solidarity with others is “a sign of weakness” (p.117, quoting Philip Mirowski’s popular work Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste). It is simply false that neoliberals are committed to seeing death as a personal failure (as a socio-economic position neoliberalism has no views of any kind on death), and it is simply false that neoliberals fail to recognize that there are things that we cannot control. Indeed, on this last point there is a deep irony in Clack equating neoliberalism with Hayekian views and then criticizing it for failing to recognize that there are socioeconomic forces that lie outside our control. (Perhaps Clack should be reminded of exactly why Hayek received his Nobel Prize.)

The full review of the book–which is excellent, by the way–can be found here.



Published on:
Author: James Taylor
  • CJColucci

    If, like Woody Allen, you wish to achieve immortality by not dying, then you can coherently think of death as a “failure.” Otherwise, I have no damn idea what that means.

  • Jameson Graber

    Well, it’s good to know academia is still getting along as usual.

  • Nowadays ‘Neoliberalism’ is just a lefty term of abuse. Those who use it do not tell us what it means; it just indicates what they don’t like.

    • urstoff

      I used to define “neoliberlism” ostensively as whatever the IMF believed in the 90’s and 00’s, and that seemed to cover most cases. Now it seems to just mean “vaguely market-based society, but only the bad parts”.

      • TracyW

        I’ve heard it used to refer to straight out facism.

    • Theresa Klein

      No it doesn’t. We have no idea what it means. Just that they are better than it and wish to let us know that.

  • Hollis Butts

    Dr. Clacks’s prose gives the impression of being a sly parody, mocking the supposed silliness and opaqueness of philosophy itself. This sort of thing perhaps flies in the realm of, say, feminist theology but less so with hard-hearted, neolib-tolorant, Hayek-loving libertarians.

  • martinbrock

    Tenured academics with taxpayer guaranteed pensions never die, because they have reached the pinnacle of success.

  • j r

    Clack cites no proponent of the “neoliberal” view that she criticizes. Instead, her exegeses of this view are drawn entirely from secondary sources that are critical of it.

    Unfortunately, this is par for the course today. Say what you want about the original modernist and post-modernist thinkers (the Heideggers and Derridas and Foucaults), they at least understood the tradition on which they were offering critiques. At this stage in the game, it’s more important to understand the critiques of the critiques then it is to understand what it is that you are supposed to be critiquing in the first place.


    Perhaps this author is doing his best Sokal impression: