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.