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  • Neoliberalism, Irritation, and the Theory and Practice of Richard Flathman
  • Stephen G. Engelmann (bio)

This past spring I found myself, for a few minutes anyway, channeling Flathman. I had done a paper on liberalism and neoliberalism and the roomful of economists could not understand how there might be a libertarian critique of neoliberalism. The minority “Austrians” in the audience seemed especially scandalized by this argument because they are so confident of, and in, their libertarian resistance to the dominant econometric ambitions of their colleagues—but in Flathmanian terms, they hadn’t even begun to think through the dilemmas attendant upon the institutionalizations of their ideals.1 Many at the conference were, like Flathman, neo-Constantians: immune to or even repulsed by my pleas for ancient liberty (the idea that our freedom consists in acting with others to chart the course of our common life), and skeptical of any insistence that modern liberty (the idea that freedom consists in charting the course of our own life free of interference) relies on the existence of particular material conditions requisite for its exercise. But Flathman would find their version of modern liberty in and through market exchange dreary and dispiriting at best and dangerous to freedom at worst. It is dreary and dangerous not only because of the monism and rationalism evident from the fact that their vision of modern liberty can so easily square nominally voluntary action with econometric and behavioral science, and dreary and dangerous not only from the fact that this liberty can so readily square the ideal of non-intervention with the sovereign enterprise of economic stability and growth, but additionally dreary and dangerous because of the intimate connection between the implementation of their vision of negative liberty and the imposition of all kinds of demands and thus constraints on the freedom of self-enacting individuals.

In my Flathman moment I didn’t go far down this last road—which would have been the most important to him—seeing as how my main concern was the disenchantment of politics by economics.2 That is not a Flathman concern. And because of my focus I was insulated from thinking through any of the dilemmas attendant upon the ideals smuggled in along with my quite typical political theorist’s celebration of politics and the public realm. Flathman was irritated by this affirmation and celebration,3 insistent that individuality and liberty require a “chastened” and preventive or defensive understanding of politics4 that even at its most necessarily engaged would entail a “pathos of distance.”5 What follows is a belated appreciation of the value of this pathos, especially as it might apply against too much participation in the proximate political context that most of us inhabit, the neoliberal university.

Although Dick’s death was expected, it took me by surprise. The death of one’s advisor is a little like the death of a parent; it becomes partly about oneself. In retrospect I can see that my continuing preoccupation with the monism and peculiar rationalism of economic government, and with the meanings and deployments of the traditions and sciences that serve it, are of Flathmanian inspiration. I can only see this in retrospect because I spent my graduate apprenticeship and beyond resisting much of the style and content of his theoretical practice and the professional contexts it inhabited and extended. But because Dick was so theoretically and practically devoted to the ideal of individuality and the deepening of plurality—he trained a range of dispositionally and politically different theorists—he always thought this resistance of mine was perfectly appropriate and something to celebrate, even as he took his professional obligation to train me seriously enough to counter and refine the resistance with his characteristic acuity, wit, and smothering erudition. He even signaled from time to time that a little less resistance and a little more attentiveness to the requisites of the field would definitely help with the training—but of course, anything more than the occasional strong signal would constitute undue interference with my freedom to fuck up in my own way. Dick Flathman was above all a liberal, and like too few liberals he took his liberalism very seriously indeed...

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