Book Reviews

Is Economic Justice Conservatism for Real?

The new right is speaking the language of progressive economics, but that doesn’t mean the left can find common ground.

By Matthew Duss

Tagged conservatismInequalityprogressivism

Tyranny, Inc. by Sohrab Ahmari • Forum Books • 2023 • 288 pages • $28

The most interesting part of Tyranny, Inc., the new book by conservative writer Sohrab Ahmari, comes at the end, in the acknowledgements. There he explains how the book was conceived in the immediate wake of the 2020 election. Trump had lost, but Republicans had also increased their support among working-class voters, which Ahmari saw as signaling “an apparent class realignment in American politics.”

The Republican establishment was, in Ahmari’s view, ill-equipped to capitalize on this shift. Some Republicans talk pretty about the working class, but once one got past the rhetoric, he writes, “the GOP’s new pro-worker posture was largely divorced from the material problem of private economic coercion and the inequalities in power and income it generated.” Republicans had no theory of the case to present to these voters; they had no real story to tell. They inveighed against “woke capital,” but they offered as a solution the same stale anti-tax, deregulatory dogma that had eviscerated American workers’ livelihoods in the first place.

What concrete steps does Ahmari argue need to be taken? “The surest way to limit big business’s ideological influence—whatever the ideology—was to raise up the countervailing power of those subjected to it. And that meant regulations and unions,” Ahmari writes, describing the book’s genesis. “It meant reasserting the primacy of the common good, precisely what the neo-populists refused to contemplate as most of them collapsed back into the embrace of conventional conservatism.”

Ahmari opens the book with a set of anecdotes about worker abuses that supposedly occurred in authoritarian countries, soon revealing that these acts of repression were not carried out by adversarial governments, but by corporations here in the United States. The book is full of real-life horror stories about Wall Street’s takeover of the real economy, public pension funds investing in private equity, and therefore underwriting the privatization and destruction of those jobs, and immiseration of American communities by rapacious, unrestrained capitalism that dodges accountability through bespoke legal protections. His key argument is that, contrary to much of conservative free-market thought, which holds that the public sector limits choice and suffocates the American consumer, most of the coercion Americans experience today takes place in the private realm, inflicted by unaccountable private corporate entities, not government bureaucrats.

Ahmari is one of the leading voices of the new populist-nationalist right. His book is an attempt to bring something of an actual material analysis to that movement, and to seize working-class concerns for its agenda. It is worth taking very seriously in that respect. “We have succumbed to a generational effort,” Ahmari writes in the introduction, citing the work of political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, “mounted by some of the world’s wealthiest individuals, most powerful corporations, and their ideologues for hire, to make us forget what used to be taken for granted: that private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments; that unchallenged market power can impair our rights and liberties; that there are finally such things as private tyrannies and private tyrants.”

In Compact, the online magazine he co-founded in 2022, Ahmari has written critically about the right’s failures to connect with the labor left. This book is an effort to fix that, often in language that is indistinguishable from progressivism. “Pressure from below…played a decisive role in forging the New Deal,” he concludes. “Once more, it’s up to the American worker to drag our politicians and corporate leaders into a new consensus.” In Ahmari’s view, this requires a more aggressive program than progressives have yet offered.

The book largely avoids the culture war jargon that has animated much of Ahmari’s recent work. To the extent that he brings up the boogeyman of “wokeness,” it’s by suggesting that the left has not been immune to market-dominated thinking as a way of advancing it. “Now that corporations champion culturally liberal causes,” he writes, “some progressives outdo the most ardent Reaganites in defense of private enterprise’s right to do as it pleases.” I would quibble with his definition of progressive here; in my experience most progressives look quite suspiciously on tax-dodging, union-busting corporations adding a rainbow flag to their Twitter feeds one month a year. It’s mostly liberal centrists who are delighted by this sort of signaling. But point taken.

According to Ahmari, right and left “are locked in a bizarre sort of symbiotic embrace. Lifestyle leftists celebrate, and conservatives complain, when big brands update their logos in line with progressive cultural causes du jour.” He continues:

Both sides are rewarded with clicks and retweets. But the biggest winner of all is corporate America, which has learned that a little progressive signaling is all it takes to garner brownie points from the culturally dominant left; learned, too, that the right can be relied upon to protect its material interests behind closed doors, notwithstanding all the conservative harrumphing about the “woke neo-Marxism” supposedly sweeping the Fortune 500.

There are a lot of questions to ask here, but we can at least agree that zeroing in on the right enemy is a good start.

I first became aware of Ahmari’s work back when he was a pugnacious neoconservative (are there other kinds?) launching broadsides against President Obama’s “utter abjection and pusillanimity before Tehran, and his corresponding contempt for the American people and their elected representatives,” as demonstrated by Obama’s pursuit of a diplomatic agreement capping Iran’s nuclear program. It was the standard cry one hears from neoconservative hawks: appeasement.

Since then, Ahmari has abandoned neoconservatism (more people should do this) and set himself in opposition to a conservative elite he sees as insufficiently willing to do what must be done to defeat the liberal enemy. In a widely read essay in First Things, the conservative religious journal, marking his break from establishment conservatism and embrace of Trumpism (which is to say, of the new establishment), Ahmari took aim at conservative writer David French, whom he held up as a representative of a weak and ultimately doomed accommodationism. “The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position,” Ahmari wrote, railing against “autonomy-maximizing liberalism,” which he sees as indistinguishable from libertinism. “This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop?”

The piece showed that even if Ahmari had abandoned the tenets of neoconservatism, he hadn’t abandoned its Manichaean style. Like his brief against Obama, Ahmari’s condemnation of Frenchism was an accusation of appeasement, only this time in domestic politics rather than foreign policy, a different enemy at a different gate.

The proximate cause of Ahmari’s new militancy was, in his own telling, a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento, which he described in a Twitter thread as “demonic.” What followed was essentially a declaration of war on what he perceives as a dominant and domineering cultural left.

Ahmari is obviously allowed to be concerned about the things he is concerned about. Personally, I’d put forward a huge list of things I would be more apt to describe as “demonic” (if I were inclined to use that term, which I’m not) than the prospect of children being exposed to men in women’s clothing reading books, including much of what Ahmari details in this book. Are drag queen story hours really more of a threat than a system that forces people into chronic indebtedness, working multiple jobs to barely make ends meet? Than Black people being regularly murdered by cops? Than mass shootings so frequent that they barely make the news anymore?

Ahmari has called for using the power of government to create “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” For him, this seems to be a society in which the state enforces a particular interpretation of Christian morality. For me as a progressive, it would mean building a society in which people are truly equal under the law, where they don’t have to struggle constantly to get by, where political and economic power is shared far more equitably and equally, where a child’s illness doesn’t lead a family to bankruptcy.

To the extent that Ahmari proposes a solution to the material concerns that animate the book, it is the same one he proposes for his previously stated cultural concerns: government intervention. The state must “take a far more active role in coordinating economic activity for the good of the whole community,” he writes. “The goal should be a labor market in which most sectors are unionized, while workers in those few industries that resist unionization enjoy higher minimum wages, giving them the security needed to mount countervailing power in the absence of labor organizations.”

Building a new and durable American political compact is a key challenge of our time. This book offers the tantalizing possibility of a new political coalition aimed at strengthening the power of workers and constraining the power of capital, both of which are necessary for that project. If we really want to free working people from the tyranny of unaccountable corporate power, we should support raising the minimum wage and implementing Medicare for All. If we want to support families with kids, we should commit to policies that make it easier to have and provide for one. The question for the left is whether it’s possible to build that coalition without undermining core progressive values of pluralism and equality.

It’s hard to see what compromise is possible between a faction that wants a Christian (as they very particularly define it) country and one that wants a country for all of its people. But we should have the conversation because our futures are here together. Tyranny, Inc. offers an actual material argument to go along with the new right’s culture war. What it (unsurprisingly) lacks is an intersectional analysis that engages how private tyranny is bound up with and reinforced by racial and gender oppression. That would require confronting the right’s “war on woke” dog-whistling and addressing intersectional activism on its own terms. It’s one thing to dismiss empty corporate social justice signaling, quite another to dismiss genuine social justice organizing.

The question Ahmari leaves unanswered is which one of these fights he believes the new right should prioritize. If the new right is ready to talk about really curbing the power of privileged, unaccountable elites, they’ll find willing interlocutors on the left. But if they expect us to compromise on things like racial equality, a woman’s right to control her own body, the right of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters to be out and proud, or a host of other issues they might define as “wokeism,” but which we define as basic human rights, they’ll be disappointed. There are forms of appeasement that we simply cannot, must not, accept.

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Matthew Duss is a Visiting Scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2017-2022 he was foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders.

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