Sohrab Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc. is like the elder brother to Patrick Deneen’s Regime Change. Both books belong squarely in the post-liberal family, but Ahmari’s is the more mature. Whereas Deneen’s works engage in a broad critique of liberalism and reduce our problems to the thought of John Locke, Ahmari’s latest book avoids that sort of generalization. There is no bashing liberalism writ large, no insistence that we get back to Aristotle and Aquinas, and no bemoaning modernity. There are hints of each of these, to be sure, but the book as a whole is a focused critique of a specific problem: private corporations now pose as great a threat to American life as in the Gilded Age.
Here the book is not original. Anyone who hasn’t been trapped in the conservative biosphere is well-versed or at least aware that private corporations can be unhealthy for civic life. In fact, this point features heavily in American pop culture. In politics, Bernie campaigned against millionaires and billionaires to wide acclaim in 2016. The 1973 film “Soylent Green” still haunts the popular imagination. In literature, we have stark reminders in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But then, this book is not trying to make an original contribution. Its novelty consists in its author and audience: this book is written by a conservative for conservatives. Ahmari, a social conservative, is writing to young D.C. conservative types who blithely brush off economic issues with a quick “oh, the market will fix that” and accuse FDR and Eisenhower of being soft despots. At this broadest level, the book is a welcome addition to the public discourse. If conservatives can only ever declaim Marxism but never corporate injustice, then they are truly out of touch. To correct this imbalance, Ahmari points to real-world examples of the blatant injustices corporations commit against their employees almost a quarter into the 21st Century.
For example, Ahmari gives an eye-opening account of the transformation of arbitration rules in the United States. Originally intended (as congressional records show) to apply to merchants of roughly equal negotiating capacity, private companies like Uber require private, single arbitration agreements in a lopsided manner that renders employees almost totally helpless when contesting work grievances. Similarly, he notes how private equity firms engage in predatory behavior by deliberately refusing to invest in production, dishonestly filing for bankruptcy to avoid paying their bills, making unionization ever more difficult and, in perhaps the most direct affront to democracy, shuttering local newspapers.
According to Ahmari, these injustices are the direct result of “neoliberalism,” that “fantasy” and “utopian” vision which has captivated political elites and conservative thought leaders since at least the 1970s. Hiding behind the peaceful guise of “contractual relationships,” neoliberalism maintains that coercion is the business of states, not competitive markets. In response to the “blip” of stagflation in the 1970s, our political leaders ushered in a “new order” consisting of liberal economic reforms that would make the robber barons of the early twentieth-century blush. The “practical effect” of these reforms “has been to reset class relations back to where they stood before the rise of socially managed capitalism,” i.e., before progressive reforms and the New Deal. Why? Because the neoliberal regime “actively abets private tyranny.” (Ahmari’s emphasis).
The solution to the problems outlined in Tyranny Inc., according to Ahmari is to jettison the idea that economy and politics are separate spheres. To this end, we must also rid ourselves of the liberal notion that politics serves mainly to protect individual rights and interests. Only in a regime where individual rights to contract, for example, are held sacred can one justify an impregnable wall between state and private economic action. Rather than view ourselves as individual economic actors (homo economicus), we should recognize the truth inherent in all political communities: that we each belong to a broader economic class. Class consciousness is not the reserve of Marxism. It need not be revolutionary in character and can even be amenable to broader capitalist policies. “Socially managed, political-exchange capitalism” recognizes the fact of “class-based subjugation” and brings democracy and capitalism into “some measure of coherence.” Practically, this means “raising up workers’ countervailing power” through invigorated unions and New Deal-style economic interventions.
In describing the implementation of neoliberalism and positing New Deal solutions, we begin to see the problem with Ahmari’s book. He is right that the state of economic inequality is bad and growing worse. The middle class has shrunk considerably since the 1970s. Today, a couple earning over 100k pays outlandish housing costs for their “favelas with Wi-Fi” (a fun Deneen term). These are all concerning and should compel us to think about creative solutions. But no, we are not living in the Gilded Age. We do not need “militant unions” to bring greedy corporate hucksters to the stockades.
Union membership has declined substantially, but this cannot be blamed primarily on the maneuverings of corporations. Part of the decline is because many of what unions were fighting for was secured long ago. The Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act has been on the books since 1938. Today, workers can expect a forty-hour work week and overtime pay. Children are no longer dying in factories. Nor are workers and their families trapped in towns owned by companies where wages were paid in company currencies to be spent exclusively at company-owned general stores. There is surely still a role for unions, as the Hollywood writers’ strike is reminding us. But suggesting that we need the sort of union activities of the early 20th century is hyperbolic. Nostalgia for “militant unions” is also just dangerous.
Ahmari points to the service industry as an example of an industry where wages are low and schedules are violently incoherent. But, the service industry is chaotic by nature and inconducive to unionization because there will always be high turnover rates. This is because a bar is not typically a career, but a stopover for young people to get by. As for corporations where an employee’s every mouse-click is being closely watched by quartermaster managers, I agree that is a gross inconvenience and maybe even a violation of constitutional rights to privacy. But how many of these employees are working for high-dollar firms where employers are ensuring high salaries are being justified? Most of these employees drink lattes every day and go home to their designer dogs (I know because I’m one of them). Company surveillance is a far cry from the grueling factory work that Upton Sinclair described in The Jungle.
A larger point that Ahmari makes is that workplace discrepancies are a form of coercion. He is right to point to the power imbalances between employer and employee. A corporation has much less to lose when an employee threatens to walk than the employee who must quickly find a job. This is simply true. But is it coercion to sign a contract with clear expectations? If the other option is starvation, then probably. But another holdover from the progressive era reforms is the American welfare system. Just how complete is the neoliberal revolution when social welfare programs enjoy bi-partisan support in Congress or when the United States spends 20% of its national budget on welfare programs? We can have a debate on whether these programs can be better funded or structured. But the fact remains that save for a very few, starvation is not a real consequence of walking from a job, not anymore.
To the final point, if Ahmari’s objective is to wean conservatives from their Hayek and Friedman, he needs to do more than assure them that everything was grand during the decades after WWII. I was surprised to read a book geared towards conservatives about the dangers of big business that did not attempt a rebuttal to the argument that excessive business regulations actually hurt small business. Maybe that is just a libertarian talking point, but a more convincing critique would tackle these talking points on their own terms.
All in all, Ahmari’s book is a welcome contribution to the public debate on the limits of free market enterprise. It would have been stronger had he resisted the temptation to overplay his hand and engage in post-liberal hyperbole.