Resist those woke oligarchs

Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It
By Sohrab Ahmari. Forum Books. 2023. 261 pages.

The publication of Sohrab Ahmari’s hotly-anticipated new book — Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It  is —another landmark moment in the career of one of the most important intellectuals on the American right.

Where his previous well-known works focused on his journey to Catholicism (From Fire, by Water, 2019) and the value of tradition (The Unbroken Thread, 2021), Tyranny Inc. shifts the focus to the realm of government policy.

It is in this space that Ahmari has been focusing much of his efforts since launching Compact magazine last year. Compact’s position on the political spectrum can be understood from its mission statement endorsing “a strong social-democratic state that defends community — local and national, familial and religious  against —a libertine left and a libertarian right.”

In his new book, Ahmari takes aim at the expansion of corporate power and the impact which he claims this is having on individual rights as well as the general welfare of American society.

Ahmari’s professional background with high-profile outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and First Things demonstrates his right-of-centre credentials.

What sets him apart in these circles is his view that the key problem plaguing America is not the expansion of centralised government, but the gradual growth of a corporate power that is unhindered by democratic checks and balances.

“We have succumbed to a generational effort, 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,” he writes.

Oligarchy

The issue of coercion is of paramount importance, for Ahmari regards the libertarian world vision in which free individuals prosper by entering into mutually beneficial transactions (including offering their labour to employers for an agreed wage) as something of a fairytale in today’s reality.

Instead of working within a relatively balanced playing field, Ahmari highlights how economic changes have resulted in economic power resting in the hands of the few.

At the very same time, he argues that the power of workers has been greatly diminished by the weakening of trade unions, changes in work conditions and a rolling back of the government protections which were introduced in the New Deal era in the 1930s.

Ahmari contends that this has resulted in a return “to the conditions of the pre-reform nineteenth century, characterised by vast disparities in power between the wealthy few and the asset-less many.”

Among the negative side effects he identifies when it comes to the rise of ‘precarious employment’ (like Uber driving contracts) are increased financial insecurity and increased difficulties in balancing work and family life.

Employers benefit in other ways from the current status quo, and Ahmari notes the increased restrictions on employee speech, the ability of employers to compel workers to attend political events and the increasing tendency for American workers to be forced into private arbitration proceedings rather than public courts when seeking any redress of grievance.

He also criticises the tendency for public services — like fire-fighting — to be privatised across parts of the United States, as well as drawing attention to the destructive role of private equity firms across a range of sectors, including local journalism.

Woke capitalists

One of the key recent developments in the American economy has been the rise of ‘woke capitalism:’ the tendency of companies to engage in political and social activism, invariably in support of socially liberal and left-wing causes.

We see examples of this worldwide, for example: the increased pressure on employees to attend questionable Diversity & Inclusion sermons; the ubiquity of rainbow paraphernalia and the coercive efforts to ensure all workers display it; and theatrical professions of deference to the radical Black Lives Matter movement.

All of this is having a major impact on the political Right internationally, and parties that were previously instinctively pro-business are beginning to adopt a more sceptical approach.

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Ahmari himself experienced one of the most egregious examples of corporate political activism in 2020 when Twitter took action to suppress The New York Post’s coverage of the corrupt actions of the son of the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden.

All of this has helped to create an opening for broader anti-corporate arguments like those of Ahmari. Yet in this book he deliberately refrains from addressing cultural issues and instead makes a good-faith effort to attract support from both conservatives and progressives for an agenda aimed at reining in the power of big business.

And unlike other social commentators, he does indeed have an agenda in mind. Aside from his market scepticism, Ahmari stands out from other conservative voices due to his enthusiasm for using state power to advance desirable social objectives, as he expressed eloquently in a recent First Things article highlighting the role which early Christians played in civilising Rome’s pagan empire.

To counteract Tyranny Inc. and build a fairer and more egalitarian economic model, Ahmari insists the state must “take a far more active role in coordinating economic activity for the good of the whole community.”

This, he writes, should include measures to promote unionisation, more antitrust activism to combat monopoly power, stricter regulations on private equity and efforts to ensure wages are negotiated on a company-wide or sector-wide level in order to strengthen the bargaining position of individual workers.

Quibbles

Tyranny Inc. is a serious book written by an increasingly important commentator, yet some of the arguments advanced within its pages fail to recognise certain realities.

The extent of the rise of ‘neoliberalism’ is exaggerated in a manner that is common within conventional left-wing analysis.

Ahmari’s suggestion that Reagan and Thatcher were part of the “generation of leaders [who] ended up repealing the postwar compromise between classes” both understates the scale of the challenge they faced (which in Thatcher’s case involved a country brought to near-ruin by trade union militancy) and overstates the impact of the changes themselves.

In an American context, it is certainly not the case that government power has dissipated. Government spending is at an all-time high, a budget deficit of $1.5 trillion is projected for this year and the overall national debt stands at $32 trillion.

It is possible to read Ahmari’s work without realising for a second that America is in a desperate financial state: one where the existing government is unsustainable, and where expansion of the state is not a realistic objective in the long run. A similar situation exists elsewhere throughout the declining Western civilisation, where virtually every country is weighed down with welfare, social care and social entitlements which cannot be sustained in the long run.

In addition to ignoring financial realities, the supposition that falling unionisation rates are the result of government policy is hard to accept.

Far from it being a “popular canard” that American workers do not want to join unions, multiple well-publicised employee votes on unionisation in the States shows that this is often the reality: one which mirrors the similar trends in declining social or community involvement which Robert Putnam and other scholars have highlighted on many occasions.

In spite of these limitations, Sohrab Ahmari is right to emphasise the central importance of political economy. In a world of culture wars, he rightly draws readers’ attention to the social consequences of economic developments and the role of politics in enabling this to happen.

Those of a conservative disposition are increasingly learning to their cost that social revolution can be advanced not just by the decisions of national MPs, but by the diktats of transnational CEOs.

Before the beast of Woke Capitalism becomes even more dangerous, it is well worth considering Ahmari’s argument about the need to limit corporate power and increase the power of the worker instead.

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James Bradshaw writes from Ireland on topics including politics, history, culture, film and literature.

Image credit: Pexels

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