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Retconning Capitalism
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Retconning Capitalism

Sohrab Ahmari’s critiques of free markets in ‘Tyranny, Inc.’ conflate private power with state-backed coercion.

Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in New York City, New York, on February 5, 2019. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Sohrab Ahmari’s new book is not about drag queen story hour. It’s not about corporate Pride Month displays. It’s not about DEI or Big Tech. Indeed, Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty is not really about “woke capital” at all.

That may be unexpected for readers who, like me, are generally familiar with Ahmari’s work—including Compact, the magazine he co-founded in 2022 in critique of liberalism—but still associate him most with “Against David French-ism,” the 2019 First Things article that sparked a major debate about Christian engagement in the culture wars.

This is where I should mention that French, whom Ahmari chose as the avatar of the approach he disdains, wrote the foreword to my most recent book, and he’s also a former senior editor of The Dispatch. Moreover, I’m a libertarian, which is to say party to the political alignment Ahmari seems to despise most. And I’m even a contributing writer at the libertarian Reason magazine, which Ahmari singles out in Tyranny, Inc. for its link to one chapter’s villain.

I mention all this partly for journalistic fair play, but partly to give context for how Tyranny, Inc. surprised me. It’s compelling and needful in many ways for free-market types and the modern right, but the core arguments in Tyranny, Inc. are ultimately unpersuasive—Ahmari’s understanding of coercion, and the state on which it turns, risks upending far more than he lets on.

The focus of Tyranny, Inc. is American capitalism and the private tyranny Ahmari argues increasingly characterizes the system. While Americans habitually think of tyranny as a function of the state—typically a distant state, maybe England before 1776 or North Korea today—Ahmari sees it flourishing, unrecognized, in the private realm of our own society.

“This tyranny subjugates us not as citizens but as employees and consumers,” he writes early on. “It is the structural cause behind much of our daily anxiety: the fear that we are utterly dispensable at work, that we are one illness or other personal mishap away from a potential financial disaster.” It’s why service workers can’t get a fixed schedule, why white collar employees are subjected to invasive corporate surveillance and onerous job contracts, why private equity firms are privatizing public services like fire departments and denuding venerable companies from Sears to your local paper.

“Yet even to speak of private, economic tyranny as tyranny challenges some of our society’s most fundamental assumptions,” Ahmari declares. Mainstream consensus across the political spectrum treats coercive capitalism as a given, rather than as a political problem we can solve through political means. 

The solution Ahmari proposes could be called “political-exchange or socially managed capitalism.” Or it could simply be called the New Deal, which he holds up repeatedly as an approximation of the not-so-radical revolution he has in mind. From about 1935 through 1965, Ahmari writes, we enjoyed “three decades of socially managed capitalism” which effectively safeguarded “the weak and the political community as a whole against private tyranny.” The end of that era was “an epochal setback, ” but a setback which Ahmari believes we could and should reverse.

On his way to that conclusion, Ahmari makes a number of points his intended audience and chosen adversaries alike would do well to take seriously.

One chapter on local media stands out, especially Ahmari’s discussion of concrete effects on local governance when the town newspaper dies. He makes a convincing case for reform of corporate bankruptcy laws which look, to my layman’s eye, like a legalization of fraud. Ahmari takes a strong swipe at “lifestyle leftism” (and its rightist counterpart) which “obsesses over” language, consumption habits, and manners rather than materially improving the lot of the poor. And his attention to class dynamics fills a too-frequent gap in our social analyses, where many currently contentious matters—new digital technologies and how we use them, dechurching and related shifts in communal life, political polarization, cancel culture, and more—are intimately related to class.

Ahmari’s also right about the value of unions. This is something I’ve come to appreciate after seeing a union fight to preserve my friend’s pension, promised for his 40-year career with a single corporation, and after wishing a union had been there to fight for my job at a media outlet fundamentally altered by new ownership. Unions (and even closed shops) aren’t contraventions of the free market, in which employers and employee groups should have the right to strike an exclusive contract if they so choose. There are critiques to be made of American unions, yes, especially in the public sector and when they engage in political advocacy unrelated to their members’ work or in opposition to many members’ views. Still, as a libertarian, I think unions can and probably should be part of a healthy and free economy.

Also welcome are pieces of Tyranny, Inc. that push us to rethink what it means to do good business. Revenue and capacity to fulfill market demand aren’t the sole criteria on which we should judge a company. How a business treats its workers, whether it approaches them as partners or adversaries—this matters deeply, too. Employers should prioritize reducing precarity for employees, paying a generous wage, offering benefits like paid parental leave, and maintaining a safe margin through reinvestment so they can get through difficult times without chaos or lost jobs.

But Ahmari wants a more regulatory route to that good business than I do. Where I’d argue this care for workers is a Christian duty—see, for example James 5:4, which Ahmari quotes as an epigraph, or Old Testament passages like Isaiah 58:3b—Ahmari rejects any such “culturalism: the notion that all we need are healthier cultural norms” rather than legal intervention.

In fact, though a practicing Catholic, Ahmari explicitly dismisses the idea that a more virtuous culture could improve unfairness in the market. Yet just two paragraphs down, Ahmari imagines a conservative Catholic private equity partner who daily violates, through his work, “the church’s social teaching, with its pesky insistence on the obligation to furnish a living wage to one’s employees.” 

Is that not evidence of a need for better moral formation? Is it not the grotesque exposure of a whitewashed tomb? I’m baffled by the notion that our economy is so uniquely corrupting that an American manager can’t be expected to imitate Christ in his professional life—that he needs the state to compel him to such a pursuit of virtue.

And that brings me to my larger objection to Ahmari’s argument. Tyranny, Inc. opens with a clever narrative device. Ahmari relays three brief vignettes of coercion, setting each in a foreign country with a government more oppressive than our own. Then, the reveal: These events didn’t happen in China, Russia, and Iran at the hands of state officials. They happened in America, and private companies were the real baddies all along.

Ahmari wants to say there’s a basic equivalence between bad working conditions at Amazon (the real story) and (in his reimagined tale) a Chinese slaughterhouse with managers “who ultimately answer to Communist Party bosses.” Yet these simply aren’t the same. Ahmari has his communist managers deliberately “stoke a culture of fear, reminding workers that the government is continually monitoring them.” He glosses over the fact that Amazon workers aren’t likewise monitored by a literally genocidal state.

Similarly, Ahmari draws on the work of the medieval Italian jurist Bartolus of Saxoferrato to explain private tyranny. But the tyranny Bartolus wrote about was public, as Ahmari’s own text makes clear. Medieval Italians were “constantly vulnerable to the whims of now this would-be potentate, now that ambitious count … who could suddenly shake up settled order, impose new and onerous taxes, or plunge the region into armed conflict.” The mention of taxes and armies should be a dead giveaway that he’s speaking of city-states, not private actors.

Ahmari elides this important difference even more glaringly when discussing the state’s legal monopoly on legitimate violence. You may think the idea of private tyranny is a category error, he contends, because “even the mightiest private actors can’t coerce us on pain of jail time or worse. CEOs and tech titans generally don’t have their own police forces or armies.” But you’d be wrong, Ahmari claims. Why? Well, that he doesn’t bother to explain. You just would be. We were “led to believe” that the government’s power to imprison or even execute us puts the state in a distinct category—and so it does. And yet Ahmari still insists that “private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments” (emphasis added).

That same confusion runs all through Ahmari’s accounts of coercion and the state. He likens factory owners setting prices for their products with sales tax, though buying a product is voluntary and paying taxes on your purchase is not. He uses the story of the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma as a case study in private tyranny, but the family’s avoidance of legal responsibility was only possible through the federal government’s cooperation in a special bankruptcy deal. He quotes President Grover Cleveland bemoaning in 1888 that “the fortunes realized by our manufacturers are no longer solely the reward of sturdy industry and enlightened foresight, but that they result from the discriminating favor of the government,” then leaves undiscussed the coercive role of the state in such corporate welfare schemes. He describes enclosure as “state-backed coercion” but simultaneously wants to label it laissez-faire. Colonial theft and taxation are likewise rebranded as the workings of the free market, and World War II is blamed on unfettered capitalism.

These assertions—to say nothing of Ahmari’s call for the government to “take a far more active role in coordinating economic activity”—may not be an easy sell to a right wing still, in rhetoric if not in policy, devoted to capitalism and horrified by socialism and anything like it. Ahmari clearly understands this, which is likely why he tries to festoon his project with familiar language, easing readers with a probable horror of “cultural Marxism” into at least some appreciation of the real deal (as Ahmari himself more enthusiastically had in his younger years).

Thus are the bourgeoisie renamed the “asset rich” or “asset owners” and the proletariat the “asset-less,” while the American founders are repeatedly impressed to Ahmari’s cause. Will the average Republican accept a little Marxism if you put it in a tricorn hat? I honestly don’t know anymore, but it’s fascinating to watch Ahmari try.

Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today. She is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank, and the author of A Flexible Faith and Untrustworthy.