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The conservative case for socialism?

Sohrab Ahmari’s anti-business prescriptions fail to convince

Artillery Row Books

In Tyranny, Inc., Sohrab Ahmari sets out to change the narrative. He aims to persuade readers that labour unions and New Deal regulations are the stuff of American greatness, whilst mobility and profit making are enemies of the common man.

Tyranny, Inc., Sohrab Ahmari (Forum Books, $28)

He presents this project as nonpartisan, with his concluding chapters anticipating pushback from both sides of the aisle. A peek at customer reviews confirms that left-leaning readers are comfortable with his economic proposals to pad the welfare safety net and tighten the reins on business activities, however. The most fervent objection came from a reviewer who reviled Ahmari’s social ethics, a topic not covered in this book.

Ahmari faces an uphill task in winning over conservatives, not liberals. His rhetoric reflects this lopsided challenge, as he laces the chapters with appeals to America’s founding and asserts an unbroken line of tradition from Aristotle to Lincoln to Tyranny, Inc. He adopts these trappings without their substance, however.

In reality, Ahmari aims at replacing the core of American conservatism. His book is not recalling a movement gone astray, but asking one side to switch allegiances — to give up their political ideals in service of a greater principle: alleviating suffering and advancing the common good.

The bulk of Tyranny, Inc. makes the case for a nation in crisis. Its introduction challenges assumptions about the American marketplace by presenting three tyrannical state actors, then revealing all three to be private U.S. businesses. Ahmari delves next into political theory, contesting the links between conservative mainstays: capitalism and the American founding, free enterprise and classical ideals of good government.

Based on this groundwork, Part I dissects our present-day “dystopia”. Ahmari devotes a chapter each to seven evils: precarious wages, liberty of contract, private arbitration, hedge funds and private equity investors, privatisation of emergency services, decline of local newspapers, and bankruptcy law. He argues these widespread practices constitute “private coercion”: power exercised by businesses that affords their employees little recourse or opportunity for resistance.

Coercion is no longer an abuse, but a tool for the right people

The final four chapters in Part II tackle the theory and principles of economic management. Laissez-faire solutions will not suffice, nor will tinkering with the current system. Ahmari builds an alternative history of American prosperity, highlighting the three decades following World War II as the ideal for society — “the productive genius of highly regulated, heavily unionized capitalism”. Tyranny, Inc concludes with specific policy recommendations, centering on legal backing for unions and state-mandated benefits for employees. Ahmari envisions grassroots lobbying as the driver of these reforms, returning to the victims of his case studies in Part I to showcase their undaunted struggle against the status quo. Without these interventions, he foresees nothing less than the demise of American liberty as we know it.

Ahmari mounts a compelling appeal on behalf of unfortunates that free market supporters often neglect or address inadequately. Prosperity, despite its many blessings, does not obviate human longing for security and stability. Suffering matters on an individual scale, not just in the aggregate. The National Review’s decisive rebuttal of Tyranny, Inc. illustrates the typical failings of pro-capitalist responses: the barrage of polling data on employee satisfaction may be more accurate than Ahmari’s account, but it does not satisfy his complaints. We still confront the moral obligation implicit in the afflictions of single mothers and loyal mechanics laid-off.

The solution does not lie in this book, however.

Ahmari’s compassion is undeniable, but his analysis falters under scrutiny. Others have highlighted the flaws in his economic reasoning, most notably the sleight of hand that conflates government action on behalf of businesses (public contractors, arbitration legislation, bankruptcy courts, etc) with “private” tyranny. It may be worthwhile to distinguish between “tyranny [that] subjugates us not as citizens but as employees and consumers” — in other words, categorise the exercise of abusive power according to the role it aims to control — but then Ahmari’s narrative would collapse. If the government is active in both public and private tyranny, political power is not an overlooked player waiting in the wings to turn the tide for the oppressed masses. It is already part of the problem.

Tyranny, Inc. regularly invokes the American founding, yet it owes more to the logic of critical theory. Ahmari emphasises systemic inequalities, locating the problem of injustice in artificial structures rather than men’s souls. “Society is divided between classes with conflicting interests and power asymmetries,” he writes. “There needs to be a public battleground where they can contest their claims.” He calls on the government to “alleviate the power asymmetries otherwise inherent to the class structure”, ultimately embracing class-based conflict as the political solution to economic distress.

“The realist accepts that coercion is to be found everywhere,” Ahmari argues. “The only meaningful questions being who gets to exert it, to what ends, and against what limits.” Coercion is no longer an abuse, but a tool for the right people to use in the right circumstances. Since free market principles have failed us, we must realise our aims by force. Ahmari answers the villains of Tyranny, Inc. by urging us all to join in and become little tyrants ourselves.

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