Inconsistent Populists: Sohrab Ahmari and the Anti-Neoliberal Right

Inconsistent Populists: Sohrab Ahmari and the Anti-Neoliberal Right

Tyranny, Inc. aims to build a working-class coalition between the left and right. But Ahmari cannot get around the GOP populists’ dismal record on labor.

Sohrab Ahmari at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA in Tampa, Florida. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—and What to Do About It
by Sohrab Ahmari
Forum Books, 2023, 288 pp.

It’s no secret that many younger Americans are disillusioned with the neoliberal order. Even young Republicans exhibit a loss of faith, with positive views of capitalism hovering around 60 percent. For Sohrab Ahmari, this widespread sense of disenchantment represents a political opportunity. Ahmari is on a mission to harness youthful anti-neoliberal energy, with the ultimate goal of remaking the right in the post-Trump era. To advance this ambitious project, his new book, Tyranny Inc., reaches out to both young conservatives, who may still believe in the promises of Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan, and young socialists, who already distrust the libertarian creed but need to be persuaded that Ahmari is on their side.

Since its release, the book has received a flurry of attention from prominent politicians and pundits across the ideological spectrum. In addition to blurbing Tyranny Inc., Senator Marco Rubio joined Ahmari at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. for a panel discussion on the book. At the New York launch, Jacobin editorial director and president of the Nation Bhaskar Sunkara participated in a conversation with Ahmari in front of a packed room. In short order, the book has racked up reviews in left, right, and centrist media outlets, including Jacobin, National Review, and two separate pieces in the New York Times. While these commentaries reflect the usual set of disagreements about the relative merits of the free market and the culture wars, the sheer amount of attention given to this book conveys a sense of Ahmari’s importance on the post-Trump political scene.

In this messy and chaotic world, Ahmari is indeed a prominent intellectual figure, and his evolution tells us something significant about the state of right-wing populism. Yet despite his air of seriousness, and the coherence afforded to his ideas, Ahmari is also deeply mercurial and often contradictory. And while big names headline his events, behind the scenes, his serious followers are not quite so prominent or numerous. When I attended a Zoom reading group with Ahmari, organized by his publisher, I was one of only three people in the room. The two others were college students. I say this not to belittle Ahmari but instead to highlight the shifting and often superficial nature of his ideas and the networks in which they circulate. These qualities are also arguably key to understanding the real prospects and limits of conservative populism in the United States today.

When we think of tyranny, we typically picture authoritarian governments. But “here in the United States, another form of tyranny has taken root,” proclaims Ahmari in the introduction to Tyranny, Inc. “This tyranny subjugates us not as citizens but as employees and consumers,” he explains. “Yet even to speak of private economic tyranny as tyranny challenges some of our society’s most fundamental assumptions.”

A decade ago, it would have inconceivable to imagine a conservative intellectual so brazenly defying the gods of commerce. It was Donald Trump, railing against the “rigged system” in 2016, who paved the way for the ascent of the post-liberal right—a movement of intellectuals, politicians, and activists that opposes not only “woke” liberalism but liberalism itself. A journalist by training, Ahmari has emerged as a key figure in this movement at just thirty-eight years old. Alongside other prominent post-liberals, including political theorist Patrick Deneen and legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, he rejects the sacred tenets of individual freedom and market fundamentalism that cemented themselves in the conservative movement in the early days of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review and reached the height of popularity during the Reagan presidency. Embracing the “pre-liberal” politics of family and community, the post-liberals mourn this era as a misguided departure from a deeper tradition and call instead for the restoration of “common good” conservatism.

Beneath the surface, the intellectual world of post-liberalism is teeming with competing factions and internal debate. While most post-liberal conservatives, including Deneen, are critical of the neoliberal order, their highbrow culture war largely neglects the economic aspects of this system. Ahmari has effusively praised Deneen, and he dedicates Tyranny, Inc. to him and other post-liberal comrades. But Ahmari stands out in this group for having a deeper interest in wealth inequality and the material dimensions of corporate power.

In seeking to redress these problems, he aims to bring together left- and right-wing critics of neoliberalism. This is the idea behind Compact, the online magazine that Ahmari founded in 2022 with Edwin Aponte, a left-wing journalist, and Matthew Schmitz, the editor of the conservative Catholic magazine First Things. In short order, it has become an important outlet for self-proclaimed “anti-woke,” pro-labor politicians, intellectuals, and movement builders. Michael Lind, the right-leaning communitarian, recently joined the magazine as a columnist. The celebrity Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, has written several articles for the site and praised Tyranny, Inc. as “a masterpiece of clarity.” Compact has also become a refuge for ex-leftist intellectuals. The magazine’s senior editor and columnist, Nina Power, was attacked in an open letter in 2019 for her “neo-reactionary” stances on gender and sexuality.

Tyranny, Inc. represents the expansion of Ahmari’s efforts to build a left-right consensus around the shared goal of checking private power. The result is an anti-neoliberal primer that is informative and compelling, especially for younger conservative readers, although not exactly earth-shattering for anyone who is already versed in the world of anti-neoliberal thought.

The first half of the book takes the form of a narrative that traces the experiences of ordinary individuals in the workplace, the courtroom, the financial sector, the retirement system, and the newsroom. We meet Chris Smalls, the heroic organizer of the first independent union at Amazon in Staten Island; Alicia Fleming, a single mom in Massachusetts who works as a waitress and struggles with the constantly shifting hours of her work schedule; the Purcells, a working-class couple in Arizona who were charged $20,000 by a private fire company after their trailer burned down; and other people who have faced the machinations of private tyranny. Though these stories are not based on original reporting, Ahmari’s journey seems inspired by Nickel and Dimed, the 2001 bestseller in which Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover as a low-wage laborer to expose the travails of the working class at a time when corporate bosses were scoring record profits. Updating these stories for an era of private equity and digital finance schemes, Ahmari taps into a political tradition that he explicitly rejected in his rise to journalistic fame.

Ahmari arrived at post-liberalism after a series of epiphanies that go beyond the familiar trajectory of many conservatives in the middle of the twentieth century. If, as Irving Kristol famously said, a conservative is a liberal who has been “mugged by reality,” then Ahmari has been mugged so many times that his worldview more closely resembles the hyperreality of a Chuck Close painting. He details some of these conversions in his 2019 memoir, From Fire, by Water. Born in Iran in 1985 to secular parents who chafed under the oppressive rule of Ayatollah Khomeini, he moved to the United States with his mother when he was thirteen. As an adolescent, feeling alienated from his peers and their shallow concerns, he briefly traded his love of American television and movies for Nietzschean nihilism. In college, he became a Marxist, but eventually he grew disillusioned by what he saw as the political and spiritual vacuum in that milieu as well. By the time he entered law school a couple years later, he no longer identified as a leftist. And when political unrest in Iran prompted his first forays into journalism in 2009, he began to write in favor of U.S. interventionism. When the Wall Street Journal hired Ahmari in 2012, he secured a spot for himself in the highest echelons of neoconservative journalism.

Ahmari converted to Catholicism in 2016, the culmination, as he explains it, of his longing for tradition and order. Although his memoir romanticizes the authoritarianism of the Catholic church, in the lead-up to Trump’s election, Ahmari was still very much a defender of liberalism. That summer, he published an essay in Commentary headlined “Illiberalism—The Worldwide Crisis,” which warned against the threat of demagogues like Trump. One year later, he wrote a similar piece that decried “The Terrible American Turn Toward Illiberalism.” But events like the 2018 confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh and the Democrat-led investigations into Trump’s “collusion” with Russia enraged Ahmari, fueling a sense of frustration with liberal proceduralism. If Democrats were not going to respect liberal norms and limits on their own power, then why should Republicans?

By his own account, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen story hour. “Against David French-ism,” the 2019 article Ahmari subsequently published in First Things, marked his transformation into a post-liberal. The piece singled out the center-right journalist David French as the epitome of right-wing impotence in the face of the left’s cultural onslaught. Ahmari lambasted conservatives like French for their failure to understand “politics as war and enmity.” He demanded that conservatives “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

With this proclamation, Ahmari publicly came out not only as a post-liberal but a Catholic integralist, a faction within the movement that explicitly rejects the separation of church and state. Despite the militancy of his Kulturkampf screed, when Ahmari squared up against French in a live debate, he appeared notably unpolished and unprepared. Even fellow post-liberal Rod Dreher concluded that “there was near-universal consensus that French mopped the floor with Ahmari” and pointed to the “shallowness of thought in Ahmari’s arguments.” But shallowness has its benefits; you can easily move on to a new big idea after the last one loses its luster.

Reading Tyranny, Inc., I kept waiting for Ahmari to expose himself as a right-wing Catholic crusader intent on destroying progressives like me. But he never did. There are a few instances where he decries “woke” capitalism and warns against “lifestyle leftism.” And there is the moment where he pretends to quote Marx, only to reveal that the words actually come from Pope Leo XIII, whose 1891 Rerum Novarum decried both capitalism and socialism and offered the Church as the only alternative. But Ahmari goes out of his way to avoid too much of this kind of talk, insisting instead that the economic model he seeks to restore “steers clear of ‘culturalism.’”

The second part of the book pans out to offer a deeper history of the neoliberal order that gives rise to private tyranny. In contrast with his memoir’s reductionist dismissal of Marxism, this section of Tyranny, Inc. relies heavily on the insights of David Harvey and other Marxists, along with other leftist critics including Karl Polanyi, Michel Foucault, and Wendy Brown. Conveying the vast reach of neoliberalism, Ahmari quotes Foucault’s famous dictum that neoliberalism seeks to “regulate society by the market,” and he cites Brown’s argument that neoliberalism is not limited to “the state leaving the economy alone” but instead “economize[s] the social,” thereby “undoing” the very possibility of democratic politics.

Although these insights reflect the impossibility of separating the economic and cultural dimensions of neoliberalism, Ahmari wants to separate his critique of neoliberalism from the reactionary cultural positions for which he has become known. Throughout Tyranny, Inc., he severs his arguments about political economy from the theocratic social vision he advanced in earlier writings, sometimes even using the same terms to make very different arguments. Take the term “coercion.” In his 2021 book, The Unbroken Thread, Ahmari cited King Louis IX, who ruled France between 1226 and 1270, as an exemplar of the “ideal of Christian statesmanship.” For Louis, this included imprisoning Jews on accusations of usury, forcing Jewish leaders to admit to blasphemous passages of the Talmud, and personally ordering thousands of these and other sacred texts to be destroyed. Ahmari also criticized liberals who are preoccupied with the coercion implicit in the post-liberal political imagination, because “liberal societies do coerce,” too. Coercion is also a key term in Tyranny, Inc., but Ahmari uses it to describe the way that corporations and other private entities exert control over our lives and our politics.

What accounts for this change? In the acknowledgment section of the book, Ahmari explains that he first set out to write a book about the rise of working-class conservatism but soon realized “that would put the cart before the horse.” First, he needed to write “something much more reportorial and historical.” It’s thus possible to read Tyranny, Inc. as a materialist stepping-stone to an authoritarian social vision that Ahmari will subsequently unveil in the sequel. That is the fear that several prominent leftists expressed when Compact first launched, with some commentators even referring to it as a “red-brown alliance,” comparable to the historic collaboration between communists and fascists.

These analogies appear overblown in light of Ahmari’s forthright opposition to white supremacy, and they exemplify the distorting effects of taking Ahmari too seriously. That said, there have been notable conflicts among the editors at Compact. When he decided to collaborate with Ahmari and Schmitz, Aponte believed that the magazine could advance progressive economic positions without broaching other political issues. Soon after the magazine’s launch, however Compact published an article by the Catholic integralist Gladden Pappin, who argued that the impending overthrow of Roe v. Wade was an opportunity for the right to promote a pro-family economic agenda. At that point, Aponte left the magazine. In a subsequent reflection on the anti-neoliberal right, he said, “those material politics are a means to an end, rather than an end. And the end they have in mind is not something I think is good or just.”

Ahmari’s recent retreat from the culture war in favor of a materialist politics feels less like a well-planned theocratic conspiracy than a case of willful amnesia. When I asked Ahmari whether his new book was a departure from his earlier work, he grew defensive, arguing that the left’s efforts to frame his views as “medieval or theocratic” failed to grasp the moderate aims of the modern Catholic political tradition and its alignment with the centrist welfare state. “Like Christian Democrats in Europe,” he said. How does that square with his earlier praise for Saint Louis the crusader?

At the New York book launch, Sunkara also asked Ahmari about the disconnect between his previous work and Tyranny, Inc. “Obviously, throughout most of your political life and intellectual life, you’ve been on the political right, but this isn’t quite a God and family book,” he said. “So I’m wondering what you want this book to do?” In response, Ahmari conveyed his frustration with the culture war, as though he had played no part in it. “My audience for this book,” he explained, “is partly people on the left who are willing to see that . . . even if we are few in number, there are people on the right who get the material roots of some of our malaise.” While Ahmari wants to be taken seriously by the intellectual gatekeepers of the labor left, so far he’s had only limited success in convincing them to join his alliance. Jacobin’s own review suggests that he used to be a right-wing nut and is now just a confused socialist.

In forming a left-right alliance, Ahmari still aims to empower populist conservatives, not democratic socialists. In this effort, however, Ahmari has emerged as a vocal critic of the pseudo-populists who have recently ascended in the Republican Party. While plenty of conservatives “defend right-wing cultural values against ‘woke capital,’” he writes, “few if any dare question the coercive power of capital itself. Dig into the policy platforms of tub-thumping GOP populists, and you will likely find effusions of unreserved praise for capitalism.” Despite his tendency to evade self-criticism, Ahmari deserves credit for calling out the superficiality of the GOP’s recent efforts to rebrand itself.

As a corrective to this problem, Ahmari has in the past looked to G.K. Chesterton, Benjamin Disraeli, and other iconic figures in the long tradition of anti-bourgeois reactionary politics. But, to the chagrin of many conservatives, he has also recently come out as a big fan of the New Deal. The final section of Tyranny, Inc. explores the underlying political vision of this program. He explains how conservatives supported the New Deal’s model of “political-exchange capitalism,” in which workers became a “countervailing power” against capital, a term he borrows from Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith. These political precepts, he contends, fueled the expansion of the middle class and brought broad prosperity to the nation in the ensuing decades.

In elevating the New Deal era, Ahmari suggests a contrast with twenty-first-century liberalism, which, in the post-liberal imagination, is a self-serving elitist project that subjugates working- and middle-class Americans. The fact that Democrats have recently proposed several major initiatives that consciously seek to revive the spirit of the New Deal creates a bit of a pickle for Ahmari. Unlike many post-liberals, he actually recognizes that legislation like the CHIPS and Science Act—which uses state power to promote a domestic semiconductor industry—and the climate measures in the Inflation Reduction Act are provisional departures from progressive neoliberalism. Ahmari even told Sunkara that, “When it comes to industrial patriotism, there is no daylight between me and Ro Khanna,” the California congressman who has emerged as one of the leading Democratic advocates of a twenty-first-century New Deal. But he is vague about whether or not he wants such efforts to succeed. “If the center left eases up on woke crap while pursuing populist-ish Bidenomics, the right in this country is totally defanged,” he recently wrote on Twitter. If forced to choose, would Ahmari pick a new New Deal or a right with fangs?

The Biden administration’s industrial policy has significant limitations and problems, not least its failure to support the creation of unionized jobs. Ahmari and other right-leaning advocates of economic nationalism like Michael Lind thus see an opening. But capitalizing on it would require the GOP to move beyond mere posturing on labor issues. Like many post-liberal intellectuals on the right, Ahmari has thrown his lot in with GOP populists like Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, a fellow Catholic convert and friend. A glowing piece in Compact earlier this year celebrated Vance for showing “what a serious populism looks like.” In our Zoom chat, Ahmari rattled off a string of recent conservative pro-worker initiatives, including Rubio’s support of Amazon workers’ unionization efforts, the recent collaboration between Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on executive pay at failed banks, and the railroad safety bill introduced by Rubio and Hawley, alongside Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania.

While these are notable developments, they do not suffice to make Vance, Hawley, and Rubio reliable supporters of labor. Each of these GOP senators has made clear that their economic populism is subordinate to other concerns. Rubio framed his support of unionization as part of his opposition to Amazon’s alliance with “the left in the culture war” and sponsored a bill last year to remove tax breaks for “woke corporations.” Vance recently explained on Zoom to an audience of British and American conservatives that his “problem with Biden’s semi-conductor initiative is that it empowers a progressive agenda.”

Ahmari thinks the left is too quick to dismiss politicians like Hawley, Vance, and Rubio as unserious. As he explained at the New York event, they “work within limits” of permissible discourse; we thus need to understand that their culture war rhetoric is a way of smuggling the labor question into right-wing politics. But what about the actual record of these GOP populists on labor issues? Rubio, whose lifetime AFL-CIO score is 11 percent, has long opposed federal minimum wage increases and supported the idea of cuts to Social Security and Medicare as late as 2017. His score has gone up in recent years to a whopping 18 percent, which is still four points below the average Senate Republican. At just 12 percent, Hawley’s lifetime score is hardly better, and his most recent score also remains below the average. And none of Ahmari’s populists support the PRO Act, which aims to roll back obstacles to union organizing that date back to the 1947 Taft–Hartley Act. (By comparison, Rubio’s alternative Teamwork Act is a lame joke.) They all also continue to support Trump, who, Ahmari himself admits, packed the Department of Labor with anti-union cronies and presided over the biggest piece of pro-corporate tax legislation in decades.

In his own commentaries on Tyranny, Inc. since the book’s release, Ahmari seems to be coming to terms with the deeper structural factors that fuel and perpetuate the flakiness of the GOP’s economic populism. Although he still believes that Hawley, Vance, and Rubio could be the Trojan horses of a serious conservative populism, he has also come to realize that they are ultimately beholden to their donors. As he conceded in a recent op-ed for Newsweek, “The Republican Party remains, incorrigibly, a vehicle for the wealthy.” In a rare mea culpa, Ahmari admitted that he was naïve to ever have imagined otherwise: “It turned out to be wishful thinking.” Indeed, as long as the Koch network exerts influence over the Republican Party through its big-money donations, the GOP will never support an agenda that would actually reckon with economic inequality and market fundamentalism. Meanwhile, in his 2024 primary campaign, Trump, the likely Republican nominee, has swapped his old critique of the rigged system for the GOP’s even older war against “communists” and “socialists.” At the moment, the Republican Party seems more interested in blowing up democracy in a spectacular orgy of illiberalism than bothering with the nitty-gritty details of popular economic policy.

How Ahmari’s views will evolve over the coming months and years is anyone’s guess. His current mission to build conservative populism through a left-right alliance may have already reached an impasse. In order to build or even maintain the support of his left flank, he must continue to retreat from the culture wars and call out the GOP’s enduring commitments to the wealthy. At the same time, in order to maintain or expand his influence on the right, he must continue to take these flaky conservative populists seriously. If the GOP manages to become a more legitimate pro-worker party, there will be a genuine national reckoning of historic proportion, and Ahmari will be recognized as a prophet of the anti-neoliberal right. However unlikely that seems, the left should not squander its chance to articulate and advance its own anti-neoliberal vision.

Hannah Gurman is an associate professor at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She is the author of The Dissent Papers, the editor of A People’s History of Counterinsurgency, the co-editor (with Kaeten Mistry) of Whistleblowing Nation, and is working on a book about post-liberalism and the idea of the common good.

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