Sohrab Ahmari made his name a few years ago when, after rejecting the secularism of his Iranian immigrant parents and converting to Catholicism, he began trolling prominent Christian conservatives for being insufficiently radical. In 2019, for example, Ahmari famously attacked David French, who was then an evangelical constitutional lawyer best known for representing religious groups in disputes over issues like whether student prayer groups had a right to meet on campus. In a widely debated essay, Ahmari condemned French’s faith in earnest debate with liberals, proclaiming that there is “no polite, David French-ian third way through the cultural civil war.” In making the case for greater extremism on the Christian right, Ahmari repeatedly evoked the specter of drag queens reading to children in public libraries across the land.
Now the alum of The Wall Street Journal and New York Post editorial pages is the editor of a much-discussed new publication, Compact, which promotes populist economics and paleoconservative values. He is also out with a new book, and there is not a word in it about transexuals. Nor are there any fulminations against “godless” communism, as one might expect. Instead, Amari’s new devil, as befitting his magazine, is the corporation and unfettered capitalism, and he proposes that the only way to check their power is through the embrace of big government.
For example, Ahmari rails against what he calls “the class-based inequalities in power and income that are inherent to the workings of unrestrained capitalism.” A few pages later, he froths about the “coercive origins” of the Industrial Revolution, which sent peasants from working fields to “prison-style workhouses and factories, their bones and tears forming the working-class sediments that underlay the glories of Victorian capitalism.” He yearns for the New Deal era when labor won the countervailing power to keep big business in check, leading to the “productive genius of highly regulated, heavily unionized capitalism in which the government coordinated private economic activity.”
The pundit has frequently been clubbed together with a coterie of so-called post-liberal thinkers, including political theorist Patrick Deneen, conservative writer Rod Dreher, and legal scholar Adrian Vermeule, who are not only at odds with contemporary liberalism but have a beef with Enlightenment mainstays like individual liberty, separation of government and religion and, of course, the free market. They’ve had kind words for government in the style of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, which is to say anti-immigration and anti-abortion, but with an expansive social welfare role for government. Describing himself in Newsweek last month as “ferociously conservative on cultural issues,” Ahmari endorses the ideas of his brethren but adds a union-loving twist that frets over the income inequality perverting our social compact.
Putting aside cultural issues to focus on the economic ones, Ahmari structures Tyranny, Inc. as a catalog of corporate coercion, retelling horror stories likely to be familiar to readers of The Nation, Mother Jones, or Jacobin. For example, he documents the irregular work hours employers impose on workers and exposes how this interferes with the ability to line up childcare or pursue higher education. He points to the increasingly common practice of requiring workers to be on-call without compensation or to work back-to-back shifts. To bolster his conclusion that imposing such practices on parents threatens the social and mental development of their children, Ahmari points to an article from The New York Times, not the usual citation of today’s conservatives.
Ahmari devotes two chapters to chronicling how corporations further tyrannize workers by forcing them to sign non-disparagement and non-compete contracts. His bill of indictment against corporations also includes their increasingly common practice of forcing workers to forfeit their right to sue and instead submit to binding arbitration in labor disputes. Ahmari notes the hypocrisy of prominent Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia, who gave their blessings to such practices. “It is worth noting that many of the conservative justices behind the hidden revolution, not least Scalia, publicly touted their fidelity to the Catholic faith,” Ahmari writes. “In the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, withholding just wages from workers is one of the grave sins that ‘cry to heaven.’” This is more Dorothy Day than Opus Dei.
Ahmari rounds out his discussion with a chapter on bankruptcy courts, describing the nefarious yet all-too-legal practices used by profitable corporate behemoths to claim Chapter 11 bankruptcy and escape liability. One such technique, the Texas two-step, involves cleaving off a unit, loading it up with liability claims, and then declaring bankruptcy. This is how Johnson & Johnson, with a market capitalization of $1 trillion, avoided liability for claims its talc powder caused cancer. The Sacklers of Purdue Pharma infamy have pursued similar tactics.
Ahmari also sounds like a full-throated progressive in his takedown of private equity and hedge funds, noting how their vulturous practices have gutted once-storied companies like Sears, snapped up emergency services like firefighting and ambulances, and contributed to the demise of robustly reported local news across the country.
Ahmari proposes something like a reinvigorated New Deal to remedy the tyranny of private power. “Faced with a crisis sparked by the power asymmetry between labor and capital, New Dealers pursued two broad types of reforms,” he writes. “The first—massive public-works projects intended to put the unemployed back to work and leave more spending cash in their pockets…The second was more long-term and involved government encouraging, where hitherto it had suppressed, workers’ ability to exercise countervailing power.”
Ahmari’s embrace of unions, regulations, and a robust welfare state has won him some respectful reviews from public intellectuals who disagree with him about almost everything else. This includes thinkers like New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg and the liberal economist James K. Galbraith. I, too, found that his descriptions of corporate predation filled me with rage and tempted me to make common cause. But it is worth remembering that even when someone adopts central liberal policy planks, they still may be fundamentally illiberal when it comes to things like separation of church and state, tolerance of minorities, and embrace of crucial civil rights.
Historically and today, many authoritarian governments have combined generous welfare states with blood-and-soil ethno-nationalism. See Nazi Germany’s “national socialism,” More recently, Hungary’s simultaneous embrace of the Catholic Church and pro-natalist family policies provide a theocratic variation. It can be a winning formula since, as the political scientist Lee Drutman has found, a plurality of voters, even in the United States, combine socially conservative views with demands that the state grant social security, health care, and other social benefits to people like themselves. Ahmari’s resentments extend far beyond mere “David French-ism.” They extend to liberalism itself.