“Pro-Worker Conservatism” Has Only Empty Gestures for Workers

The “pro-worker” conservatism of Sohrab Ahmari has a critique of neoliberalism. But for all its ridiculing of the establishment, it has no real solutions to decades of attacks on labor.

Sohrab Ahmari (left), Josh Hammer, and Charlie Kirk speaking with attendees at the 2021 Student Action Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, July 18, 2021. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

London’s National Conservatism (NatCon) conference saw condemnation from liberals and the Left. Novara journalist Moya Lothian Maclean took incisive aim at its anti-woke and authoritarian bromides, and more particularly its Christian-nationalist undercurrent. The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliff and Rafael Behr framed the gathering in terms of Tory factions: dangerous lunatics against the supposed moderate realists. Yet the opprobrium was not confined to the socially liberal side of the political spectrum.

Watching from across the Atlantic, conservative Christian thinker Sohrab Ahmari was left cold. The cofounder of Compact magazine and a regular contributor to the American Conservative and Christian outlet First Things, Ahmari might have been expected to delight in the mainstreaming of anti-woke and nationalist rhetoric in the Conservative Party — or indeed, NatCon’s apparent focus on rediscovering the nation-state. Instead, responding to conference mainstay Christopher DeMuth’s praise of Thatcher, Ahmari tweeted, “Either the NatCon project is totally incoherent — or its rhetorical nods toward a more solidaristic politics are just that: empty rhetoric.”

Ahmari’s own alternative vision is set out in his forthcoming Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It. It reflects his role as part of a mounting current of American rightist thinkers, like Ross Douthat and Patrick Deneen, whose opposition to the cultural effects of a liberal society has seen them take a self-described populist stance, critical of the political economy of neoliberalism.

Tyranny Inc. frames contemporary American society as a dystopia. Nothing unusual there — the Right is frequently hysterical in its millenarian language. Yet this is a book in which the word “woke” only appears five times — once to describe someone getting up in the morning, and the other four to paraphrase the anti-woke beliefs of his peers. Rather than ranting about degenerate social mores, Ahmari takes us on a devastating tour of the ways in which corporate power ruins lives in the United States.

The dystopian framing is earned in a chapter titled “Privatizing Emergency.” We meet the Purcells, a poor family from Arizona whose trailer home burned down while they were out of town. The blaze was contained by the local fire department, but firefighters from the private firm Rural/Metro showed up an hour later, “[stood] around bullshitting” — and then billed the family $20,000, despite having never advertised their services, and only having “a gentleman’s agreement” with the local fire department.

This is horrifying enough. But when Ahmari digs into the pensions of the fire department in the town the Purcells come from, he finds that the fire department is invested in the fund that owns Rural/Metro, meaning that the department is cannibalizing itself: complicit, via finance, in its own creeping privatization.

But Ahmari is also cutting about more mundane forms of brutality. He criticizes his peers on the Right as naive, or cynical, for suggesting that a society in which the market inhabits every sphere of life is somehow free of coercion.

Indeed, neoliberals come under a lot of fire in the book, with scorn poured upon figures like Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, and Paul Ryan. He describes the erosion of Sears as a healthy company by the asset-stripping billionaire Eddie Lampert, who brought in a “bizarre management model apparently inspired by his juvenile literary tastes — specifically, the novels of the arch-libertarian writer Ayn Rand.”

Keeping the Faith

While Ahmari cites some conservatives, and many classical political thinkers, leftists are much more likely to get a good hearing in Tyranny, Inc. He approvingly cites David Harvey on the origins of neoliberalism, Wendy Brown on neoliberal rationality, and Karl Polanyi on the ways states enforce the primacy of markets with violence. Other main reference points include more ideologically complicated thinkers, like Christopher Lasch or Michael Lind — men that Ahmari perhaps feels closer to as a rightist with obvious sympathies for the economic left.

But it is difficult to know what to make of a figure like Ahmari when reading this book. While he specifically rules out “full socialism,” his defense of the New Deal order and his consistent championing of labor throughout suggests that he and the Left would find a lot of common ground. When, in the “what to do about it” section, he says “the goal should be a labor market in which most sectors are unionized,” one wonders how this could possibly have been written by a right-winger.

Yet, Ahmari does remain on the Right. As Benjamin Fong notes, “If it were simply that [he] held more socially and culturally moderate or conservative viewpoints, but were still economically progressive, [he] would not be so hostile to labels (leftist, socialist, etc.) that represent economic ideas and political traditions to which they outwardly express sympathy.”

Which is not to say that his social-democratic yearnings are insincere — but that there also is a radical conservative social and cultural project lurking in the background, behind this relative defense of freedom in the economic realm.

This project can be seen in Ahmari’s writings in conservative magazines. Ahead of the midterms, in the American Conservative, he joined in with stoking a moral panic around “the push to promote sexual deviance among the very young in public schools.” In an essay with Schmittian undertones, he suggested that the end of the principle of academic freedom was to be celebrated by the Right, as it meant rejecting a liberal understanding that institutions could be neutral, rather than ideologically captured by default.

There is also a Christian element to this politics. Ahmari is a convert to Catholicism, and he has written in defense of a political Catholicism, a governmental project that would actively seek to strengthen and promote the faith. In this defense, European (far) rightists like Matteo Salvini, Marion Maréchal, and Viktor Orbán are held up as examples for Americans to follow. Ahmari does also write in the vein of Tyranny Inc. for these magazines, but his focus clearly is not just political economy.

Homegrown Tyranny

It is, nonetheless, interesting to watch Ahmari attempt to make his economic ideas heard on the Right. A move repeated several times throughout the book is the telling of a story designed to lull a conservative reader into a familiar thought pattern — Iran, China, and Karl Marx are tyrannical and bad, but the United States is Christian and virtuous — only to reveal that the worker fired for raising safety concerns during COVID was not a Chinese meat-packer as originally claimed, but Christian Smalls of the Amazon union drive, or that the quoted writer preaching the inevitability of class struggle was not Marx, but the Pope.

Ahmari repeatedly invokes the New Deal when making proposals, which include sectoral bargaining, as only organized labor can provide the “countervailing power” necessary to reign in the tyranny of big capital. He argues — admittedly without much detail — for an overhauling of the arbitration and courts system to prevent “the privatization of justice” that the return of Lochner-era legislation allows, and for workers’ right to veto the decisions made by private equity when they concern the future of the firm it has taken over.

As he makes the case for left-ish economics and the existence of public goods, as well as the case against neoliberal logic, to a right-wing audience, we see the beginnings of frames of a future right-populism emerging. Local journalism is defended, first as a social good, then as standing in a storied American democratic republican tradition, and finally, to appeal to libertarians, because “removing [local media’s watchdog] function results in greater municipal wage bloat, higher deficits, overpayments and the like, all of which boost borrowing costs and lowers bond ratings.”

Similarly, in the chapter titled “The Neoliberal Counterpunch,” a trenchant critique of neoliberal rationality and the forced depoliticization that comes with it is laid out via Wendy Brown, culminating in the pithy summary: “under neoliberalism, in short, only political claims that can be articulated in terms of market rationality are heard and granted legitimacy. Those that fail this test fall by the wayside.”

This is an analysis that most on the Left would agree with, and it is put forward succinctly. But then it continues: “in the Greco-Roman political tradition, which medieval Christianity took up as its own, politics was emphatically about the pursuit of common goods: goods like peace and justice that only the community could secure.” It seems like Ahmari is making the point for himself in the first instance, and then rendering it in terms palatable to his allies in RETVRN, statue avi Twitter in the second.

Pro-Worker Tories?

The Left’s own high points in the 2010s resulted from a combination of focuses on political economy and economic democracy — a limited form of which Ahmari champions. How much of a danger are these ideas, coming from the Right?

Much British commentary after NatCon focused on how dreadful the future would be if the Tories were to weld, Frankenstein-like, a hysterical brand of anti-wokeism and authoritarian statism to the neoliberal body to try and keep it alive. But in truth, this would be a ludicrous, minoritarian right committed to positions that few care about.

“Cultural Marxism,” “the woke wars,” or “government of the body at the national scale . . . to prevent posthumanism” are not issues around which you can build a political or social bloc capable of transforming society. To attempt to do so would be a British version of the Blake Masters senate campaign or the current Ron DeSantis debacle. It doesn’t take long for the public to look at the guy whose main opponent appears to be something called “globo-homo” and conclude he doesn’t offer anything of value. Surely, such a conservatism would be scary in power — but what makes it scary also makes it hard to succeed.

The British right loves to learn from the United States, to metabolize its discourses and create new UK variants that filter through politics and the press. A Tory party willing to go as far as Ahmari seems far-fetched. But it wouldn’t be that surprising if smarter members of the post-liberal right in Britain decided to pick up the mantle of a vaguely pro-worker challenge to the country’s underlying political economy, given that Keir Starmer is unlikely to do so if he takes power.

As unlikely as it may seem, it’s worth at least considering — what if the imported American politics the Tories pick up isn’t monomaniacal “anti-wokeism,” but a movement able to suppress its more off-putting tendencies, that was ready to harness frustration and populist energy into a culturally conservative, reformist social democracy? Such a formation would surely be much more popular than the e-right drivel currently being put forward by NatCon.