Social Democracy and Social Conservatism Aren’t Compatible

Sohrab Ahmari’s critique of capitalist power is surprising and compelling. But as long as he remains committed to unjust hierarchies of power in gender and sexuality, he can’t be a coalition partner with the Left.

Picketers from ILGWU Local 148-102 holding placards in English and Spanish that announce their strike against Sears Roebuck for unfair labor practices, February 1965. (Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library via Wikimedia Commons)

Few contemporary American political commentators have ridden an ideological rollercoaster as wild and convoluted as Sohrab Ahmari’s. Born in theocratic Iran, Ahmari was a Marxist atheist in his twenties before becoming a conservative Christian in his thirties. And not just your garden-variety conservative Christian: Ahmari went full Roman Catholic, and for a time gained fame (or infamy) as a maximalist culture warrior willing to take shots at center-right pundits like David French for being too soft on matters like using the state to advance militantly social conservative cultural policies. I became aware of Ahmari around the time of that debate, and penned several articles and reviews taking issue with pretty much all of his talking points.

But mercurial to his core, Ahmari has pivoted yet again. Since 2020 he has become more critical of the conservative movement for ignoring the economic travails of the American working class. Ahmari helped found Compact magazine, an ideologically syncretic outlet in the spirit of Christopher Lasch. Compact’s ambition is to argue for a strong social democratic state that also resists libertine ideologies and upholds local, national, familial, and religious communities, often with a reactionary bent.

In keeping with that vision, Ahmari’s latest book, Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty — and What to Do About It, hearkens back to his Marxist days. Ahmari deserves credit for not following in the footsteps of other right-wing commentators and pols: in the book, he’s not going the route of Ron DeSantis, who believes that homophobic diatribes about getting gay characters out of Disney films plus lowering the minimum wage somehow makes him an anti-corporate warrior. Ahmari argues that the “populist conservatism heralded by Trump’s election in 2016 has so far proved illusory. It’s largely a cultural phenomenon, with Republican lawmakers, for example, loudly griping about businesses that discriminate against conservative employees and customers — without lifting a finger to alter the fundamental balance of power between corporations and the rest of us.”

In this, Ahmari is absolutely right. While my previous readings of Ahmari’s work made me wary going into Tyranny, Inc., I ultimately found it a very sharp and readable critique of workplace exploitation and domination by corporations, which behave like private, undemocratic governments. Ahmari’s genuine empathetic concern for America’s working class shines through, as does his disdain for neoliberalism.

Unfortunately, while I have nothing but praise for Tyranny, Inc., I cannot endorse a social democratic compact between social conservatives and radical leftists. Such a coalition is neither viable nor desirable.

The Neoliberal Counterpunch

Ahmari begins Tyranny Inc. with a presentation of three outrageous scenarios of repression. The first occurs in the People’s Republic of China, where a state-owned slaughterhouse constantly surveys its employees, stoking fear and docking pay for “wasting the people’s time.” One employee leads a walkout to demand better safety conditions and is immediately terminated. The second takes place in Russia, where employees of Gazprom are told they must attend a speech by Vladimir Putin or take the day off without pay.

Finally, in Iran, a junior level analyst named Pourmoradi is tracked by his commanders through keylogger software that records every word he types. They commandeer his email password and use it to snoop through his private correspondences, discovering to their horror that he joked about the weight of a commanding officer. When Pourmoradi discovers this and confronts the powers that be, he is dishonorably discharged and sent packing.

It’s a clever sleight of hand: in reality, Ahmari reveals, all of these events took place in the United States. The Chinese slaughterhouse was actually Amazon, and the brave employee was Amazon union organizer Christian Smalls. Gazprom is in fact Shell, and Vladimir Putin was Donald Trump. And the real Pourmoradi was Lisa Rene, whose employer G. F. Fishers monitored her private life and then fired her when she brought the matter to light. Far from anomalies, Ahmari posits these stories as the tip of a very large iceberg of corporate domination that has grown under neoliberalism.

Drawing heavily on Marxist theorists like David Harvey, Ahmari describes neoliberalism as a framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade, a “theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills” within a specific set of coercive institutions:

Neoliberal theory, the successor to laissez-faire ideology, is arguably more utopian than the original. Yet put to practice, neoliberalism has yielded a brute “restoration of class power” as the economic geographer David Harvey puts it. More than that, neoliberalism has transfigured what it means to belong to a political community and what states are for, dramatically narrowing the scope for resisting economic power.

Ahmari goes on to cite the great left-wing political theorist Wendy Brown to stress how contemporary neoliberalism differs from “old school laissez faire.” Classical economic liberals wanted the state to withdraw within certain parameters — after coercively establishing a legal regime enforcing property rights, of course. By contrast, neoliberals sought to “activate the state on behalf of the economy,” shielding the market from democratic pressures and expanding capitalism into previously insulated domains.

Quoting Michel Foucault, Ahmari claims that “neoliberalism seeks to regulate society by the market.” From Ahmari’s perspective, neoliberalism has been tremendously successful in this ambition over the last half-century, subordinating vast numbers of people to domination by private and unaccountable power.

After they finish reeling with surprise at a well-known American conservative positively referencing David Harvey, there is nothing much in the above for a democratic socialist to quibble with. Indeed, Ahmari doesn’t just go after the systemic and theoretical roots of private power. He also names names, criticizing a wide array of right-wing voices and conservative institutions for their collusion with private corporate tyranny.

His targets notably include the current Supreme Court, which Ahmari calls the “Bosses’ Court” and censures as a handmaiden of private power. Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, comes in for special ribbing. Ahmari discusses Epic Systems v. Lewis, a case concerning whether an employer can mandate that workers agree to private arbitration and ban them from pursuing class action suits.

The question was of vital importance since, particularly when facing down large companies, it is often very difficult for employees to sue unless they organize a class action suit. Delivering what Ahmari describes as “one of the cruelest decisions ever issued by a high court,” Gorsuch dismissed the employee’s claim.

All this testifies to Ahmari’s sincerity as a critic of economic power and conveys the impression that he wants the book to be taken seriously by the Left. And credit where due, Tyranny, Inc. deserves to be taken seriously. To the extent that his book suggests an emerging consensus on the dangers of private government, that should be celebrated as contributing to a shift in the overton window of the economically possible.

As a singular book, I truly enjoyed Tyranny, Inc. But the remaining question is whether that consensus can translate into a real-world coalition. On the matter of whether the Left and the Right can be united on the basis of a shared commitment to robust social democracy and social conservatism, I am far more skeptical.

Ahmari doesn’t address this at great length in Tyranny, Inc., mostly limiting himself to observing that conservatives are often “the first to lament” the “cultural ramifications” of market society while chastising them for not extending their critique to the “shape of our political-economic order.” He does not specify the nature of those “ramifications” — are we talking about “cancel culture” or gay marriage?

It may hypothetically be possible to enact some kind of left-right synthesis in a way that does equal service to each. But in the wild, political ideologies are frequently forged in ways that can seem baffling to theorists. Theoretically, there would seem to be little shared ground between, say, social conservatives and libertarians. In the real world, commitments to anti-communism and an opposition to basic concerns of social justice and attempts to dismantle hierarchies around race and gender made just such a “fusionist” synthesis the ruling ideology of the American right for decades.

Nevertheless, there is a deep theoretical affinity between the Left’s desire to resist domination and inequality in the economy, and the aspiration to similarly put pressure on unjust patriarchal, ethno-national, heteronormative, and cultural hierarchies of the sort that social conservatives — including Ahmari — have historically defended. These positions flow from a set of unifying aspirations that have been central to the Left since before even the French Revolution: the yearning to secure liberty, equality, and solidarity for all, regardless of circumstance. Resisting private economic power is one element in this project, and arguably the most crucial, but it isn’t the only one.

Moreover, it isn’t even clear that one can be a successful anti-capitalist without committing to struggles against social domination. For instance, as Nancy Fraser reminds us in Cannibal Capitalism, early capitalist societies relied very heavily on women’s care work and domestic work as an unacknowledged and uncompensated contribution to the production process — a clear example of structural overlap between economic and patriarchal domination. That arrangement has not fully been dissolved, even as women have entered the official workforce; in fact, they are now often subject to new forms of exploitation on top of the old. It would thus be impractical and unjust to cordon off feminism from anti-capitalism.

The same can be said of the many other struggles to which the Left must remain committed. Social oppression and economic exploitation are not one and the same, but they tend to reinforce each other. In practice, one can’t credibly resist the latter without taking a firm stance against the former.

The Right is eager to condemn “woke” identity politics, and indeed a certain style of discourse on the identitarian left is worthy of some condemnation. But the Right does not disentangle these from legitimate battles against oppression, seeing them as one and the same.

For instance, right now conservatives like Ron DeSantis are proposing to ban transgender people from the military and trying to stop teachers from acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people. He couches these efforts as part of a broader war on “wokeness,” but it’s clearly just a war on LGBTQ people. Trans citizens are currently facing one of the most cruelly hostile reactions in decades, with pundits like Matt Walsh actively calling for a more “hate”-based Christian right. Moreover, Republican politicians who talk a big game about going to war with corporate power are simultaneously employing austerity and anti-worker policies in practice, as DeSantis’s policies on minimum wages have shown.

DeSantis’s proposals are a form a tyrannical domination by a coercive state every bit as pronounced as the forms of workplace tyranny expertly skewered in Ahmari’s book. We can oppose them both simultaneously. The Right is not going to do the same.

I admire Ahmari’s recent acknowledgement that the GOP “will never” be a party for the working class, his (at least partial) break with Trump, and his embrace of Sanders- and Warren-style economics. But unless Ahmari has recently changed his mind, he continues to oppose gay marriage and abortion.

Meanwhile, Adrian Vermeule and Patrick Deneen have expressed deep reservations about democracy and endorsed forms of “aristopopulism” oriented around erecting a new conservative elite to replace our current neoliberal one. Until they’re willing to reconsider these positions and disentangle their opposition to cancel culture with the Right’s opposition to social equality, the Left can’t see them as allies. This reflects the abiding fact that the Right is committed to the preservation or restoration of old hierarchies, or in its more radical forms the construction of new ones. This is simply something an emancipatory left can never get behind.

Ahmari has surprised this reader and longtime critic with his trenchant critique of neoliberalism and corporate power, and I’m pleased to see him argue to end the reign of tyranny in the workplace. I’m happy to say that Tyranny, Inc. is a very engaging book that draws attention to vital issues with passion and lucidity, and it will hopefully spark much needed reflection among conservatives. But until the populist right recognizes the harm caused by anti-feminism, homophobia, racism, and more, it’ll have to be thanks but no thanks on an enduring compact.