In his new book, Sohrab Ahmari argues that the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporations has created a new form of tyranny in America. "Coercion is far more widespread in supposedly noncoercive societies than we would like to think—provided we pay attention to private power and admit the possibility of private coercion," he writes. Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact magazine, joins Bethany and Luigi to discuss his book, "Tyranny Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty--and What to Do About It." In this episode, they discuss the complex relationship between capitalism, personal freedoms, and political power. The conversation sheds light on what classical liberalism ignores, how today's Right is discovering what the Left may have forgotten, and ultimately, where today's political Left and Right may be able to work together.
In his new book, Sohrab Ahmari argues that the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporations has created a new form of tyranny in America. "Coercion is far more widespread in supposedly noncoercive societies than we would like to think—provided we pay attention to private power and admit the possibility of private coercion," he writes.
Ahmari, founder and editor of Compact magazine, joins Bethany and Luigi to discuss his book, "Tyranny Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty--and What to Do About It." In this episode, they discuss the complex relationship between capitalism, personal freedoms, and political power. The conversation sheds light on what classical liberalism ignores, how today's Right is discovering what the Left may have forgotten, and ultimately, where today's political Left and Right may be able to work together.
Show Notes: Also check out two previous episodes mentioned in this conversation:
Sohrab Ahmari: In terms of having a highly unionized, more regulated capitalist system: yeah, I’m there with Jeremy and Liz Warren and the like.
Bethany: I’m Bethany McLean.
Phil Donahue: Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea?
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales.
Bernie Sanders: We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Bethany: And this is Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what is working in capitalism.
Milton Friedman: First of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Warren Buffett: We ought to do better by the people that get left behind. I don’t think we should kill the capitalist system in the process.
Bethany: Today, the prevailing form of capitalism is neoliberalism. I think people would define neoliberalism as a set of beliefs and policy recommendations that emphasize the use of market mechanisms to solve most of society’s problems and needs.
Luigi: In recent years, neoliberalism has been under attack from both the left and the right. And I have to say, while the left-wing criticisms of neoliberalism tend to repeat the criticisms that the left had for a long time, the right-wing criticisms tend to be a bit more novel, or at least more surprising to me, which doesn’t mean necessarily better but more interesting. At least, I want to understand them better.
For this reason, in the recent past, we have interviewed Oren Cass and Patrick Deneen, two conservative critics of neoliberalism. I actually thought we were done when I started reading a book by Sohrab Ahmari called Tyranny, Inc.
Bethany: I find this fascinating, this development of neoliberalism and market skepticism on the right. I’ve long had this theory that most things that we think are at opposite ends of the spectrum actually meet in a circle.
And this is one of those examples of the truth of that, where really far-left progressives and, actually, the far right are meeting in a similar place on economic issues. But anyway, what attracted you so much about Sohrab’s book?
Luigi: At the cost of spoiling it for the listeners, it was the beginning. The book starts by describing three civil-rights abuses around the world. There is a Chinese worker who works under inhumane conditions and, at some point, tries to strike and is fired.
There is a Gazprom employee in Russia, whose daily pay is withdrawn if he doesn’t attend a Putin speech. And there is an Iranian who is fired for un-Islamic behavior, which was discovered because his employer had installed keylogger software on his computer that recorded everything he typed.
Then, he tells you that, actually, all three of these examples come from the United States of America. In one case, it is an Amazon worker. In the second case, it is a worker from a Shell plant in Pennsylvania whose workers were forced to attend a Trump rally. And the last one was from a retailer, G.F. Fishers, where supervisors started to spy on an employee’s private life, and they fired her after she complained.
Bethany: As a writer who has just tried to write a book, I was actually really jealous of his beginning. The head fake was quite compelling. But as an economist, I’m not surprised that you liked his book more than Deneen’s book, because it is focused on economics. What about it really resonated with you?
Luigi: I think neoclassical economics ignores—in fact, it wants to eliminate, even from the vocabulary—the issue of power. There is a famous paper on the theory of the firm that claims that firms don’t have any more power of fiat than what individuals have in the marketplace. An employee firing a firm is equal to a firm firing an employee.
What is funny is I have a colleague who actually uses this language. When he’s upset with United Airlines and decides to start buying all his tickets from American, he goes around saying that he fired United Airlines.
And I always ask him: “Did it notice that you fired it? When you get fired from your job, you do notice.”
But anyway, the irony or the depressing aspect is that this is still the dominant view of the firm in finance, that the firm is just a nexus of contracts with no issue of power. And much of finance is based on this idea.
Bethany: We talk a lot about privilege and how to define privilege. I mean, not us, specifically; I mean society at large. And I was thinking, maybe the real definition of privilege is that you do get to fire a company; you do get to fire United Airlines. Maybe that’s one.
Anyway, but in this respect, Sohrab is very different. He claims that this model of competitive capitalism, the model you’re talking about, where coercion simply couldn’t take place, because no one has power that they can misuse, is a myth. And he emphasizes through a lot of his book the power imbalance between firms and workers, which I think is right.
Luigi: Yeah. And he does more than that. He emphasizes the coercive nature of the market as an institution. To create a market system, capitalists massively use the coercive power of the state. But then, after this coercive power has been used, then there is the issue that everything is voluntary exchange after that.
Bethany: In a way, none of his points is novel, from a theoretical point of view. So, what did you think? What struck you as new?
Luigi: I have to admit, the biggest novelty of all this is that these points have been raised by somebody who likes to call himself a conservative. The other interesting aspect is that this point is made at all.
Today’s left is more concerned with gender and race rather than the imbalance of power between companies, especially large companies, and workers. This is ironic, because if there was ever a moment of great imbalance of power between firms and workers, this is it. It’s strange that the left seems to have abandoned it.
Bethany: Yeah, that’s really interesting. I read a critique that resonated with me about today’s left: that by defining people into smaller and smaller subsets, you lose commonality. And by losing commonality, you lose power.
But yours is a different critique and a really interesting one, which is that the left has also abandoned, in some ways, the economic critique that was once at the heart of what it was to be on the left.
This is interesting. Do you think that this book is just the right rediscovering what the left has forgotten?
Or is it something more? And I think, hopefully, this is what we can learn by talking to Sohrab.
I wanted to start with a fairly basic question for you, which is that “neoliberalism” is a term that gets tossed around a lot now. And a lot of people are opposed to it without really being clear about what they’re talking about. What do you think we’re talking about, and where do you think the mainstream critiques miss the mark?
Sohrab Ahmari: The definition I use is not original. I borrow it from a political theorist at Berkeley, Wendy Brown, who in turn draws heavily on Michel Foucault, who began talking about neoliberalism in the 1970s. And it’s just the idea that whereas classical liberalism merely said, “OK, let the autonomous market alone” — now, bracket that with the idea that the bringing about of the autonomous market itself required enormous state coercion. But setting that aside, it basically said, “Leave it alone.”
Neoliberalism goes much further and says, “We should allow the market logic to govern all of societies,” so that the purpose of government itself becomes to promote the market in every square, to promote market-type rationalities and measurements in every domain of life.
So that, for example, the New York Times did a story about a year ago about hospice chaplains. These are people of faith: priests, rabbis, imams, who work with people in their final moments in life. They have to fill out productivity scores, et cetera. They are scored according to their productivity. That’s the kind of intrusion of market logic into every domain of life.
Or, as Michel Foucault famously put it in this pithy way, “Neoliberalism seeks to govern society by the market.” The market is no longer just a tool or a place in which we exchange goods and services, but it is the sort of deeper logic of society as such.
Bethany: We had Daron Acemoglu at MIT on the podcast. He wrote a book arguing that a lot of the progress we’ve seen over the last centuries has not been the result of market forces itself, but rather the result of distinctive choices within those market forces.
Would you argue that the problems with liberalism and neoliberalism are inherent in the thing itself, and driving to a self-destructive endpoint, the way perhaps a Marxist would? Or would you argue that they’re the product of specific choices that can be chosen differently?
Sohrab Ahmari: I mean, I think some of them are absolutely inherent to the system itself.
To historicize, liberalism, especially market liberalism, is an ideology that emerged in the late 18th century, in a context in which you did have what are called masterless men.
You had, typically, in the United States, there were yeomen, craftsmen, engineers, and so on, who really could, maybe, perhaps deal with each other at arm’s length. There were many, many producers in any given market and so on.
Technology comes into the picture. And the picture of the world that Econ 101 classical liberals painted was no longer an accurate picture of reality. Because you had, typically, enormous concentrations of power in most markets.
By the late 19th century, typically, one or two producers or sellers would dominate entire industries. Otis Elevator by the late 19th century dominated 70 percent of its market, or British American Tobacco, 90 percent, and so on.
And when you’re dealing with those enormous concentrations of power, you’re not dealing with a situation in which the price point is this pristine crystallization of supply and demand, or the wage is a pristine reflection of the marginal productivity of a worker. But rather, you’re dealing with just the ability of a few actors in any given market to set their own prices or decide how they want to treat their suppliers and so on.
All of this seems to me inherent in the development of the market left to its own devices, combined with technological development.
Then, for example, you have a demand crisis in these economies because labor unions are combated fiercely by governments and by capital. And so, people can’t bargain for wages that are just.
But not only are they not just, but they’re not able to buy the goods that they themselves produce. And so, you have a demand crisis in the system. I think, in that sense, you’re talking about things that are maybe inherent to capitalism, to market liberalism itself.
I do think there is possibility of choice and contingency in the system, more so than an orthodox Marxist would. Within the system, we can do things to make it easier for people to join labor unions, or mount countervailing power as consumers by setting up government-supported consumer co-ops in certain markets like utilities, et cetera.
What I want to see is, ultimately, a manufacturing-oriented, high-wage economy. What we have today is a low-wage, high-benefit economy, which is the worst combination you can think of.
Now, when we say “low wage,” as I borrow these categories from my friend Michael Lin, but say low wage, high benefit, it doesn’t mean that the benefit systems that we have are quite generous. In fact, especially in the United States, they’re quite miserly. They’re means-tested. And in all sorts of ways, you’re disciplined in order to make sure that you really qualify for them or not.
But what it means is that, as a share of the total income of working-class people, and especially the working poor, however you number them, as a share of the total income that they need to make ends meet, government benefits make up a quite high degree: up to half.
For example, fast-food workers: about half of fast-food workers in the United States rely on public welfare to make ends meet. And that subjects them to this dual coercion. They’re not only at the mercy of the employer in the sense that their wages are precarious. Their hours are precarious and so on.
But, on the other side, they’re also at the mercy of the welfare administrator. It’s like, “Oh, did you buy a six-pack of beer with your benefits and so on with your food stamps?”
And so, I think what we should aim for is the opposite of that. It’s an economy in which people are empowered enough, including through high wages, where they’re not coerced like that.
Because it not only offends our sense of justice, but it also means that, as it is, we collectively as taxpayers are subsidizing low wages for employers. In other words, they privatize the gain and then socialize the costs onto the rest of society.
Bethany: I was really interested in your book and your section about bankruptcy, because I’ve often said, without really understanding the deeper problems, that people who think there’s really such a thing as a free market often are reliant on bankruptcy rules. And bankruptcy rules, in many ways, are a creation of the state.
But you have this really interesting analysis of how bankruptcy rules have gotten . . . Maybe “perverted” is too strong a word . . . corrupted? I don’t know if that’s a weaker word.
Anyway, can you explain to our listeners what actually has happened with bankruptcy rules?
Sohrab Ahmari: Yep. It’s sort of the most technical chapter in the book, too.
Bethany: Of course, I gravitated toward that.
Sohrab Ahmari: I’ll try my best. But when ordinary people have trouble making ends meet, the bankruptcy system works one way for them. And it can be quite the coercive system that comes bearing down on them when they have to declare bankruptcy.
It’s another story for large corporate debtors in the United States, as our corporate bankruptcy system, specifically the Chapter 11 system for reorganizing businesses, has been captured by large debtors and a relatively few bankruptcy judges who rule in every way in favor of large debtors, to the detriment of consumers, workers, and other smaller, more aggrieved actors.
To give an example of that, the bankruptcy process of Purdue Pharma . . . A lot of people know the Purdue story as, OK, this company manufactured a highly addictive and destructive drug. We’re still dealing with the fallout from that. It costs something like $140 billion a year in law enforcement, healthcare, et cetera.
What people don’t know is that the family, the Sacklers, behind Purdue Pharma, was able to engineer the bankruptcy process such that they were able to shield much of their assets from claimants, whether it’s the federal government, or whether it’s state governments, insurers, hospitals, and individual consumers who were hurt by their product, Oxycontin.
The family as a whole are still billionaires. I mean, their collective wealth is estimated now at $13 billion, $14 billion. It’s less than what it used to be, but still, they’re definitely in the billionaires’ club. And so, you would think that that’s very strange. How did that come about?
It’s because they were able to take advantage of this loophole, in a way, in our bankruptcy laws called third-party releases, whereby actors who are not themselves going through the crucible of bankruptcy get to nevertheless take advantage of bankruptcy’s most coercive feature, which is basically stopping all claims against their assets. That’s what the Sacklers did.
And the way they do that is through, first of all, court shopping. Some judges are much more likely to look favorably on third-party releases than others.
And Purdue Pharma . . . I won’t go into the details, but it used these unbelievably byzantine strategies to not only end up in the Southern District of New York, even though its business relationships in the Southern District of New York were completely attenuated, but in a specific courthouse, with a specific judge, who happened to have the most pro-big-debtor views.
By the way, that’s coming up for review at the Supreme Court. But it’s just an example of, first of all, how large actors can game the system. Second of all, as you said, the market order is a product of all sorts of state action.
And this is the kind of thing I struggle with the most with my own tribe, as it were, with people on the right who think the market is just this natural thing that we do together. It is the friends we make along the way, rather than a product of a coercive system with state intervention at every step, to bring about the kind of neoliberal system that we’ve decided is the one we want.
Luigi: Since you are a Catholic, you appreciate the fact that Allan Meltzer, who was a political economist, used to say that “capitalism without bankruptcy is like religion without sin: it doesn’t work.” And I think that if you don’t fix bankruptcy, you don’t fix the capitalist system.
I was more fascinated by the part on arbitration because it was the part I didn’t know. Can you illustrate for our listeners the role that Hoover had, actually, in trying to have a decent arbitration system? And then how this was overturned recently by the Supreme Court?
Sohrab Ahmari: This is the one that really gets my blood boiling. And I think anyone who reads the chapter in the book, hopefully, it’ll make your blood boil as well.
First of all, what is arbitration? Arbitration is a very ancient practice. It dates back to the Middle Ages, when parties that were in dispute would resolve to have their disputes mediated by a neutral third party, rather than going to court.
Why? Because even in medieval times, courtrooms were expensive and took a lot of time. Judges and courts often had limited jurisdiction over specific areas and over specific issues that they could legally adjudicate.
Whereas in arbitration, it’s faster, it’s quicker. Often, in the medieval times, it was the Catholic Church who would mediate between, let’s say, two feuding families and resolve all their disputes.
Especially as capitalism developed in the United States, you had all these merchants going to war against each other. So, the court system was mired in commercial litigation.
And often, by the time the litigation was over, the two parties’ business relationship would be left in tatters, because lawyers are brutal. They try to take every advantage that the law offers in a way that destroys business relationships.
In the 1920s, various people in the commercial community, including then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who would go on to be President Hoover, put their heads together to try to bring about a kind of arbitration system in the United States. We already had arbitration, but federal courts refused to enforce arbitral agreements.
Hoover and others enacted a law called the Federal Arbitration Act. It was a procedural act essentially directing federal courts to uphold arbitration. But the people who enacted the law were keenly aware of its possibility for abuse in take-it-or-leave-it situations: that is, situations of disparate bargaining power where an employer, for example, tells an employee, “Hey, if you have a dispute, we’re going to arbitrate it.”
They went out of their way, specifically in the employment context, to exclude employment relationships from the Federal Arbitration Act scope. That arrangement was basically honored for about four to five decades.
But beginning in the . . . well, one case in the 1960s, but really beginning in the 1980s, with the Reagan revolution at the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court began to expand the scope of the Arbitration Act to evermore situations, including, eventually, into the employment situation.
That’s how we ended up with today’s system, where in 2018, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch, held that an employee of Ernst & Young who had a wage dispute with Ernst & Young . . . He was not a CPA, he was not a senior accountant, he was just a low-level employee.
He alleged that he wasn’t paid overtime that was owed to him, both under California labor law and under the Fair Labor Standards Act. But Ernst & Young noted that he had signed an arbitration agreement.
Now, it was interesting that they said that he had signed it. Because when he was employed, the arbitration agreement wasn’t part of their relationship. It wasn’t part of the documents that he had signed.
Only months later into his agreement, the company sent a firm-wide email that said, “If you show up to work tomorrow, you agree going forward to arbitrate your disputes.”
Now, a certain kind of classical liberal or libertarian dogmatist would say: “Oh, well, at that point, Mr. Morris, the plaintiff in this case, had the freedom of contract. Or he could renegotiate the agreement.”
But anyone who lives in the real world knows if your employer tells you, if you show up to work the next day, you agree to arbitrate your disputes, you just show up. Because you’ve got to pay your mortgage, or you’ve got to pay your elder care, you’ve got to pay for your kids’ health insurance, and so on.
Our Supreme Court said, “Yeah, Morris is actually bound by the arbitration agreement,” even though it would have cost him $200,000—and Ernst & Young did not dispute this—the cost of the arbitration process, in order to recover about $4,000. In order to recover about 2 percent of the cost of arbitration, he was forced to stay out of court.
The only way it would have been economically rational for Morris to vindicate rights he already has under the Fair Labor Standards Act would be by being able to join forces with others. And remember, the Fair Labor Standards Act is one of these New Deal laws that was aimed explicitly at raising up workers’ ability to mount collective action or mount collective bargaining.
And yet, our Supreme Court held that there’s a liberal policy in favor of arbitration. And that trumps the injunction brought forth by the Fair Labor Standards Act, by Congress’ explicit will, to encourage collective action. That’s trumped by the sort of supreme imperative that arbitration always be upheld.
This is quite common in the economy now. In 1992, only about 2 percent of nonunion firms used arbitration. Today, a majority of nonunion firms use arbitration. Why do I say nonunion? I’ll stop here. I know that was a long, digressive answer.
But the reason I say “nonunion” is because in a union context, actually, arbitration is very useful. Because you have two parties of relatively equal bargaining power. And if a dispute arises, unions and employers have all sorts of ways to quickly resolve it without need for litigation, and in a way that’s very fair.
But in the nonunion context, it’s completely different. You’re like the sole employee going up against Ernst & Young or going up against ExxonMobil or Google or Apple or what have you.
You’re told to go to a private arbitration chamber. Sometimes that arbitration chamber is in Geneva or Amsterdam. It costs 20,000 euros or 25,000 euros just to initiate your case. And you’re someone who makes $20,000, $25,000 a year as an Uber driver. That’s really unfair, but it’s become quite common.
Like I said, a majority of non-union firms now have arbitration clauses in their agreements with employees.
Bethany: I think that’s such a compelling example of this line you write in your book about “this discomfiting new understanding that coercion is far more widespread in supposedly noncoercive societies than we would like to think, provided we pay attention to private power and admit the possibility of private coercion.”
Anyway, your comments about unions open up a question. You attribute a lot of the decline in workers’ power to the decline of labor unions, and to the way the 1935 Wagner Act was progressively dismantled. Can you explain how and why that happened?
Sohrab Ahmari: Let’s start with the kind of common story you’ll often encounter, which is, the reason private-economy unionization rates declined over the past two generations is because of the collapse in American manufacturing, as a result of automation and as a result of globalization.
I argue that it’s a myth. Yes, the decline in manufacturing employment had some role in the decline in labor unionization or union density, which is the share of workers who are covered by collective-bargaining agreements.
The problem for people who say that it was all globalization and automation or, let’s say, China and robots, is the fact that if you do statistical analysis . . . I have not, but the folks at the Economic Policy Institute have.
If you do statistical analysis, and you impose the postindustrial conditions that we have on the economy of, let’s say, the 1970s, when union density began to decline drastically in the United States, and you continue to track that, it makes not much of a difference. It’s not a significant difference.
You can explain the loss of union density, or the collapse of union density in manufacturing, by referring to robots and China. You can’t explain it in these other sectors, which, obviously, they’re not exposed to the same degree to automation and to globalization. Then, the question becomes, what explains it?
Another explanation is that unions just became more unpopular over the years. This one, again, there’s an enormous amount of empirical literature that shows that lots more Americans want to be unionized than currently have representation, especially right this moment. When we’re speaking, in October 2023, unions are more popular than they have been in more than a half-century.
But over time, too—I mean, there’s an MIT study that shows that, basically, there’s about a hundred million more American workers who wish to be represented, if this academic polling is to be believed, than are actually represented.
OK, we’ve ruled out robots and China, and we’ve ruled out the fact that unions are just unpopular as a popular talking point.
Then what remains is that the United States government got very good at helping corporations union bust, to go after unions, beginning with the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, and then a series of decisions by the Supreme Court and Republican-dominated National Labor Relations Boards, which just chipped away at the idea that the goal of the Wagner Act is to actually promote labor unionization.
Rather, they turned it into a situation in which employers have a symmetrical “free-speech right” to scare their employees about what it would mean to unionize, to bar unions from parking lots of companies except in rare situations, to bar workers from speaking up at captive-audience meetings, to bar union representatives from captive-audience meetings, to get rid of card check, and so on and so forth.
Just, basically, raising up a number of barriers, so that that three-stage process that it takes to join a labor union in the United States . . . First, you need enough signatures on a petition, about a third. Then, you need to win an election. Then, you need to win a contract in a year.
All those three steps became much harder beginning in the 1970s, as a result of these changes, in this drift in our labor law, as the Economic Policy Institute argued. Capital got very good at waging class war against labor.
Luigi: You’re certainly right that that played an important role. There are two other factors which are important. One is the movement of industry to the South, to states with a so-called right-to-work law.
And second, I think it is the mobility of capital. In a lot of places, you’re confronted with a choice: “If I don’t build a plant here, I’ll build it somewhere else.” Even the unions, if present, are forced to accept a lot of concessions. So, there’s no doubt that the strong mobility of capital has given more bargaining power to capital vis-à-vis labor.
And when we hosted Oren Cass, I was trying to figure out whether he was willing to go down the line of restricting capital movement in the name of protecting workers. He said, “Oh, we should restrict capital movement to China,” for other ideological reasons. But he wasn’t particularly willing to state a position in general. Where do you stand on the issue of capital movement?
Sohrab Ahmari: I think you’re right. The movement to the South is a factor in this. But philosophically speaking, it’s not much different from moving to Vietnam or China.
I think the philosophical point we have to begin with is that there is nothing natural about brutal labor laws in places like China and Vietnam. It’s not like their labor laws grow on a special tree that is only available in China or Vietnam. It’s just that they have laws like that, and they oppress their workers.
And so, I think the philosophical premise we have to begin with is, if we still think of things that are called American companies that care about this country, and they want to take advantage of the American bounty—our super-productive workers, our rule of law, our stability, everything that’s wonderful about this country and its people—great.
But then you have to have a commitment to the people who are here. And you can’t, at the slightest competitive pressure, up and go elsewhere and try to undercut workers who built your business, who built your profits.
What I’m trying to tell you is, I think I’m a little bit more open to restricting the movement of capital than maybe my friend Oren is, at least philosophically.
But I’ll be honest. I’m not sure exactly how I would delineate this at the level of policy: what it would mean precisely to insist on long-term commitments to the United States. It’s something to think about.
Luigi: It seems to me that many of the problems you address could be fixed through universal healthcare, higher minimum wage, and a bit more efficient government. Do you need to tear down the entire liberal system for this?
Sohrab Ahmari: No. No, and I don’t call for that. What I call for is a restoration of the idea of the socially managed market, and it has various terms. In Europe, I think the concepts like social democracy or Christian democracy, those are the sort of labels that this way of thinking took on, or the New Deal order. That’s what we’re talking about here.
Obviously, it’s not socialism. It’s not tearing down the entire economy and making it a command-centralized economy, but rather, one in which, first of all, the state is attuned to the possibilities of market failure and is willing to intervene. It doesn’t have this dogmatic market fundamentalism that the market always knows best.
It recognizes that, especially in labor markets left to their own, you have these vast disparities in bargaining power. Just as even, under classical liberalism, the state is supposed to intervene against monopoly power in conditions of largely oligopolistic markets, in which there are relatively few employers as buyers of labor power, and many, many sellers of labor power, the employees.
In order for there to be fairness, the state should intervene to make it easier for those on the other side of the market to mount countervailing power to fight for better wages, a greater measure of workplace autonomy, better benefits, and so on.
So, no, I don’t think we need to upend our entire society, which is why the book . . . It’s a funny kind of reception, in the sense that the conservative or libertarian or neoliberal types are like: “Ah, here we go. Sohrab Ahmari is calling for collectivism or statism.”
But the smartest critics of the book are actually the Marxists. The person who reviewed it, Jodi Dean, for Los Angeles Review of Books, she’s a communist, and she notes that this model that I’m proposing is class compromise or class coordination.
In some ways, that makes it small-c conservative. Because what the political logic was behind the New Deal order was that because of the way that labor markets were working out for ordinary people, it was generating enormous frustration.
And unless the capitalist class was willing to compromise a bit more, you would get socialist revolution. In a way, socially managed capitalism, social democracy, Christian democracy, is a kind of compromise. It’s a middle position.
Luigi: It’s funny because when I read what you wrote, but particularly listening to some of your interviews, in which you make very clear your Catholic roots, it reminds me of the Christian Democrats in Italy.
I don’t know if you are familiar with names like Amintore Fanfani, Giuseppe Dossetti, Giorgio La Pira. These are people who were to the left of the Christian Democrats, who governed Italy for the better part of the period since World War II, basically up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
What is funny is that they were considered to the left of the Christian Democrats but were considered strongly anticommunist because the left was represented by communists who, for the better part of that period, were friends with the Soviet Union, and so on and so forth.
But today, that left doesn’t exist anymore. I find it a little bit hard to see the difference between you and, for example, Jeremy Corbyn. You seem like a pro-life Jeremy Corbyn.
Sohrab Ahmari: I would accept that. Jonah Goldberg, who’s a much more conventional American conservative libertarian or neoliberal conservative, described me as a pro-life New Dealer. And he meant it as a kind of pejorative or as an insult. And as one does on Twitter, I immediately seized on it and said, “Happily, I will accept that label.”
In terms of having a highly unionized, more regulated capitalist system, yeah, I’m there with Jeremy and Liz Warren and the like.
Bethany: You have strong views, obviously, on the economic front. You have strong views on the social front as well. Could I say, I like your economic views, I’m going to choose those, but I’m not going to choose your social views?
Or would you argue that I’m missing the point, that the two have to go hand in hand, even though you didn’t write about your social views in this book?
Sohrab Ahmari: That’s a very good question. I would say so many answers to that. One is that I run this magazine called Compact. We publish both conservative populists and various shades of progressives, economic progressives, from progressive Democrats all the way to Marxists and so on.
And I try to convene meetings between these two groups, often off-the-record meetings, to say, “Where can we meet each other eye to eye?” Because I do think that in this country, reform happens in the center between left and right.
I’m not talking about a kind of milquetoast centrism, where you take the existing right and left, and you say, “Well, let’s split the difference and see where we end up between the two.”
But rather, people who might have fundamentally opposed worldviews in some ways, but they share a discontent. And they come together to horse-trade around their discontent until they reach some cobbled-together, comprehensive solution.
To try to think about what that concretely would look like, insofar as we have a childcare crisis in this country, progressives have some good solutions. Someone like Representative Ro Khanna wants to expand federal support for childcare. Fair enough.
But if you then subsidize the ability of some families who want to take care of their kids at home through tax breaks, child tax breaks, whatever you want to call them, then you get to . . . It’s not a win-win, but it’s a win enough. So that women who want to work outside the home have that additional childcare support. But we’re not forcing all women into market society. Some women want to work from home.
If you think we should have a higher-wage economy, a certain Catholic mentality is, “Look, we need to have an economy in which a single earner suffices to pay for the expenses of the whole family.” That’s kind of a patriarchal ideal. Typically, in their mind, it’s the husband.
But if we work toward a more unionized economy, a higher-wage economy with wage boards, collective bargaining, in some industries, you just need higher minimum wages or so on. If we work toward that, we may achieve what the conservatives want. And along the way, we reach what someone like Liz Warren may want or a Bernie Sanders would want.
You bring together someone like Vance or Senator Hawley and someone like Warren. And, by the way, some of this cooperation is happening organically. Vance and Warren are teaming up on this idea that the federal government should ruthlessly claw back executive earnings at banks that have required bailouts.
I hope not, because I can’t persuade you, I’m sure, on the theological stuff. And I’ve come to the point where I don’t want to. I’ve realized that that’s a separate issue. We should be prepared to democratically contest those issues elsewhere.
But where we can meet eye to eye, I think left and right should work together. That’s my theory of change, this kind of down-the-center American reform.
This is a very consensus-based country, notwithstanding our reputation for being so independent-minded and so on. In fact, it’s strictly governed by consensus. Neoliberalism was a consensus. Famously, Thatcher, when she was asked, “What was your greatest achievement?” She said, “Tony Blair.”
And so, if we’re going to replace neoliberalism with something more humane, that’s going to happen in that same way as a matter of consensus as well.
Bethany: Thank you so much for your time. This was helpful and interesting.
Luigi: It was a pleasure to have you. Thanks for the time.
Sohrab Ahmari: Thank you both.
Bethany: Did you hear anything, Luigi, in this discussion that surprised you?
Luigi: Nothing that shocked me. But I have to say, I really found him much more authentic than any of the previous people that we interviewed on the same topic.
I was looking at his biography. As you know, he immigrated from Iran, and he spent his teenage years in a mobile home in Utah. I don’t want to be too Marxist here, but the past history has a huge impact on the way he looks at things.
I don’t get the impression that I got other times, that this interest in workers is simply because he sees an electoral-market opportunity, that the workers have been abandoned by the left, and so, we need to cater to them. Let’s give them some token things so that they can vote for us. I don’t see that. I see an authentic interest, an authentic view.
Bethany: In a way, I really like and respect his idea of compromise as being at the core of what we do in America. At the same time, the lack of an overall coherent philosophy, given his strong stance on social issues, I’m struggling with it a little bit. And I’m trying to figure out why I’m struggling with it, given that I actually liked and respected his answer.
Maybe it’s just because the math major in me always wants total coherence on all points, even when that’s impractical. Does that make sense?
Luigi: It does make a lot of sense. May I raise another, more cynical interpretation?
Bethany: Yeah, of course. Please be cynical. Be my guest.
Luigi: I think that the social, gender and race issues have been raised to such a high level that it makes it radioactive even to think about liking somebody with a different view.
And, to me, I wonder to what extent this has been instrumental to make it impossible to have a coalition of people who actually care about workers, for example. And you know that there is a long history in the United States of race being an issue to break the labor movement in the past.
It seems that now, ironically, it is raised by people who pretend to care about race, or maybe do care about race. But they use that to make it impossible to form a coalition.
Bethany: I love conspiracy theories, and that’s actually a really good one. It resonates with, actually, things that my father talks about a lot, and I wonder if it’s accurate.
I can’t believe I’m doing this, but another little plug for my book. Coming out of the pandemic, when we actually did see members of the elite arguing for policies that benefited them, precisely because it came at no cost to them and came at an enormous cost to the very people they have always said that they care for, it did make me wonder where people actually stood.
I see what you’re getting at in that, and it’s really interesting. Because the more divided we all are on these social issues, and the more we insist that those are a reason not to engage with anybody else, the more we live in the economic order as it is.
Luigi: Yeah. That’s the reason why Robert Kennedy, Jr., is treated like he has three heads, because he’s critical of the vaccine, et cetera, to make it completely unpalatable, because there is a fear that it might actually get some consensus.
Bethany: And maybe it starts with just being aware of your instinctive, “Oh, I can’t even engage with that person. They have a belief that I find repugnant in this way.”
Maybe the first step for all of us is to say: “OK, how repugnant is that belief? Particularly if they’re not seeking to impose it on me, and it’s just what they believe? Does my dislike of their belief mean that I can’t talk to them about anything else, either?”
Maybe that’s a good first step for all of us, because we do have that. For some reason, we have become very instinctively that way. That has either happened or been done to us, depending on how active the conspiracy is and how much is just a subtle under-the-surface thing.
Luigi: But the interesting question is, how long will he last in the conservative space? I honestly think maybe he’s only conservative because he’s deeply Catholic. But he’s not really conservative in many dimensions.
And it does remind me, as I said, of the left of the Christian Democrats who were conservative from a social point of view. But from every other point of view, they were a moderate left.
Bethany: I guess I am still struggling to figure out how truthful he is being, either with us or with himself, about his willingness to work with people who don’t share his religious beliefs. Because he has written things in places that very tightly entwine his religious beliefs with his fundamental worldview.
He quoted somebody on something he wrote, Archbishop Charles Chaput, writing: “If traditional moral precepts are purely religious beliefs, then they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus, 2,000 years of moral truth and religious principle become by sleight of hand a species of bias.”
So, he believes in these traditional religious beliefs in a very deep and important way.
Luigi: Yeah, but I don’t see that necessarily as a fault. The proof is in the pudding, and his book is really not trying to impose any of his social views. In fact, I was shocked to later realize that he had very strong opinions, because from the book it is not that strong. Even the Catholic tradition is mentioned once or twice. It is not in your face as much as I’ve heard in some of the interviews. So, I think that he’s really walking the talk.
Bethany: Yeah, you could argue that the proof is in the pudding, both in that he was able to write an entire book without dwelling on his social views, and that he was able to give a persuasive answer in the interview, and talking to him about how he sees compromise and how he sees the ability to get things done. And I think the examples he drew were compelling.
Luigi: I think, honestly, my doubt is on the other side of the spectrum: whether Elizabeth Warren, but even more so AOC and company, are willing to put aside for a second their religious beliefs—because at this point, some of them are religious beliefs—in order to achieve something with the more conservative people.
Bethany: That’s incredibly fair. That’s incredibly fair, and I think that’s a really good question to raise.