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Is the populist right’s future ... democratic socialism?

Sohrab Ahmari explains why precarity is breaking our politics.

A red elephant holds a single red rose. Vox

One of the most interesting — and confusing — features of American politics over the last decade or so has been the shifting ideological landscape.

Donald Trump was a disaster in almost every sense, but one potentially useful thing he did was shatter the stale consensus in Washington. For decades, the Republican Party was an incoherent mix of laissez-faire economics and religious traditionalism; Trump blew that up.

Democrats, for their part, have spent most of their time battling Trump, which was necessary but also depressing because of all the opportunity costs. But Trump’s presence unquestionably pushed the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction.

One of the big questions moving forward is: What will American politics look like on the other side of this era? Regardless of what happens in 2024, what it means to be a liberal or conservative in the next decade will be different than it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Is it possible, then, that some kind of new coalition could emerge, one that actually addresses the roots of so many of our political pathologies?

A new book by conservative author Sohrab Ahmari called Tyranny, Inc. is the first text on the right (that I’ve encountered, at least) that seems genuinely interested in sketching out a foundation for such a coalition. Ahmari became one of the faces of the post-liberal American right early in the Trump era but has since emerged as a critic of conservative orthodoxy — and that makes him a worthwhile read, especially for someone on the left.

So I invited him onto The Gray Area to talk about how his New Deal-style economics align with his cultural conservatism and why I’m encouraged by his ambitions but still a little skeptical about how it all shakes out in the end. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.


Sean Illing

I would say that the central argument in the book is that we have had in our heads a vision of how tyranny works — and this is especially true for conservatives — and that vision is that tyranny comes from above, from the state. Tell me why that’s wrong or misleading or importantly incomplete.

Sohrab Ahmari

I think it’s incomplete because certainly there can be tyrannical states, and it’s to the credit of the American tradition in general that it’s very alert to the possibility of state tyranny. But the sense that tyranny can only come from the government risks obscuring another more complicated reality, which is that private actors, as classical philosophy has long recognized, can terrorize us. They can certainly coerce us, and in fact economic life in general is full of coercion.

In a way, all economic interactions are premised on coercion, contrary to the Milton Friedman neoclassical economic dogma that suggests that every transaction is consensual because there’s always competition and everyone can walk away from a deal to find a better one elsewhere. In reality, especially after the industrial revolution, there’s only so many sellers in any given market and so many employers and many, many more employees who have to compete with each other. And the fact that markets are typically oligopolistic — and rationally oligopolistic in some ways — means that competition isn’t such a panacea in terms of responding to coercion.

But conservatives, especially in this country — and it’s really the ethos of our business schools and economics departments — have this ideology that says the economy operates on the basis of essentially a lost arcadia of the late 18th century where there was this brief period when capitalism was dominated by so-called masterless men. Yeomen farmers and mechanics, artisans, etc., who basically worked for themselves, owned their own land, owned their own tools, and they really could walk away from any deal and find a better one elsewhere. And the price mechanism was probably a more pristine index of supply and demand.

But that world hasn’t existed for nearly two centuries now, since the mid-19th century at least. And so the ideology that the private sector is a zone of freedom and only government can be a source of tyranny redounds to the benefit of actually existing market tyrants because we on the right don’t think of the market as a place where we could be coerced and especially unjustly coerced.

Sean Illing

Here’s how I think about this from the left: The problem is that we’ve inherited a conception of freedom from people obsessed with state tyranny, with all the focus on negative rights, and this way of thinking obscures a very real but different type of unfreedom, which is what happens when people don’t have meaningful choices in their life because the things they need to survive and thrive are so precarious and contingent.

It’s great to not live in a totalitarian state, don’t get me wrong, but what’s the point of living in a state where you may not have Big Brother’s boot on your neck but you’re one medical diagnosis removed from bankruptcy? Where your access to health care is tied to tenuous employment? That’s not real freedom. Is it the same as being in a labor camp? Nope. Is it better than living in Stalin’s Russia? No question. But it’s not the kind of freedom we ought to aspire to, and I think the left has always been more alive to this truth than the right, though I suspect you may disagree with that—

Sohrab Ahmari

No, I absolutely agree with that. You can find statements to that effect of what really it takes to have human flourishing and what human liberty is. You can find rich accounts of that in the catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic social teaching, which jibed with the social democratic and Christian democratic movements, especially in Europe in the mid-century era. But yes, I think hands down the left is far more deeply attuned to this.

To give you an example of what that precarity looks like: The Federal Reserve tells us that 40 percent of Americans would struggle to come up with $400 in cash to pay for an emergency. Half of fast food workers and a quarter of adjunct college teachers have to rely on public welfare to make ends meet. Now that latter one is especially important because the worst kind of economy to have, as my friend Michael Lind argues, is a low-wage, high-benefits society. When he says high benefits, it doesn’t mean that the benefits are really generous. In fact, they’re quite miserly. It just means that as a share of the amount of money that people need to make ends meet, benefits are disproportionately high.

So that subjects you in two ways. It subjects you to the employer because you’re always desperate for work and your wages are never enough. So you never have that sense of security that makes it possible for you to venture out into the world and really exercise your freedom rather than just being terrorized by your need to make a wage that in fact doesn’t make ends meet. But you’re also at the mercy of the welfare state administrator as well, who can discipline you in various ways. Oh, did you spend $12 of your food stamps to buy beer or cigarettes? This is the kind of petty tyranny that poor and working-class people face on the other end of the system.

All of this together amounts to a tremendous sense of precarity and ultimately unfreedom. My frustration with most of the right is that they sometimes correctly decry the symptoms of this. It’s like, Why aren’t people having children? Why aren’t they forming families? Why is all this alienation so pervasive? Why are there so many deaths of despair? There are exceptions to this, but largely the right blinkers itself to the possibility that this might have some material roots, that there might be some nexus.

Sean Illing

Well, it’s quite a bit worse than that. What the right often does is stoke the resentments produced by these material conditions while doing their best to push policies that they know will reinforce those conditions—

Sohrab Ahmari

That’s totally right. And so to go to your original question, the left has always been more attuned to this, and the reason for that is because there was this serious turn toward understanding the role of the material order in the shape of our culture and recognizing that our material order is not naturally ordained. Market societies don’t grow on trees. It’s the choices we make politically that shape the economy. This has always been the left’s best insight that we could actually change that.

Sean Illing

What you argue in the book is that the version of capitalism we have now — neoliberalism — has actually supplanted democracy in a very real way because it relocates the source of our unfreedom in the private sphere, where for that reason exactly, it’s immune to democratic checks and accountability. Is that a fair summation?

Sohrab Ahmari

Precisely.

Sean Illing

So if you’re right about that, if the private sphere has inhaled the public sphere, in what sense are we still doing politics in this country? If politics is about contesting public power, but the real power in our society is private and beyond the scope of democratic accountability, then what the hell is the point of democratic politics?

Sohrab Ahmari

Well, we certainly have a legislature whose members appear on Fox and MSNBC and yell at each other from a distance. It’s a great TV show, but I think that’s very disheartening and it’s why it’s really important to reassert the primacy of the political. Any politician who comes and says X, Y, Z thing, which we’ve been told is beyond political contestation, is actually the subject of political contestation will be rewarded because people feel this frustration.

We had this high point of American and maybe Western populism, around 2015 or 2016, with Syriza populism in Greece, with Bernie Sanders and even Trump — they all, to one degree or another, emphasized different issues, but they were saying that corporate-led globalization is not the natural, rational result of just market forces unfolding. Those are political choices in which we didn’t have a say.

There’s a genre of writers — some of whom I consider friends like Yascha Mounk or others of whom I don’t — they always say we have to defend democracy. And they say it as though it’s just a matter of saying it. If you just say democracy is good, or let’s preserve our order, it’ll convince people who are comfortable in the current order. But if you have lots of people who only experience this privatized politics in which they’re constantly miserable and precarious, all that “defend democracy” talk means nothing.

Sean Illing

A big looming question in the book is the potential for a serious left-right coalition. The sort of tyranny you’re rejecting in the book is real and worth toppling, but also bodily integrity, the right to self-determine, the dignity of being who you really are. That’s all essential to a free life as well, just as essential as not being tyrannized by unaccountable employers. And there is a branch of conservatism that does actually prefer the cultural hierarchies of yesterday, that does think the patriarchy was good and necessary, that does think gay and trans people don’t deserve full equality under the law. I’m not ascribing all that to you, I’m just saying that it exists and I suspect the battle over these things will persist regardless of what we do in the economic sphere—

Sohrab Ahmari

Believe me, I have this conversation on different levels and I try to convene people on the left and right together and try to think about how we propose a post-neoliberal vision or consensus despite our differences. And there are some ways and they’re not neat and they probably won’t satisfy you. They don’t satisfy me completely, because I have my own views. But my revulsion at, say, exploitation in the workplaces is inspired from the same place that makes me recoil at something like euthanasia.

My pro-worker commitments come from a place of morality or a set of moral commitments that frankly are in tension with people on the left. That said, there are two ways to deal with this. One is to accept that we’ll continue to agree or disagree about culture — that’s just politics — but we can still build coalitions the way, for example, that the Nixon-Eisenhower tradition of the Republican Party came to uphold the New Deal despite having ferocious disagreements with New Dealers on other stuff. So that’s just retail politics. It’s consensus politics.

Sean Illing

This might just be my leftist sensibilities coming through, but I do believe that a population that isn’t living under such precarity and unfairness will be much less likely to succumb to the sort of resentments and anxieties that can lead to ugly nativist politics, which is why I’m very happy to join you in this fight!

Sohrab Ahmari

I agree with that. I’m just going to echo what you said in my own words, so forgive me, but a lot of these different identitarian resentments — and I have to say I’m really terrified of what’s happening in the online right. A lot of my friends tell me, ‘Oh, it’s just shitposting.’ But there’s racist-y right that gets under my skin in such a profound way. But I do think that a lot of it is precisely because we don’t have avenues for living a relatively less precarious life, a more decent life, and this has a way of raising up the identitarian fortresses on the left and right.

I think if we have a society in which even if you don’t have a college degree, you can make ends meet relatively well, and retire in dignity, and take care of your elderly parents, and raise children without being worried that if they get sick, you’re going to go bankrupt. If we have that, I think the temperature of the culture war will come down. It’s not going to resolve everything. There’s some real profound disagreements, but it could turn down the temperature a little bit, and I think we’ll be a little bit less at each other’s throat on cultural issues.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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