America, like the rest of the Western world, is sick.
To fight an illness with any hope of success, it is necessary to first identify what ails you. This is as true of nations as it is of men. Just as true: different diagnoses will necessitate different therapies, and an incorrect diagnosis could prove both costly and deadly.
Sohrab Ahmari, the founding editor of Compact, indicates in his new book, “Tyranny, Inc.,” that the right’s past diagnoses have largely neglected the extent to which the private sector has originated some of the top cancers now eating away at the body politic.
This neglect has partly been a consequence of Cold War-era fusionism, whereby traditional conservatives and libertarians joined forces with the intention of countering the red menace abroad and the pinkos at home.
The libertarian outlook, largely shaped by Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others, predominated in this timely alliance. Consequently, the right tended over time to worship hyper-individualism and the unregulated market above all else.
Gruesome facts drawn from over
two centuries of statist nightmares, particularly from the other side of the Iron Curtain, made easy work of defending this idolatry, even among those Abrahamic conservatives whose past religious reservations about modernism, liberalism, and unbridled capitalism might otherwise have given them pause.
With idols come taboos and sacrifices.
In keeping with the libertarian outlook, any effort to temper individual ambition or regulate the market, even in the plain interest of the common good or at the behest of the public, was denounced as totalizing or authoritarian or collectivist or a revival of the spirit of this or that blood-soused leftist ideology from the last century. Pro-labor sentiments were likewise characterized as mileage down the road to serfdom.
Now, well over a saeculum into this idol worship, it has become glaringly clear that the devil-takes-the-hindmost attitude implicit in the neoliberal worldview has been in many ways ruinous for all but the ultra-elite. The center did not hold, and things have fallen apart.
Recent diagnoses point to this neoliberal state of play and the corresponding Randian state of mind as contributing causes of America’s sickness.
Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, has suggested that the postwar consensus that sought an open society, championed by libertarians and progressive liberals alike, effectively targeted the strong loves that bound us together and ordered society with a common or higher good in mind.
The liberal regime conflated the “dark gods” that brought about the totalitarianisms of the early 20th century with these and other “strong gods” (e.g., faith, family, tradition, and flag) necessary for a stable society, ultimately throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
According to Reno, neoliberalism, the “economic and cultural regime of deregulation and disenchantment,” seeks to “weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce … as well as identity and desire.”
As a consequence of the neoliberals’ success, many Americans have been rendered not just “unmoored, adrift, and abandoned,” but powerless and increasingly susceptible to exercises of raw power by the technocratic openers and other powers that be, both private and public.
The populism that has been gaining steam over the past decade has in large part been a response to this state of things — an effort to usher in a return of the “strong gods.”
Patrick Deneen, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, appears certain that we have crossed the Rubicon; that the liberal regime comprising cultural deregulators (progressive liberals) and economic deregulators (classical liberals) is in its death throes; and
that regime change is coming.
When recently discussing how the new order might ensure a balance of power that operates in the interest of the common good, Deneen wrote, “The answer is not the elimination of the elite (as Marx once envisioned), but its replacement with a better set of elites. … Most needful is an alignment of the elite and the people, not the domination of one by the other.”
In “Tyranny, Inc.,” Sohrab Ahmari similarly denounces neoliberalism as a contributing cause of America’s current malady and further stresses the importance of correcting asymmetries of power adversely affecting ordinary people. However, whereas Deneen figures widespread asymmetries could be corrected by regime change resulting in a better elite, Ahmari is betting on solidarity, regulation, and re-politicization.
Ahmari explains in the book how corporate leaders and their technocratic associates have faithfully made good on the promise of neoliberalism, depriving citizens of power, prioritizing uncommon wealth over the common good, reducing souls to cents on the dollar, and altogether sickening the body politic as much if not more than does the government whose functions the private sector continues to appropriate and/or compromise.
He summarized how this came about thusly: “The classically liberal state was mostly indifferent to private tyranny. The social democratic state sought to curb it by empowering workers and other weak market actors, winning their consent to the system in the bargain and thus stabilizing market and society. The neoliberal state, however, actively abets private tyranny.”
“It does this by turning state and law into instruments for promoting market values everywhere,” continued Ahmari, “and by rendering the power asymmetries generated by the market immune to political or legal challenge.”
Ahmari underscored that this systematic process of depoliticization forecloses “the very possibility of ordinary people using political power and workplace pressure to get a fairer shake out of the economy.”
What is needed, according to Ahmari, is the restoration of workers’ countervailing power, “the indispensable lever for improving the lot of the asset-less and for stabilizing economics otherwise prone to turbulence and speculative chaos.”
Stabilized economics and an empowered worker may greatly help in addressing our underlying societal illness, not only paving the way for a virtuous body politic but also for stable, bigger families, stronger communities, and a center that can weather whatever comes next.
To this end, Ahmari recommends more and stronger unionization efforts in most sectors and a “left-right consensus in favor of tackling the coercion inherent to the market.”
Ahmari’s pro-labor proposals may appear too pink for some and discomfiting for others on the right who saw fit to discard Christian social teaching during the fusionist decades. Nevertheless, his critique of the private sector and defense of workers — which appear to have already resonated with Republicans like Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley — are nevertheless worth considering, especially now that the dissolution of the Cold War fusion has freed traditional conservatives to once again differentiate themselves from the moribund liberal regime and to call out the coercive and “compensatory power of an asset-rich few.”
If common good or working-class conservatism is to become something more than simply a politically expedient rhetorical ploy for the right to attract disaffected lefties, then it will be worthwhile knowing where we stand in the days to come when traditional values and “the free flow of commerce” conflict, not just when woke capital is involved, but across the board.
Whatever the outcome of that soul-searching, the resulting self-knowledge will likely help shape the political binary that emerges from the corpse of the liberal regime.
The service of Mammon and self has contributed much to the sickness of the West. Greater solidarity in the service of God, a bolstering of the working class, and a purposeful tempering of the powers that be, private and public alike, may contribute to its convalescence.
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