The Tyranny of Seeing Only Power


Published November 29, 2023

Mere Orthodoxy


In my earliest political consciousness, I imbibed a framework that may be familiar to many American conservatives. There were two basic spheres of life: the public sector, run by the government, and the private sector: the zone of free enterprise, the market economy, and private property. Needless to say, the former was labeled Bad and the latter Good; the goal of any good politics was to shrink the former and expand the latter as much as possible. Why? Well because the government acted (indeed, only could act) by coercion, by compulsory action, while the private sector acted by free exchange, by voluntary action. Of course, sometimes coercion was necessary—we weren’t anarchists—but it was always regrettable.

Thankfully, I spent most of my youth fairly apathetic about politics, and so these assumptions functioned as little more than a vague default background framework. No sooner did I bring them to explicit consciousness and expression, during my brief fling as a Ron Paul devotee in 2007-08, than I began to find the framework full of gaping holes. For one thing, a simple binary was obviously not enough: at the very least there was a third sphere, governed neither by the logic of state or market, the family. The family seemed to belong to the private sphere, and yet it more closely resembled the unequal “coercive” logic of civil government than the free and equal exchange of the market. And where did the church fit into this equation? Both family and church, in fact, seemed to defy both state and market by modeling a kind of harmony or symbiosis even amidst inequality, rather than presupposing competition and constraint.

The more I looked, the more the anomalies multiplied. After all, was it really true that I only obeyed the law because I was coerced to? That didn’t really match my experience—in fact, increasingly it seemed to me a circular dictum: only if I thought of government action as coercive did I feel coerced; if I thought of it as rational or defensible, or of obedience as a duty of Christian charity, then law-observance turned out to be every bit as voluntary as any form of market exchange. And after all, what was law-making but a great corporate act of decision-making, a corporate exercise of freedom? I soon learned from Richard Hooker and the Christian tradition that most of what I had been taught to think about the “coercive” public sector was wrong.

And as I read economics and, more importantly, started paying attention to the world around me, it became equally obvious that the private sector could not possibly be the paradise of free exchange that Ron Paul said it was. Collusive monopolies used their market power to constrain and oppress consumers, while leaning heavily on the levers of government to tilt the playing field in their favor. Libertarians charged that such “crony capitalism” was a perversion of the true order of things, was proof that everything goes wrong when government gets involved, but what if this was instead an almost lawlike feature of society: businesses will always lobby for laws that favor them, and very powerful businesses will do so with greater success?

On a more basic level, the compulsory/voluntary binary just didn’t seem to fit the realities of experience. Did I buy the cup of coffee before my job interview because I wanted to or because I needed to? Did I ride the bus to my job interview because I wanted to or because I needed to? Did I take the job on the terms offered—the only job offer I could get—because I wanted to or because I needed to? Clearly the answer in each case was somewhere in between: in theory I could turn down the job and take my chances, but I had to get some income somewhere fast, and beggars can’t be choosers. I could have woken hours earlier and walked to the interview, but “drenched with sweat” doesn’t usually make a good first impression. And I could have foregone the cup of coffee, to be sure, but as an addict, I wouldn’t have found it easy and might’ve been lethargic at the interview. Most of my “market” transactions, it turned out, just as most of my interactions with the law, turned out to lie somewhere on a spectrum between 100% voluntary and 100% involuntary, rather than at the poles.

This basic insight, blindingly obvious once you wake up to it, but seemingly ignored by much popular political discourse for the past two generations, is the central contention of Sohrab Ahmari’s blockbuster new book, Tyranny, Inc.: How Private Power Crushed American Liberty—And What to Do About It. Of course, it’s not the only contention; as a title that spicy suggests, Ahmari is engaged in a bit more than merely an exercise in conceptual clarification. And rightly so, for conceptual confusion at this crucial point has profound consequences. “What you see is all there is,” as psychologist Daniel Kahneman likes to say, and if you operate with a political-economic framework in which private sector coercion is simply a contradiction in terms, then you will simply never see it—and thus never do anything about it, however abusive. Ahmari’s goal in this important work is to open our eyes to the real power imbalances that characterize the modern marketplace (or indeed any marketplace) and the ways in which the powerful use these asymmetries to coerce and exploit the weak.

Of course, as soon as you put it like this, suspicions are likely to be raised: doesn’t this all sound a little bit Marxist? It is, after all, a basic feature of Marxism in all its permutations to read the world through the sole lens of power, and to see every imbalance of power as a structure of oppression to be dismantled. The old Marxism focused on economic power, preeminently the power of the “boss” over the “worker,” while the new cultural Marxism has widened its remit in a self-contradictory quest to interrogate and dismantle power of any kind (except, of course, the power of the victims to exact revenge on their oppressors). Within the toxic discourse of wokeism, a return to the old-fashioned Marxism of labor activists and class consciousness may feel almost like a breath of fresh air. But it’s hardly where we should want to end up.

Ahmari’s work, then, is shot through with ambiguities. On the one hand, it represents a much-needed clarion call to discard the blinders of ideology, with its convenient binaries of bad “coercion” and good “freedom,” and wake up to economic and political reality, so we can make responsible political choices within the options actually available to us. On the other hand, it can’t seem to help indulging in a different ideological binary, one between bad bosses and good workers, oppressors and victims, that ignores the fine-grained realities of experience. By trading the false alternatives of neoliberalism for the false alternatives of old-school Marxism (or at least dallying with the latter), Ahmari misses a fantastic opportunity to transcend this zero-sum discourse and highlight the fundamental mistakes that both have in common: namely, an obsession with power to the exclusion of authority. For cultural conservatives tired of the stale categories of Friedman-style economic conservatism, it is high time to connect the dots between our economic and social maladies, between our alienation from our work and our alienation from ourselves.

Without authority, every constraint is felt to be oppressive, from gun licensing laws to my work schedule to the biological sex of my own body. Within a healthy understanding of authority, any number of constraints may be experienced as liberating.

By saying this, I do not mean that all the downtrodden worker in a dead-end job needs is a change of perspective (although as Paul’s advice to Roman slaves highlights, a change of perspective can change quite a lot). Ahmari is not wrong to draw attention to concrete evils and abuses of the contemporary market economy that conservatives have long turned a blind eye to. Many of the stories he chronicles should lead any sober reader to burn with indignation and demand immediate political changes to reduce the chances of such abuses. But this side of the eschaton, the poor we have always with us, and the powerful. Inequalities of wealth, wits, and strength will persist, and with every such inequality, an asymmetrical relationship between governors and governed, managers and managed. A just regime is one that accepts such imbalances, vigilantly watches for and seeks to mitigate abuses, and above all seeks to instill a healthy sense of solidarity and civic friendship between all orders of society based on the conviction that there really is a “common good” that is common to all of them.

At its best, Ahmari’s Tyranny, Inc. points us in this direction. But ultimately, I fear, he cannot resist the temptation to stoke ressentiment that seems to have seduced nearly everyone wanting to write a best-seller in modern-day America.

Let’s begin though with the crucial lessons that Tyranny, Inc. can teach us.

The Ubiquity of Coercion and the Need for Countervailing Power

Ahmari begins his book with a clever rhetorical ploy: he narrates three stories of worker oppression ostensibly drawn from China, Russia, and Iran, before revealing that all three injustices actually took place within the United States—not at the behest of totalitarian governments, but of private corporations. The lesson is clear: “tyranny” is not just something that happens over there, and more importantly, it is not something that must be exercised by “the government.” We have been indoctrinated to forget, he says, “that private actors can imperil freedom just as much as overweening governments; that unchallenged market power can impair our rights and liberties; that there are finally such things as private tyrannies and private tyrants.”

In chapter 1 he examines the false dichotomy that has perpetuated our blindness to private tyranny: the facile opposition between “liberty” and “power,” between “consent” and “coercion.” In fact, liberty depends on power. It would be a cruel mockery for a doctor to tell a quadriplegic lying on the examining table, “Ok, you’re free to go now.” Freedom to act without any corresponding power to act is an empty name. Just so, notes Ahmari, “You, as an employee, might be free to tell me, your oppressive employer, to ‘take this job and shove it.’ But your ability to make good on this threat—and survive physically afterward—depends on the relative power of employers and employees in a given labor market.” When the weak go head to head with the strong, the poor with the wealthy, the jobless with the business owner, the isolated with the well-connected, the two parties are simply not equally free because they do not have equal power.

Far from being some radical Marxist notion, this point was recognized as a truism by no less a liberal than Adam Smith. Later on in the book, Ahmari quotes a famous passage from the Wealth of Nations that when employers and employees go head-to-head, it is not hard to “foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms.” Even in a worst-case scenario, the employer will generally have enough money to sustain himself for a year or two, while “many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment.” While the economist may be right that “in the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him,” still, Smith observes, “the necessity is not so immediate,” and this difference gives a strong edge to the employer in any negotiations.

Because of these differences in negotiating power that are simply a feature of almost any human relationship (economic or otherwise), the binary of “consent” and “coercion” also blinds us to reality. It imagines two worlds: one of slaves who live under the thumb of cruel masters armed with whips, coerced at every moment, and another of two perfectly free and equal individuals coming to barter with one another—the classic parable from the Intro to Econ textbook of the farmer who could use a new horseshoe and the blacksmith who could use a gallon of milk. In reality, most of us consent to various agreements under some kind of duress. When the harried mother of four hungry children stops at the grocery store for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, she probably does not have the luxury of shopping around for the best price. And she certainly doesn’t negotiate for a better deal. She pays what she has to and gets her screaming kids out of the store as quickly as possible.

This is a simple and relatively minor example, but it highlights a reality that again should be familiar to everyone’s experience: real market interactions have little in common with the Intro to Econ barter story. Companies set prices, consumers pay them; consumers might, to be sure, be able to exert indirect bargaining power by shopping around, but in the near-term, the sellers tend to have more leverage, especially in highly consolidated industries (which is most industries nowadays). More importantly for Ahmari’s purposes, employers set contracts, and employees sign them. Nowhere is the myth of free consent more obvious than when it comes to modern contracts, drawn up by teams of highly-paid lawyers in opaque fine print, and then put before employees on a “take it or leave it” basis. Free-market apologists insist that workers enjoy “liberty of contract.” Really? Ahmari acidly observes, “Newly hired workers, in this telling, carefully review each paragraph and voice their objections before coming to a mutual understanding with their employer over disputed provisions. As your own experience likely tells you, that is almost never how this process takes place.”

In various chapters, Ahmari drills down on some of the particularly egregious abuses that hide in these contracts: non-compete clauses, non-disclosure clauses, arbitration agreements, one-sided intellectual property policies, etc. In each case, it is difficult to imagine an employee who actually possessed equal bargaining power being willing to sign such a contract. In most cases, employees don’t really understand what they are signing, and figure there’s no point in understanding, because they don’t have a choice anyway: they need a job, and another employer in the same industry is likely to have a very similar-looking contract. The same, of course, applies to many contracts that consumers sign nowadays as well, such as the “End User License Agreements” by which we regularly sign away our rights to technology companies.

The problem with the free market envisioned by capitalist theorists like Milton Friedman is not that it’s a bad idea or describes a bad world; it’s just that the world it describes is science fiction, like a world in which the force of gravity still regulated motion but in which friction and inertia did not exist. The happy results predicted by the free-marketeer would in fact result if—if the marketplace was characterized by perfect competition of equally powerful and wealthy actors. It isn’t. If every participant to an economic exchange had perfect information (or at least, equally imperfect information) about the product, service, and economic conditions. They don’t. If the future prospects of each participant were the same. They aren’t.

Ahmari then invites us to be coercion realists: to recognize that almost every social interaction or market exchange, if you look closely enough, happens under conditions of at least some coercion: that is, conditions in which one party has somewhat more leverage over the other, and the weaker party feels some constraint to give up what he really wants to avoid worse consequences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and certainly not a wicked thing—we need to remove the stigma from the word “coercion,” Ahmari seems to imply at key points in the argument, and simply recognize it as a reality of the social world, just as gravity is a reality of the physical world.

Our task then is simply to take account of it and decide when, where, and how much we want to compensate for it. A rocket scientist doesn’t get angry that the earth has more gravity than the moon; he just takes it as a datum and decides how much countervailing force his rocket needs to produce if it wants to escape earth’s gravity. Just so, it is the task of political economy to carefully measure the disproportionate powers at work in a given economic context and to decide how much countervailing power must be given to the worker or the consumer if he wants to produce a more equitable outcome. Not that an equitable outcome necessarily has to be the result; perhaps we will decide it is too expensive, just like we decided it is too expensive to get to the moon. But at least we should be honest about the tradeoffs we are making.

This is Ahmari’s argument in Tyranny, Inc. at its best moments:

At bottom, the message of this book is a simple one: Coercion is inevitable in human affairs, not least the significant portions of our lives we spend as workers and consumers. A political-economic order that would wish away this truth only allows coercion to proliferate unchallenged: pressure unmet by counterpressure, a system that grants every advantage to those who control most of society’s productive and financial assets….[W]e must restore a political give-and-take in relations between the asset rich and the asset-less….[W]hat matters are the underlying principles: the recognition that a decent society should strive to ameliorate the effects of coercion, not least by empowering the coerced to mount countervailing power in response.

Although particular proposals will of course invite debate and disagreement, as a broad prescription for a new political economy, Ahmari’s concern for countervailing power should have much to recommend it for thoughtful conservatives. After all, for decades one of the Right’s great complaints about the Left has been its thoughtless embrace of a paternalistic welfare system that simply redistributes gains from the economy’s winners to its losers, trapping the poor in patterns of dependency and destroying the dignity of work. Some of the most insightful conservative critiques of modern American life have connected the dots between these short-sighted fiscal policies and the moral and cultural concerns that also keep conservatives up at night: the breakdown of the family, the decline of church attendance, the erosion of patriotism, and more. Were it not for the decades-long alliance between labor unions and the Democratic Party, there would be no reason to think of a worker-focused conservatism as a hard sell, much less a contradiction in terms.

To be sure, the Right tends to stop its ears against complaints about the injustices of the market because it sees them as mere prequels to a call for “big government” solutions, but at least some of this has been self-fulfilling prophecy. If the only way to placate workers who get a raw deal is to throw them a bone in the form of welfare and entitlements, government is going to get pretty big pretty quick. But if workers were actually empowered to consistently negotiate a fair deal for themselves, there might be little need for such vast safety nets. To be sure, such worker empowerment would not be a one-time fix—Ahmari is enough of a realist to recognize that constant political vigilance would be needed to ensure a genuinely competitive marketplace. But the fact is that the marketplace is always already political and we might as well recognize that fact and bring the jostling out into the open through the give-and-take of the political process, rather than leaving it behind the closed doors of the lobbyists.

Insurance Companies as Protection Rackets?

If that’s all there were to the book, I’d give it five stars. But despite all these salutary insights and emphases, there seems to be a persistent contradiction at the heart of Ahmari’s book. On the one hand, he insists that he wishes to destigmatize “coercion”—explaining that far from something dirty and evil, it’s simply an inexpungible reality of human experience. Human relations just are at least a little bit coercive most of the time, and that’s OK. We simply have to recognize the fact and decide together how much coercion, and what sort—economic or political—we are willing to put up with.

On the other hand, though, Ahmari seems to frequently lean in to the stigma of the word “coercion.” From this perspective, his task in the book is not to get us to think more soberly about what goes on in the marketplace, but to think more angrily—to arouse our resentment against the big bad bosses sticking it to their employees every day of the week. There are two Ahmaris, then: Ahmari as political scientist, and Ahmari as labor organizer, using the book to awaken workers to their plight and call them to action. Every time I wondered if I was imagining the latter Ahmari, I had only to remember the title of the book: Tyranny, Inc. To be sure, this may have been in large part a publisher marketing decision: The Coercive Dimension of Market Relations would surely not have sold half as well.

But it is not just the title. The book makes little pretense of being even-handed, offering instead a series of exposés of the various tricks of the trade that managers use to exploit workers and oppress consumers. There simply are no “good bosses” that populate this narrative. Nor, strikingly, are there any bad workers. It may well be true, as Ahmari charges, that many facets of American contract law are systematically rigged in favor of employers. But that is no justification for rigging the moral argument against them; “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great,” warns Leviticus 19:15.

The fact is that just as the workplace is populated by plenty of bad bosses, who are petty, vindictive, or downright tyrannical, so it is populated by plenty of bad workers, who drag their feet, give the business a bad name by offering shoddy service, or sow dissension throughout the office. Ahmari is right to name the many ways in which bosses can exercise coercive power over workers; but he simply ignores the many ways in which employees, once put in positions of critical responsibility and access to sensitive information, can make life hell for their employers.

To say, “look, it’s a sinful world, and sin can be found anywhere in the marketplace” may seem hopelessly clichéd and a recipe for quietism. But it’s a cliché that can’t be repeated often enough, it seems, in a society determined to divide the world up between innocent victims and pitiless oppressors. This victim/oppressor binary has been the bane of the Western world for nearly two centuries now, first formulated in strictly economic terms by Marx and today expanded into myriad other forms of “intersectional” oppression by cultural Marxism. If we must do business with Marxism, better its older than its newer form, but I would rather we repudiated both. Ahmari, however, finds himself dabbling dangerously in this Manichaean view of the world throughout Tyranny, Inc., sowing ressentiment between estranged economic classes rather than urging patience, charity, and solidarity.

In one passing example of the pervasiveness of coercion that Ahmari gives in chapter 1, he tips his hand as to just how much his thinking has been infected by these late modern philosophers of power.

The language we use to describe ordinary interactions…often obscures the reality of coercion. Take ‘threat’ and ‘promise.’ We take it as a coercive threat when someone warns us that he will do something bad to us or our property unless we pay him: ‘You better pay us, if you don’t want your car smashed.’ Yet the obverse—‘We will cover the cost of the damage to your vehicle, unless you fail to pay the premium and deductible’—is taken as a promise. Yet functionally, threat and promise are more alike than we might otherwise figure.

No, they’re not. They’re really not. There is, it turns out, a significant difference between an insurance company and a protection racket. There is, it turns out, a significant difference between watching a falling branch smash someone’s windshield, and picking up a branch to smash it yourself. According to Ahmari, when the insurance company says it won’t pay for repairs unless you pay your premium, that is virtually the same as a mafia boss saying he’ll send some thugs to smash your car if you don’t pay up. But the only way in which one can possibly get to a logical and moral equation between these two is by assuming that action and inaction are morally indistinguishable, that I have a positive right for you to repair my car that is identical to my negative right for you not to destroy my car. Needless to say, such a claim makes nonsense of our whole regime of property, but it also betrays a deeper and more insidious confusion.

In Begotten or Made, Oliver O’Donovan points out that the moral conflation of action and inaction lies at the root of many modern confusions, especially in the realm of medical ethics. From the standpoint of pure utilitarianism, my decision not to act to reduce your suffering by ten pain-units is morally indistinguishable from my decision to act to inflict on you ten new pain-units. Thus there cannot be any bias in favor of non-intervention. But this only follows if we have abandoned any doctrine of nature and any doctrine of providence—any idea, that is, that there is a reality or agency in the world not subject to human will. If there is, and if there is any intrinsic goodness to this order, then letting nature take its course (e.g., when a tree drops a branch through your windshield) will have a greater prima facie claim than the decision to take action against it.

We might seem to have wandered far afield from the question of tyranny in the marketplace. But the point is one worth making. For the modern triumph of Marxism in all of its forms depends upon the abandonment of nature and providence, and the belief that the only agency in the world is human agency, the only powers worth speaking of are human powers, and thus the only inequalities in the world worth speaking of are the products of human choice. To be sure, we might admit that some are born slower or weaker than others, but if inaction is morally indistinguishable from action, then our refusal to forcibly intervene to equalize this inequality is deemed every bit as oppressive as a decision to willfully make some slower or weaker. The choice not to give a poor man a dollar is, on this view, morally identical to the choice to steal a dollar from him. Every inequality then demands intervention and rectification.

This radical conclusion, needless to say, is quite far from Ahmari’s stated concern: to take the reality of private coercion seriously and subject it to the give-and-take of the political process. I do not mean to say that Ahmari is secretly a Marxist radical, calling for workers of the world to unite, tear down the bourgeoisie and usher in an age of harmonious equality. I have little doubt he would protest such a characterization. Without, however, some doctrine of nature, some account of tradition, some philosophy of authority, we are left wondering whether all forms of power asymmetry are bad, or just some, and if so, which ones. Or, put more bluntly, is it really true that every social relation characterized by unequal power is “coercive,” or can inequality sometimes be harmonious?

Authority and Alienation

Given that Ahmari’s previous book was a celebration of the “wisdom of tradition in an age of chaos,” the answer would seem to be obvious. Of course inequality can be good: the traditional deserves to be privileged over the novel, the old over the young, the wise over the foolish, religious authority over the untutored conscience. The Unbroken Thread was indeed Ahmari’s celebration of a traditionalist Catholicism as the best response to the moral turpitude of the modern marketplace. A charitable reading of Tyranny, Inc., then, would suggest that we keep this earlier work always in the background of our minds, assuming that this new critique of the economic liberalism rests on the foundation of his earlier critique of cultural liberalism. On the other hand, Ahmari has gained a reputation as a thinker who not only seems to try on new ideologies every couple of years, but who also has an unpleasant habit of spewing bile at whichever one he has just left behind.

There are at least some troubling indications in Tyranny, Inc. that Ahmari no longer prioritizes the concerns of cultural conservatism he so recently championed. Indeed, the very first narrative he chooses to tell in the book, of a single working mother named Alicia Fleming, signals a shift. One feels that the Ahmari of The Unbroken Thread might have used Alicia’s story as an opportunity to highlight the tragedy of family breakdown, of women pushed out into the workforce away from their children. For the Ahmari of Tyranny, Inc., however, the only tragedy of this story is that Alicia’s employer won’t give her a regular schedule so that she can reliably line up childcare. Only toward the very end of the book does he bring up cultural concerns at all, and then primarily to minimize them. “Any cultural improvement that may come about as a result [of making the market fairer] would be a welcome knock-on effect of political-exchange capitalism, not the primary goal.” This is a very curious re-ordering of priorities for someone recently traveling under the banner of Catholic integralism.

This dramatic shift of priorities is lamentable, because totally unnecessary. It would have been entirely possible for Ahmari to write a version of this book that was a more natural continuation of The Unbroken Thread, for him to offer an argument giving insight into the deep connections between economic neo-liberalism and cultural progressivism, into the shared false assumptions of both Left and Right.

Such a book might have begun with the concept of authority, a concept almost entirely absent from contemporary Western life. Both Left and Right, he might have observed, have fallen into the trap of seeing freedom only in relation to power. For the Right, freedom is always freedom from power; for the Left, it is freedom through power. But either way, it always turns out to be a zero-sum game, because one person’s power in relation to me is always my weakness and unfreedom in relation to them. Thus the only solution to this dilemma (at least within the terms of a shared liberalism) is to try to equalize power. The Right does this abstractly and formally through the idea of liberty of contract, trying to pretend in the face of vast real-world power differentials that market relations, based as they are on the formal equality of human free will, in fact represent perfectly free contractual exchanges.

Ahmari makes mincemeat of this in the early chapters of his book, but he does not attend sufficiently to the equal error of the Left, which seeks to solve the problem of unequal power by actually equalizing the two parties. To be sure, there are better and worse ways to try and do this: naked communism is far worse than the “political-exchange capitalism” which Ahmari champions (and which I think to be a reasonable paradigm as far as it goes). But any theory that starts from the assumption that power differentials are inherently bad and inherently hostile to freedom is flawed from the start.

The fact is that it is not true that every unequal power relationship is experienced as a form of at least soft coercion. When the parent teaches the child to ride her bike, the teacher drives his students to understand the Pythagorean theorem, or the charismatic general leads his troops into battle, there is in each case a substantial power differential. And yet in each case, the subordinate is freed by the superior, not oppressed. This is because the key phenomenon in each case is not power, but authority. Ahmari recognizes, of course, that freedom can be constituted through limits—he repeats this point constantly in The Unbroken Thread, and references it in passing on page 136 of Tyranny, Inc.—but why then does his argument assume such an adversarial relationship between workers and bosses?

The fact is that if the employees see their boss is seen as acting on their behalf, his action is not felt as coercion. You might object, “Well right, but he doesn’t act for their interests, so he isn’t seen that way.” And to be sure, a boss should ultimately seek the well-being of his workers. But the idea of acting on their behalf is more basic than that of acting for their interests—it speaks rather to the phenomenon of representation, which is an essential ingredient in many forms of authority. The authority can lead and command those under him without compromising their freedom so long as they see and feel him as representing them. If they do not—if those who must obey find themselves alienated from those who lead—then authority evaporates and only power can take its place.

Unquestionably, the economic world that Ahmari chronicles in Tyranny, Inc. is a world characterized by deep alienation at every level of hierarchy. To this extent, he is not wrong at all to describe its power relations as oppressive and exploitative. The vast majority of what he describes in the book, if true, is genuinely reprehensible and should raise our indignation. Modern work really is in many cases dehumanizing. But what is missing from the book, that could have made it so much stronger and more interesting, is a deeper inquiry into what it is about modern work in particular that makes it so.

It is not the fact that workers and employers have unequal power when it comes to contracting for labor; that has always been the case, and usually far more the case than it is today. It is not the fact that employers look for ways to discipline their workers and keep them compliant; that has always been the case. Much of it, rather, is the result of the sheer bigness of modern industry: a company that employs 100,000 workers will really struggle to create a sense of representation in the workplace, just as the scale of modern political life has created a similar crisis of authority.

Much of it, too, is the result of a technology-driven turn to impersonal data-driven “algorithmic governance” which puts the worker no longer at the mercy of a boss who is at least human, even if a petty tyrant, but instead at the mercy of a computer system designed to optimize efficiency at any cost. Matthew Crawford has written powerfully of these trends in essays such as “Algorithmic Governance and Political Legitimacy” and “The Rise of Anti-humanism.” The anti-humanist marketplace behaviors Ahmari describes are quite consistent with these patterns, but Tyranny, Inc. could have been a much stronger book if it had highlighted more sharply these distinctive maladies of the late-modern workplace.

Retrieving Politics as Friendship

Such a diagnosis, I think, would have suggested a somewhat different treatment plan than that which Ahmari proposes. After all, his “political-exchange capitalism” does not ultimately question that a state of war exists between different economic classes, a zero-sum battle for power and wealth; it simply proposes to channel this war into the (hopefully) bloodless struggle of electoral politics. He invites us to return to the classical ideal of politics, which “recognized…the existence of rivalrous classes, arrayed against each other along lines of wealth and ability.” The reader of Thucydides may be pardoned for doubting whether such a politics would be any happier than that which we currently endure.

Against this, what I would suggest is a recovery of the Christian notion of politics as friendship—friendship that can transcend barriers of class and chasms of power. As I read Tyranny, Inc., I felt my mind turning wistfully to the rather different political vision of the early Protestant Aristotelian Johannes Althusius. He opens his Politica by declaring,

Politics is the art of associating men for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life among them. Whence it is called ‘symbiotics.’ The subject matter of politics is therefore association, in which the symbiotes pledge themselves each to the other, by explicit or tacit agreement, to mutual communication of whatever is useful and necessary for the harmonious exercise of social life.[1]

No less than Ahmari, Althusius recognizes that all of life is political, all of life is characterized by differential power relations which we must negotiate. Althusius begins his account of politics in the family before moving out into the marketplace. There, what we call the business firm finds its place as one example of the basic social reality Althusius calls a collegium:

In it three or more men of the same trade, training, or profession are united for the purpose of holding in common such things they jointly profess as duty, way of life, or craft. Such an association is called a collegium, or as it were, a gathering, society, federation, sodality, synagogue, convention, or synod….The persons who united in order to constitute a collegium are called colleagues, associates, or even brothers.[2]

Such fraternal language sounds like the language of a trade union, and to be sure, trade unions are examples of Althusian collegia. But Althusius does not assume that the inequality within a firm requires the creation of a collegium of the disempowered workers to counterbalance the powerful managers. All collegia, whether businesses, churches, or universities, will be characterized by hierarchy, but that does not mean that they cannot be characterized by friendship and a sense of common life. For Althusius, such harmony-through-inequality is guaranteed by the principle of representation, which reconciles authority and freedom.

There is no doubt that modern politics, as well as modern economic life, has strayed far indeed from the Althusian ideal. Some, indeed, may mock it as hopelessly naïve: the real world is one of cutthroat competition, and the only way to get a fair shake is by establishing mechanisms of “countervailing power” to gain leverage over those who are trying to gain leverage over you. Such a political economy, however, presupposes a philosophy of nature, a Darwinian nature “red in tooth and claw” rather than a Christian nature in which, “just as each [creature’ has a law which directs it to best seek its own perfection and completion, so also there is another law concerning how they must relate as parts of one body. This law binds them to serve one another’s good and to prefer the good of the whole before their own particular interests.”[3] 

To restore our current marketplace of algorithmic governance and arbitration agreements to a marketplace of genuine symbiosis will require, to be sure, stubborn resistance, radical reform, and hard work lasting generations. Ultimately, however, such work is more likely to succeed if it begins by presupposing a hidden harmony between managers and workers, producers and consumers, than if it assumes a war of all against all and just tries to give more weapons to the weak. Ahmari, I think, still knows this, still believes in a truly common good. His readers, however, could be forgiven for concluding otherwise.

Footnotes

[1] Althusius, Politica, ed. and trans. by Frederick Carney, p. 17.

[2] Althusius, Politica, p. 34.

[3] Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity in Modern English, ed. and trans. by Bradford Littlejohn, Bradley Belschner, and Brian Marr, p. 58.


Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.

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