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    Corporate Tyranny

    Sohrab Ahmari’s book Tyranny, Inc. shows how free enterprise has failed workers.

    By Jon Askonas

    August 14, 2023
    • Roger McKinney

      Ahmari suffers the same affliction of socialists, the Nirvana fallacy. He compares reality to fantasy and fantasy always wins. Let's assume that working in the US is far worse than Ahmari describes. Still, it's a non sequitur, a logical leap across the Grand Canyon, to claim unions and government regulations can improve it. Ahmari needs to do more research. Many countries have implemented his solutions. Is work more fun there? He doesn't know. Anecdotal evidence suggests no, it isn't. Workers in France are miserable. The Nirdic countries have high suicide rates. In a free market, companies compete for the best workers with better working conditions. That's how working conditions improved in the early 20th century. So what happened? We followed Ahmari's solutions and gave power over businesses to the government. Why didn't it work? Because politicians sold that power to large corporations who wrote regulations to stifle competition. Now most industries are cartels with little competition and few new jobs. Businesses don't compete for workers anymore. Ahmari is young and has a lot to learn. He needs to study the socialist economies who have implemented his worn out solutions, and he needs to learn economics.

    • ArsenalGunner

      Thank you for this great review. I am excited to read Tyranny, Inc. "“Eroders,” people who purchase companies with private equity in order to dismantle them for private gain, leaving employees, communities, and the American taxpayer high and dry." This reminds me of the Cabella's and Bass Pro Shop merger. An activist investor suggested merging the companies. Cabella's headquarters in Sydney, Nebraska, was a thriving small town and growing as Cabella prospered. Once the merger took place, Sydney was left high and drive and the investor took his money and looked for another opportunity. Was there any real value in merging the companies? What happened to good old fashioned competition? The concentration of capitalism has been going on since the early 1900s and was the raison d'etre for Belloc and Chesterton's idea of distributism. Outsourcing has been another method whereby oligarchs or cartels can achieve cheaper costs at the expense of American workers. The Covid pandemic revealed the strategic costs of outsourcing to the United States with our dependence for key materials and manufactured goods from foreign countries. For instance, we do not manufacture transformers for electric power. They are made in China or Sweden. There is only one plant in the US that manufactures pharmaceutical grade hydrogen peroxide. The rest of the world's production is in China. Key vulnerabilities to the US remaining a superpower and the beacon of freedom to the world.

    • JoeR

      Sorry folks, you’ve lost me with this one. I’m done.

    • Chris

      Tyranny is right. One of my heroes is Tricia Hersey. She reminds us that we are not machines, and she ties "grind culture" to white supremacy. It is well-documented that the American capitalist system was modeled after the system of slavery. On top of it, corporations have become more and more greedy, taking their pound of flesh and another and another. If they think they must increase profits every year where is that going to come from? It comes from employees who are pushed harder and harder. People have been pushed too hard for too long by this culture of grind and profit, and no wonder there is so much depression, anxiety, addiction. We’re giving our lives for what? So we can eat and go to the doctor (if we're lucky)? Then the system saps whatever money we do have because we are driven to exhaustion and illness, and with a healthcare system in the U.S. that is also part of the sick capitalist profit system, we end up bankrupt. We have been sacrificed to greed—all of us, the ordinary little people, our lives being ground up. The earth being destroyed for profits. A single human life is worth more than one corporation. A single bird is worth more than one corporation. We have been taken for a ride. How do we reclaim our right to be human beings? How do we survive this culture?

    • Martin Bohley

      I never expected to be directed to a Scify horror series (that I always avoid) on Netflix by this article or this writer but I now feel compelled to tune it to at least the referenced episode because the issue is too important and probably could not appear in any other genre. Thank You.

    In the nineteenth century there was a debate in the revolutionary left between those who believed that state coercion was evil because it served the interests of the capitalist class (the Marxists) and those who believed that violent coercion was evil regardless of who wielded it (the anarchists). As the tragic history of the twentieth century shows, the Marxists (who gained ascendency) never shied away from imposing the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

    But I’ve always felt that the great anarchist writer Mikhail Bakunin got in the rhetorical kill shot in his classic Statism and Anarchy: “When the people are being beaten with a stick, they are not much happier if it is called ‘the People’s Stick.’”

    In Tyranny, Inc., Sohrab Ahmari asks whether the American working class might be tired of being beaten with a stick, even if it bears the title of “free enterprise.”

    Given this broad subject, it is a remarkably compact and restrained book. Ahmari leaves off anything that might distract from its core argument: that the dismantling of systems of “countervailing power” protecting American workers and citizens has unleashed an increasingly predatory “private sector.” Ahmari focuses tightly on the political and legal foundations of private tyranny, building a persuasive argument brick by brick. In fact, the book is an excellent example of an emerging genre of class commentary that avoids the left-wing approach of focusing on cartoonish billionaire villains while ensuring that the latest progressive verities remain unquestioned.

    Ahmari mostly ignores the obvious and overplayed billionaire bad guys, focusing instead on the assumptions and incentives baked into the contemporary American private sector. He is more interested in the Sacklers (of Oxycontin ignominy) as a criminal organization than as a family drama. Even Eddie Lambert, a ludicrous private equity tycoon who ran Sears into the ground, stands in for something greater. Lambert had the temerity to buy an almost 300-foot superyacht he named Fountainhead, after his favorite Ayn Rand novel, the same year he sent Sears into its final death-cycle of mismanagement; for Ahmari, he is but an example of a broader class of “Eroders,” people who purchase companies with private equity in order to dismantle them for private gain, leaving employees, communities, and the American taxpayer high and dry.

    Some of the examples Ahmari provides are so comically evil that it is difficult to imagine anyone defending them. In one chapter, Ahmari chronicles the privatization of the public square by way of private equity–backed “private fire departments” that charge homeowners tens of thousands of dollars for showing up after their homes have already burned down (and after public fire departments have already responded). In another chapter, he uses Johnson & Johnson’s attempted abandonment of thousands of mesothelioma patients as an example of how large corporations pervert bankruptcy law to avoid accountability.

    In one of the book’s (admirably spare) engagements with political theory, Ahmari quotes medieval jurist Bartolus of Saxoferrato on a form of tyranny unimaginable even to the ancients. Aristotle’s Politics imagined six regime types, virtuous and corrupt instances of the rule by the one, the few, and the many. Bartolus argued that medieval Italy was experiencing a seventh, monstrous form: a chimera of a regime where the head was too weak to restrain smaller tyrants and warlords in various regions. It combined the caprice and violence of classical tyranny with the private enrichment of oligarchy and the anarchy of mob rule, the worst of all possible regimes.

    Such a description, Ahmari argues, applies to the United States today. His central contention is that American politics since the mid-twentieth century has concentrated so much economic power in the hands of large corporations and financiers that it cannot be construed as anything but coercive and inimical to America’s cherished traditions of liberty. In line with classical political theory, traditional American republicanism, and legal realism, Ahmari argues that whether an action or system is coercive cannot be evaluated merely on formal elements (was there a contract signed?) but on the substance of the transaction. A contract signed at gunpoint is clearly the result of coercion. A nondisclosure agreement used to muzzle a victim of sexual assault is not perhaps quite as coercive, but it is hardly the exchange between free and equal actors envisioned by our legal system. Many of us might prefer the contract signed at gunpoint as at least a more honest reflection of the underlying circumstances.

    It’s hard to say whether the book’s message is common sense or deeply radical. On the one hand, proponents of almost any political framework will find much to support here. Oblique references to Catholic social teaching aside, Ahmari is writing in an ecumenical key. We needn’t reject capitalist economics to buy his argument. As Ahmari shows, American markets are anything but free. Even if we accept that competitive, consensual markets produce prosperity and liberty, it remains true that there are few such markets to be found in the American economy today. Employers might compete on wages in labor markets, but on labor conditions they act much more like a cartel (sometimes, as among California tech companies, as literal cartels). Networks of management consultants, law firms, and business school professors spread knowledge of “best practices” that serve to coordinate the interests of employers.

    My only criticism of Ahmari’s book is that he does not sound the alarm enough.

    On the other hand, Ahmari’s common sense reforms would result in a radical change: the explicit return of political intervention to the economy. Neoliberalism (an often overused term that Ahmari uses sparingly) had explicitly sought to untether the economy from political interference, not only in the pursuit of efficiency but also to limit democratic checks over how businesses pursued profits (after all, the many workers always electorally outnumber the few owners). A regime that insisted that all economic activity must serve the common good would be a radical change indeed. That doesn’t make Ahmari a Marxist or even a leftist. After all, it was not Marx who wrote, “The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and its beneficiary. Work is for man, not man for work.” That’s the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church.

    My only criticism of Ahmari’s book is that he does not sound the alarm enough. Most of his examples of private coercion originate from the realm of law and policy, especially with the breakdown of the New Deal order of countervailing labor power and the regulations and legal precedents that bolstered it. Today, with the marriage of private economic coercion and unbridled technological power, we face additional dangers that we have hardly begun to confront.

    In his debate with Alexandre Kojève about tyranny and philosophy, Leo Strauss exposes another way we’ve outpaced the classical conception of tyranny: “Present day tyranny, in contradistinction to classical tyranny, is based on the unlimited progress in the ‘conquest of nature’ which is made possible by modern science.” In its desire to override the passions which made human societies necessarily dangerous (and thus necessarily political), the contemporary tyranny would seek to intervene with technology to redefine human nature itself, even at the level of biology.

    The most recent season of the sci-fi horror series Black Mirror led off with an episode that dramatizes Ahmari’s argument. In “Joan Is Awful,” an executive at Netflix stand-in Streamberry discovers that her company, using a bit of AI wizardry, has turned her life into a near-real-time prestige drama starring Salma Hayek. At the end of each day, the entire world can tune in for a new episode recounting the events of Joan’s day, in all their embarrassing detail.

    What has made this possible is a very real practice recounted in Tyranny, Inc. – buried in a lengthy contract is an expansive clause turning over Joan’s likeness, persona, voice, etc. to Streamberry. But what makes such a clause matter is a technological transformation: what in a previous technological milieu meant that your company could put your picture in the brochure now means that your company can fire you and replace you with an AI chatbot trained on your data.

    Ahmari’s book is an urgent clarion call, not only because of entrenched economic injustices in American society, but also because of this new tyranny that has only just begun to assert itself. To the antipolitical coercion of economic tyranny will soon be married the antihuman coercion of technological power. What we must aim for now is no longer only to promote a just society, but to preserve a human one.

    Contributed By JonAskonas Jon Askonas

    Jon Askonas is an Assistant Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for American Innovation.

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