Ahmari is the founder of the magazine Compact and a former editor with the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal. Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame. Deneen, Ahmari, and theologian Chad Pecknold have co-authored editorials for The New York Times. Together with Gladden Pappin, president of the Hungarian Institute for International Affairs, and Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, Deneen and Pecknold founded the Substack newsletter Postliberal Order. Vermeule, Deneen, and Pappin have published essays in Compact. Ahmari dedicates Tyranny, Inc. to “Adrian, Chad, Gladden, and Patrick.” It’s a whole thing.
The project of Ahmari, Deneen, and their postliberal compatriots has been variously labeled national conservatism, populism, Orbanism, and integralism (the view that political rule should be governed by the teachings of the Catholic church). It amplifies—and attempts to give theoretical expression to—the division within the conservative movement associated with Trump: a base infuriated by its declining socioeconomic status and the condescension meted out by the professional managerial class. In place of the fusion of social conservatism, economic liberalism, and anticommunism that has formed the basis of conservatism for more than half a century, Ahmari and Deneen advocate a politics attentive to the material and spiritual well-being of ordinary people. Neither profit, privacy, nor privation should determine the shape of our polity. The best government, as the ancients already knew, is the one whose end is the common good. No wonder Ahmari and Deneen are attracting positive attention from some on the left. Who could be against the common good?
Much of these writers’ critique of liberalism, especially economic liberalism, echoes what socialists have been saying since the beginning of the industrial era. As is well known, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels railed against the contradictions of capitalism: the system produces extraordinary wealth by destroying prior modes of life, commodifying labor, and turning workers into appendages of the machine. Family, religion, community, and tradition are laid waste. Ahmari and Deneen do more than follow the timeworn path of trying to reinvigorate conservatism by infusing it with left ideas, however. They open up the possibility of a new political alliance against the common liberal enemy. This new fusionism would unite social conservatism and social democracy. The question is whether their aim is to ally with the Left or to displace it by offering an alternative expression of working-class grievance, one anchored in securing hierarchical order.
Deneen’s and Ahmari’s damning accounts of present society are calls to arms: we live under a tyranny of private power; nothing less than regime change will suffice. They aren’t trying to tweak a few policies. They want to wage all-out political war.
There are two key fronts in this war. The first is the conservative movement itself. In a widely discussed 2019 polemic, Ahmari took aim at conservative acceptance of a pluralism of beliefs, arguing that it was necessary “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” Two years later, Deneen chastised “Conservative Inc.” not only for the toothlessness of its opposition to liberalism but also for its defense of fundamentally liberal notions of free markets, free speech, limited government, and constitutional originalism. Convinced that conservatism has failed to stop the onslaught of an ever more vigorous, ruthless, and triumphant liberalism, Ahmari and Deneen endeavor to rearm the movement with the truths of history, tradition, and faith. These truths can’t be put aside in the interest of political order; they have to be the basis for political order.
The second front is the much-hated liberalism. Here Ahmari and Deneen seem to diverge, perhaps in a division of labor. Ahmari takes on liberal political economy, so his battle looks like class war. Deneen remains in the trenches of culture war, so his looks like the populist “peasants with pitchforks.”
Ahmari depicts the capitalist coercion experienced by employees in the workplace and consumers in the marketplace: the precarity of workers on so-called flexible contracts; the arbitration agreements employees have no choice but to sign; the demolition of viable companies by predatory hedge funds and asset managers; the extortion of everyday people as vital emergency services are privatized; the loss of local political knowledge as newspapers go under; the lawlessness of a bankruptcy law that allowed Purdue Pharma to escape liability for the opioid crisis. In each of these instances, Ahmari tells a compelling story of the tyranny exercised by unrestrained capitalism. These are stories of the class war of bosses against employees, owners of capital against those who have to sell their labor power to survive.
Ahmari details the development of the legal infrastructure enabling the relentless assault on working people. His account of the Supreme Court’s arbitration jurisprudence, for example, sides with Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent in the 2018 case Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris. The majority decision held that employers could use arbitration agreements to prevent employees from acting collectively. Justice Ginsberg charged the majority with resurrecting the Lochner era’s aggressive activism against worker protection. Ahmari chastises his coreligionist Antonin Scalia: the justice’s zealous defense of arbitration agreements amounts to nothing less than the legalization of wage theft in violation of the Catholic teaching against withholding workers’ wages.
What is to be done about the coercion entrenched in private economic power? Build powerful unions. Ahmari thus looks to Franklin D. Roosevelt rather than Ronald Reagan, the New Deal rather than the free market, Elizabeth Warren rather than Paul Ryan. He urges the empowerment of workers and the asset-poor so that they can exercise countervailing power against the asset-rich. The hero of Ahmari’s story is Christian Smalls, who was fired from Amazon for bringing attention to the corporation’s failure to follow COVID-19 guidelines at its Staten Island warehouse. Smalls went on to found the Amazon Labor Union and organize warehouse workers at JFK8—building the first recognized union of Amazon workers.
With Ahmari commanding the economic front, Deneen oversees the cultural. What he finds is a vast wasteland of addiction and despair, represented by declines in life expectancy, birthrates, and family formation. Children are sexualized. Pornography has replaced religion. An elite professional managerial class disparages the values of family and community deeply cherished by those in the flyover states, wielding identity politics to divide the many and maintain its hold on power.
For Deneen, the cause of all these problems is liberalism, the economic liberalism of the Right and the social liberalism of the Left, libertarianism and libertinism. Combined in today’s managerial meritocracy, these two sides of liberalism are animated by the same emphases on progress and individual choice.
Progress installs an unjustified optimism in the future, relying on the impossible idea of human perfectibility. In place of progress, Deneen echoes Christopher Lasch in advocating “hope without optimism” and “memory without nostalgia.” The problem of individualism is that it renders the most important aspects of our lives matters of personal choice for which we are singularly responsible. It separates people from each other, those who have come before, and those who are yet to come.
In a further move, Deneen argues that liberal ideology is a deceitful trick designed to maintain elite privilege. The vision of social progress championed by left liberals relies on the division between past and future, cutting religious, kinship, and local ties in the name of freedom and cosmopolitanism. Church, family, and community fetter the individual self-fashioning that liberalism promotes. But, Deneen argues, the reality is that family formation and religious observation are most prevalent among the upper class. Working people experience higher rates of divorce, suicide, single motherhood, and addiction. They’re disparaged as degenerates and deplorables for liberal vices. Liberals themselves don’t practice what they preach. They promulgate a culture that celebrates lifestyles that they don’t live but that maintain their class privilege and power by immiserating everyone else.
Deneen’s position takes the familiar populist shape of the many against the few. His solution, while presented in a language of classical political theory not often heard in contemporary political discussions, is also familiar: channel popular energies into support for a ruling class. Deneen calls his preferred form of government “aristopopulism.” When properly ordered toward the common good, the elite and the masses can stimulate the virtue of each other, ending the separations of liberalism and restoring societal unity in a “mixed constitution.” For the necessary cultural transformation to occur, “the creation of a new elite is essential.” As the aristocratic portion of the mixed constitution, this new elite will elevate the lives of ordinary people by preserving order and supporting religion. How will it come about? That depends on the popular element of the mixed constitution. Deneen tells us that a new aristocracy “can only arise with the support of insistent political power exerted by an increasingly multiracial, multiethnic working-class party.” Popular outrage can force elites to become better, a move Deneen refers to multiple times as “Machiavellian means to achieve Aristotelian ends.”
Deneen’s criticism of the divisions inflicted on popular struggles by neoliberal elites’ emphases on identity differences hits home. Echoing in part arguments made by Cedric Johnson, Walter Benn Michaels, and Adolph Reed Jr., Deneen observes that as the conditions of workers deteriorated and class inequality intensified, the professional managerial class advanced the separatist agenda of identity politics, undermining possibilities for interracial solidarity. Deneen errs, though, when he adds in culturalist arguments of the sort advanced in the Moynihan Report, blaming “familial and social decay” for the economic circumstances of Black life. He errs as well when he conflates progressive liberalism with Marxism, treating the liberal theory of “intersectionality” as if it were Marxist. It’s not clear if his arguments are sloppy, poorly researched, or simply adaptations of old-school McCarthyite polemics. From the very beginning, Marxism emphasized that communists are always and everywhere on the side of the oppressed. The communist goal is building unity in the struggle against capitalism, imperialism, exploitation, and oppression.
Why in the world would a multiracial, multiethnic working-class party aim to install an aristocracy? Deneen doesn’t even pose the question. He thinks rule by the few is inevitable. Historical, global, national, and even local experiences of mass uprising show how wrong this assumption is. Even if elites may co-opt popular energies, we never hear people shouting slogans like “This is what aristocracy looks like!” or “The people, under the guidance of virtuous aristocrats, will never be defeated!” Popular movements aim for popular power.
It’s a shame that Deneen presumes hierarchy. He has some good ideas for building a more egalitarian society: significantly expanding the size of the House of Representatives; adopting the German practice of requiring workers’ participation in corporate decision-making; redistributing federal agencies throughout the country, especially to cities in decline; introducing a compulsory national service requirement for all Americans; forgiving the loans of students who work as teachers and public servants, again especially in rural or declining areas; expanding education in trades to fill the emerging gap in the numbers of plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. These are just a few of the proposals that would be at home on any socialist (not to mention progressive) platform.
It’s even more of a shame that Deneen presumes a hierarchy based on what he sees as the superiority of the Christian roots of Western civilization. Public morals legislation, the public observation of Christian religious practices, and a family policy aimed toward incentivizing marriage and increasing family size (as opposed to, say, promoting reproductive justice and publicly funded childcare) are hardly the stuff of a multiracial, multiethnic working-class party in a secular society that recognizes the existence of women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Deneen offers a Bonapartism with a human face, an unconvincing attempt to build an elite conservative politics against a bourgeois professional managerial class on the back of a popular movement. Given Deneen’s access to the halls of power—Ohio senator J. D. Vance is a fan—he likely isn’t trying to convince the everyday people he’s ostensibly so concerned about at all. His real worry is over the moral chaos and societal breakdown caused by liberalism. He sees growing popular discontent and fears the mob. The only thing that can save us is a new nobility oriented toward common good conservatism. The Machiavellian means thus seem to be Deneen’s: advise some new prince to assert power in the name of popular discontent in order to strengthen traditional hierarchies.
On the face of things, Ahmari’s encouragement of unions conflicts with Deneen’s politically ham-fisted aristopopulism. More than half of Tyranny, Inc. is devoted to exposing the casualties of private economic power. The stories of corporate greed and judicial hard-heartedness would be right at home in Jacobin if not the Daily Worker. Making what appears to be a social-democratic argument, Ahmari applauds FDR and the achievements of the New Deal. He’s friendlier toward Karl Polanyi than he is toward F. A. Hayek. Ahmari approvingly cites Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers like Wendy Brown, Mark Fisher, David Harvey, and Chantal Mouffe, atypical reference points for a conservative author. Nevertheless, Ahmari’s “political-exchange capitalism” is closer to Deneen’s aristopopulism than it is to socialism.
Ahmari details the undermining of workers’ rights in recent decades. Steady declines in union membership are the direct product of class war as bosses were able to make forming unions and winning contracts more and more difficult. Libertarian rhetoric to the contrary, it’s not that workers choose not to unionize. Legally authorized corporate abuses have destroyed unions and prevented workers from unionizing. Correctly pointing out how the worsening of conditions for workers directly correlates with the decline in private union membership, Ahmari argues for strengthening unions. Unions are important as a countervailing power against bosses, owners, and asset-holders.
Ahmari gets the idea of countervailing power from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Galbraith viewed competition alone as insufficient for disciplining capital. Monopoly power enables firms to charge what they want and pay what they want, in effect to act coercively. The emergence of countervailing powers like labor unions and consumer cooperatives checks that coercive power, forcing bosses and owners to compromise. Emphasizing how competition and countervailing power each exert market pressure, Galbraith endorsed government support for unions as no different from other steps designed to strengthen competition. What Ahmari appreciates in Galbraith’s account of countervailing power is the restoration of politics. The market isn’t fetishized as some kind of separate domain to which we all have to conform; it’s a human institution that can be humanly managed. For Ahmari, such management involves the give-and-take of political struggle.
Ahmari advocates empowering workers and expanding the state’s role in the economy. Isn’t this socialism? No. Ahmari wants “a politics that empowers workers and the asset-less to the point where they can give genuine consent to the economic order as a whole.” He seeks to tame private tyranny, not eliminate it. The horizon for workers’ organization isn’t emancipation; it’s the acceptance of exploitation. Distinct classes are permanent features of social order. The task is ensuring that they work together for the common good. Ahmari’s proposal is to strengthen workers enough so that they aren’t completely outgunned in the fight against the bosses, not so that they can win. What he leaves out is telling: a federal minimum wage (in 2023, it’s $7.25; for tipped workers it’s $2.13), a cap on executive compensation, mandatory paid sick leave, mandatory vacation days, federally funded childcare, the abolition of at-will employment. He focuses on ensuring a fairer process: balancing the two sides of capital and labor. The actual substantive material goods that such a process might produce are possible outcomes; there are no guarantees. Funnily, Ahmari’s emphasis on process over outcome suggests a residual attachment to liberal proceduralism maintained for the sake of securing class society.
As Ahmari himself points out, his concern with the relationship between capital and labor might sound like Marx, but it comes from Pope Leo XIII. In his 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum, the pontiff sought to calm the class conflict that was giving rise to socialism and communism and threatening private property. Wages, he said, needed to be sufficient to support the “frugal and well-behaved” worker. The encyclical also promoted unions and collective bargaining. Organized workers can impel their bosses to more virtuous behavior. Political-exchange capitalism is the economic side of aristopopulism.
Just as Deneen believes that elite rule is unavoidable, so does Ahmari presume the inevitability of hierarchy and coercion. Socialists reject these assumptions. People can learn to cooperate, to discuss, decide, and implement measures and plans they deem important for their common being together. Collective agreement and self-discipline can replace coercion. In fact, such practices are already features of everyday life: children learn to take turns; households share responsibilities; voluntary associations rely on participants’ enthusiasm and goodwill. Perhaps even conservative Catholic intellectual groups are able to manage their interactions without hierarchy and coercion.
Ahmari has some good ideas for strengthening labor. And, like he says, what’s most important in his proposals is breaking out of the stranglehold of neoliberal market assumptions. But it’s not socialism—which may be exactly what Senator Vance needs to hear.
As Antonio Gramsci famously said, “[T]he old is dying and the new cannot be born.” Our interregnum is one where the neoliberal consensus that has unified the ruling class for 40 years is breaking down, but a new consensus has yet to emerge. Crisis and uncertainty, stalemate and civil war—politics today concerns not policies and old norms but the general order of things. The battle is over the shape of our future. What comes after liberalism?
Catholic conservative intellectuals are armed and girded. They see the damage inflicted on people and the planet and are attempting to build a politics that will attract the working class to their cause. They are right to note the myriad ways the Left has failed at this task. When we should have been building unity, we intensified division. Falling for the Democratic canard that demography is destiny, we cloaked ourselves in moralism when we should have been listening, learning, and reaching out to those whose interests we claim to share. If the Left persists in its failure to provide a compelling narrative of working-class grievance and a vision for socialist flourishing, a competing idea, likely one that tells people not to expect too much because hierarchy and coercion are facts of life, will take hold. This is a fight we cannot avoid and must not lose.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, but we should not swipe right. While some of Deneen’s and Ahmari’s specific proposals are worth appropriating, and while we must engage in the struggle over the postliberal order, socialists and progressives should broach no alliance here. Deneen and Ahmari are committed to a view of hierarchical order. They want the working class to help preserve it.
Jodi Dean teaches political theory at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited 14 books, including Crowds and Party (2016) and Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging (2019), both published by Verso.