Right and Left, Hierarchy and Equality
We must tame market power precisely because hierarchies are inevitable in human affairs.
My new book, Tyranny, Inc., has sent doctrinaire libertarians into a predictable fit of apoplexy, causing them to accuse me of penning a Marxist tract. Such is to be expected of a conventional right blinkered by narrow mental horizons. By refreshing contrast, it is left theorists—academics like Jodi Dean, Chris Cutrone, and J. Colin Bradley—who have offered the sharpest takes. They note, correctly, that the book bespeaks a deeply conservative political-economic project.
The book concerns the coercion that confronts us in the private economy. I document the crisis with reported stories: workers left unable to enjoy family stability by wage and scheduling precarity; others accepting total surveillance in shockingly one-sided employment agreements; still others having their grievances corralled into private arbitration “courts,” where corporations set the rules, and the expenses raise an insurmountable barrier to justice; the destruction of once-successful firms by Wall Street asset-strippers; the coercive privatization of common goods like firefighting and emergency services; and much else of the kind.
Precisely because our reigning economic ideology treats these zones of life as “private,” we often can’t challenge what happens to us there at the ballot box or in the courts. Our system thus immures economic power from democratic give-and-take, legal due process, public accountability, and the other ideals we associate with a decent political order. All this, I argue, has given rise to a system of private tyranny.
In the second half of the book, I venture a solution to the problem of private tyranny drawn from the American tradition. Market-based coercion dogged American society in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as it does in our time. In response, political leaders of both parties—men like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and, above all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt—promoted reforms that brought the market system under greater political control.
These reformers empowered workers and consumers to mount what the Canadian-American economist John Kenneth Galbraith called countervailing power in response to the coercion meted out by more powerful actors on the other side of a given market. Thus, government-backed electricity co-ops empowered consumers relative to utilities, and government-promoted collective bargaining likewise empowered employees relative to employers. And so on.
The result was the so-called “thirty glorious years” after World War II, a period that witnessed both immense mass prosperity and a relative reduction in material inequality. Many of the hallmarks of working-class life—discretionary income, regular vacations, defined-benefit retirement plans, and other benefits that increasingly elude us—date back to this period.
From the get-go, these achievements came under attack from economists and ideologues who often called themselves “individualists” but would later come to be known as neoliberals. For these thinkers—F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises—there was no difference between economic reformers in the West who tried to meliorate the crises and inequalities bred by market society, on one hand, and revolutionaries who sought to abolish the market system as such and replace it with a classless utopia, on the other. For much of the postwar era, these figures were considered fringe: If you were a responsible business or political leader, socially managed capitalism—in which government, corporations, and labor coordinated economic activity for the good of the whole—was the only serious game in town.
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The modern conservative movement as we know it is an outgrowth of the neoliberal revolt against the New Deal order, a tendency that went increasingly mainstream in the 1970s and ’80s. But—and here is the key point—there were many other strands of the conservative tradition that didn’t see things the neoliberals’ way. What I have called the GOP’s Eisenhower-Nixon tradition is, of course, the most notable expression of this meliorist, class-compromise tendency on the U.S. right: Both presidents not only accepted the New Deal, but expanded its logics in other directions during their time in office.
Even going further back, to figures like Orestes Brownson in 19th-century America and Benjamin Disraeli in Britain, plenty of non-Marxists saw the necessity of taming class-based economic power for conservative reasons. Even Galbraith and John Maynard Keynes can be thought of in similar terms. That is, these men rallied to the political economy of class compromise precisely to protect cherished things threatened by the turbulent market—and because they feared revolutionary turmoil bred by eye-watering inequality and resentment.
And this is what my libertarian or classically liberal critics choose not to understand, but which Marxist readers of Tyranny, Inc. fully appreciate: Class-compromise politics are ultimately conservative. They are based on the recognition that hierarchies are inevitable in human affairs; that attempts to completely abolish inequality are bound to yield either chaos or, more likely, new and more monstrous hierarchies, as the 20th-century’s experiments in building the “classless society” demonstrated; and that if we are to forestall such calamities, and preserve some ambit for non-market values, we had better find some way of taming market power.