Tyranny, Inc.

How Private Power Crushed American Liberty--and What to Do About It

About the Book

The inside story of how our political class enabled an era of unaccountable corporate might that left ordinary Americans isolated and powerless—and how we can fight back—from the acclaimed author of The Unbroken Thread

“In Tyranny, Inc., Sohrab Ahmari, one of the leading thinkers of our time, alerts us to one of the greatest threats to freedom.”—Michael Lind, author of The New Class War and Hell to Pay

Over the past two generations, U.S. leaders deregulated big business on the faith that it would yield a better economy and a freer society. But the opposite happened. Americans lost stable, well-paying jobs, Wall Street dominated industry to the detriment of the middle class and local communities, and corporations began to subject us to total surveillance, even dictating what we are, and aren’t, allowed to think. The corporate titans and mega-donors who aligned themselves with this vision knew exactly what they were getting: perfect conditions for what Sohrab Ahmari calls “private tyranny”.

Drawing on original reporting and a growing chorus of experts who are sounding the alarm, Ahmari chronicles how private tyranny has eroded America’s productive economy and the liberties we take for granted—from employment agreements that gag whistleblowers, to Big Finance’s takeover of local fire departments, to the rigging of corporate bankruptcy to deny justice to workers and consumers—illuminating how these and other developments have left millions feeling that our livelihoods are insecure. And he shows how ordinary Americans can fight back, by restoring the economic democracy that empowered and uplifted millions of working-class people in the twentieth century.

Provocative, original, and cutting across partisan lines, Tyranny, Inc. is a revelatory read on the most important political story of our time.
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Praise for Tyranny, Inc.

“Compelling as a work of narrative journalism.”The Washington Post

Tyranny, Inc. is a book . . . in the pessimistic spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed.”—Ross Douthat, The New York Times

“[Ahmari] is a deft storyteller. . . . He highlights genuine injustices, such as the way some firms abuse gag clauses, non-compete agreements, and the arbitration process.”The Economist

“Ahmari tells a compelling story of the tyranny exercised by unrestrained capitalism.”Los Angeles Review of Books

“A scathing critique of capitalism.”—Michelle Goldberg, The New York Times

“Ahmari . . . combines anecdote and analysis with the awful ring of truth. It would be exhilarating if the portrait were not so grim.”—James Galbraith, American Affairs

“Well-crafted . . .  a convincing portrait of a market economy that is ‘free’ only for those who have the resources and connections to manipulate it to their advantage.”—Michael Kazin, The New Republic

Tyranny, Inc. will . . . likely serve as a touchstone of the conversation surrounding big business and the future of liberty, with which future commentators must grapple to contribute seriously to the subject.”Front Porch Republic

“Sohrab Ahmari’s book is a masterpiece of clarity that should be read by everyone who cares about where our societies are moving.”—Slavoj Žižek

“This book is full of truths the ruling class doesn’t want you to hear. Defy them. Read it.”—Senator Josh Hawley

“Ahmari takes us on a devastating tour of the ways in which corporate power ruins lives in the United States.”Jacobin

Tyranny, Inc. is a remarkably thorough and entertaining book on the ways that private enterprise dominates the lives of ordinary people. It’s a stinging rebuttal to the right-wing claim that oppression flows from government. It also manages the rare feat of feeling prescient about a problem that’s centuries old. . . . An essential salvo in a very long war.”—Fredrik Deboer, author of The Cult of Smart

“For too long, elite institutions dismissed and minimized America’s working class. From the dystopian warehouses of Amazon to the (seemingly) spotless halls of venture-capital firms, Ahmari’s latest book shows that there is real tyranny at work in too many businesses. Open-minded readers will find a lot to mull over.”—Senator Marco Rubio

“Ahmari’s background, intellect, and fierce independence make him uniquely situated to illuminate the rise of authoritarianism in the United States.” —Glenn Greenwald

“One of our leading thinkers alerts us to one of the greatest threats to freedom today.” —Michael Lind, author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America

“Challenging conservative free marketeers as much as progressive liberals, this book is a compelling inquiry into one of the great dilemmas of our time.” —John Gray, author of False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism

“A trenchant critique of neoliberal capitalism that offers pointed remedies.”—Kirkus Reviews
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Tyranny, Inc.


The Rise of Private Tyranny

It’s a favorite pastime of Americans, and American conservatives especially, to keep watch for various evildoers scheming to seize the public sphere and rob us of our historic liberties. But it’s the private sphere that occupies most of our time on earth. It’s where we toil, shop, socialize, and increasingly try to make ourselves heard. We tend to be much less vigilant toward the threats we face in that sphere.

It wasn’t ever thus. Our Founding Fathers showed a keen awareness of how class interests might undo our highest ideals about liberty and checks and balances, even if they couldn’t foresee the magnitude of the problem today, writing as they were before the Industrial Revolution’s consequences had fully unfolded. Once the young republic of yeoman farmers gave way to an industrial powerhouse, it forced generations of American thinkers and statesmen to consider national ideals in light of material reality: What could “liberty” mean when chasmic gaps divided workers and their bosses, grasping small-time entrepreneurs and huge trusts? Would “limited government” necessarily yield a society free from coercion amid such eye-watering inequalities?

Elite recognition of the painful gaps between ideal and reality, combined with pressure exerted by mass movements for labor and civil rights, culminated in a set of reforms in the twentieth century aimed at empowering the economically powerless. These reforms—chiefly, the New Deal—were sometimes half-formed and haltingly implemented. Even so, they gathered a great deal of prestige and became the subject of bipartisan consensus in the immediate postwar decades.

More recently, and for reasons we will explore in depth much later in this book, these reforms have been undone partially or in full. In many ways, we have returned to the conditions of the pre-reform nineteenth century, characterized by vast disparities in power between the wealthy few and the asset-less many. Accompanying this material regression has been an intellectual one: The critical traditions of economic realism that gave rise to the previous century’s reforms have faded from memory and been replaced by today’s vacuous political rhetoric.

To wrap our minds around Tyranny, Inc., let alone begin to resist it, we first have to recover a richer understanding of both tyranny and liberty. We also need a more sophisticated account of coercion and of the distinction between public and private. We will find that understanding by turning to a quartet of pathbreaking thinkers, one a medieval Italian jurist, the other three belonging firmly to the American tradition of legal and political thought.

Tyrannies Awful and Monstrous

Picture a monster: a humanoid creature with a shrunken head held aloft on a wobbly neck, and several other, Hydra-like heads growing all over its body, snapping their fangs at each other and periodically biting into the body, gnawing on muscle and sinew and biting into the veins. Like leeches, the extra heads grow fat at the expense of their prey, but without killing the creature—not right away, at any rate. The creature survives, groaning and hobbling under the weight.

A horrific image, isn’t it? This monster was how the great medieval Italian jurist Bartolus of Saxoferrato pictured private tyranny. Though he didn’t use that term, it is to him that we owe one of the earliest and most prescient accounts of such a system.

It was the early fourteenth century, a time of relentless military skirmishes and palace intrigue among dozens of major and minor principalities throughout Italy. Multiple factional lines divided Italian elites, the most important of which was allegiance to the pope or the Holy Roman emperor in the epoch-defining conflict between the two. Subduing the peninsula proved impossible for pontiff and emperor alike, with the result that these two centers of supreme power often found themselves acting like mere Italian factions. Adding to the chaos, the pope had decamped for Avignon, France, early in the century and became something of a proxy for the French king. True, it was in this era that city-states such as Florence flourished as centers of art and commerce, spurring rapid economic development and urbanization and setting the stage for the Renaissance. But that vibrancy did little to ameliorate the political topsy-turvy that characterized Bartolus’s Italy.

What manner of regime was this?

Classical political theory going back to Aristotle had identified six regime types—three good ones and three bad. There could be rule by the many in which the majority seeks the common good, its evil corollary being rule by a selfish and immoral mob. Likewise, a small ruling clique could aim for the good of the whole, or it could oppress the people for its own advantage. Finally, power could be vested in a good king who sees himself duty-bound to serve the common good, or in a single evil man who seeks to enrich himself, the tyrant.

What matters in this for our purposes is the notion that political democracy alone doesn’t automatically inoculate us against tyranny. A political system can formally guarantee majority rule and yet still end up oppressing the majority. In discerning whether a particular regime is tyrannical, the classical tradition asks us to pay attention to substance as well as form.

So far, so familiar. But, said Bartolus, “there is a seventh mode of government, the worst one, which now exists in the city of Rome” (he meant Italy as a whole). “Throughout the different regions there, there are many tyrants there so strong that one [can]not prevail against the other.” The central power is “so weak that it cannot [prevail] against any of the tyrants, nor against anyone adhering to the tyrants, except only so far as they allow it.”

Aristotle, Bartolus noted, hadn’t brought up this seventh form, “and fittingly so, for it is a monstrous thing.” For the ordinary Italian in the fourteenth century, it meant that he was constantly vulnerable to the whims of now this would-be potentate, now that ambitious count, selfish figures who loomed much larger in his life than either the distant emperor or the pope: It was the upstart tyrant who could suddenly shake up settled order, impose new and onerous taxes, or plunge the region into armed conflict. For Bartolus, it was this chaos and instability that made the seventh form of government especially “monstrous.”

Bartolus kept his discourse brief, yet he gave us much to work with in attempting to define our own situation seven centuries later. Two points especially stand out.

First, note that private tyranny, as Bartolus described it, doesn’t mean the absence of a central, public authority. The monstrous body does have a head. But it is a weak head; it exercises some directive or purposive role over the whole, but not vigorously enough to tame the extra heads—that is, the private tyrants.

Think back to our opening case: It was state governments that declared some retailers, but not others, “essential,” permitting Amazon to demand long hours from workers at a time when pandemic mitigation was poorly understood while arbitrarily restricting the operations of many small businesses. As we will see throughout this book, public authorities are part of the operation of private tyrannies—including, crucially, in their refusal to regulate market activity.

Second, and relatedly, the weakness of the central head doesn’t necessarily lie in its total incapacity. Under the system of private tyranny, public authority might indeed possess vast powers in certain areas. That’s certainly true of today’s U.S. government, with its behemoth scope and tremendous war-making and surveillance technologies. The weakness of the central head has rather to do with its corruptibility and its failure to stand independently for the good of the whole body. What we will encounter throughout this book are potent state authorities prone to capture by narrow, private cliques and class interests at the expense of society as a whole.

About the Author

Sohrab Ahmari
Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact: A Radical American Journal. Previously, he spent nearly a decade at News Corp., as op-ed editor of the New York Post and as a columnist and editor with the Wall Street Journal opinion pages in New York and London. In addition to those publications, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Spectator, Chronicle of Higher Education, Times Literary Supplement, Commentary, Dissent, and The American Conservative, for which he is a contributing editor. More by Sohrab Ahmari
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