Many small media startups today think they can deliver the final blow to the faltering neoliberal order. But Compact, a self-described “radical American magazine” debuting this week, takes an unusual ideological approach to the task of, as one editors note puts it, “out of the overclass that controls government, culture and capital.” to day. †
“We’re here to start a two-front war left and right,” Matthew Schmitz, one of the magazine’s editors, said in a recent interview with his partners, Sohrab Ahmari and Edwin Aponte.
“I’m not much of an interventionist,” Schmitz hastened to add, “except when it comes to political polemics.”
Compact, a joint venture of two religious conservatives and a Marxist populist, reflects today’s ongoing political realignment, as the revival of class-based politics on both sides of the divide has distorted ideological lines. Its mission: to promote “a strong social-democratic state that defends the community – local and national, family and religious – against a libertine left and a libertarian right.”
Compact is also part of an independent media gold rush, as new or reconfigured political magazines, podcasts, and newsletter platforms have created new (and sometimes highly lucrative) opportunities beyond the traditional media.
The idea, said Ahmari, a former Op-Ed editor of The New York Post who was famous for starting flaming feuds with fellow conservatives, was not to “fix” right or left, but “to take really sharp critiques.” publish the categories.”
Aponte, founder and editor of the website The Bellows (tagline: “Labor Populism for the Future”) and Compact’s house Marxist, jumped in: “Or treat them as irrelevant?”
Compact, which went live Tuesday, is certainly an eclectic brew. The first dozen articles – one of which follows daily – contain salvos against NATO overreach, “zombie Reaganites” and the “aesthetic castration” of heterosexual male performers.
The top columnists and contributing editors mix Catholic anti-liberals and dissident Marxist feminists, European radicals and American populists, with prominent figures (Glenn Greenwald, Patrick Deneen) alongside those who have gotten their teeth into fledgling blogs and podcasts.
In an interview, RR Reno, editor of the conservative religious magazine First Things, who knows both Schmitz and Ahmari well, predicted that Compact “would cause a lot of controversy.” But to succeed, he said, “it will have to find that fine line to say things that are shockingly counter-consensual, but plausible enough that they won’t be written off as foolish or irrelevant.”
“Matthew is a very good judge of timing and tone, and when to throw the Molotov cocktail,” Reno added. “While Sohrab’s impulse is always to throw the Molotov cocktail.”
Ahmari, 37, is one of the more flamboyant boxers on the right. An Iranian-born one-time Marxist atheist turned neoconservative golden boy and turned ‘post-liberal neo-traditionalist’ Catholic. put it last year. (There is also his fondness, critics argue, for Viktor Orban’s Hungary.)
Nebraska-born Schmitz, 36, also a Catholic convert, is more reserved, with a tweedy manner and a more conventional-looking conservative resume. After college at Princeton, he worked at the Witherspoon Institute, a socially conservative think tank, before joining First Things.
Today, Schmitz, who is also a columnist for The American Conservative, calls himself “a conservative on social issues, more heterodox on economics, with an instinctive American patriotism and distrust of our foreign policy interventionist elites.”
He paraphrased Norman Mailer: “You can call me whatever you like, but don’t call me a liberal.”
Compact started coming out in December 2020, when Schmitz and Ahmari sat down to discuss a new magazine that would reflect their shared frustrations at the limitations of conservative journalism.
Both had signed “Against the Dead Consensus,” a much-discussed 2019 manifesto in First Things calling for a new conservatism to replace fusionism, the post-war conservative blend of free-market ideology, traditional family values, and a hawkish foreign policy that “was blown up.” . up” by the election of Donald Trump.
That letter, along with a fire-breathing follow-up by Ahmari calling on conservatives to wage a “cultural civil war” against tyrannical liberal individualism (embodied by Drag Queen Story Hour in public libraries), sparked months of fierce (though hard to -decipher) debate on the right.
Initially, they considered starting a traditional conservative magazine, a non-profit organization supported by foundations or donors. But they decided to take an independent, profitable path, to be launched by investors (who wouldn’t name them) but ultimately backed by subscribers.
Last April, they approached Aponte, a former Democratic Socialists of America member who started The Bellows in 2020 as an alternative in a left overwhelmed by “liberal identity politics, victim culture, and intersectionality,” as the Kickstarter page put it.
Schmitz said he was impressed with the site from the start, but was really struck by “The Great Covid Class War,” by Alex Gutentag, a then-unknown teacher at a California public school, who claimed that lockdowns, vaccine passports and other policies were a smokescreen for “a brutal reorganization of labour”. (Gutentag, now a columnist at Tablet, is a contributing editor for Compact.)
Aponte, 38, who said he grew up “very poor” in Florida, said he was easily sold on the project, provided more than half of the articles focused on material things, and that he and his co-founders each equal editorial input. (They are also equal owners of the site, Schmitz said.)
As for his current politics, Aponte rejected the “post-left” label, which has sometimes been used to describe him and The Bellows (and not always as a compliment). He had sometimes used it “ironically,” he said, to describe his move “from a left-liberalism to a true populism.”
Compact’s website, with a sleek Pentagram design, is updated daily for the first few weeks, with no paywall. The first offers go to the highly polemical, repeatedly touching themes of the bankruptcy of liberalism, the corruption of belligerent foreign policy elites and the need for a moral framework for politics.
In an article called “Against right-wing liberalism,” Harvard lawyer Adrian Vermeule attacks: the undead Reaganites who continue to push the worn-out agenda of “free speech, free markets and free use of drones” while trying to silence advocates of market-critical “conservative public good” like himself.
But the magazine also takes an international look at the current populist uprising. Regular columnists include Malcolm Kyeyune, a Swedish socialist currently affiliated with Oikos, a think tank founded by the former leader of the Swedish Democrats, a right-wing populist nationalist party.
And while most articles focus on politics and economics, there are also cultural offerings, such as that essay on “aesthetic castration” by artist and critic Adam Lehrer, and an analysis of the films “Moonfall” and “Don’t Look.” Up” by the gadfly Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (title: “The Stupidity of Nature”).
“It’s a strange mix,” Aponte acknowledged. For some contributors, that’s exactly the draw.
“I think people are absolutely tired of this division,” said Nina Power, a British philosopher and self-proclaimed “open-minded centrist” with roots in Marxist feminism whose book “What Do Men Want?” offers a feminist defense of masculinity.
“Left and right are both hallmarks of liberalism,” she said. “We are more interested in the questions that unite us, regardless of our political background.”
A few days before the launch, Schmitz rattled a hodgepodge of names off the guest list for this week’s launch event at “the odiously named KGB bar” in the East Village, including a few liberal or liberal-esque media types.
He said the magazine could lead to “breaking ranks”. “I think it’s always a scandal when you hang out with someone who doesn’t belong,” he said.
As for Aponte, when asked how his friends on the left would react to his newfound comrades, he cocked his head and looked a little amused.
“What do you think?” he said.