Coffee House Politics: The Agonies of Compact Magazine

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Compact magazine's logo.

April 8, 2023

Compact magazine makes for an interesting show of intellectualized pretentiousness. This new “radical American journal,” as proclaimed by its founding editors, seeks to facilitate a “compact” between those on both the left and right against liberalism.

Already, though, this lofty premise seems to amount to nothing more than wishful thinking. For one, Compact’s content slants mostly toward the right, and two of its three founding editors, Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Schmitz, are conservatives. But not to fear, says Compact, because its resident representative of the postliberal left is here. Edwin Aponte, a self-proclaimed Marxist, is also a founding editor.

Before we go on, I do feel it would be prudent of me to clarify: I currently have a monthly subscription to Compact, and in reading a good chunk of the articles published in this journal, I have found many of the ideas and arguments agreeable. The content itself is not necessarily the issue, and many of the subjects discussed in the magazine’s archives are, indeed, worth discussing.

The agonies of Compact lay not in its individual articles, but rather its self-described reason for existence: to subvert the present-day political order in which we live. But there is a painful irony in this proclamation of subversion, or radicalism. 

For starters, I have an itching suspicion that the founders of Compact knew that the grand designs, the inherent “edginess” of a postliberal magazine that challenges both the left AND the right! would be a profitable business model. Magazines are challenging businesses to run, of course, and no one can blame the editors for wanting such a project to be financially sustainable. 

But this profit model also gives off a certain air of arrogance or griftiness that conveys itself through the magazine’s cliquish, self-congratulatory Twitter feed, which primarily features retweets of an author’s self-promotion. Compact is a community of, by, and for its microcelebrity commentators.

But perhaps the agonies of Compact were best conveyed through a piece it recently published titled “Liberalism’s Good and Faithful Servants,” by Adrian Vermeule. In the article, Vermeule, on his own, makes a great point: that the intellectual right is a fractured, “sorry thing”—a disfigured hodgepodge of mini-movements, all with their own goals and conflicts, never seeming to agree on much of anything.

Vermeule rightfully calls out the griftoid nature of the modern right, or “Conservative Inc.,” as he terms it. Indeed, all the big conservative powerhouses, the Daily Wires, the Fox Newses, and all the Jack Posebiecs and Charlie Kirks of the world want to “Take our country back!” for the insanely low price of $19.99! In this sense, yes, there isn’t really a genuine effort to fight against the “endless revolution” of liberalism from the right.

But such an article being published in Compact, of all places, makes for a great play on irony, especially when we consider the following passage from this piece:

“Would you like to frequent artisanal coffeehouses in a college town, writing overlong screeds about authentic anti-liberalism and the primacy of the local? Be my guest, says the liberal order, we will even fund you to do so; you are a good and faithful servant. Might you prefer the ‘traditional’ life—a picturesque farm, some chickens, a vaguely Mennonite aesthetic, and an Instagram account? Of course!, says liberalism, you are welcome to be a domestic extremist, so long as your extremism remains safely domesticated.”

I’m sorry, but, isn’t this exactly what Compact is? It would appear to me that hole-in-the-wall niche journals like Compact, Jacobin, or First Things all tend to start out from some Dimes Squareesque setting. Roger Scruton employed the word gauchiste to describe this phenomenon of the intellectual’s intense longing to be “different,” “radical,” or “revolutionary.” The paradox here, of course, is the revolutionary’s desire to solidify his own form of hegemony alongside his so-called quest to subvert. This is what Compact is the most: not a genuine effort to subvert, but to solidify its position as the “go-to” magazine for “edgy” anti-liberal takes. The ultimate webzine for those fond of the revolutionary aesthetic. 

And again, aside from a handful of left-wing authors it chooses to feature, Compact nevertheless remains a majority right-wing archive of anti-liberal viewpoints, which inevitably leads me to wonder about the pathetic state of the modern right Vermeule discusses. Compact at least gets one thing right: the cultural left does enjoy almost unfettered predominance in many of America’s most prominent institutions. Its efforts to establish new managerial regimes predicated upon “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” in schools, workplaces, and government, for instance, among its other plans to usher in the Earthly Paradise, are all very real. 

But Compact is yet another sad reminder that the right-wingers now merely occupy the cafes once occupied by the leftists who now run literate America. In this sense, Compact is, as Vermeule says, a “faithful servant” to the liberal order. It would be slightly better if its editors didn’t constantly congratulate themselves for subverting nothing.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article states that Compact magazine founding editor Edwin Aponte was a current editor at Compact. He is no longer with the magazine as of July 1, 2022.


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