Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), by Elizabeth Anderson

Book of the week: From staff in nappies to hassled waitresses, a study of work is full of justified rage, says Philip Roscoe

June 15, 2017
Boss and workers
Source: Rex
Unlike in Europe, it is quite legal for US employers to harass their employees, as long as they do so indiscriminately

Elizabeth Anderson is a philosopher on the warpath. Her Tanner Lectures, published in this volume with comments and a response, take aim at the unelected, arbitrary and dictatorial power that employers, particularly in the US where labour laws are flimsy, hold over their work-forces. She calls it “private government”, in the sense that those governed – that’s us, by the way – are shut out of the governing process.

The book is littered with examples of firms that make employees’ lives a misery. The usual suspects are here and worse: I was shocked to discover that the right to visit the toilet during working hours has been a contentious and ongoing battle of American labour relations for many decades, and that it is not uncommon to be forced to wear nappies on the production line or urinate in one’s clothes.

Such extreme examples can detract from the subtlety and force of Anderson’s argument. The problem, she suggests, is ubiquitous. It is written into the structure of the American labour contract. “Employment at will” gives employers the right to sack their employees for any reason save those that are legally proscribed, such as discrimination on the basis of race or disability. Unlike in Europe, it’s also quite legal for employers to harass their employees, so long as they do so indiscriminately. Employees thus cede the entirety of their rights. Their employer can snoop on Facebook posts, insist on particular diet and health regimes, punish them for their choice of sexual partner and impede their political freedoms.

In a simple sale, goods change hand and both parties walk away with no further obligations or ties. Employees must hand themselves over to their employers for the duration of the contract. This, says Anderson, results in grossly unequal social relations. As she has argued so eloquently in previous work, such relations are deeply corrosive. Exercising autonomy is a basic human need, and the structure of the wage labour system prevents it. Anderson returns to this point again and again. It is simply not good enough to claim that a worker who does not like the job can leave it: they cannot leave the entire system of wage labour, a system that structurally degrades and demeans them. To argue that employees are free because they can leave, she writes, is like arguing that Mussolini was not a dictator because Italians could emigrate.

Anderson uses the metaphor of communist dictatorship: “communist” because the materials of production are collectively owned. Here, perhaps, she is being deliberately provocative. One can imagine a frisson of disquiet rippling through the lecture hall at the mention of the c-word. For the structure of wage labour is only partly her target. What really sets her ablaze is the institutional blindness of the academy, especially the discipline of economics, to the true nature of the labour relationship in the US. Economists who argue that labour markets are based on free exchange have an intellectual hemiagnosia: just as those sorry patients perceive only half of their bodies, such economists see only half of the economy. The real thrust of the book, therefore, is to untangle a peculiar and contradictory alliance between intellectual libertarianism and corporate authoritarianism, and to lambaste those who neglect their professional, political responsibilities in standing up for those lower down the hierarchy of wage labour.

Anderson’s first lecture is particularly fine. She gives a brief history of pre-industrial egalitarian thought in both Britain and America, reading it as a source of historical inspiration and imagination for the present. She argues that these thinkers saw the market as a means of escape from feudalism, patriarchies, monopolies and all the other forms of domination that pressed upon 17th-century Britain. The egalitarian archetype is the self-employed craftsman or yeoman farmer, or the kind of small industrial enterprise that Adam Smith described. The Industrial Revolution spoiled these dreams. It allowed a vast concentration of capital, making self-employment and small enterprises unviable. The long, dismal, dangerous hours forced upon the new working class were underwritten by English liberal intellectuals such as Jeremy Bentham, who advocated organised, hierarchical and routine-driven institutions as the basis for society. Somehow, says Anderson, they managed to transplant egalitarian arguments into this new context, despite the obvious fact that the market had consequences utterly opposed to the emancipation imagined by Smith and others.

The second lecture moves to the thornier ground of private government and communist dictatorship. The exhaustive rights conferred by the labour contract restrict the “Republican” and positive freedoms of employees, these being freedom from arbitrary authority and freedom to develop oneself through a rich range of choices. She points out the logical inconsistency of the theory of the firm. Firms appear when it is more efficient to cooperate inside an organisation than transact on the market. Firms are therefore – by definition – places where the market ceases. Yet economists insist on supposing that labour contracts inside firms obey the laws of the market outside. The lecture finishes with some timid suggestions for workplace constitutions and employee democracy.

The lectures are restrained in tone. Anderson is aware of her dignified audience. But as she unpicks the economic theory of the firm, one can’t help thinking that what she wants – what she really, really wants – is a tangle with an economist. And in the final commentary and response, she gets one. The recipient of her cannonade is Professor Tyler Cowen, a high-profile academic economist and public commentator, who offers stock arguments against her claims: that corporations promote tolerance in order to recruit better workers; that workplaces may be sources of dignity; that soft perks are often too high, and therefore inefficient; that efficiency-based gains for most workers and customers, delivered by allowing employers to sack people as they wish, outweigh the costs to those no longer employed; that worker representation is inefficient and penalises shareholders; and that, if they don’t like it, employees can always move.

The final pages of the book are fizzing with rage. Anderson is not surprised that Cowen, sitting so comfortably at the top of the heap, is delighted with the system. He is out of touch with the reality of everyday work, a failing augmented by a professional disdain for qualitative testimony. Respect, standing and autonomy tend to increase in line with employees’ market value and a discussion of perks becomes almost obscene when the perk in question is the right not to have to pee in one’s trousers at work. Most of all, the notion of free exit is ludicrous when the problems are structural: if 90 per cent of waitresses experience sexual harassment, to what job should they exit?

In focusing on the wretched position of blue-collar and service workers, Anderson neglects the steady degradation of white-collar work as target-driven disciplinary regimes drift ever higher in organisations. She gives no account of internalised governance and self-censorship among such workers. This might have helped further develop the argument, especially where it applies to supposedly benign workplaces. The gender relations embedded in knowledge work, for example, are no less pernicious for being intangible. The academy is particularly culpable here. When Cowen pats Anderson’s metaphorical knee and intones “Rest assured, I am offering the correct reading of theory”, she has every right to let her artillery roar.

Philip Roscoe is a reader in management at the University of St Andrews.


Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)
By Elizabeth Anderson
Princeton University Press, 224pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780691176512 and 9781400887781 (e-book)
Published 7 June 2017


The author

Elizabeth Anderson

Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey distinguished university professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. She was born in Boston to “libertarian” parents who started off as Democrats but then shifted to the right, choosing what they saw as “the party of free markets” over “the party of free love”.

It was as an undergraduate at Swarthmore College that Anderson found her “then-libertarian sensibilities” jolted by “professors in several departments who took issues about the conditions of work seriously”. Studying philosophy at Harvard University, she was disappointed that “the study of justice was almost exclusively confined to distributive justice – as if only workers’ pay and benefits, and not the social relations within which and conditions under which they labour, matter…My book aims to put workers’ issues back on the agenda, both for the academy and for public political discourse.”

Although lucky enough never to have experienced “the kinds of work that expose millions of workers every day to the humiliating conditions I describe in my book”, she did have a summer job as a bookkeeper in a bank in “the era in which managers were cubicle-ising offices”.

Consultation with the workers, she recalls, “would have enabled an office redesign that was both more efficient and respected us and our relations to each other. But management wouldn’t have it: they just needed to show who was boss.”

Today, when “more than half of all academics are hired on a contingency basis”, Anderson would like to see universities adopting pragmatic approaches: “Offering long-term contracts, even if they fall short of tenure, promotes professional development, educational enrichment and the investment of instructors in their institutions and educational programmes, while also offering them a decent measure of security and respect.”

Matthew Reisz

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Print headline: You’re totally the boss of me

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