Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives
(and Why We Don’t Talk about It)
by Elizabeth Anderson
Princeton University Press, 2017, 216 pages
“Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.” Our current moment of corporate wokeness and “extremely online” pearl-clutching has made this phrase something of a cliché. In its most sympathetic rendering, it means that a free exchange of ideas allows everyone to decide who they wish to associate with. Feel free to put a political slogan on your social media page, in other words, but then allow people the freedom to not patronize you in response. In this sense, the phrase simply pushes further toward the liberalization of economic and ideological markets.
But lately, we’ve seen this limited conception of free speech put to a more cynical use. The popular web comic xkcd perfectly illustrates the animating spirit and underlying principles of this position. In the comic, a dour and preachy stick figure explains that “The right to free speech means that the government can’t arrest you for what you say.” In another cell, the figure continues to explain that “If you’re yelled at, boycotted, have your show canceled, or get banned from an internet community, your free speech rights aren’t being violated.” It’s an argument that doesn’t really defend itself, but rather simply restates a current constitutional limit.
Of course, it’s a bit ironic to hear this argument coming from the self-described political Left. The Left of old would hardly have insisted that a private employer should have so much control over the life of an employee, up to the point of firing someone for complaining on social media about harsh working conditions.
This is particularly true when it’s also de rigueur to claim that the Second Amendment is an unfortunate relic of a world which no longer exists. One would think that the social and economic power acquired by employers and corporations since the eighteenth century would make the First Amendment similarly outmoded. Why isn’t the corporate code of conduct as much a stumbling block for supposed constitutional purists as the assault rifle?
The control that employers now have over their employees is as shocking as the notions of economic freedom justifying this situation are passé. This blind spot in American politics forms the crux of Elizabeth Anderson’s recent book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It). Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, introduces the concept of “private government” to describe this new scope of employer power and control.
She describes this new “private” authoritarian impulse in the following way:
This point generalizes to all governments, not just governments run by the state. You are subject to private government whenever (1) you are subordinate to authorities who can order you around and sanction you for not complying over some domain of your life, and (2) the authorities treat it as none of your business, across a wide range of cases, what orders it issues or why it sanctions you. A government is private with respect to a subject if it can issue orders, backed by sanctions, to that subject in some domain of the subject’s life, and that subject has no say in how that government operates and no standing to demand that their interests be taken into account, other than perhaps in narrowly defined circumstances, in the decisions that government makes. Private government is government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs.
The language that Anderson uses to describe these “private governments” might sound a bit overheated, but the conditions to which she’s responding are all too real. In the book, Anderson notes that 90 percent of restaurant workers have self-reported being subjected to sexual harassment on the job. So, too, a Department of Labor study found “sweatshop-like conditions” 93 percent of the time in southern California’s garment factories. Across the country, warehouse workers have waged an ongoing struggle to win the right to adequate bathroom breaks.
That warehouse workers are forced to wear diapers and frequently collapse from dehydration are just some of the most lurid examples of the excesses of Anderson’s “private government.” The full extent of the power that employers have over their employees is far more insidious in its scope—and often subtle in its exercise. According to one recent study, an estimated seven million American workers “have been pressured by their bosses to favor some political candidate or issue by threats of job loss, wage cuts, or plant closures.”
Anderson likens this influence over the private lives of workers, with constant affronts to their basic sense of dignity, to the totalitarian rule of a Communist dictatorship. In a thought experiment that could be drawn from Jonathan Swift, she describes all the traits of this day-to-day authority:
It may prescribe a dress code and forbid certain hairstyles. Everyone lives under surveillance, to ensure that they are complying with orders. Superiors may snoop into inferiors’ e-mail and record their phone conversations. Suspicionless searches of their bodies and personal effects may be routine. They can be ordered to submit to medical testing. The government may dictate the language spoken and forbid communication in any other language. It may forbid certain topics of discussion. People can be sanctioned for their consensual sexual activity and required to engage in political activity they do not agree with.
And, of course, “The economic system of the modern workplace is communist, because the government—that is, the establishment—owns all the assets, and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no internal markets in the modern workplace.” Feel free to emigrate, Anderson warns, but you’ll simply find the landscape dominated by competing dictatorships.
The Industrial Revolution and the New Capitalism
Anderson’s work, based on her 2015 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Princeton, is a four-part text: two lectures, a response from critics, and the author’s defense against those criticisms. The initial lecture charts the political shift of the nineteenth century, in which free markets went from being seen as a social and economic leveling force to the widely held contemporary view that unfettered markets are a source of extreme inequality. What happened between Adam Smith, who believed that liberating markets liberated people, and Marx, who equated open markets with domination? In a word, Anderson answers, it was the Industrial Revolution.
“The Industrial Revolution,” Anderson writes, “was a cataclysmic event for egalitarians, a fundamental turning point in egalitarian social thought. It shattered their model of how a free society of equals might be built through market society.” Whereas Smith associated the opening of markets with a fight against state-run monopolies and the social elevation of craftsmen and artisans, Marx was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and it was quickly becoming obvious that previous notions of freedom and egalitarianism simply didn’t apply in the context of these newly emergent material conditions. Whereas Smith focused on the self-employed—the butcher, the brewer, and the baker—Marx was living through Victorian-era “total institutions” such as the prison, the asylum, the orphanage, and, above all, the factory.
These new institutions made the disconnect between outmoded expressions of political freedom and the pervasive hierarchical control which people experienced in their day-to-day lives glaringly obvious. As Isaac Kramnick once put it, “Though [bourgeois liberal] radicals preached independence, freedom, and autonomy in polity and market, they preached order, routine, and subordination in factory, school, poorhouse, and prison.”
As political liberation ostensibly spread, the language with which to articulate this essential loss of personal and economic freedom was never developed. As Anderson describes it,
Advocates of laissez faire, who blithely applied the earlier arguments for market society to a social context that brought the very opposite of the effects that were predicted and celebrated by their predecessors, failed to recognize that the older arguments no longer applied. Thus arose a symbiotic relationship between libertarianism and authoritarianism that blights our political discourse to this day. For what we have yet to adequately grasp is the nature of the challenge before us: private government.
The details Anderson provides to illustrate these historical shifts do not always hit the mark, however. For instance, she puts an emphasis on the “masterless men” who existed in England prior to the Industrial Revolution, depicting them as a kind of lost vanguard of the sort of citizen that open markets might have created. But as the historian Ann Hughs writes in the chapter criticizing Anderson, “These masterless men were rather vulnerable wage laborers or vagrants, dependent on individual charity or, increasingly, on public assistance.”
To be sure, Anderson’s arguments about the development of industrial capitalism in contemporary America do not depend on her account of preindustrial England, still less her depiction of masterless men and Levellers. For all that America draws from England historically, culturally, and politically, it has developed separately and uniquely. And so the difficulty in her argument lies in the fact that the historical lessons of her foundational account are set in England, while its consequences unfold in contemporary America. A deeper dive into specifically American notions of the material conditions necessary for political and social freedom might have strengthened her historical argument.
Consumer Society and Auto-Exploitation
The question hovering over Anderson’s account is why, exactly, the Industrial Revolution spelled the end of the liberating promise of open markets. One reason is that, in America especially, man came to be seen as essentially a consumer, rather than a producer or maker. The dream of self-sufficiency, found even in ideas such as syndicalism, was stronger and lasted much longer in America than elsewhere. But America is also the place where that dream most thoroughly atrophied into an ideological cargo cult.
The late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch brilliantly elucidated this shift in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. In that book, Lasch not only traces the history of different forms of populism in American thought which arose to counteract the atomizing social influence and plain brutality of Anderson’s “private government,” but also the ways in which private government has used an ersatz conception of “the good” to muster mass appeal. Anderson emphasizes the sticks of private government, but she often ignores the carrots.
For the last two hundred years, there has been an emphasis (and overemphasis, Lasch would argue) on organizing our society and economy around the cultivation of desire. As much as Anderson holds up Adam Smith as an example of a road not taken, our contemporary notions of harnessing desire, and centering our culture around it for the sake of economic growth, are an essential part of his work.
In The True and Only Heaven, Lasch writes that “insatiable appetites, formerly condemned as a source of social instability and personal unhappiness, could drive the economic machine—just as man’s insatiable curiosity drove the scientific project—and thus ensure a never-ending expansion of productive forces.” For eighteenth-century figures such as Hume, Mandeville, and Smith, “it was the self-generating character of rising expectations, newly acquired needs and tastes, new standards of personal comfort—the very changes deplored by republican critics of commerce—that broke the old cycle of social growth and decay and gave rise to a form of society capable of indefinite expansion.”
More than any other nation, the United States had both the resources and political freedom to support small, self-sufficient communities. Had history gone one way, there might have been an even greater cultivation of the social principles necessary to sustain a citizenry free of wage slavery—that classical Jeffersonian ideal. Instead, as Lasch explains, “the idea of democracy came to be associated more and more closely with the prospect of universal abundance. America came to be seen not as a nation of citizens but of consumers. The association of progress with consumption, however much it compromised a participatory conception of democracy, enabled America to rehabilitate progressive ideology and to place it on a new and seemingly solid foundation.”
A belief in infinite progress and an overvaluation of individual desire transforms citizens into consumers, and wild excesses of private government are only really possible in a nation of consumers. Reading Private Government, you’d be forgiven for thinking that how we collectively define notions such as “freedom” and the “common good” hasn’t changed much in the past few hundred years. In fact, their definitions—the constantly developing field of ideas which form the contours of how we experience our everyday lives—have changed even as they’ve changed us. One can point to any number of concrete examples of freedoms that are now, in most circles, taken for granted in America: legalized marijuana and accessible pornography, for instance. Our expectations concerning work have been similarly modified.
It’s an observation that’s almost too obvious to mention, with vast tracts having been dedicated to the notion of alienation (not only in the strict Marxist sense) going back at least a few generations now. And so while Anderson’s comparison of the contemporary workspace to a communist authoritarian regime casts the cubicle in a new light, her argument could be made even stronger if the terminology that Anderson situates her critique within wasn’t itself also somewhat outmoded. For those in white-collar “information” sectors, contemporary work-life isn’t so much 1984 as it is Brave New World. It isn’t so much defined by exploitation as by auto-exploitation.
Anderson’s underdeveloped theoretical premise results in an oversimplified depiction of contemporary life by narrowing the scope in which it’s experienced. One of the most revealing, if least trenchant, critical responses offered in the book comes from economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen claims that the situation for workers as Anderson describes it isn’t really all that bad. Workers should be fired for certain kinds of social media posts, he says, as a way to protect “the freedom of the other workers” (emphasis Cowen’s), because “through markets, employers very often are internalizing the preferences of the workers as a whole.”
Anderson’s riposte hints at the vast field of thought missing from this book. She writes that “Cowen implicitly accepts individual worker choices within the current constitution of workplace governance as the measure of what they want” (emphasis Anderson’s). She accuses Cowen of not taking into account that employees tailor their demands to current expectations, not daring to make demands which might seem unrealistic. Yet perhaps in the current schema, markets do not merely internalize the preferences of workers, but also erode psychological boundaries and allow workers to internalize the preferences of their employers.
To understand the bleeding edge of the corporate workspace, we need to turn to a thinker like Byung‑Chul Han. Han begins his book The Burnout Society with the enigmatic line, “Every age has its signature afflictions.” Our age, he argues, is marked by afflictions arising from an excess of positivity and action: ADHD, depression, borderline personality disorder, and burnout. These are neurological conditions which arise, not from base exploitation (something Han might instead have associated with the immunological afflictions of the Cold War era), but from people willingly participating in their own exploitation.
If we can locate the disciplinary society within previously mentioned Victorian institutions—schools, prisons, factories—then we can associate the current landscape of self-exploitation with the liberation from physical space itself. The factory, in other words, has been replaced by the internet as the symbol most resonant with current social consciousness concerning the nature of labor.
Han argues that this self-exploitation is an essential part of a culture which engages in an excess of positivity—an economy which finds it more efficient to emphasize affirmation (“Yes we can!”) over the negativity of prohibition. “To heighten productivity,” Han writes,
the paradigm of disciplination is replaced by the paradigm of achievement, or, in other words, by the positive scheme of Can; after a certain level of productivity obtains, the negativity of prohibition impedes further expansion. The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should. Therefore, the social unconscious switches from Should to Can. The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than the obedience-subject.
Echoing again Lasch’s notion of the citizen transformed into the consumer, one of the results of auto-exploitation is the cultivation of compulsion. If your desires can be harnessed for economic exploitation, it’s more efficient for those desires to be rationalized into quantifiable units of compulsive acts. Hence we obsess over views on social media, viral videos, and the like. The figure most representative of our new working conditions might not be the American warehouse worker forced to wear a diaper, but gaming junkies who choose to wear diapers so as to maximize their screen time.
The economy of auto-exploitation has other notable features as well. Jonathan Crary, a professor of modern art at Columbia University, mentions in his book 24/7 the role of auto-surveillance and the breakdown of the demarcation between the personal and the professional. In what he terms our “attention economy,” Crary writes,
the only consistent factor connecting the otherwise desultory succession of consumer products and services [which we use and quickly discard] is the intensifying integration of one’s time and activity into the parameters of electronic exchange. Billions of dollars are spent every year researching how to reduce decision-making time, how to eliminate the useless time of reflection and contemplation. This is the form of contemporary progress—the relentless capture of time and experience.
Workers have become complicit not only in their own exploitation, but in the cannibalization of their lives and experiences by often inhumane economic conditions. The self-sufficient citizen has been reduced to the self-exploiting consumer. That change underlies the development of private government.
Elizabeth Anderson has written a book which confronts head-on the political and social double standards we’ve created for ourselves by corralling our notions of freedom within an outmoded political framework. The argument she makes is compelling; she merely fails to take the argument far enough.