Why our workplaces are authoritarian private governments—and why we can't see it
One in four American workers says their workplace is a "dictatorship." Yet that number probably would be even higher if we recognized most employers for what they are—private governments with sweeping authoritarian power over our lives, on duty and off. We normally think of government as something only the state does, yet many of us are governed far more—and far more obtrusively—by the private government of the workplace. In this provocative and compelling book, Elizabeth Anderson argues that the failure to see this stems from long-standing confusions. These confusions explain why, despite all evidence to the contrary, we still talk as if free markets make workers free—and why so many employers advocate less government even while they act as dictators in their businesses.
In many workplaces, employers minutely regulate workers' speech, clothing, and manners, leaving them with little privacy and few other rights. And employers often extend their authority to workers' off-duty lives. Workers can be fired for their political speech, recreational activities, diet, and almost anything else employers care to govern. Yet we continue to talk as if early advocates of market society—from John Locke and Adam Smith to Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln—were right when they argued that it would free workers from oppressive authorities. That dream was shattered by the Industrial Revolution, but the myth endures.
Private Government offers a better way to talk about the workplace, opening up space for discovering how workers can enjoy real freedom.
Based on the prestigious Tanner Lectures delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, Private Government is edited and introduced by Stephen Macedo and includes commentary by cultural critic David Bromwich, economist Tyler Cowen, historian Ann Hughes, and philosopher Niko Kolodny.
Elizabeth Anderson is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration (Princeton) and Value in Ethics and Economics. She lives in Ann Arbor.
"Elizabeth Anderson is a philosopher on the warpath. Her Tanner Lectures . . . 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. . . . [Anderson’s argument has] subtlety and force."--Philip Roscoe, Times Higher Education
"In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson . . . explores how the discipline of work has itself become a form of tyranny, documenting the expansive power that firms now wield over their employees in everything from how they dress to what they tweet. . . . [Private Government] highlight[s] the dramatic and alarming changes that work has undergone over the past century--insisting that, in often unseen ways, the changing nature of work threatens the fundamental ideals of democracy: equality and freedom."--Miya Tokumitsu, The New Republic
"The extent of the arbitrary authority of owners and managers over employees is surprisingly neglected by political thinkers, given how much time we spend at work and how little in the polling booth. Elizabeth Anderson provides a much-needed, important, and compelling account of this overlooked subject. Private Government deserves to be widely read and discussed."--Alan Ryan, professor emeritus, University of Oxford
"This is a very exciting and extremely important book that presents a major challenge to philosophers and social scientists to think about the modern workplace as a form of private government. It is strange that, in a liberal society, there is so little discussion of the relations of power that characterize the workplace. Anderson deftly brings together history, economic theory, and philosophy to have just that conversation. This book unsettles some very deep, unjustifiable assumptions we have about the nature and organization of work today."--Alexander Gourevitch, Brown University
Table of Contents:
Author’s Preface xix
1 When the Market Was “Left” 1
2 Private Government 37
3 Learning from the Levellers? Ann Hughes 75
4 Market Rationalization David Bromwich 89
5 Help Wanted: Subordinates Niko Kolodny 99
6 Work Isn’t So Bad after All Tyler Cowen 108
7 Reply to Commentators Elizabeth Anderson 119