An interview with Elizabeth Anderson, author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)
Most contemporary discussions of work focus on wages, benefits, and unemployment. You want to focus on the power of employers over workers. How does that matter for workers today?
Millions of workers in the United States labor under humiliating and abusive conditions. Most poultry workers, for example, aren’t allowed to use the bathroom during their shift, and are told to wear diapers to work. The vast majority of restaurant workers suffer from sexual harassment. Managers scream at warehouse workers when they can’t keep up with the grueling pace, or get injured on the job. They search workers’ bodies and personal property, and listen in on their conversations with co-workers. These conditions aren’t inherent in these types of work. The aren’t like the dangers that firefighters unavoidably face. They are imposed by employers. Employers can do this because they have power over workers and can threaten their livelihoods if they don’t submit. This kind of unaccountable power is objectionable even when workers are paid decently. Many professional and managerial workers who enjoy good pay are pressured by their bosses to contribute to political candidates their bosses prefer, and know that their contributions are being monitored. Workers up and down the organization chart are bullied by their bosses. It’s high time that we drew attention to these problems. Work doesn’t have to be this way.
You claim that current political discussions confuse government with the state. Why is that a point of confusion, and why is it important to distinguish the two?
Politicians are constantly telling people that “the government” is interfering with their freedom. What they mean by “government” is the organs of the state—the Federal government, or agencies of the 50 states. This way of talking misleadingly suggests that if we only got the state out of our hair, we’d be perfectly free to lead our lives as we choose. It masks the fact that other kinds of governments, with unelected leaders, also rule our lives. The workplace is a type of government, and bosses are the rulers of this government. It’s important to recognize this reality, because managers often regulate workers’ lives far more intrusively and minutely than state governments regulate the lives of ordinary citizens. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government. State regulation of workplaces can actually make them more free by setting constraints on what their bosses can do to them—for example, barring harassment and discriminatory treatment.
You’re concerned about the conditions for workers today. Yet you begin your discussion with the Levellers of the mid-17th century. What can we learn from them?
The Levellers were a group of egalitarian activists in mid-17th century England. They advanced a way of talking about free market society as liberating for workers. They saw that the state was not the only government that ruled their lives. As small craftsmen, they were also governed by the monopolistic guilds. Freeing up markets meant ending monopoly control, which would enable craft workers like themselves to be their own bosses, and expand the ranks of the self-employed. Other 17th and 18th century figures, including Adam Smith and Tom Paine, similarly believed that freeing up markets would open the way to nearly universal self-employment. Lincoln carried that vision into the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution destroyed their ideas of how free markets would make workers free. It bankrupted self-employed craftsmen and forced them to submit to bosses in big factories. We still talk today as if markets make workers free, forgetting that this idea depended on pre-industrial conditions. The originators of free market ideas were vividly aware that wage workers were subjected to the arbitrary rule of their employers, and thought that free markets would make workers free by enabling them to escape rule by bosses. Today, talk of how markets make workers free is magical thinking, masking the reality that bosses govern their lives.
How do you think the governance of the workplace can be improved?
I argue that workers need a voice in how the workplace is governed. Other measures, such as making it easier for workers to quit, and laws protecting workers’ privacy and off-duty activities from employer meddling, can certainly help. But these can’t substitute for workers having a say in how the workplace is governed. Labor unions once gave voice to more than a third of American workers. These days, outside the state sector, few workers are represented by a union. Yet unions are not the only way that workers can have a say in workplace governance. In Europe, so-called co-determination, in which workplaces are jointly managed by owners and workers, is common. I make the case for exploring different ways workers could have a say, to open up a topic that is hard to frame in today’s impoverished political discourse.
What inspired you to write this book?
I have long been interested in the lived experience of workers, particularly those at the bottom of the labor market. Their experiences are unjustly neglected in today’s public discourse. It should be a major public outrage that so many workers today are denied bathroom breaks, and suffer innumerable other indignities that almost no politicians talk about! Instead, a common response of politicians and the managerial class is: if you don’t like it, then why don’t you quit? The freedom of workers is just the freedom to quit. The inadequacy of this response should be glaring. But today’s public discourse doesn’t help us see why. My research on the history of egalitarianism uncovered the reasons why public discourse is so inadequate, and motivates alternative ways of talking about workers’ complaints, so they can be taken seriously. In the United States, it’s normal to complain about government regulation interfering with our freedom. Once we recognize that employers subject workers to their own dictatorial government, it’s easier to sympathize with workers’ complaints, and think about remedies.