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


Executives watch AWA factory workers making radio valves, 1936, by Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales

By Nathan Knopp

The mythology of America has always stressed the moral rectitude of giving people influence over the decision-making processes that affect us. This is the very definition of democracy and the idea conveyed by the famous Revolutionary War era refrain, “No taxation without representation.”

In her 2017 book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), noted American philosopher Elizabeth Anderson asks us to ponder why we don’t seem to find it odd that we should be compelled to abandon democratic ideals at work, where we spend the majority of our time. She challenges the assumption that free markets give rise to free society and argues that this notion comes to us from the context of the pre-industrial Enlightenment and is no longer relevant in the post-industrial economy of today.

The concept of economies of scale is simple one: larger firms have the ability to divide fixed costs and overhead expenses over vastly greater quantities of finished products. Thus, they are able to undercut the prices of smaller competitors and still remain profitable. With the Industrial Revolution came the rise of ever-larger units of production, eventually culminating in the form of international corporations that are today challenging state governments in the scope of their power and influence. Anderson argues that this scaling-up has had the effect of radically diminishing opportunities for self-employment, while simultaneously placing disproportionate power in the hands of a shrinking number of employers who own everything. As a result, workers in Western society must leave Enlightenment ideals of democracy at the door when entering the workplace and submit to the top-down, dictatorial corporate hierarchy with which all American workers are so familiar.

Anderson’s ideas are especially relevant here in Maine, which has been hit especially hard by the en masse departure of the manufacturing sector for cheap labor overseas. A short drive inland will confront the observer with countless former mill and manufacturing towns that now offer their residents few employment opportunities outside of nursing homes and Wal-Mart. Deaths of despair, such as opioid overdoses, are unsurprisingly becoming commonplace under these depressing conditions.

Dictatorial control over the workplace leaves to the employer’s sole discretion choices like moving production to foreign shores to increase profit. The community devastation that results from these decisions is not the concern of the employer, and thus tends not to be factored into the decision-making process. Had the mill workers and manufacturing employees of Maine been in possession of any influence over the decision-making apparatus of their respective enterprises, what are the chances they would have voted to export their jobs overseas to increase profits?

Numerous worker co-op models, in which members fill both worker and part-owner capacities, already exist. Dramatically successful examples include the famed Mondragon Corporation of Basque Spain and the Arizmendi Bakery Cooperative of San Francisco. In the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, fully one third of the total economic output is estimated to be from firms operating as co-ops. Reorganizing production in this way would be compatible with American democratic ideals and has the potential to solve many of the economic woes that are immiserating Mainers today.

Democracy in the workplace should not be thought of simply as a means of making work more pleasant for workers, but rather as a means of ensuring that, when they conflict, the common good can be given priority over profit. No other arrangement can ever be sustainable over the long term, and as Americans it is ideologically incoherent to accept anything less. Here in America, we are in danger of becoming the historical shipwreck that future navigators will use to mark what should have been an obvious reef. For this reason, the importance of Anderson’s book cannot be overstated.