The examples and statistics that Elizabeth Anderson, Arthur F. Thurnau and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of philosophy and women’s studies, cites in her new book Private Government are striking. Take, for example, the poultry workers who are refused access to the bathroom during their shifts or the 90 percent of laborers in Southern California’s garment factories who work under “sweatshop-like conditions.” There are examples of drug screenings administered without cause and of employees fired for having the wrong bumper sticker on their car.
Anderson says that in many cases, people have come to accept restrictions at their jobs that they would never accept from the government. In the book, she draws a distinction between the idea of “public government,” in which every member of a group or organization has some say and some opportunity for redress regarding how things are run, and the idea of “private government,” in which leadership makes decisions without input. Anderson points out that these kinds of “governments” can exist as part of the general social structure or in a workplace, and that they are the consequence of a centuries-long evolution of ideas connecting work and freedom.
Anderson’s book, which was awarded a Progress Medal by the Society for Progress, asks tough questions about the future of work while giving a clear picture of the evolution of thought that brought us here—and that may point the way forward to a better future.
You have a lot of arresting examples in your book, including warehouse workers struggling through 100-degree heat while ambulances wait outside in case they collapse and people who are fired from their jobs for having certain political bumper stickers on their cars. Are there examples from the book that tend to stand out to readers?
Elizabeth Anderson: I think the one that has consistently outraged the most people is the chicken slaughterhouse workers who are not allowed to use the bathroom on shift. I think that was really the one that just moves people because it’s so beyond the pale. But I think for professional and managerial workers, they might recognize pressure from their bosses to contribute to favored political campaigns or political action committees. And restaurant workers can really relate to the experience of sexual harassment, which is absolutely pervasive in that industry.
How does this idea of “private government” extend to the increase in freelancers and the growth of the gig economy?
EA: We have to be careful here. It is true that we’re facing a major shift in the kind of work that people do. But I want to distinguish gig workers from other kinds of contingent workers. If you’re an Uber driver or a Lyft driver, for example, then you do have significant autonomy, particularly in terms of setting your hours, which is highly valued by many people.
But then there are other kinds of contingent workers who, when you look at what they actually do, are doing the same work as formal employees. They’re often working side by side, but they’re brought in by a temporary employment agency so they have no job security. They could work at the company for years and do the same work as someone who is an actual, legal employee. But they’re paid less. They have far less job security. There’s no pension for them. They’re just under radically worse conditions.
These contingent workers are part of what’s known these days as “the Precariat,” people who are in a precarious employment situation where they could be fired at any time. Their coworker, who is a so-called permanent employee, could also be fired at any time, but the norm is that if you’re a permanent employee then you’re generally going to be the last to be let go rather than the first. So there’s a little more employment security.
We’re living in a situation where people are living in precarious positions, which makes them even more vulnerable to abuse. They’re desperate to make sure they can get enough hours each week, so they’re going to put up with more because they really don’t have much of a choice.
Can you give us some context on how these ideas of “public government” and “private government” have evolved?
EA: For this book, I wanted to start with the seventeenth century with this group called the Levellers in England, a group that strongly advocated for legal equality and expanded voting rights. When I was reading their work, I found out that these radical egalitarians were strongly in favor of free markets. And I went on to read that other free market supporters, like Adam Smith and Tom Paine, were also strongly egalitarian. That got me wondering: Why were many egalitarians broadly in favor of free markets back then and why do contemporary egalitarians seem to prefer socialism? That was the historical puzzle I began with.
These early egalitarians from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries favored free markets because their big enemy was the monopoly. Monopolies were set by the state, and they locked up land and capital and opportunities. They just handed these opportunities to a very tiny group of people who won charters to monopolize huge sectors of the market. So they could be the only corporation allowed to sell candles, for example. You get to set all the rules for the market, and so you set them to favor yourself.
You can see how breaking up monopolies and calling for open competition was a way to help the little guy. The theory was, if you had open competition and access to capital, then the most efficient producer would be someone who owns his own enterprise because such a person would get to keep a hundred percent of the fruits of his labor. He’d have incentives to work more efficiently.
What changed between the time of the Levellers and Adam Smith and now?
EA: This whole system was premised on the idea that economies of scale are negligible. That all got dashed by the industrial revolution, which introduced machine technology and which suddenly created massive economies of scale. The bigger your factory, the more efficient it was. It wiped out the small craftsmen.
Similarly, in the United States and other countries, the yeoman farmer quickly faced bankruptcy against the monopoly railroads upon whom he depended to transport his grain to market. Free markets no longer promised universal prosperity to the little guy. Now it was really about rewarding people who had command over large concentrations of capital. The balance between capital and labor shifted very heavily to capital, and that’s the point at which egalitarians started getting skeptical of the market.
I think it's time to consider alternative models for workplace governance in which workers have a voice in how their firms are managed. In Private Government, I suggest that Germany's model of codetermination, or joint management by representatives of labor and capital, is worth serious consideration. By sheer coincidence, Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently introduced S. 3348, the "Accountable Capitalism Act," requiring very large U.S. corporations to adopt codetermination. We'd have to adapt this idea to U.S. conditions, of course. Yet polling suggests widespread support for this idea from Democrats and Republicans alike.
All of this fits right alongside my main research interest in the philosophy of inequality. I always want to give people a kind of historical perspective so that they can see how things were really different, and that can help illuminate our contemporary predicaments. That’s how I think about it.