Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives

There is a short Q & A with Elizabeth Anderson on her book “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)” at the Princeton Press website. A link to an hour long audio interview is at the bottom of this post.

…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…. Most workers are not free under the government of the workplace, because they have no voice, no representation in that government…. 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.

Elizabeth Anderson

David Ellerman wrote a review or critique of the book that is alienated behind a paywall, but there is a short excerpt at his site. I may eventually read her book to discover if she has anything new to say on this front, but her quote above is not a revelation, and I feel many others thinkers have said the same thing already. Nonetheless, it is nice to hear the language in which she translates or delivers this truth. I can’t say for sure if Anderson understands Ellerman’s framing or acknowledges it (or this tweak), or how sympathetic she is to capitalism, but perhaps she is. Victoria Durand has some similar thoughts at Medium.

There is an hour-long interview and some comments here: Econ Talk The interviewer’s capitalist complacency, pseudo libertarianism, and spin bother me, but focusing on what Anderson says is more important and very enlightening.

In the Econ Talk audio she says, pushed by the interviewer, the “standard [pseudo]libertarian” response is that employees can leave, quit, or work for themselves rather than suffer the injustices of the standard employer-employee relationship. The crux of the issue here is whether human rentals and theft via capitalism should be allowed at all. Why not smash private government in the workplace? It’s hard to do when this private workplace government is enforced, or a refection of, The Government itself, which in turn protects this reflection in protecting hierarchy and the rights of employers to enslave/rent people, ignore or purposefully bypass democratic control, and the right of employees to the positive and negative fruits of their labor as an owner, not an owned/ownee/employee. Anderson says as much, thank you.

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