A dull and murky silence has fallen over the workplace. We talk very little about the constituent elements of “good work.” In particular, our lips are sealed regarding our moral right to democratic voice in workplaces. It wasn’t always this way. Great revolutionary movements of the past advocated “workers’ control” and “council communism”. More recently—in the 1960s and 1970s—strong labour movements spoke of “co-determination” of all salient matters pertaining to the design and organization of work. Gerry Hunnius and John Case edited an influential collection of readings, Workers’ control: a reader on labor and social change (1973).
This buoyant text provided opportunities for readers and activists to consider alternatives to the tyrannies of capitalist work organization. The former socialist republic of Yugoslavia, for instance, introduced workers’ councils and ideas about self-management in 1949. Modestly successful, critics observed that managers still tended to dominate the councils. And workers’ co-operatives like Mondragon, founded in the Basque region of Spain in 1956 and the Antigonish Movement of Nova Scotia (1930-1960), sought to put into practice more democratic forms of governance. These attempts to “democratize the workplace” were under often extreme pressure to cave in to dictatorial forms of governance.
Scholars like Robert Dahl (A preface to Economic democracy (1985) have made the case for worker self-governance. This keystone text generated much controversy and criticism. Worker democracy—you must be kidding! Lots of people joined in and wrote much that now mainly collects dust on university shelves. Still, a kind of undercurrent of thought about workplace democracy has bubbled beneath the surface of public discourse of our current “crisis of democracy” since Dahl’s seminal text of 34 years ago. Beneath the surface: one can hardly identify any serious public discourse these days on the anti-democratic nature of most work under Neo-liberal conditions.
But one American scholar, the influential University of Michigan radical philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, has broken through the crust of silence in her provocative book, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives [and Why We Don’t Talk About It] (2017). Anderson’s purpose is to make a relatively succinct argument for “democratic governance” at the workplace. She does not provide a mighty treatise reviewing the history of the global struggle for the democratization of the workplace as such. Rather, she wants to provoke us out of our lethargy and conventional thinking by upsetting conventional notions of public and private governance. All of this in 70 pages!
Anderson reminds those of us on the left that before the big bad Industrial Revolution changed workers’ conditions of labour, the “market” was imagined as a source of freedom for egalitarian-minded workers. It provided opportunities for self-employment and self-governance. In her words, “The personal independence of masterless men and women in matters of thought and religion depended on their independence in matters of property and trade.”
But the Industrial Revolution upset the great dream of the English Levellers, Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln by denying working people opportunities for economic independence. There was little room for egalitarian forms of self-employment. Now, work demanded that those selling their labour power had to subordinate their work-time to authoritarian bosses.
She proclaims boldly: “The Industrial Revolution shattered the egalitarian ideal of universal self-government in the realm of production. Economies of scale overwhelmed the economy of small proprietors, replacing them with the large enterprises that employed many workers.” The gulf between owners and workers was wedged apart and widened over time. Adam Smith’s late 18th century dream of the wage contract as an expression of equality was smashed to pieces in the industrial age as Marx who exposed the wage relation as one of subordination and not freedom.
Now the bomb-shell. Anderson says that the endpoint of the industrial capitalist mode of work design and organization can be named a “communist dictatorship in our midst.” Anderson knows where the sword should pierce: Americans and their CEOs hate dictatorships. They hate the communists and extol American freedom and democracy as their own special treasures. Wall Street might phone Dr. Anderson and ask her to help them locate “communist dictatorships in our midst.” “Do you mean the universities? Left-wing social movements? Where? In the Oregon hills? Please help us find them so we can root them out.”
Perhaps we might imagine that Anderson persuades some Wall Street CEOs to gather together to listen to her thought experiment unfolded. She begins: “Imagine a government that assigns everyone a superior whom they must obey.” Response: “That could never happen in the world’s greatest democracy, Dr. Anderson.” She continues undaunted: “Superiors are unaccountable to those they order around.” They are not elected, or removable by their inferiors, the inferiors have no right to complain at court and no right to be consulted about the orders they are given. The most highly ranked individual takes no orders but issues many. The lowest-ranked may have their bodily movements and speech minutely regulated for most of the day.” And: “This government does not recognize a personal or private sphere of autonomy free from sanction.” The CEOs are getting restless and puzzled.
“Dr. Anderson, we have heard that you have many dangerous ideas and dislike much of our foreign policy. We can elect our political leaders. We can vote them out. We are free citizens who pride ourselves on our resistance to government tyranny. Tell us what you are arguing!” Taking a deep breath, Dr. Anderson lifts the veil. “The economic system of the society run by this government is communist.”
The CEOs are now very restless and getting angrier. “This government owns all the non-labour means of production in the society. It organizes production by means of central planning. The form of government is a dictatorship. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an oligarchy; in other cases, self-appointed.” One grumpy old CEO—who has funded many think-tanks on how to disempower workers and overthrow governments—shouts: “Putin and Xi Jinping are dictators! They are our real enemies!” He hobbles out the door.
Continuing, Anderson comments that, to be sure, this government cannot imprison anyone, but it can demote people to lower ranks and can send them into exile. “The vast majority have no realistic option but to try to immigrate to another communist dictatorship, although there are many to choose from.” The CEOs cry out in unison: “Wouldn’t people who are subject to such a government be unfree? What the hell are you talking about?”
Before you storm out, Anderson cries out, “Let me reveal who is the communist in our midst. Most people work under such a government: it is the modern workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the US. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired. The economic system of the modern workplace is communist, because the government—that is, the establishment—owns all the assets, and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.” The last CEOs leave shouting, “Outrage! Outrage! We are libertarians!”
Anderson thinks the CEOs are “surprised to see themselves depicted as dictators of little communist governments.” But she herself is shocked that “public discourse and political philosophy largely neglect the pervasiveness of authoritarian governance in our work and off-hours lives … “ The astute radical philosopher thinks that the fundamental way that we can see what’s actually present in our landscape is to “revive the concept of private government.”
Defining “private government” as a “particular sort of constitution of government, under which its subjects are unfree.,” she claims that Americans (so do Canadians) tend to reduce “government” to the “state” (part of the public sphere). So, if we imagine our world in terms of the polarity—state and private sphere—when the government ends, individual liberty begins.
This simple idea is invalid: government exists “wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life.” The great American statesmen and writer, John Adams, said that government is everywhere (over children, apprentices, students, masters over slaves, husbands over wives and bosses over workers). In the public sphere (where it is not totally degraded and people are still able to listen to someone else), one has rightful voice.
For Anderson, then, private government exists when authorities can boss you around and sanction you for not complying over some domain of your life. As well, the authorities resolutely affirm that it is none of the sanctioned one’s business to explain why it issues orders and sanctions you. Thus: “Private government is government that has arbitrary, unacceptable power over those it governs.” In other words, the central axiom of worker democracy is the repudiation of “organizational silence” and the nurturing of pedagogical procedures for participation in decision-making (see my study of the “just learning organization in Designing the just learning society: a critical perspective [2005, pp. 104-116]).
Another reason why American workers succumb to dictatorial work life is tied into the “theory of the firm” illusion that turns a blind eye to the “sweeping scope of authority that employers have over workers.” That’s nothing new, however, as Henry Ford created a sociology department in his company to investigate workers’ homes to see if they were clean and orderly before they labored routinely on Taylor’s line for five dollars a day. Theorists of the firm “appear not to even recognize how authoritarian firm governance is.”
They don’t explain the form of authority governing the workplace. They soft-pedal it—and remain silent regarding the bitter reality that “most workers are hired without any negotiation over the content of the employer’s authority, and without a written or oral contract or specifying any limits to it.” Indeed, outside collective bargaining and a few other contexts, authority over workers is “sweeping, arbitrary, and unacceptable—not subject to notice, process or appeal.” Anderson rails against corporate governance because it is privatized and thereby lives without scrutiny.
For her, “A just workplace constitution should incorporate basic constitutional rights, akin to a bill of rights against employers.” We can no longer play “let’s pretend that the constitution of the workplace is somehow the object of negotiation between workers and employers.”
News flash: Dr. Elizabeth Anderson last seen on a boat to Guantanamo Bay.