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Private Government

How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)

By Elizabeth Anderson
18-minute read
Audio available
Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson

Private Government (2017) boldly asserts a provocative thesis: most modern companies are run more like communist dictatorships than the “free enterprises” their often libertarian-minded owners, managers, and defenders believe them to be. Drawing on a wide range of ideas, facts, and data from economics, political philosophy, and history, Private Government backs this thesis up with a strong, compelling argument that’s well worth reckoning with.

  • Employees unhappy with their employment
  • Employers wondering why their employees might be so unhappy
  • Anyone else wanting to know what’s wrong with the modern workplace

Elizabeth Anderson is a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. Her research encompasses a broad range of topics within political philosophy, ethics, and feminist theory, including egalitarianism, democracy, and market society. Her previous books include Value in Ethics and Economics and The Imperative of Integration, which won the American Philosophical Association's 2011 Joseph B. Gittler Award, for providing “an outstanding scholarly contribution in the field of the philosophy of one or more of the social sciences.”

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Private Government

How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)

By Elizabeth Anderson
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson
Synopsis

Private Government (2017) boldly asserts a provocative thesis: most modern companies are run more like communist dictatorships than the “free enterprises” their often libertarian-minded owners, managers, and defenders believe them to be. Drawing on a wide range of ideas, facts, and data from economics, political philosophy, and history, Private Government backs this thesis up with a strong, compelling argument that’s well worth reckoning with.

Key idea 1 of 11

Most modern workplaces have highly authoritarian governing structures.

Imagine living under a government that organizes society like this:

Everyone is given a rank and divided into a pyramid-shaped hierarchy. At the top, there’s a single, unelected person who’s basically a dictator. Right below him, there’s a small group of likewise unelected “superiors” who get to issue commands to anyone below them. And then there’s you and everyone else – the “inferiors” who have to obey those commands without question.

Sounds like a deeply undemocratic system, doesn’t it? Well, wait, it gets even worse.

The key message here is: Most modern workplaces have highly authoritarian governing structures.

If you went back to the sketch of our imaginary society and replaced the words “dictator” with “CEO,” “superiors” with “managers,” and “inferiors” with “employees,” you’d have a pretty accurate description of most modern workplaces. Now, there are some important caveats to add here, and we’ll address them in the next blink. But first, let’s keep going with our analogy and see how far we can take it.

Alright, so we have the CEO who’s the unelected “dictator” at the top of a typical company’s “government.” Since this “government” is run by a “dictator,” we can rightfully call it a “dictatorship.” And, in fact, we can go even further and call it a “communist dictatorship.”

That might sound like a rather counterintuitive way to describe a capitalist enterprise, but think about it this way: the “government” of a modern corporation owns and controls all of the enterprise’s “means of production”– the various tools and resources employees need to do their jobs. Not only that, but a small group of powerful people within that corporate government make the big decisions and come up with detailed plans for what the workers should produce and how they should produce it. In other words, the government engages in “central planning.”

Are these not the hallmarks of a communist regime?

But the similarities don’t stop there. To make sure its workers are obeying their orders and complying with the company’s policies, a corporate government can engage in all sorts of surveillance and other violations of privacy. In the US, employers can read employees’ emails, record their phone calls, monitor their social media posts, search their personal belongings, and subject them to drug testing.

And the price of disobedience? “Exile” – also known as getting fired.

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