As someone who loves to facilitate connection between people, I was struck by this New Yorker profile of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson. Here’s a quote from her book, “Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about it)“:
“Images of free market society that made sense prior to the Industrial Revolution continue to circulate today as ideals, blind to the gross mismatch between the background social assumptions reigning in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and today’s institutional realities. We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government[emphasis added].“
What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts?
—Nathan Heller on Elizabeth Anderson, The Philosopher Redefining Equality
Society’s structure and governance impacts almost every aspect of our lives. How civic discourse frames our actual structure and governance conditions what we think is ethical. Ever since Richard Cantillon and Adam Smith developed the concept of the free market, political economists have framed the choice for society as one between free markets and state control.
Anderson points out that this framing ignores the reality that the modern workplace increasingly controls adults’ lives. Such loss of individual autonomy threatens to reduce spontaneous connection and authentic community, both inside and outside work.
We are still a long way from George Orwell’s 1984, where the Party only allowed conformist relationships. (Though the current rise of dictatorships around the world is an ominous sign for the future.) But we need to be aware of new kinds of oppression in private organizations. In addition to those mentioned above, organizations continue to further blur the line between work and personal. Corporations require more and more employees to respond to routine “emergencies” day or night.
The number of people with substantial autonomy in their work and life is decreasing with the rise of private government. This concerns me more than the historic tension between free markets and the state. With the ongoing collapse of unions and continuing consolidation of businesses, private government has fewer checks on its power. As a result, workers find it more and more difficult to resist new demands.
What to do?
The first step in tackling a problem is to notice it exists. We overlook the rise of private government by focusing on creating the “right” balance between free markets and state control. Free markets move inexorably towards the minimum “acceptable” competition, typically duopolies (think Uber versus Lyft). State power provides some limits on how much concentration of power occurs.
But inside organizations, there is little, if any, limit on what private government can impose on employees lives.
Public government is the only means workers have to communicate their desire to limit the suffocating effects of private government. Private government uses its vast resources to fight such efforts via well-funded media campaigns. Such campaigns use effective tools, such as polarizing and misleading memes, which work at an emotional level to demoralize opponents or sway audiences to an advantageous point of view.
It’s possible that the unchecked power of private government may only be curbed when its excesses become too much for workers to bear and a tipping point is reached. Until then, it’s important to work to increase awareness of the growing control that companies have over employees’ lives and the ensuing deleterious effects.