Workplace dictators and the free market: reading Private Government

In Amanda Lohrey’s ‘Primates’, the first story in the collection Reading Madame Bovary, the unnamed corporation for which the first-person narrator works is undergoing a dreaded ‘restructure’. Her manager, Winton, is attempting to introduce Theory Z, the Japanese business equivalent of a Danish lifestyle trend. It promises to get rid of ‘hierarchies’ and bureaucracies’ in favour of a ‘clan’ mentality with ‘a high state of consistency in their internal culture’. The Theory Z idea turns colleagues into ‘intimates’ and sparks debate between adherents – ‘give them total loyalty, and they find a place for you’ – and opponents – ‘But they own you. It’s all about creating the corporate personality. You become an automaton.’

This is a benign example of a phenomenon that abounds in cultural and fictional forms such as what might be called ‘organisational comedies’, like the BBC’s W1A or ABC’s Utopia. These shows illustrate a variety of managerial technique in which language becomes distorted into a bureaucratic and ideological tool for creating loyalty, team-building and subordination to hierarchy, all in hilarious expense of getting anything done. Think Celia Pacquola attempting to hand a piece of paper to a colleague and being told that it should be done via the National Building Authority’s new dysfunctional online system. The emptiness of meaning in corporate and managerial language conceals the controlling character of bureaucratic speech.

Anthropologist David Graeber analyses these bureaucratic traps in ‘Dead zones of the imagination’, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ and his book The Utopia of Rules. To Graeber, the extension of bureaucracy is a way of extending the aspirational identification with the norms of profit-driven society. Managerial language is also, as Richard Denniss’ Econobabble would agree on a societal and economic level, a way of keeping the structures and secrets of the hierarchy hidden from those on lower rungs.

If they are paying us, and we have in some respect consented to this state of affairs, then surely there is nothing unjust about asking us to do meaningless jobs that merely create wealth for the wealthy? At least, not unless we level our criticism at the very structure of society as a whole. Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) is an attempt to argue that even within the existing structures of modern capitalism, the extent to which corporations can control our lives is unjust. Anderson’s argument hinges on shifting the term ‘government’ in political theory to apply not just to states but to any entity that can employ punitive measures, sanctions and other restrictions on our freedom in order to get what it wants.

In a past that never existed but continues to influence our assumptions about employment, these ‘private governments’ exercised control only within working hours, when we had volunteered our labour and bartered it for currency on the free market. But really, since the Industrial Revolution, Anderson argues, corporations have had power over our lives far beyond the work place or work hours. Labour market conditions and various other social, economic and material factors have led to the expansion of their power into every aspect of our lives.

Private government

Unlike liberal democratic state governments, we have no recourse to electoral procedures nor do the corporations have any accountability to those they employ. Anderson’s central thesis is that work governs our lives in a way that we find intolerable of state governments, and present an equal, if not greater, threat to our freedom. Her stated project is to cast light on why ‘public discourse and political philosophy neglect the pervasiveness of authoritarian governance in our work and off-hours lives’.

Anderson is careful in how she defines ‘private government’, perhaps wary that political theorists (or economists, as in the case of commentator Tyler Cowen whose contribution is titled ‘Work Isn’t So Bad after All’) might be resistant to her designation. Government ‘exists wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life’, or, following Max Weber, ‘“a compulsory organisation” that asserts monopoly on determining the legitimate use of force over a territory.’ The ‘state’, she reminds us, is only one such form of entity.

By ‘private’, Anderson means private ‘from you’, which is to say that at least one of the following pertains:

[1] you are not entitled to know about it, [2] your interests have no standing in decisions regarding it, [3] you aren’t entitled to make decisions regarding it or hold those who do accountable for the effect their decisions have on you.

I take it Anderson thinks employers exercise some degree of the second – your interests are at most secondary to the profit of the organisation – and the third almost entirely.

Anderson even supplies a test for whether you’re subject to a private government:

[if] (1) you are subordinate to authorities who can order you around and sanction you for not complying over some domain in your life, and (2) the authorities treat it as none of your business, across a wide range of cases, what orders it issues or why it sanctions you.

Anyone who has thoroughly read their contract, if indeed their employer bothered providing them with one, will recognise these behaviours to some extent. Discretionary power exercised at the whim of the corporation; decisions made that affect people’s lives, with far-reaching consequences far from any scrutiny or accountability (or empathy, as Graeber attests).

While Anderson admits that private governments are not as powerful as ‘the state’, with lower sanctioning power and the relative lower cost of ‘emigration’ (that is, quitting), she asserts that employers still ‘impose far more minute, exacting, and sweeping regulation of employees than democratic states do in any domain outside prisons and the military.’

More urgently, Anderson attempts to intervene in the ‘political hemiagnosia’ of economic theorists, who ‘like those patients who cannot perceive one-half of their bodies … cannot perceive half of the economy: they cannot perceive the half that takes place beyond the market, after the employment contract is accepted.’ Unlike their focus on wage growth or wealth inequality, important as these may be, Anderson focuses on ‘workers’ freedom’.

A (narrow) history of the market

Before Anderson reaches any of these conceptual insights, she offers offer us some historical context under the heading ‘When the Market was ‘Left’’. She sails through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, with cursory glances at the Levellers, a group of radicals in seventeenth-century England, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln, before concluding with the Industrial Revolution. The purpose of the historical opening is the ‘recover the intellectual context of egalitarian thought before the Industrial Revolution’, but it is strangely neglectful of the vast inequalities that preceded and shaped that broadly defined period, and woefully silent on the developments of twentieth-century political and economic thought. Arguably, the intellectual development of neoliberalism, and its adoption as a norm in the 1970s and 80s, did far more to entrench corporate and employer power, as Stephen Metcalf’s 2017 Guardian ‘longread’, ‘Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world’, revealed.

Anderson’s egalitarian advocates for the free market viewed trade as a way of ‘liberating individuals from interlocking hierarchies of domination and subordination.’ Her account of Smith’s market theory accepts as an axiom the self-interested nature of human interaction, thus implicitly endorsing the task of ‘allocating the scarce resources efficiently’ to competitive markets. Gifts are strongly discouraged by coding giving as necessarily from rich to poor. Marcel Mauss’ famous theory of The Gift – as producing a relation of intimate reciprocity – is overlooked.

What the historical portion focuses on is how distorted our assumptions about markets – that is, walking into a grocer, exchanging currency for goods, and leaving with the necessary resources for living – have become. Paine and Lincoln’s ‘American Dream’ consisted of self-employed free men who could only be oppressed by (state) government intervention. Under the chronic labour shortages of a still-growing colonial economy, where land expropriation was still an option if these men didn’t want to work someone else’s, wages were high and conditions were largely acceptable. While Anderson accepts that the unpaid domestic labour of women (not to mention slaves) was also an under-side of this apparently free market, she argues that its ultimate downfall is marked by the American Civil War (1861–65).

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Anderson notes only two changes: the widening gulf between workers and owners, as employers left the shopfloor for the office, and the separation of mental and manual labour, along with the de-skilling of the latter.

There is a single sentence dealing with the twentieth century’s most influential economic thinkers: Keynes, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek.

Getting (the) history (of the market being) right

Two of the four commentators included in the volume, Ann Hughes (a historian) and David Bromwich (a scholar of English) note the historical inadequacy of Anderson’s cursory narrative, arguing that the history is far more complex and, importantly, far darker than Anderson allows.

Anderson also misses the extent to which neoliberal thinkers have exploited certain liberal egalitarian assumptions to install their libertarian version of authoritarianism. Oxymoron duly noted, while Anderson sees a benign, even defensible role for the state in establishing ‘competitive equilibrium’ by assigning property and other rights, the ‘neo-liberal’ turn in economic thought re-engineered this assumption into one that benefited them and their cronies.

Nancy MacLean’s recent book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America showed how neoliberals such as James Buchanan turned government regulation into a way to prevent state governments from acting in the interest of citizens or by the terms of democratic interests. The explosion of ‘free’ market rhetoric conceals the pernicious erosion of real freedom, because all notions of value become reducible to market value.

Liberal political theory’s blindness, or complicity with neoliberal economics is precisely the problem Anderson is addressing. But her attempt to ground alternatives in eighteenth-century non-industrial market theory is wishful thinking at best. Addressing the problem requires understanding the reality – ideologically and materially.

Workplace dictators

Two main ideas emerge from Anderson’s Private Government. The first is an argument about the nature of workplace government. In the opening, Anderson calls them ‘communist dictatorships’ because the government owns the non-labour means of production and organises it by central planning.

What is important about this idea is the stark asymmetry between management and employees. Employers enjoy the impunity and lack of accountability that comes from being unelected; employees can barely complain about their treatment, except in terms defined narrowly by state regulation and with inequitable odds at best.

Mats Alvesson and André Spicer analysed why we might be susceptible to these conditions despite their obvious impingement upon our freedom in their paper ‘(Un)Conditional Surrender? Why do professionals willingly comply with managerialism’. By creating systems of reward and punishment, they argue, managers coerce staff to accept bureaucracy and even come to relish ‘gaming’ it. They manipulatively reward certain types of work over others and advocate the norms and values of the organisation, such as loyalty. Finally, they literally create new types of people, turning them into employees who identify with the success and failure of the organisation.

However, this situation only makes sense for workers who were submitted to the managerial changes wrought by neoliberalism. Nowadays, people entering employment don’t have the same choice.

The (very) idea of freedom

Anderson’s second argument can be summed up in a single phrase from Private Government: ‘Consent to an option within a set cannot justify the option set itself.’ In other words, the choices we make within the (labour) market, do not automatically justify the existence or set-up of the market itself. Political discourse and theory has failed to see the context that induces people to sign contracts – that is to say, consent – to conditions they otherwise would not.

Similarly, economic and business theories purport ‘to offer politically neutral, technical economic reasons why most production is undertaken by hierarchical organisations’, but they systematically fail to ‘explain the sweeping scope of authority that employers have over workers.’ The so-called ‘Theory of the Firm’ clings to the fantasy idea of the market as a relation between a customer and a grocer, like it clings to the homo economicus. One famous paper in the field quoted by Anderson insists that ‘The firm … has no power of fiat, no authority, no disciplinary action any different in the slightest degree from ordinary market contracting between any two people.’

Their misunderstanding is as politically suspect as it is pernicious – and is patently not the case for most employment globally. It is evidence of that trait of neoliberal theory: reduce everything to the market. This is no longer a metaphor, as Anderson suggests, but a reality that drives the conditions under which we live and in which we must think.

What we are able to choose, and how we conceive the freedoms we value matters greatly for how we perceive a just society. As Anderson briskly notes, the different notions of freedom used in political theory – negative (no-one interfering), positive (‘a rich menu of options effectively accessible’) and republican (no-one is dominating you) – ‘can generate massive net gains in individual positive and republican freedoms’.  For instance, road rules mean we can effectively and safely travel.

Still, these aren’t politically neutral. The design and administration of rules takes place according to particular notions of value, and if value is defined solely in relation to the market then the rules will favour the market. The state supplies regulations that are meant to protect against violations of other freedoms, but end up endorsing precisely the kinds of violations enacted by employers. The inaccuracy of our ideas about the way in which labour markets and employment contracts operate has contributed to the increasingly authoritarian character of workplaces that are subsuming more and more of our lives.

But where to from here?

Charlotte Shane recently lamented that ‘mainstream feminism is not nearly as rigorous, comprehensive or useful as the moment demands.’ Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government laments the same in the field of political and economic theory, but also makes one of the mistakes Shane condemns.

The need for good analysis is pressing and Anderson at times delivers. At her most polemical, she recognises the weaknesses of the egalitarian market whose theories she attempts to restore. But it’s also clear that she is largely speaking to professors and graduate students rather than to those most affected by the injustice she documents.

What matters more, I would argue, is whether Anderson gives us the resources to intervene in an increasingly privatised public sphere. Under what is referred to as ‘neoliberalism’, society is simply a market, and people are merely ‘profit-and-loss calculators’, as Stephen Metcalf puts it. In Private Government, there are ways of rethinking labour and employment, and a notion of freedom that Anderson believes should be separate from the market. But more sustained, comprehensive critique is necessary.

For this, I would read Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution instead.


Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Scott Robinson is a PhD Candidate in philosophy at Monash University.

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