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Tyranny of the corporate workplace, with Elizabeth Anderson

Host Chris Hedges talks to Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan, about the tyranny of the corporate workplace from non-disclosure agreements to punitive, restrictive work conditions and censorship. Their discussion comes as California lawmakers pass landmark legislation challenging the business model of “gig-economy” companies, forcing companies to reclassify certain contract workers as employees. Anderson’s new book: ‘Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)’, published by Princeton Press.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss corporate tyranny in the workplace with Professor Elizabeth Anderson. 

EA: The history of liberalism has been largely silent about the power that employers have over workers.  And in fact, if you go back to the late 18th century, a lot of the visions they had for employers was literally totalitarian.  My favorite example of this is Jeremy Bentham who literally had a plan for poor workers.  He would outsource the function of welfare provision to private for-profit corporations who would be empowered to kidnap poor people and imprison them in these giant panopticons and put them to labor and exploit them, extract the maximum profit out of them.  It was a completely totalitarian vision, even though he's--today, he's recognized as one of the leading liberals of the late 18th and the 19th century.  And this is--that was his vision for poor workers.  

CH: Walmart, as Elizabeth Anderson writes in "Private Government, How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)" prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty, calling this time theft.  Apple inspects the personal belongings of their retail workers who lose up to half an hour of unpaid time every day as they wait in line to be searched.  Tyson prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom.  Some have been forced to urinate on themselves, Anderson notes, while their superiors mock them.  About half of US employees have been subject to suspicion-less drug screening by their employers.  Millions are pressured by their employers to support particular political causes or candidates.  Some 80% of the US workforce has their lives controlled by these corporate dictatorships, forms of private government that strip their employees of basic constitutional rights.  Joining me to discuss this rarely acknowledged aspect of American life is Elizabeth Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.  So let's break it down.  The book is great and I think very important and raises this unspoken reality of American economic life, but let's begin at its origin, which, of course, the libertarians sees upon this idea of laissez-faire capitalism in the free market.

EA: Yeah.  So what I do is explain the historical origins of free market ideology and how free market theories were originally designed to liberate workers rather than oppress them.  If you look in the mid-17th century, The Levellers, a very radical group during the English Revolution, were also big free marketeers.  And the reason why was that the market in those days was dominated by monopolies.  And monopolies, of course, crushed the opportunities for smaller enterprises to even get off the ground.  And that prevents people from getting access to opportunities for self-employment.  So The Levellers were good free traders in the sense of get rid of the monopolies, break them up, stop the state from chartering monopolies.  And that anti-monopoly theme then moved through Adam Smith, Tom Payne, and into the American scene.  The key idea of the original free market ideology is that if you open up markets and lands, you break up the big aristocratic estates.  You get rid of state chartered monopolies.  You get rid of all forms of unfree labor, eliminate slavery, even unpaid apprenticeships, I think that's really important.  Smith has a great argument against unpaid apprenticeships which is exactly the internship system that America's young people still have to suffer under.  Adam Smith already had arguments against it.  Just get rid of all those forms of unfree labor, surf them, debt peonage, and so forth.  And the theory was that workers would be liberated primarily through being able to open up shop for themselves.

CH: But it was--the goal was always--you write about Lincoln and Smith, was always for the end product was to be self-sufficient what Jefferson called these yeoman farmers and Jefferson actually said with--worried about the contraction of space with westward expansion and losing those yeoman farmers whether you could even sustain a democracy.  So--but it was the assumption that even if one worked in a form of apprenticeship or bond--in essence bondage, there was the possibility and certainly that was true in America to get land, to become self-sustaining and the dismissiveness, which you write in the book that Lincoln, for instance, where I didn't know until I read it, had towards people who remained locked into the wage system was that they didn't have enough ambition or, you know, self-motivation to become self-sufficient.

EA: Yeah.  That's the dark side of the vision.  You're exactly right.  So the idea is we're going to--in Lincoln's vision, he had the homestead acts and so he's going to give away land out west.  Okay.  Let's not pay attention to the fact that the land was seized…

CH: It's stolen, right.

EA: …through genocidal warfare but still they had this basic idea that workers needed access to capital in order to be free.  And that's, like, a really important idea.  But it was a very individualistic vision and it didn't account for the fact that not everybody could really take advantage of that vision.  And the people left behind then get demoted in status.  So the employment relation, as Lincoln recognized, is an oppressive relationship, but his solution couldn't possibly work for everybody.

CH: And then we have the industrial revolution.

EA: Yes.

CH: So you have laissez-faire capitalism, if I can call it that.

EA: Yeah.

CH: Is, in essence, tied to progressive movements like The Levellers.  And--but it's a preindustrial ideology.

EA: Yes, because it's based on the theory that the most efficient enterprise size is going to be very, very tiny.  And the theory-wise, well, if you are self-employed, you have the maximum incentive to work hard because you get to keep all of the fruits of your labor.  And everybody else, employees and sharecroppers and so forth, these unfree workers are only getting a part of the fruits of their labor, so they're not going to work that hard and the enterprise would be less productive.  It completely discounted the importance of economies of scale.  And that's where the industrial revolution defeated that egalitarian vision.  Economies have scaled, just trumped everything else.

CH: But then this ideology becomes a weapon in the hands of the industrialists.  Explain how.

EA: Yes.  So basically that original free market ideology gets carried over unchanged despite the fact that the industrial revolution had destroyed the economic assumptions behind its promise for liberating workers.  And so people keep on talking about how the workplace today, well, you consented to it.  You signed your employment contract, so you're just as free as before but that was never the original vision.  The original vision is you're only a truly free worker if you are self-employed.

CH: Let's talk about contract because that's an important issue that libertarians sees upon to argue that in fact we do live in a free society because one is free to enter into the contract and one is free to exit from the contract.  And you do a very good job of explaining why that is a very specious argument.

EA: Yeah.  What that leaves out is the fact that the state has already rigged the background system of governance of the corporation that the worker enters and has dealt all of the power cards ahead of time to the employer.  And consequently, you know, if all the power cards are on one side and you come in with nothing, how are you ever going to get access to those power cards?  The boss has no reason to deal any of them to you.  You get a wage.  You might get some benefits, but it's not the same as actually having a voice in the system that governs you for your work life.

CH: What's interesting is you talk about with the rise of the industrial revolution, the goals of progressive movements change from self-sufficiency to coping with the incredible abuse that took place at the dawn of the industrial age and is taking place now in sweatshops and places like China.  Explain that shift.

EA: Yes.  So workers in the 19th century, during the industrial revolution, after they gave up on the idea of self-employment, they came to realize the only way they could gain a share of power in the workplace was through some kind of collective labor movement.  And that's really where the rise of the labor movement comes from is that recognition, they need collective solutions to a collective problem which is that the constitution of workplace governance is a dictatorship.

CH: Well, you--in the book, you talk about how they're fighting for the eight-hour day and I guess they were working, what, twelve, who knows, fourteen hours a day.

EA: Oh, it's insane.  That was the number one objective.  It wasn't even raising wages.  It was just getting some time to yourself where you could be under your own governance.

CH: Because that was the only freedom you had.

EA: Yeah, exactly.

CH: At that point.

EA: Exactly.  But then later on, the labor movement does start demanding actual voice in the workplace so that they're not, you know, constantly under the subjection of tyrannical rules.

CH: You write that in essence what's created and it's been bequeathed to us by the industrial revolution, you call them communist--you're talking about corporations.

EA: Yeah.

CH: But you call them communist dictatorships.  Why?

EA: Yes.  So of course, that's a small C communist.  I'm not saying that they're ruled by the Communist Party.  They're…

CH: But it was state--I mean Adam Ulam's great book of Bolshevism said Lenin was just--it was just state capitalism.

EA: Yes.

CH: It wasn't counterrevolution against the Soviets and independent control, yeah.

EA: Yeah.  Yeah.  So it's--the firm is a little government.  You have an internal hierarchy and bosses give orders to workers.  Well, that's a kind of government.  It's communist because the government itself is the owner of the means of production.  The firm owns its own capital, so that's what makes it communist.  It's basically government-owned capital.  Okay?  And it's a dictatorship because the workers don't have any voice.  They live under a system of order and control and they have no voice in it.  The boss is the dictator.  So you got a communist dictatorship there.

CH: And it comes coupled, you note, with the spread of what you call total institutions, which is completely contemporary.  Explain what you mean by that.

EA: Yes.  So this is really important.  A fact about the history of liberalism is liberals long have complained about state power.  And they act as if that's the only power out there.  So of course we need constitutional rights and we need individual liberties relative to the state, but the history of liberalism has been largely silent about the power that employers have over workers.  And in fact, if you go back to the late 18th century, a lot of the visions they had for employers was literally totalitarian.  My favorite example of this is Jeremy Bentham who literally had a plan for poor workers.  He would outsource the function of welfare provision to private for-profit corporations who would be empowered to kidnap poor people and imprison them in these giant panopticons and put them to labor and exploit them, extract the maximum profit out of them.  It was a completely totalitarian vision, even though he's--today, he's recognized as one of the leading liberals of the late 18th and the 19th century.  And this is--that was his vision for poor workers.

CH: Well--and it also came with a vision of very draconian measures directed at what Marx would call surplus labor.  So that became the prison, the asylum, the hospital, the orphanage, the poorhouse, as well as the factory.

EA: Absolutely.  All of these total institutions designed to completely control the activities of the people housed within them who weren't free to leave.

CH: So both within the factories and the industries themselves and without, you're creating forms, in essence, of bondage.

EA: Yes, exactly.  Now I wouldn't say that that picture has been carried over to the present, although there are certain--certainly pockets of that, notably the prisons.  United States has the largest incarceration rate in the world.  It's quite shocking.  It's…

CH: But now we throw our mentally ill people out on eating grapes but we'll come back to that.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about worker control with Philosophy Professor Elizabeth Anderson.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about worker control with Professor Elizabeth Anderson.  So we were talking about corporations as communist dictatorships, private governments, and whatever mechanisms that the American working class once had to protect itself from the abuses of these corporations have, and I would argue, by design withered away.

EA: Yes.  That's exactly right.  So I think one of the things that really has to be highlighted about libertarianism is that it's mostly an engine of plutocracy often allied with white supremacy, for the purpose of disempowering anybody but the plutocrats.  And they have waged war against the labor movement and the power of workers to organize within the firm and have a voice, starting with Reagan at least, so the labor unions were actually in decline before then.  But Reagan really struck the death knell for the labor movement in the United States and it's really never recovered.

CH: Well, you--the theme that you pound through these lectures which you originally gave at Princeton was voice, voice, voice.

EA: Yes.  Exactly and what libertarianism stands for is opposition to democracy, whether in the workplace or at large at the state level.  They want to be calling all the shots both at the state level and within their own firms.

CH: And you say that without--if workers don't have a voice in their work environment and they don't have the power of unions through collective bargaining to pressure, then these abuses by corporate dictatorships only expand.

EA: Yes.

CH: And they have expanded?

EA: They have expanded, absolutely they have.  And--so that's one of the reasons why I want us to think seriously about alternative modes of corporate governance and put in particular the German model of co-determination on the table.

CH: That--we should just--to say that that's where workers I guess under the German law have a right to sit and make their voices heard within the governance of corporations.

EA: Correct, at the corporate board but even more importantly often on the factory floor, so that the details of the work process workers have a voice in that.  And that I think it's that level of democracy that we really have to be thinking seriously about.  Not that we can import the German model wholesale to the United States but some way of bringing worker voice into the situation I think is needed.  You can depend on state regulation to solve all these problems because the state can't be everywhere.  It can't be…

CH: Well, this--and regulation is being eviscerated.

EA: Well yeah, it all depends on the administration in question.  The Obama administration was actually pretty progressive in the Labor Department but now we see right, the Trump administration just wants to eviscerate all that.

CH: Let's talk about the three concepts of freedom, negative, positive, and Republican EA: Yeah.

CH: And how--you talked about how they balanced them out.  You can have a certain amount of negative freedom but explain that concept.

EA: Yeah.  So, negative freedom is the libertarians idea of freedom, its freedom is non-interference, the state isn't going to tell me what to do.  Positive freedom is the actual ability to do things in the world, make one's own choices.  Just because you have negative freedom the state not ordering you around doesn't mean you a positive freedom because there could be other people like the corporate bosses who are ordering you around.  And Republican freedom is non-domination, it means nobody is dominating you including your boss.  And that's the factor that I'm pushing a Republican conception because I think workers are entitled not to be dominated by their bosses who rule them not just in the workplace but even often off hours like with respect to their political decisions and what they post on Facebook, opinions that they might have off-duty, all those kinds of things get effectively censored because they face firing if they say something that angers the boss.

CH: And you say the way libertarian ideology works is that they redefine what Marx would call wage slaves as independent contractors.

EA: Yes.  So, the ideology here libertarians want to ward off any suggestion of workplace democracy by talking about freedom, right?  Well, we have freedom of contract.  Workers can always freely contract, they can quit if they want.  Now it is really important that workers have the freedom to quit, that, you know, you don't want to have bondage.

CH: Yes.  Although the point you make in the book is that often times and not just at the professional level you're not allowed, you're prohibited by your contract from working for an industry that deals in the same domain.

EA: Yeah.

CH: And I think you list even hairdressers, right?  Yeah.

EA: Oh, it's insane.  In states that permit non-compete contracts, you can quit but you have to leave your human capital behind, all of your skills and talents you're not allowed to use in the same industry so you have to like completely retool in order to get another job.  It's scandalous and oppressive and there's no need for it.  California has abolished non-competes and workers are a lot freer to move from place to place as a result.

CH: You write, "The butcher, the baker, the brewer remain independent from their customers after selling their goods.  In the employment contract by contrast, the workers cannot separate themselves from the labor they have sold in purchasing command over labor employers purchase command over people."

EA: Yeah.  That's the critical thing that I think libertarians miss when they draw an analogy between commodity markets where people are selling apples and so forth, and labor markets where the worker when selling labor comes under

the control of a boss.  When you sell your apples, you don't come under control of anybody else, the consumer just gets apples.

CH: And you say, I think, correctly that we live--this was a word I did have to look up.  We live in a kind of political hemiagnosia, is that…

EA: Yeah

CH: Hemiagnoasia, and I'll define it, patients who cannot perceive one half of their bodies.

EA: Yeah.

CH: But it's true.  I mean, it's true we have a rhetoric to describe a reality around us that ignores reality itself.

EA: Yes exactly.  And the rhetoric came from the pre-industrial revolution when that rhetoric actually promised something good for workers carried through after the Industrial Revolution.  It's masking the reality to which the vast majority of workers are subject which is they're living under a dictatorship and they're called free.  It's Orwellian.

CH: Yes.  When you use the word Orwellian, with the drastic decline of organized labor and especially with a triumph of ostensibly free markets since the end of the Cold War, public and academic discourse has largely lost sight of the problem that organized workers in the 19th Century saw it clearly the pervasiveness of private government at work.  Here most of us toiling under the authority of communist dictators and we do not see the reality for what it is.  And you argue that this encompasses the majority of the American workforce, who if they're not working for Goldman Sachs, are working for Walmart.  I think 80%--55% of that kind of marginal, 25% for sure.  But 80%?

EA: Yeah.

CH: You said private governments impose more minute exacting and sweeping regulations of employees than democratic states do in any domain outside of prisons and the military.

EA: I think that's really key.  It is true that the state has a million laws but they generally don't direct precisely what your actions in words have to be throughout every moment of a large stretch of time, but at work that's what it's like.  You know, your customer service representative, they're recording every word, they give you scripts that you have to say.  And, you know, to a certain degree the production process requires that kind of minute control but the power to impose that is also a power to really abuse workers and to do stuff that is--that isn't needed for productive efficiency, things like sexual harassment.

CH: In your response you take on some of your critics and you argue that the

ideology that is now being used to rationalize corporate domination is one that essentially has to shut out the reality of large numbers of--and that I suppose you would argue, the majority of working men and women in order to have any credibility.  They virtually have to erase huge sections of the reality for the working class in order to justify their ideology.  Explain how they do that.

EA: Well, the rhetoric of freedom of contract is absolutely critical to this.  They stress the point that workers voluntarily enter any particular employment relationship and generally speaking have the freedom to quit.  And they say that's all the freedom you need.  The production process is turned into a black box, but that's where all the abuse is happening.  And it's not a matter of free markets once you're inside the corporation.  That is a governance structure, it's a form of government.  Now libertarians say they hate government but then when it's private for-profit entities that exercise governmental power, they're totally okay with it but they just don't want to call it government.  That was really the purpose of my communist dictatorship thing is to kind of highlight that.

CH: Well, you give the example of Amazon.

EA: Yeah.

CH: And how it treats its employees and its attempts.

EA: Yup.

CH: Explain what they do, what it's like.

EA: Well, Amazon warehouse is notoriously for a long time wouldn't even install climate control air-conditioning.  They just set an ambulance outside the warehouse and when temperatures got high enough that people were fainting of heatstroke, they would take the doc--the workers to a hospital.

CH: Right.  This was in Allentown, Pennsylvania where it's a hundred and two degrees.

EA: Yeah.

CH: But even in the good Amazon, let's call it good i.e. it's not a hundred and two degrees

EA: Yeah.

CH: You're right, they're reprimanded for time theft when they pause to catch their breath, ever-increasing quotas, constantly yelled at for not making quotas, threatened daily with discharge, and eventually fired when the required pace becomes too high for them to meet.  And let's remember that many of these warehouses are staffed by people of retirement age.

EA: Yes.  And it's crippling work.

CH: Right.  Physically they're down on their hands and knees hundreds of times a day, which eventually--and then of course they're thrown out.

EA: And they're prevented from reporting their injuries as required by OSHA.

CH: They have to sign--they have to sign papers saying they won't report their injuries.

EA: Yes, which is totally illegal but people are desperate for jobs so they'll sign the papers.

CH: And this is a reality especially for low-wage workers.

EA: Yes.

CH: You compare that tiny strata, many of whom embraced this libertarian ideology, you know, highly successful athletes or tenured superstar professors.  But who--for whom this may be true, but it is not true for the vast majority.

EA: That's quite right, although I would say that workplace dictatorship and Amazon in particular penetrates very deep into the white-collar workforce.  They're also seriously abused and constrained by the system.

CH: So just in the last 30 seconds, what do you propose?

EA: What I propose is that workers get a voice in the governance of the workplace, and that requires the introduction of some forms of democracy.  The most feasible thing I think although we had to experiment as some kind of joint management between the owners of capital and the workers of the workplace process.

CH: All right, all power to the Soviets of that.  That was Elizabeth Anderson, professor of

philosophy and the author of "Private Government, How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk about It)."

EA: Thanks.

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