Work can go wrong in many ways. Ship breakers in Bangladesh routinely die as they try to dismantle abandoned vessels with acetylene torches. Meat cutters in Iowa suffer repetitive stress injuries during twelve-hour shifts on carcass-filled assembly lines. Truckers can endure a modern-day version of indentured servitude, forced to pay for the very vehicles they use to do their job. Retail bosses pressure sales staff to accept lower pay so their beleaguered brick-and-mortar stores can keep up with Amazon—which maintains its own competitive edge with a workplace culture reminiscent of Glengarry Glen Ross. The upper echelons of other tech workplaces are no Elysian Fields of job satisfaction, either: An avalanche of sexual harassment claims is overwhelming Silicon Valley, and burnout is endemic at struggling startups.
It might seem odd to discuss all these problems together—for example, Amazon developers appear to have little in common with day laborers. But good social theory aims to illuminate unexpected connections. Elizabeth Anderson’s bold Private Government is a firm foundation for twenty-first-century civic education in workplace democracy. Anderson exposes the inevitably political dimensions of work. And she leaves us in no doubt that for employees the workplace is tyrannical, ruled by the whims of exploitative and mercurial bosses.
In legal circles, the term private government is most commonly associated with Robert Lee Hale. “There is government,” he wrote, “whenever one person or group can tell others what they must do and when those others have to obey or suffer a penalty.” His 1952 book Freedom through Law called for “public control of private governing power.” Hale’s work was an inspiration for many regulatory initiatives aimed at taming the worst business practices. However, in the workplace, the US government’s initiatives have been fitful and partial, always vulnerable to sudden reversals by bureaucrats or courts hostile to labor.
The rule of law has, with variable success, tamed the worst abuses of democratic governments. And even where it has manifestly failed, the rule of law as an ideal has given us a language to contest arbitrary and excessive state authority. Anderson’s project is to pave the way for something like the rule of law in the workplace, beginning with a challenge to the dominant economic theories of the firm.