All Things Co-op: Workplace Dictatorships

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In this episode of All Things Co-op, Kevin chats with Professor and author Elizabeth Anderson about her book Private Government, which pushes back on the myth that a free market means workers are free. Most workplaces function like dictatorships, with their own private governments—employers—calling the shots. Kevin and Professor Anderson discuss these contradictions, the historical American ideal of self-employment, classical philosophers and economists such as John Stuart Mill, contract feudalism, co-determination, and more as they weave through an important conversation about the future of work and workplaces.

Transcript has been edited for clarity

This is Richard Wolff. Welcome to “All Things Co-op,” a podcast by Democracy at Work.

Cinar Akcin: All right everybody! Welcome to another episode of “All Things Co-op.” In this episode, we are going to talk to Elizabeth Anderson. Elizabeth is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration and of Value in Ethics and Economics and germane to our discussion today of Private Government. Professor Anderson's research covers the following areas: interconnected nature of social, political, and ethical philosophy, including democratic theory, equality, and political philosophy; American law; racial integration; the ethical limits of markets; and theories of value and rational choice. She has studied the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, feminist epistemology, and the philosophy of science. 

Professor Anderson, welcome to “All Things Co-op.”

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It is great to join you. 

Cinar Akcin: The title of the book that we want to talk about today is Private Government. For a lot of people that is a bit of an oxymoron because there is a big difference between the private and the public. The private is the area of free engagement, and the government is one in which it is, at least, constrained to a certain degree. In the book, you have two main questions. They come from basically two different lectures that you gave. There are two main questions. The first one is: why do we talk as if workers are free at their workplace and that the only threats to individual liberty come from the state? Second, what is a better way that we can talk about these constraints that employers put on workers’ lives, so that we can open up the discussion about how the workplace could be designed to be more responsive to workers’ interests? That is obviously very important to “All Things Co-op”. That is like we are banging the drum of at least talking about the fact that most businesses are private dictatorships and then trying to have the discussion about what values, ideas, and arguments can penetrate the thick veil of ignorance (to use a political, philosophical, jargony term) that workers seem to be under, regarding their position vis-a-vis their employers. 

On that first question: The extension of feudal property rights, the rights of titled ownership, and other theories of ownership (like Lockean notions of what it means to justly own something) have weirdly come in and justified authoritarian structures that pass from public authoritarian structures, in the feudal system or in monarchies, into these private individualized archipelagos of dictatorships. It is not common for most of the working class to speak of their jobs as dictatorships. What I do not understand is how you have, in one sense, a seemingly general idea that workplaces are not, at least, democratic and that they are potentially dictatorial. Yet, we have this other notion that workers are free, and you have at minimum this, ‘well you are free to do otherwise, you can always leave and go someplace better.’ How is it that this idea has come to be the normal way that people see themselves?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Well, we have to look historically to the American condition in the colonies and then right after Independence. The idea that was hauled out to Americans settling here (of course, we are only talking about white Americans who were free to come here) was self-employment, right! 

There is all this land. Of course, it was taken from Native Americans violently. Nevertheless, it was given away pretty much practically for free to settlers. That is what Abraham Lincoln ran on, the Homestead Act. You just go out west, you settle, make your own farm, and you get the title deeds after five years of farming. It is a massive giveaway of capital that enabled massive self-employment. In that context, if everyone can be self-employed, then there is a plausible argument that free markets really do make you free. If everyone has an option, a realistic option, of self-employment, then nobody can work more land than they are capable of farming themselves with their families. All plots are going to be relatively small and hence equal because one person, one family, cannot really farm a whole lot more than another, at least per capita. Everybody is going to be equal, and they are going to be free because they are going to have voluntary exchanges on the market place and we are all good. As Lincoln said in his speech for the 1860 presidential election: “God gave each of us two hands and one head…” Surely, he meant by that ‘that your head should be managing your hands!’ 

What happened to destroy that vision ultimately was the Industrial Revolution, which had massive economies of scale and put a very heavy thumb on the scale in favor of people who could wield enormous concentrations of capital. You get the rise of monopolies and trusts and so forth. A huge large-scale production, monopoly railroads crushing the yeoman farmers and so forth. That led to a condition where, instead of the free market promise of self-employment to everyone, the market ended up making practically everybody wage laborers under the direction of management. The vast majority of us has bosses who tell us what to do. 

On my definition, a government is private not just because it is in the private sector. A government is private when the government itself is owned by a private party who tells you: “I get to order you around and this government is my business; it is not your business how I order you around.” That is private government. It is like King Louis XIV was reputed to have said: “…the state is me” later. That is essentially what every boss says: “The firm is me;” “I am the firm;” and “I tell you guys what to do;” and “you cannot tell me anything to contradict that.” 

Cinar Akcin: It is so funny because the Lincolnian notion that Locke embodied in the notion that the right to ownership comes from the fact that you do the work. If you take an unimproved piece of land and you improve it, then it is yours. That is an often relied upon base position to justify ownership. Then you get this free market notion: If someone else did that work, they can then pass it on, or they can alienate it. The notion justifies all the different market interactions that could facilitate the monopolization of land in the hands of people who might have had, for nothing more than luck, more productive land than other people. They maybe doing the same amount of labor, but they are getting a higher amount of value, which they can use to purchase and accumulate. It is a standard Marxian critique that the logic of capitalism is to accumulate capital. A market exists in any sort of mode of production, as Marx would say. The difference between a market in a feudal system and a market in a capitalist system is that the market in a capitalist system is the fuel for accumulation. The accumulation ultimately leads to monopolization, which ironically destroys free market interaction. Accumulation creates significant inequities between those who have accumulated and those who cannot. It takes a relatively equal opportunity that is engaged by homesteading land, and forces people who do not have access to that land anymore (because as it was alienated by someone else) to find subsistence wherever they can. This seems to me a relatively run-of-the-mill Marxist critique. It is very lauding of the Industrial Revolution as it creates, for the first time, the ability to have an abundance. The problem is that it is coupled with this internal logic of accumulation and private domination, which results in alienation and automation of individuals so that they lose the sense of themselves and how they are embodied. You can get deeply philosophical. One of the critiques is that you are more focused on the industrialization process and the Industrial Revolution as being pinned the blame than maybe you should be. I am jumping around in terms of the questions I sent you.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Let us step back. Industrialization happened within a certain context of property rights. In my view, markets and property rights alike are just engineered by the state. I do not think that markets have an essence such that they necessarily lead like a runaway train to enormous accumulations of wealth or concentrations of wealth. That is entirely a matter of how we write the laws. Classical economists like Adam Smith and John Stewart Mill  advocated a radical rewriting of inheritance law so that the great lords could not pass their estates on in dynasties, in perpetuity to their firstborn sons.

Cinar Akcin: Like the 80 billion dollars that the Queen just passed on. No inheritance tax on that.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: The point is that you can rewrite the laws. In fact, John Stewart Mill even though he is labeled the classical liberal and was broadly friendly to free markets also argued in favor of breaking up the lord's estates, the landlords’ estates in Ireland and just distributing all that land in small parcels to the Irish peasants. 

Cinar Akcin: How does this relate to the notion that free markets or unconstrained markets should allow a person, who has access or title to something, to pass it on?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That is a property rule and you could rewrite that. It is just rules on paper. There is nothing inherent in property that says you have to be able to pass it on. 

Cinar Akcin: There is a genuine uncoupling of property and markets in the way that you see it. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Even classical liberals like Adam Smith and John Stewart Mill were quite radical in their proposals for how to rewrite the laws of property.

Cinar Akcin: One of the most frustrating things from my experience of going to law school was (after about the first week of property class) realizing that this is just like feudalism shoved into a new kind of system. Even the names we give it.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: One of the things that I call contemporary labor regimes under capitalism is ‘contract feudalism.’ You still need a labor contract to enter this relationship but then once you are inside it you are just under a feudal lord. The lord had unaccountable power over his tenants. Bosses today, have virtually unaccountable power over their employees. Importantly, a lot of it comes down to courts. As a lawyer, you know this that under the feudal regime the landlord would run his own courts. Of course, if he had any complaints against him, he would be the judge and the jury. You know how those disputes went. Certainly today, it is commonplace for workers to be barred from access to the federal courts to enforce their rights under labor law. Instead, they have to sign these mandatory arbitration contracts where they are sent off to a private court, which conveniently was chosen and hired by the boss. You can pretty much guess how they render their decisions because they want to win a renewal of their contract. As a result, the decisions that the mandatory arbitrators make are overwhelmingly in favor of the employer. The decisions are vastly worse both in terms of whether they favor the employer or the employee, and in terms of the amount of damages awarded if they favor the employee, than what workers get if they are able to go to a federal or state court to vindicate their rights as workers. 

Cinar Akcin: They are not subject to the same rules of procedure and other kind of due process guarantees. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It is totally arbitrary. 

Cinar Akcin: You have Thomas Jefferson just rolling over in his grave in the sense that these are the kinds of things that, we are told, were the reasons that we wanted to break away from the feudal monarchy of Britain. Yet here we are back to the same private, arbitrary, capricious, and unequal court system. What I am curious about though is that there is this philosophical or ideological magic that is done in today's age when talking about modern economics. There is an equation, kind of synonyms of the free market and capitalism. There is this synthesis, as if they are interchangeable and totally connected with one another. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That is a complete mistake. My position is broadly friendly to competitive markets, which is different from unregulated markets. They are competitive in the sense that you have freedom of entry into the market. It is an anti-monopoly stance. Capitalism has something on top of that, which is private government, i.e., a monopoly on the governance of enterprise by capital interests and their representatives, namely the managers. 

Cinar Akcin: This is all done through contractual arrangements. It is like a tyranny of contract. Especially, you get decisions in the law like Lochner versus New York that said the government could not even regulate the amount of time a baker was spending doing dangerous work. It was like this notion that there is absolute freedom of contract. You can contract your rights away. This seems like a tyranny of contractual relationships. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It is much worse than that. For one thing, do you know there are actual cases in American law where the employer, in the employment contract, gave some rights to workers. When the workers then tried to have their rights enforced in the contract, the court said: “Oh we are not even going to let managers give away their managerial prerogatives in the contract.” Courts, in fact, are enforcing a kind of contract feudalism even in contravention to a free agreement that was struck. Furthermore, on top of that, we also have to consider there are other aspects of law that lock in the domination of workers by bosses. In corporate law, governance is monopolized by the shareholders. Workers do not have seats on the board. You could write things differently, as they do in Germany and Scandinavia. 

Cinar Akcin: That is only because they have sector-wide labor unions, which is another thing that is outlawed in the United States in terms of the Wagner Act. Ironically, antitrust laws were written to constrain the potential force of monopolization, i.e., “we have to be fair because the government is a neutral arbitrator of disputes among people so we have to say, well there can't be sector-wide labor unions either. Otherwise, that is a kind of monopoly.” It is a very unique American perspective because you look at France, Canada, and every other industrialized country, and they do not have an Auto Workers Union. They have a Machinist Union that can represent any machinist who wants to join that Union. So, it significantly decreases the power of unions generally, and in any given Union, because they cannot connect to a larger industry-wide sector that could do a strike. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: On top of that it also radically increases the cost of organizing workers if you have to do it shop floor by shop floor. You have Starbucks where they have to organize shop by shop. Then Starbucks says: “Okay, we are just going to shut it down.” It would make perfect sense for the workers across all the Starbucks to organize together just like for GM or Ford or something. 

Cinar Akcin: This will lead into the second part of your book in terms of how we can communicate and raise awareness and to hopefully, do something about it. There is a long tradition of notions of freedom, autonomy, the ability to participate genuinely in your system. It is the notion that we are putting our flag at half staff when the monarch of England dies, which is crazy. Supposedly, we are an anti-monarchical Republican, entrepreneurial type of society in the United States. Yet, we have a history of slavery. In Alex Gourevich’s From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth, he talks about the tradition of Labor Republicans. It is like small “r” Republicans. There is this notion that once you end slavery, the discussion about labor relations no longer has this Republican character. Now you have to subject yourself to private tyrannies. This seems to be the difference between a perspective of Republicanism that comes from non-dominance (not being dominated by someone else) and the other of non-interference, meaning: “Oh, the reason that we have to uphold all of these contractual rights is because we can not interfere with the private engagement of people, but that may produce a dominance or a dominating relationship.” This goes against the notion that wage labor is free. It is free in the sense that it may not be interfered with by government fiat, though in many ways it is. It simply allows workers the freedom to choose a dictator. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That is exactly right. Freedom to exit: Quit one dictator and get subjected to another. Although we have lost the discourse of Labor Republicanism, the desire not to be tyrannized by a boss is still very profound and extremely widespread among Americans today. That desire has been channeled into the ideal of self-employment, which was always the American ideal in contrast with countries with a socialist tradition where people thought: “Well, the workers together could, say, run the factory.” In America, it has always been a much more individualistic story. Even if you poll very conservative workers, working class people, and you ask them what they want most from their work, it is self-employment. They want to get rid of their boss. Their boss is oppressing them. Maybe they are going to set up a shop of their own or they are going to be a gig worker at Uber. Maybe they will go into multi-level marketing, which is a perfect illustration of Marx's aphorism that history always comes twice. The first is tragedy, the second time is farce. The original tragedy, of course, of the ideal of universal self-employment is the settlement out west, which was a catastrophe for Native Americans because all the land was stolen from them. The farce is the idea that entering a multi-level marketing scheme is a reliable pathway to independence. In fact, it is just another way to exploit people. Only a tiny number of people at the top of the pyramid make a fortune and everybody else loses their shirts.

Cinar Akcin: The second part of your book is about how we talk about this in a way to recapture Labor Republicanism. I admit to my own desire for self-employment, which is what I ultimately did because I was so frustrated by the lack of awareness and lack of desire to organize. I attempted to organize at almost every place I have worked at. I encountered resistance and mostly fear, which is a mainstay in terms of why this is maintained, and one of the reasons why this is not as popular. I am curious to hear some of your perspective and suggestions in terms of how we can get workers to realize the reality of their unfreedom in the majority of what they do, and to hopefully get them to do something about it. The example I would give is an anecdote from my own life. There is a rising Conventions of States to try to amend the U.S Constitution via the second way you can do it in article five: To convene a majority of the states into a convention to call for an entire Constitutional Convention to technically rewrite the Constitution and amend it to do whatever. Now they are currently restricted to three. Some of them I do not really support. One is decentralizing, which I do not totally see as a bad deal. Many of them want to do it to get rid of abortion and stuff, which I do not agree with. I was talking with people at a booth at the local fair. These are traditionally conservative people (probably voting Republican, probably many of them voting for Trump) who are very hardcore about the Second Amendment and some of these things I think are anachronisms. We got talking and I did not forego the fact that I am a somewhat died-in-the wool anarcho-Marxist or something. I just spoke in the language of freedom from tyrannical control, and from being ruled from afar. I also suggested that it might be a worthwhile constitutional amendment to outlaw private or individual ownership of companies or the ownership of companies by someone who did not work there. There was an immediate: “What do you want? You don't want people to own their businesses?” I said: “No, just as long as you do not work in a business, I don't think you should be able to own it and get the profits from that.” To a person, these very conservative people were just like: “Well, yeah, that sounds good to me! I am all right with that.” Then we talked about getting rid of the Navy and a few other things. At the end of it, they shook my hand. I just said: “You know, the irony of this kind of conversation is that I am not sure what you guys would call yourselves in terms of your political perspective, but I consider myself a radical revolutionary Marxist socialist.” Then it was just like poof right because those words tend to not be super helpful. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That is correct. Do not say that you are a socialist, much less a Marxist or communist. 

Cinar Akcin: The irony of that is that American socialism has such a wonderful and incredible history with people like Eugene Debs, and organizing black workers in the 1930s, and getting the eight-hour day, and some of these really important things that are now attributed to just unions. They really should owe themselves to socialists and anarchists, the Civil Rights movement, all these kind of things. These are all very much involved in by people who would consider themselves very died-in-the wool American socialists. I am disappointed by the fact that this is the case. I do recognize that it does seem to be the propaganda machine regarding the particular words of socialism.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Can I reorient the discussion? There are other routes to a real authentic American socialism, which is not just coming from Europe and the Marxist tradition. You have the Second Great Awakening in the United States in the early 19th century. It is a Christian Evangelical movement, very authentically American. They were interested in all kinds of moral reforms. Of course, the Abolition Movement is very famous. Also, the feminist movement came from the Second Great Awakening. Temperance, but also all kinds of little utopian socialist experiments, hundreds of them all over the country. It is coming from these Christian Evangelical roots. People forget how progressive Christian Evangelicals used to be. These things were happening before Marx was writing. Yet the idea that workers can collectively own an enterprise and manage it by themselves without needing bosses has deep roots in America that do not owe anything to Marx or only marginally to European thinking.

Cinar Akcin: The Knights of Labor set up cooperatives all over the place, many of them run exclusively by women, people of color. It is a very progressive history that is non-Marxist. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: There are a lot of different routes. So, if people are turned off with Marx, you could still point to authentic American traditions to motivate.

Cinar Akcin: Is it your advice that we lessen, or even drop altogether, an adherence to Marx, and the language, critique, and philosophy of Marx?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: I do think that Marx pushes American buttons in an unproductive way because people think: “Oh! You know it is like Stalin and Mao, and all those  oppressive regimes.” 

Cinar Akcin: The Republican party (especially in its split on the Trumpian wing and the more moderate) in terms of its legislative hierarchy and its people who get elected is very much a Big Business party. So are the Democrats. Republicans do have a tradition, at least from their founding, very progressive and more confrontational to Big Business.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Totally at the founding. Your listeners should know that when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election, Karl Marx wrote him a letter of congratulations. He called him the leader of the Free Labor Movement in the world because he was anti-slavery. 

Cinar Akcin: The Republicans are afraid of the overreach of the federal government, and of government in general. This seems highly applicable in the private sphere. From your perspective, what gives? Why does this argument seem so hard to get traction in terms of it relating to, at minimum, a greater interest in cooperative development, and in allowing mechanisms of a right of first refusal: When a business owner wants to just sell to some hedge fund, the workers could say: “No before you do that, let us organize, buy the business, and run it ourselves.”  

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Whenever a firm closes down a shop, in order to shut down a recently unionized workforce, the workers who just unionized should have right of first refusal on the shop too. 

Cinar Akcin: Why isn't this on the tip of our tongues today?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Capitalism is ruled by capital owners. I want to distinguish that from markets. Capitalists like to say: “Oh! We are just free markets, free contracts.” But it is not true. Capitalism is rule by capitalists; rule of firms by capitalists; and ultimately, with rules set down that permit unlimited accumulation of wealth and concentration of wealth, so that ultimately, they end up ruling the government as well. You just get plutocracy. The Republican party today, although it was originally founded as a free labor party, is now a kind of coalition of plutocrats. Those are the so-called establishment Republicans and social conservatives who perhaps, are more interested in things like patriarchy or rule by husbands over their wives and children, rather than rule of workers over their firms. 

Cinar Akcin: It makes it hard to see the insurgent wing of the Republicans finding voice in the ultimate plutocrat of Donald Trump. Seems weird because many of them speak in the language of anti-authority, frustration with corruption at the federal level, and stuff like that. It would seem ripe for a discussion about the pervasiveness of tyrannical organizations that are not subjected to any kind of review or a check and balance that they might see in the government.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: You are totally right. Conservative working-class men are not keen on their bosses. Let us put it that way. It is the eternal seductive allure of self-employment, rather than collective self-management of workers themselves. The problem is that we still have this myth that anybody could be self-employed and thereby become their own bosses. That, I think, has drawn American workers away from workers’ collectives as an alternative model.

Cinar Akcin: I am reminded of India. My wife is from India. I have been to India several times. This Gandhian economic model is neo-Jeffersonian: “Hey! Let us just have an economy full of small businesses.” You see it when you go down the street. These little shops where they are fixing a motorcycle. They are providing fruit, but they do not have any veggies. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: This is common. In general, the less technologically advanced and the less rich a country is, the greater the percentage of workers who are self-employed. The difficulty is that they are running these little micro enterprises which make zero profit. There is almost no return on this. So, everybody is really poor. The great challenge of economic organization ever since the Industrial Revolution has been: How do you take advantage of economies of scale without a loss of personal autonomy that comes from going to work in a large-scale enterprise with a zillion fellow workers in some kind of corporate hierarchy. That has always been the puzzle: How can you combine mass prosperity with genuine freedom and autonomy for workers? 

Cinar Akcin: Maybe this is outside the scope of your book. It does seem there is this fully automated space communism. There is this potential of having some of that through automation, of being able to decouple working in these large things from prosperity. If you have machines doing the work that formerly automaton human beings did, you might get that general level of wealth and productivity of industry (thrown through the roof by automated technology) allowing people to engage in much more free and autonomous ways.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Here is why I am skeptical about this. It only applies to manufacturing. These days, all the rich economies have switched over to a primarily service-oriented economy. It is really hard to see. If you look at healthcare, it is true that individual doctors could, in principle, run their own clinics. What do you do with a hospital? There is a fine-grained division of labor there that is hard to overcome. A doctor cannot perform all the skills needed. You need coordination. There are lots of personnel that are required to keep a hospital running. It is a service-oriented thing. In fact, we do know that it is really the large-scale hospitals that actually have a much better record because you do enough heart surgeries and you get really good at it. In a small-scale rural hospital, there is just not enough heart surgeries to get really good at it. So, you have higher mortality rates.

Cinar Akcin: Are we Sisyphus? Are we forever pushing a rock up a hill that is only going to fall down? The logic of the necessity of economies of scale demands a kind of coordinated, combined, and large-scale workforce. However, that runs counter to a deeply ingrained desire and desirability of self-ownership. Those currents just run past each other in a way that we are giving up the goods to those who just say: “Well, my goal is just to be the private dictator.”

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Economies of scale seriously undermine the ideal of universal self-employment, which was the ideal of free white workers at the founding of the United States. That is just dead. Even people who think they are self-employed, the truth is that they tend to be governed by their platforms, if they are Uber or Doordash workers. That is its own tyranny, even though, from a legal point of view, they might be considered self-employed. There are millions of workers like that. They are under tyranny too, even if they are not, formally speaking, wage laborers. Even farmers. If you are a chicken farmer, you are completely under the thumb of some Big Ag company that supplies all of your supplies: the chicks, the feed, and all that. You have put out all the money to put up chicken sheds and the enormous capital investment, all at your own risk, borrowed all this money, but they supply you with the chicks and the feed and everything at fixed prices. You take all the risks raising them and at the end they pay you according to the weight of the chickens and so forth. If you do not come up to their standard (it is all based on competition with other chicken raisers) the next round they give you weaker chickens who are more likely to fall sick. Then you are just in a spiral downhill. You lose your investment. The contracts are written entirely in the interest of the Big Ag companies. So, even though (technically speaking) you are self-employed, in reality, you are totally under the thumb of the Big Ag bosses. 

Cinar Akcin: That goes back to that capitalism and free market distinction. To genuinely be supporting free markets (that function on the kind of principles that they are supposedly functioning on) you need to minimize the ability for large unequal distributions of power within that market so that the market can actually function in the way it is, in that classical economic sense, supposed to do. So, to be free market is to be anti-capitalist.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It is certainly to be anti-monopoly. Also, insofar as one wants to oppose just rule by shareholders or capital owners, workers need power. 

Cinar Akcin: In the book, as a good philosopher does, you elicit responses. We talked a bit about the critique that you are putting too much emphasis on industrialization. Though, I think that that is legitimate. I do want to talk about Tyler Cowen. Would you say the work is not so bad afterall? The title I think was, at least, super honest.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Remember, he is a super rich tenured academic who has a textbook that makes insane royalties. He has got the good life. I have to confess, if you are a tenured professor at a top research university (I am too), it is a great life if you can get it. I am probably (with Tyler and other tenured academics) among the most privileged, unalienated workers in the world. We have spectacular autonomy: in our choice of research direction; in our choices of what to teach; how to teach it; and how we allocate our time. It is fantastic amounts of flex time and sabbaticals. 

Cinar Akcin: Sabbaticals. Wow!

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Remember, you work really hard on sabbaticals. Do not let anybody think it is a vacation. You are busy right. 

Cinar Akcin: At least, you are not tied to other things that you have to do. You have this ability to solely focus on your project.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: You have a total blast doing it because it is really fun to do. 

Cinar Akcin: The arguments that he makes, remind me of the same apologetics if you would see a noble arguing the necessity of their king. For example: “Democracy is rule by the mob;” “it is just too dangerous;” and “you got to have people who know what they are doing.” We have seen the rise of the professional, managerial class, who can have a view that is not of combined self-interest. It is a kind of enlightened self-interest with the following arguments about market incentives: “Companies have to create pleasant work environments to attract and retain good employees”; and “If this place pays 10 per cent more but it is 10 per cent less free, most people are going to choose 10 per cent more money.” These are not unfamiliar arguments to me. Obviously, there is several of those kind of things. How do you react to this perspective generally or even specifically?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Generally speaking, the higher you go up in the hierarchy of work, the better off you are, both in terms of money and in terms of respect and power getting power, and everything else. But that is only applicable for people at the top. Ordinary workers are really treated very badly. You might have heard the story about Jeff Bezos when he was still in control of Amazon. There were all kinds of reports coming out about how abused the warehouse workers were. Amazon warehouse workers suffered twice the injury rate of the average warehouse worker in America. Why? They are put through such an insane pace. Whenever you are forced to work at an incredible pace, you are more liable to be injured because you are carrying heavy packages and stuff, and running around, more likely to trip and so forth. 

Cinar Akcin: Having to watch out for all those pee bottles.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: There are also robots who are trying to fetch stuff and those robots will just roll over you. People have been killed that way. 

Cinar Akcin: They are not really solitary workers with you there. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: One of his vice presidents or some top executive wrote a report. He was very concerned about how poorly the warehouse workers are being treated. They did not even have the enough time to go to the bathroom because you have a 15-minute break but it takes 15 minutes to walk from where you are to the bathroom. So, what are you going to do? They end up peeing in bottles if they are men. Women do not have that option. Basically, he wrote a report to Jeff Bezos, saying: “I think it is time to have a respect agenda for workers. We have to treat our warehouse workers and all our workers with respect.” You know what Bezos's response to that was? He blew up in anger. He said Amazon Prime is not built on respect right! It was built on a high turnover model where you work workers to the bone with ever increasing quotas until their health breaks. Then you toss them out and you hire new people.” That is not a respectful business model. 

If you look at managers generally, this idea that managers take a long view of the corporation; well not if you are a private equity. The private equity model is: Run the firm into the ground; extract all the wealth; fire all the workers; and toss them on the streets. Private equity is deeply uninterested in the long-term survival of the firm. They just want to maximize profits within a five-year window basically.

Cinar Akcin: Anyone who has got to produce a quarterly report to shareholders does not necessarily have that long-term interest in mind because their next judgment is not the five-year forecast. It is the next quarterly report. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That is one of the reasons why you have a lot of firms that have just shut down their research and development arms because R&D is always for the long term. They just see that as a cost sink. They do not see that as perpetuating the future of the firm.

Cinar Akcin: The irony is that this is some of the ideological or philosophical grounding for why the system is better than other systems, is as follows: It has an internal mechanism for constant innovation and risk-taking, and all that kind of stuff that is disproven by the facts on the ground. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Innovation is less and less happening at the major corporations. A lot of innovation, by the way, is done by the government or through government-funded grants to research universities like my own or it is done by start-ups. There is a lot of innovation in start-ups. 

Cinar Akcin: Having been involved in a few, the goal of a start-up is almost never autonomy or independence. They, may be, start that way. As soon as you get to a certain size, somebody offers you that first big potential payout, it is like “Oh!” 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: The goal was to be bought out by one of these super mega corporations.

Cinar Akcin: That is the model: “Let us make something that some of the big persons want, so that we can do all the research and development; they can buy it; we get a big payout; we just become venture capitalists; do the same thing; and isn't life grand!; I can move away from having to do any work, and just work off of the labor of other people.” Beyond self-employment, just extractive earnings. Fantastic! The last thing I want to talk to you about is the proposals and the principles that you say would be an easier pill to swallow for workers in terms of not saying: “Hey, let us raise our red flags and go set up some barricades.” Instead, dare I say, traditional notions that apply in our public realm that should apply in this more private realm: Exit rule of law; constraints on employers; constitutional rights; and voice. What is the vision that you propose or that you see. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Exit is just strengthening the ability of workers to quit. Right now, a huge percentage of workers fall under non-compete clauses, which means that if you quit, you cannot use the skills you have developed in a company in a competing firm. It is just a way for the employer to kidnap your human capital and prevent you from using it anywhere else. It is a scandal and an outrage. California has banned it. We should ban it nationwide because it just traps workers in tyrannical and exploitative firms. The second issue has to do with the regulatory regime. It is an important role to just have laws guaranteeing worker safety and stuff like these pretty traditional kinds of regulations (minimum wages, maximum hours). We should enforce those. I also think that we should extend the scope of those rules to cover some of the purportedly independent contractors who are in fact operating under the thumb of the corporations to whom they are contracting out their labor. What I want to focus on are some challenges to getting appropriate regulation. The regulatory process is insanely slow. It is sluggish. There is a lot of regulatory capture of agencies like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). That is why I think that workers need a voice in the government of the firm. They cannot just cede a monopoly on governing power, on the power to issue orders to the boss, and the representatives of shareholders. That is what private government is. It is unaccountable government by capital owners. That is the key source of worker oppression in the United States today. There is a couple models to think about. One, which has been implemented most famously in Germany and Scandinavian countries. It is known as co-determination. Under that model, you have joint management of firms by capital owners or their representatives and by workers. That takes place, firstly, on the board of directors of the firm where they set large-scale strategic policies, and secondly, on the shop floor where the day-to-day work processes are managed. You need workers at all levels of government on the firm. Currently existing models of co-determination leave only a minority of governing power to the workers. However, workers frequently own shares to their own company through their pension plans. Nothing should stop them from also getting seats on the board via their stock ownership, ultimately to get a majority of seats. It is not like you shut out capital interests altogether, but they do not have to be a majority. That is one model. It is a model that has been advanced, most commonly, in France. French theorists, Thomas Picketty, Helene Landemer, and Isabel Ferraris have been pushing this model. It has got a lot of promise because you could implement it just by changing the law. The advantage, of course, in Europe is that co-determination in Europe always works in conjunction with very robust labor unions with the power to represent and bargain on behalf of all sectors of workers and not just those who are formerly members of the union. Unionization in the United States does not really permit co-determination because as soon as you have anything that is understood as a managerial role, you are not allowed to belong to a union. We would have to radically revise labor law, and do a lot to strengthen labor unions, to strengthen the organizational power of workers, and to make co-determination a viable model. It is only a matter of changing the laws and enabling mass organization of workers to make this viable. I am not saying that it is not a lot of work. It would be a lot of work, but it could be done. The other model, which is more aspirational, but gives workers even more autonomy, would be workers’ cooperatives. Workers own and manage the firm all by themselves and capital investment comes via the credit market rather than the stock market.

Cinar Akcin: That is all music to my ears. I hear a proposal that you would expect out of a social democratic party, like the SPD in Germany or in Sweden, and the Labor Party, although it has been co-opted and captured.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: No, the Labor Party is well to the right of the Social Democratic parties.

Cinar Akcin: In the American context, the Democratic Party is to the right of the Labor Party. This would demand (seeing this through the constitutional, legislative, and parliamentary route), a fundamental shift in American politics, in the sense of an entrant, and the growth and electoral success of a Social Democratic third party. Is it fair to say in your view?

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It does not necessarily have to be a third party. Since our electoral system is based on ‘first past the post’ for virtually all seats, it is very difficult to run a third party. The single biggest mistake that the Democratic Party did was that it looked the other way as labor unions were dismantled in the United States. At their peak, maybe labor unions represented 35 per cent of workers, which is quite a lot of power. They had a power back in their day, but now they represent six per cent of private sector workers. It is like a little bit more than that, maybe ten per cent of all workers. The public sector workers are disempowered by state law from striking and doing all kinds of other stuff. They also are very weak. 

Cinar Akcin: They are counting police unions which have a very different role.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Correct. It is exactly right. They are powerful but in very reactionary ways. You do need to change labor law. One thing that is hopeful for the labor movement is the rise of alt labor because the traditional large-scale labor unions have really given up on organizing. Some of the younger labor unions like SEIU, but also self-organized workers like at Starbucks are just starting to unionize because they are sick of it. 

Cinar Akcin: There is movement at Apple. Tech workers, which are, it is always the higher echelon of traditional working class.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: If you look at the polling data, people have not been this favorable to labor unions for decades. We have to pour resources, money and stuff into enabling workers to self-organize, and then to open up options for them to actually take control over companies. For instance, a standard anti-union tactic is as follows: The workers will organize a Starbucks shop and then Starbucks immediately shuts it down, sending a signal to all other Starbucks workers that “If you try doing this you are going to be out of a job,” which is illegal. Since labor laws are never enforced or almost never enforced, at least on the workers side, we have to have serious enforcement of labor law. Suppose when Starbucks shut down the coffee shop, the workers had a right to just take it over and run it by themselves. That should be the default rule that you lose your capital if you shut it down fortuitously.

Cinar Akcin: You could do that at the state level. That could be a state law. It does not have to wait for federal legislation so that you could co-op the model of more nefarious states’ rights folks who want to use the state's rights to limit access to reproductive rights. Instead say: “No we are going to use states to be bastions of what they are supposed to be, these hotbeds of democratic experimentation.” 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: I am not entirely sure how much scope states have for this. That is a legal question because it could be federal pre-emption. 

Cinar Akcin: Well, gotta love the federal government. As a lawyer it is just the bane. I cannot practice law in any state simply because there is a state divide. 

The last question I would have for you is about your proposal. It seems like there would be some good results that would come out of that. The died-in-the wool anarcho-Marxist person in the back is yelling at me, saying: “Well this does not fundamentally address the real underlying problem, which is the ability for private people to own and then extract surplus labor and stuff like that.” That is a deep question. Social democracy is the step in the right direction, but it does not address the fundamental problem. What would be your response to the critique that it is a good start, but it is not going to ultimately solve the problem. Every time, anytime there have been social democratic moves, like in Britain after World War II, or even now in Sweden, there have been significant pullbacks from the height of the social democratic regimes. So, if you do not take that next step and fundamentally change the economic arrangement or the mode of production, these are things that may be high water marks that can recede as capital is allowed to maintain its domination generally. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: The struggle for freedom and equality is eternal because you are always going to have people who just want to dominate right. 

Cinar Akcin: That is a very fundamental theory of human nature, I suppose. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Everybody should be reading Thomas Picketty now. He showed that with effective social mobilization and utilization of opportunities for protests, demonstrations, petitions, and mobilization of an electorate, you can change things very rapidly. It all depends on social movements and ideological persuasion. It is possible to flip people. It has been done before. It can be done again. I think that is the direction. Speaking for myself personally, I am not a revolutionary Marxist. I am pretty favorable to the social democratic model. I agree with you that it has seen better days but I also think that it is right for further development, but you got to mobilize people. Right now, workers are pissed off. They are ready to be mobilized. They want to hear a clear and coherent message of how they can gain freedom in the workplace. I think co-determination is an excellent first step. I am not saying we should stop there, but it is a great way to gain experience and to really see what a difference it can make. I will just end with an anecdote. A friend of mine is an engineer. He was working in the United States and had the opportunity to work in Germany. I asked him when he came back from Germany: “How was it? Did co-determination make a difference in your work life?” He said: “For the first time, I understood what it was to be respected as a worker.” 

Cinar Akcin: Well, that is a good ending anecdote. At Democracy at Work, and specifically on this podcast, that is exactly what we are trying to: Speaking to a new generation or a kind of great awakening that I hope reinvigorates critical perspectives, and allows for potentially a turn of the traditional two parties. It has happened where there were two dominant parties and one of them faded from the scene and a new one rose, the Republican party and things like that. There is a tradition, as Americans in America, that we can rely on, in order to speak to our fellow Americans and the idiosyncrasies that we show, but also to learn lessons from people all over the world in terms of what they have done and the lessons that they have to teach us. That is what we are trying to do here at Democracy at Work and on “All Things Co-op.” 

Professor Anderson, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. I am extremely happy that by happenstance, I came across the book. I enjoyed it. It tickled my political philosophy. It hit all my buttons. It is really good and very accessible. Those watching, go pick up Private Government. It is a good read. It is important. It is part of the dialogue that we need to have. It has been a pleasure to talk to you. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: It is a pleasure to talk to you too.

Cinar Akcin: Also, for Democracy at Work, for 10 years, we have been doing this kind of work. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: That’s awesome!

Cinar Akcin: Check out the DemocracyatWork.Info. That is where you can find all the stuff: New Co-op section of the web page coming out in the not-too-distant future with a bunch of information about what co-ops are and how to help. As you know, Professor Anderson said co-ops are a great way for workers to retake their freedom away from their dictatorial bosses and that is what we are here for. 

Professor Elizabeth Anderson: Good talking to you. Bye. 

Cinar Akcin: Good talking to you too. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of “All Things Co-op.” To learn more about “All Things Co-op,” check out our webpage at DemocracyatWork.Info/atc. If you enjoyed this podcast and want to help support it, please go to Patreon.com All Things Co-op to contribute any amount that works for you.

Transcript by Asma Siddiqi

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracyatwork.info. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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All Things Co-op is a Democracy At Work production. We make it a point to provide the show free of ads. Please consider supporting our work. Learn about all the ways to support our work on our Donate page. Every donation counts! A special thank you to our devoted monthly donors (via both our website and Patreon) whose recurring contributions enable us to plan for the future.

About our guest: Elizabeth Anderson is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Imperative of Integration (Princeton), Value in Ethics and Economics, and Private Government. Professor Anderson's research covers the interconnected nature of social, political and ethical philosophy including: democratic theory, equality in political philosophy and American law, racial integration, the ethical limits of markets, theories of value and rational choice. She has studied the philosophies of John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, feminist epistemology and philosophy of science.

Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson: https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691176512/private-government


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Showing 1 comment

  • Balraj Cheema
    commented 2022-11-09 12:17:04 -0500
    Highjacked and corrupted form of democracy after every 4 or 5 years is no solace to the worker on whose labour the system rests or stands. It is a facade of democracy and nothing more than that.

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