Where Democratic Despots Rule

Hat tip to William Gillis and his Twitter feed!

For me, Jacobin is like that ex of yours that you want to keep getting back together with. Occasionally they’ll do something really good and neat that reminds you why you loved them. But then they’ll just put forward these completely inane ideas that make you realize why you can’t ever be together again.

Okay, so that’s a slightly weird metaphor to make about a (mostly) state-socialist publication. But that’s what I got and I’m sticking to it. Especially when they have those sorts of articles that start you off hopeful but then end in such a way that you’re left totally baffled: How did we get here? Who or what is exactly to blame?

Where Despots Rule: An Interview with Elisabeth S. Anderson is such an article.

There are a lot of good or mixed-positive points in this article but there are also a few frustrating parts that made me exasperatedly sigh and exclaim out loud about ideological inconsistencies or incompleteness. The basic premise of this interview is based on Anderson’s recent book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about it) and was recommended to me by long-time reader and fan, Hugh of the North. Thanks, Hugh!

There are definitely some parts to this interview I enjoy and even revel in a little bit but there are other parts of me that just strike me as lacking an intersectional analysis of power and authority outside the workplace that is on par with the one that is inside it (if not worse). It’s a bit of an anti-libertarian problem, ignoring state authority to the benefit of honing in on economic authority that is wielded in the workplace by bosses and managers. Libertarians are often doing the reverse.

Both of these are regrettable but it’s also why I find that a left-libertarianism that draws upon the individualist and mutualist anarchism thinkers of the 19th and 20th century (as opposed to Anderson’s thinkers of choice: Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln and Adam Smith) so compelling. It addresses both of these oppressive elements in society without engaging in either a right-wing or left-wing conflationism, insofar as it comes to the market place vs. capitalism.

Before we get into the interview, I just wanna briefly address some remarks from the introduction, which for sake of clarity, are not from Anderson but the interviewer:

When American workers go to work, they enter a world marked more by unaccountable hierarchy than democracy and freedom.

I checked out the first section and half of that link and it goes to some nonsense about how central governments are such a boon to the economy. How the conservative notion of the “free market” is worth taking seriously and should be opposed by recognizing that the market isn’t necessarily a bastion of freedom while the government is. This, despite all of the murders of trans folks, people of color, the murders of Iraqi children and the continued bombing of the Middle East.

Not to mention the surveillance domestically of its own citizens through militarized police units, the prison industrial complex (which incarcerates many non-violent offenders) and the way this system discriminates against the poor, non-white and those who lack access to material or social capital. There are taxes that we are forced to pay for a system that dehumanizes other human beings because of their geographical locations and enforce this through deadly borders.

I could keep going and I could talk about the way the welfare system traps the poor, how the state enforces zoning regulations and laws that make it harder to compete with big business. I could talk about how the US government has historically overthrown foreign governments they didn’t politically agree with. I could talk about the way the US government turned away Jews trying to escape the Holocaust or imprisons thousands of Japanese citizens.

I could mention all of the historical oppression facing people of color that the US government has sponsored and the ways they continue to enforce it through white supremacy in prisons, policing and courts. Or the way the US government tacitly promotes and supports patriarchal norms through its subsidizing of marriage which was founded on legalized rape.

But, thankfully, I won’t mention any of those things.

Because that sort of thing should be redundant for any self-respecting “leftist” who has been paying the slightest modicum of attention to what’s going on in the world. It should be completely unnecessary and even redundant to anyone with even a basic knowledge of the US government and how it has historically operated towards the out-group (e.g. Natives, people of color, trans folks, the mentally ill, etc.).

So glad we live in a world where being a “leftist” means a damn thing.

Now, onto the interview:

Anderson: The history of democracy is the history of movements to make government a public thing; that is, to make it the business of the governed — transparent to them, attentive to their interests, accountable to the public.

Amusingly, Anderson side-steps how that has gone. For example: How did it go for Chelsea Manning when she acted within this supposedly “democratic” spirit? Edward Snowden? What happened to Wikileaks or any other historic leaker who has acted to make the US government more public? I don’t need to even say what’s happened because it’s so well historically known, but just in case, all of them were (and still are) treated like they are enemies of state.

So much for this sacred history.

Private government is rule by authorities who tell the governed that the rules to which they are subject are none of their business, that they aren’t entitled to know about how their government operates, that they have no standing to insist that their interests be taken into account in how they are governed, that their rulers are not accountable to them.

How is this so different from how the US government operates, exactly?

Given how they’ve treated anyone who has actually tried to keep the US system transparent in any meaningful way, it doesn’t seem like the US government is much more public than the bosses we have to deal with. And, honestly, at least the bosses where I work (and I know my experiences are not universal) they tend to post many of the relevant pieces of corporate nonsense on the walls so it’s fairly accessible…not that anyone reads it.

And of course, much of the language is wrapped up in corporate newspeak, but how is that much different than the legalese that exists in the state’s courtrooms?

By US law, the default constitution of the workplace is a private government, rather than a public one. Managers run a government that is kept private from the workers they govern.

Given that voters have even less control over a government that claims some sort of just authority over millions of people I’m failing to see how this is a meaningful distinction from the US government and the way it operates. If Anderson talked about levels of private governance, that would be much more accurate and, honestly, interesting.

But it sounds like (and perhaps I’m misreading) that Anderson thinks the corporate culture we have is worse at being secretive than the organization that has literally imprisoned people for trying to get it to be more open about the way it fundamentally operates.

On the plus side, Anderson focuses on the right sort of inequality:

Being humiliated, harassed, and abused by managers, subject to dangerous work conditions, being penalized for off-duty conduct that has nothing to do with on-the-job responsibilities, being pressured to support management’s political causes — such assaults on the dignity, safety, and autonomy of workers are of concern to egalitarians over and above issues of pay and benefits.

Fundamentally, egalitarians care about eliminating oppressive social hierarchy, including relations of domination and subordination under which subordinates can be arbitrarily subject to humiliating and oppressive conditions, and arbitrary restraints on their freedom.

Hell yes. I’m so glad someone said that while inequality of pay is important that it isn’t as important as the power disparities between workers and managers. I would actually argue that the income disparities we see today are at least partly a symptom of systematic injustices done through oppressive divides in power. If you abolish the latter you are very likely to reduce the oppression of the former, if not completely abolish it.

Some folks have had issues with me saying I’d go back on work contracts but Anderson argues to great effect why these contracts should not be taken seriously:

The state has determined the default terms of the employment relation through employment law. These establish a regime of “employment at will“: the employer can fire the employee for any or no reason, with very few exceptions, mostly having to do with discrimination. This grants bosses almost complete authority over workers, not only on the job but off duty as well.

Since the state has already put its thumbs very heavily on the scales in favor of employers, it is absurd to suppose that the employment contract is a product of negotiation between equals. Very few employees get a chance to negotiate at all.

Exactly right and such an important point that many leftists miss out on. But then, it stands to reason that if the state is part of the problem and why we have these issues with employers to begin with. And so maybe the state isn’t the best tool to regulate capitalism? After all, as this quote makes it clear, the state is intentionally and systematically privileging a given party and thinking it’ll just turn around and stop that seems politically naive.

But let’s put a pin in that for now and continue with the interview where Anderson is asked about a time where it made some sense to associate the use of markets in politics with leftism:

Smith, Paine, and Lincoln all recognized that subjection to an employer was not good for workers. Wage workers couldn’t keep all the fruits of their labor, had to bow and scrape before their bosses, and had to work under stultifying conditions, under the authority of an oppressive boss. They were not really free.

Early free-market thinkers thought that breaking up monopolies in land and manufacturing, abolishing all forms of involuntary servitude (not only slavery, but indentured service, debt peonage, and apprenticeship), and, in the US case, giving away land, would enable wage laborers to acquire enough capital to become self-employed.

This was a frustrating section for me because there are far better examples of leftists arguing for markets via folks like Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Dyer D. Lum, and many others who called for a more nuanced understanding of markets with a radical analysis of the state and its role in perpetuating capitalism.

What Anderson is talking about here is correct but it ultimately holds very little political content or meaning. There’s no intention to build any effective alternative to the status quo. Indeed, Anderson’s alternative (as best I can tell) is some sort of weak compromise between the workers seizing the means of production and the managers retaining control.

The analysis of power by Anderson is spot on and her goals as an egalitarian are noble and correct but when push comes to shove her solutions that stem from these attitudes are less than ideal.

Worse still, her understanding of what happened in the Industrial Revolution may be one of the most cringe worthy parts:

The Smith-Paine-Lincoln ideology was based on the assumption that the incentive effects of being able to keep 100 percent of the fruits of one’s labor outweighed economies of scale. That’s why the self-employed worker would be more efficient than the large-scale employer holding authority over many workers, and triumph in a truly free market.

This assumption, plausible in the eighteenth century, was falsified by the technological innovations that brought about the Industrial Revolution. The factory system, with huge concentrations of capital worked by many hands, was vastly more efficient than the small craft shop, and drove the craftsmen out of business. Railroads bankrupted horse-drawn coaches that could be operated by a sole proprietor.

And so forth, across virtually all economic sectors.

Didn’t Anderson just a few sections up say that the state was the reason why there is such an inequality between the contracts made in the labor market? There’s probably some sort of historical process whereby that become the norm, right? And it’s these basic conclusions that Anderson seems to ignore and instead claims that smaller scale firms simply wouldn’t match up to the efficiency of corporate behemoths.

But historically these systems have not existed in isolation. The propping up of corporate giants in the Industrial Revolution doesn’t just belong to capitalist ingenuity or the fact that economically larger businesses are just inherently more efficient. Ironically, Anderson reeks of a sort of economic conservatism where, even if we give workers more power, they still need to take place in these huge organizations that would not be out of place in any capitalist fantasy.

It’s also important to ask, efficient for whom? Who owns the benefit in capitalist systems? Not the workers.

Meanwhile, libertarians and the politicians associated with them, such as those in the House Freedom Caucus, blindly repeat ideas from Smith, Paine, and Lincoln, not recognizing that they thought markets would liberate workers precisely by liberating them from the oppressive authority of employers. They continue to advance Paine’s and Lincoln’s promise of self-employment to any enterprising worker, but without being willing to give away the capital needed to realize that promise.

By contrast, Paine and Lincoln were rooted enough in reality to recognize that self-employment for the typical worker would be impossible if the state did not figure out ways to distribute capital to workers.

There’s a lot wrong here. Mostly I’m just annoyed (though not surprised in the least) that Anderson’s understanding of the term “libertarian” extends to the HFC, which is hardly libertarian, even to many other libertarians. And I’m going to guess Anderson left out Smith because he (rightfully) didn’t trust the state to distribute capital to workers. And why should he or why should any of us for that matter? Is this how states have historically operated or have good incentives to operate?

I don’t want to commit some sort of historical deterministic fallacy, but I don’t think it’s likely in the near-future that we will see the state aiding the worker in such a way that they can out-compete capitalists. Plus, according to Anderson it’s unlikely that they would succeed anyways given her proclivities towards economic conservatism.

Let’s wrap up with Anderson’s ideas on how to change things:

First, there are some easy fixes that could be achieved within the terms of current law, or with some modifications of current law.

Second and more ambitiously, the rules of workplace governance need to be changed to give workers a permanent institutionalized voice at work, whether or not they belong to a labor union.

You remember that pin I mentioned earlier?

We’re removing that pin now.

Why on Earth, given what Anderson has said about the way marriage contracts were written (e.g. what incentive did husbands have to give the power back to wives in the 18th or 19th century) and labor contracts (ditto for bosses and workers) would the state, who has a sizable advantage in this system agree to either of these things?

Perhaps the answer is to increase political involvement, but that’s been circling the drain for decades now and shows no sign of any kind of resurgence. And even if it did, your vote doesn’t count anyway, so what would it matter?

There’s more to talk about in this interview but I think I’ve captured my mixed feelings at this point.

There’s plenty to enjoy and even marvel at with regards to it and it definitely interests me in Anderson’s book (so mission accomplished, I guess?) but it also leaves me hesitant to purchase the book, given her glaring blind spots.

Then again, a book doesn’t need to be perfect to be worth purchasing. I’m currently reading The Portable Nietzsche (a book I bought a few years ago) and it isn’t as if I agree with Nietzsche on everything and think he never goes wrong. Still, the problems suggest to me that nothing of particular merit would really be discovered except how bad the modern workplace is. Perhaps I’d learn some new horrifying parts of the workplace that I hadn’t known before, but I doubt that and also doubt that even if this happened I would think much differently about how it should be resolved.

Anderson’s notion of power is correct and a better diagnosis than many of her fellow leftists often engage with. But she still ends up making the same fundamental mistakes in thinking that power can be seized for her and those who think like her. If she truly wants workers to be empowered and for managers to get out of the way, she’s going to have to realize that the despotism of the workplace is easily outmatched by the despotism in our so-called “democracy”.

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4 thoughts on “Where Democratic Despots Rule

  1. hey Nick. thanks for taking the time to look at this!

    like you I felt the article and her comments at times lacked consistency and I thought you might hammer it a bit on those grounds. I’m pleased you found it interesting though.

    I haven’t read the portable Nietzsche. I’ll try to get hold of it. the last book I read which had much about him was the one about his sister and her colony in ..peru I think ..sorry Paraguay of course having checked it. forgotten fatherland. very interesting though not really applicable to work.

    • Thanks for sending it to me!

      Yeah, definitely found it interesting and I tried to make a few notes in the article that made it clear that while I had some disagreements I definitely appreciated it being shared with me. 🙂

      Well, TPN and Nietzsche and general has some great remarks on work (c.f. Nietzsche on “The Eulogists of Work” which is on this site) and I’m gonna quote another part about wage slavery soon-ish.

      But yeah, you’re right it’s not got much to do with work. I mostly just mentioned it cause I’m reading it right now and enjoying it even if I strongly disagree at times.

      Thanks again!

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