The modern American workplace is a communist dictatorship — and we must admit it if we're going to fix it

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  • David Goldstein is a senior fellow at Civic Ventures and co-host of the Pitchfork Economics podcast.
  • On a recent episode of Pitchfork Economics, political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson explains that modern American firms are actually communist dictatorships.
  • Private firms have immense power over our lives both at work and at home.
  • Before we can fix the workplace, we need to open our eyes and see what it for what it actually is.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that it is finally opening the eyes of many Americans to the profoundly unfree and illiberal nature of the modern American workplace.

For millions of essential workers forced back on the job in unsafe conditions without adequate personal protective equipment or hazard pay, the immense imbalance of power between employer and employee has never been more perilous or more stark.

Meanwhile, millions of more fortunate Americans, suddenly getting their work done from home far from the prying eyes of the boss or the relentless tyranny of the clock, are beginning to question if the daily commute and the daily grind were ever as necessary as they seemed.

Americans are waking up to the fact that there is something intuitively wrong with the modern American workplace. Not just the hours or the pay or the commute, but the institution itself. And it is something that we have all been blinded to for the past 150 years.

In her book “Private Government,” the political philosopher Elizabeth Anderson asks us to imagine a government that assigns all of us a superior who we must obey — a superior unaccountable to either the rule of law or to those they order around.

This government can tell us what to do and what to wear, can snoop on our emails and record our phone conversations; it can sanction our behaviour or our speech, and can even order us to submit to medical tests. This government offers us no say in how it governs or voice in electing its leaders; it owns all the means of production, and it organizes production through central planning.

David GoldsteinCourtesy of David GoldsteinDavid Goldstein.

This government, Anderson provocatively asserts, is one of the many “communist dictatorships in our midst.” And of course, what Anderson is referring to is the modern American firm.

As Anderson explains on a recent episode of the podcast Pitchfork Economics, we’ve long been taught to equate markets with freedom.

But the labour market is different from all other markets: “If I sell my apples that I own to you, I walk away as free as I was before my apples were sold. But if I sell my labour to you … I cannot walk away from that transaction. What I’ve really contracted into is a relationship of subordination to my employer.”

And, absent sufficient regulation or enforcement from our public government, the private government of the firm has accumulated immense power to dictate our lives both in the workplace and at home.

“The biggest scam in the world is to think that deregulation is a thing,” said Anderson. “There are regulations that favour the powerful people, and there are regulations that favour ordinary regular people, but there’s no such thing as a market without any regulations at all.”

Within the context of the workplace, what neoliberal policymakers refer to as “deregulation” is merely a shift of regulatory power from the elected leaders of our public government to the unelected dictators of the firm.

Of course, in a free market, we are always free to quit our jobs and go to work at a different communist dictatorship, but as Anderson asserts, this sort of “free market” is little more than a “rhetorical trick.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. For the 6% of private sector workers who still benefit from collective bargaining, the power of their employer is less than absolute.

And in many other industrialized nations, workers receive some sort of representation in company management and on corporate boards, without any negative impact on economic competitiveness. For example, German workers have long participated in the management of the firms they work through the statutory right of “codetermination,” and German companies are some of the most competitive in the world.

But by far the most important thing we can do now to genuinely move toward the sort of individual freedom and liberty the free market has long promised us, is to open our eyes and see the modern workplace for what it is: a private government that dictates far too much of our personal lives and our daily routine. Only then can we start to imagine a post-pandemic workplace that is more prosperous, more free, and more humane.

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