Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It). Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017. 144 pp., plus commentary, notes, and index.
This is a country created by corporations. The prototypes were the Virginia Company, which reinvented slavery for modern times in the Chesapeake, and the Massachusetts Bay Company, whose General Court—the governing body—was the blueprint for the novel notion of one man, one vote. From the very beginning of European settlement, American slavery and American freedom were stitched together by such corporate bodies. By the late-18th century, their mindless clacking of ideological needles and social thread had become a political formula for both revolution and nationhood.
The American Revolution, and the very possibility of a new nation so conceived, were animated, determined, and completed by three ideas woven from these corporate origins. First, the sovereignty of we, “the people”—not the agents of the state, whether parliament, prime minister, legislature, president, or king—was an inviolable principle. The modern, and yes, liberal imperative of supremacy of society over the state was baked into this thing we call these United States. For better or worse, it’s the central principle of American politics.
Second, the family was neither the model nor the miniature of the modern state. This new nation-state was the place where sovereignty became a centrifugal force that would keep expanding to include more of “the people,” and would in fact redefine them. The state, the location of government, could not then remain the exclusive prerogative or property of the patriarch, whether lord, father, or monarch. By the same token, the duly appointed leader of the people “out of doors”—where they assembled and spoke for themselves—could not be the ruler of the men and women who would be citizens of this new nation-state. He could not rule “the people,” he could only represent them.
Third, liberty and equality were not only compatible, they were inseparable. You couldn’t have one without the other. James Madison, who did more than anyone at the moment to inscribe this idea in the nation’s founding gestures, discovered that indissoluble relation in his painstaking studies of republics, ancient and modern, as he hurriedly prepared to “modify the sovereignty”—to postpone, not prevent, majorities—in the name of popular government.
In his memoranda of 1786-88, as he counseled Jefferson and as he spoke on behalf of the republic in the making at the convention in Philadelphia, he distinguished between “the two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of persons and the rights of property.” He noticed, indeed emphasized, that all previous republics, ancient and modern, had perished because they had given priority to the rights of property—“the poor were sacrificed to the rich,” as he put it. He proposed a new, contentious way of institutionalizing and continuing, in perpetuity, the debate between these two cardinal objects of government. We call it the Constitution.
Elizabeth Anderson’s important new book, Private Government, revisits this revolutionary moment to explain why early modern radicals like John Lilburne, Tom Paine, and Adam Smith were advocates of markets and market societies, and how late modern leftists might learn from these predecessors. Lilburne was the leader of the Levellers, the left wing of the English Revolution in the late 1640s, but his political credentials have been in question ever since C. B. Macpherson showed how the Levellers rejected universal manhood suffrage, arguing instead, at the Putney Debates of 1647, that the franchise should be founded on property ownership (“possessive individualism”).
Paine was of course the author of Common Sense, the pamphlet that both summarized and galvanized the American Revolution at its very outset, in 1776. And yet, inspiring as it is, this pamphlet is also a painstaking argument for the “natural right” of private property and the expansion of markets as the bulwarks of freedom from arbitrary monarchical power. And then there’s Smith, the moral philosopher whose Wealth of Nations, also published in 1776, has been treated as the intellectual blueprint of modern capitalism. What is he doing in the company of Lilburne and Paine, known radicals, even revolutionaries?
Anderson has a good answer. Smith, like Lilburne and Paine, was a champion not of the capitalist, but of the small holder, the modest, self-possessed man who was his own boss, the proprietor of himself. Like Lilburne and Paine, Smith wrote briefs on behalf of free markets long before anyone knew what capitalism was, or how it would reshape the social landscape. Anderson argues, quite correctly, that these early modern activists and moral philosophers had good reasons to believe in private property—particularly, the property in themselves, their capacity to produce value through work—and to believe, accordingly, in the advent of markets in just about everything, up to and including the new market in labor-time, where, by the early 19th century, work for wages was becoming the social norm.
For with the arrival of such property rights in oneself and those new free markets, arm’s-length bargaining about every thing and equal access to all resources, now denominated as fungible commodities, replaced birth and office as the index of social standing or the measure of Man—the old questions were who got what, but the new answers boiled down to another more dangerous one, how come? These new markets thus became fertile ground, new ideological battlegrounds, for thinking about liberty and equality, because they were in fact the site of freedom’s future.
The very idea that “all men are created equal” derived, as Karl Marx himself observed, from the notion that their time, their labor-time, was no less valuable than that of the well-born or the already wealthy. He explained his so-called labor theory of value in these terms. “The secret of the expression of value, namely that all kinds of labour are equal and equivalent, because, and so far as they are human labour in general, cannot be deciphered, “ he declared in volume 1 of Das Kapital, “until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice.” In a related and equally astonishing passage, he exclaimed, “The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property: his labour consequently become wage labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”
Marx, as close a reader of Smith as we are likely to get, still heard the echoes of 1776 almost a century later. Either all men are created equal, or they are not. But the creation of their equality resides in their capacity to produce equivalent values through work. They can or they can’t.
Anderson, very quietly, goes further than Marx, by staking a claim to the intellectual legacy of the bourgeois radicals who preceded him. She insists that the stage of development they represented—what Macpherson called “simple market society”—was a modern society in which commodities were produced for market, but labor power itself was not yet a commodity, so that “commerce” described incidental exchange between households, not daily transactions between individuals. Anderson clams, accordingly, that this protean intellectual moment was overruled, even interred, by industrialization and its attendant, the formal then real subjection of labor to capital by means of wage labor. She wants to exhume and restate the truths about liberty, equality, and sovereignty that these “commonwealthmen,” these angry Anglo-American revolutionaries, bequeathed us.
They believed that in the market society they saw coming, the subordination of one man to another would be anachronistic—at any rate it would be a temporary condition, lasting only as long as an employee relinquished his will, his time and energy, to his employer, for a day at a time, not a lifetime. Or it would be a “public” phenomenon specific to the realm of power, government and bureaucracy, not a normal feature of private life, where men would peacefully exchange the goods they had produced on their own, as artisans and entrepreneurs. The private and the public as we know them were, not incidentally, created in these debates.
Indeed, two centuries after the Putney Debates, Abraham Lincoln could sincerely announce that there was “no permanent class of mudsills” at the North, not where free labor and free soil made for free men (he was answering pro-slavery spokesmen, who insisted that “free society” was morally bankrupt precisely because it had, in fact, created such a permanent working class). “Many of you independent men in this very assembly were just last year hired laborers,” he told the Wisconsin Agricultural Society in 1859, “and next year you will hire labor.” He didn’t have to explain why a wage laborer was dependent on his employer for the duration of his employment, nor how the acquisition of productive property permitted his independence.
So conceived, neither wage labor nor industrialization was an ontological threat to social mobility—thus liberty and equality—as understood by both Lilburne’s Levellers and Lincoln’s Republicans. Wage labor was, to be sure, a condition of dependence, but it would be kept to a temporal minimum by (1) clearing markets of political corruption and economic concentration by recourse to the law, for example the common law with respect to combinations in restraint of trade, and (2) maintaining worker’s self-management in the machine shops and factories, at the proverbial point of production, where they’d be protected by unions and cooperatives of skilled workers—that is, by their own solidariy.
Anderson argues, however, that industrialization and its progeny, wage labor, were, by definition, the corrosive solvents of this labor republicanism—of the bourgeois societies, the small holder economies, underwritten by the free markets of the early modern period. Once their noses were in the tent, she insists, the camels, the capitalists, took over the campsite.
But is that the case? Did the advent of industrialization foreclose workers’ self-management in the central shops and factories to which households eventually exported their economic functions in the course of the 19th century? (The breakdown of a household economy in this sense is the standard-issue definition of industrialization.) In the US, the answer is, definitely not. As I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, American industrial workers conducted the most protracted and violent class struggles among their counterparts in the trans-Atlantic West, and they won most of the strikes and lockouts they started or endured, ca. 1881-1905.
In making her case powerful against employers’ seemingly unlimited right to police employees on and off the job (hence “private government”), Anderson is renewing an intellectual tradition that refuses any distinction between wage labor and chattel slavery, or between the industrializing capitalism of the 19th century and the financialized capitalism of the 20th century. In the US, this tradition, this refusal, was founded by William Kellogg of New York’s Workingmen’s Party in the 1830s (before that, it was the programmatic embodiment of the Chartist movement in England). Its distant, contemporary echoes are be found in two unlikely academic places—in the new history of antebellum slavery, where Walter Johnson of Harvard presides, and in the new history of banking, where Mervyn King, professor at the London School of Economics and the former head of the Bank of England, now reigns.
Like Mervyn King, who quotes the 19th-century monetary crank William Kellogg—yeah, him—to indict the dangerous alchemy of contemporary banking, Anderson claims that, before industrialization and wage labor disfigured their intellectual horizons, workers “identified free labor with self-employment” and indulged a “dream of universal self-employment.” (pp. 30-35) Like Walter Johnson, who can’t see any difference between the permanent abjection of the slave and the temporary submission of the employee, Anderson claims that wage labor is self-evidently equivalent to chattel slavery: “In the employment contract, by contrast [to the one-off transactions that obtain between buyers and sellers of finished goods], the workers cannot separate themselves from the labor they have sold; in purchasing command over labor, employers purchase command over people.” (p. 57)
Neither claim can be verified by reference to the available historical evidence, not even the chapters we’ve all read on those satanic mills, courtesy of Charles Dickens, Friedrich Engels, and Edward Thompson. Most workers didn’t equate free labor and self-employment; instead they used the devices at hand, including strikes, boycotts, republican ideology, and appeals to their neighbors, to assert and maintain their autonomy as workers and their standing as human beings within the workplace.
They also refused to be reduced to mere “economic factors,” as in land, labor, and capital, the standard components of economic analysis, then as now. And so, as they struggled to explain their unique position at the point of production, they articulated what Marx called the “historical and moral element” in the wages of labor—the residual sum that couldn’t be explained by the measurable costs (food, clothing, shelter) of reproducing a working class. That is how, unlike slaves, wage workers did, in fact, separate themselves, their bodies, from their labor—from the time they did, in fact, sell to their employers.
And that and is how and why Marx’s seemingly esoteric distinction between labor power and labor as such matters so much. “Eight hours, that’s what you you’ll get from me, no more and no less,” workers could and did say in the late-19th century. Slaves could make that distinction in theory but not in practice, not until the 1860s, when the end of slavery was in view and, by running toward wage work on the Union battle lines, they could begin to experience the difference between command over labor and command over people, between their bodies and their selves.
Anderson’s argument nonetheless maps the battle lines of our time, and does so in ways that are novel and useful if not unprecedented. Without acknowledging it—and there’s no reason she should—she reminds us of the arguments made by avowedly fascist jurists and historians such as Carl Schmitt and Otto Brunner. In view of the dispersal of power from the state to society enacted by corporations and other private associations, including trade unions, they celebrated what Anderson fears, and warns us against, as “private government.” The fascists advocated this dispersal of power as a way of “restoring” the nature of government as such, which they understood as the necessary domination of some by others, of the many by the few. “Out of doors,” as it were. The distinction between society and the state was an anachronistic liberal convention, they argued, which was now subject to radical revision by unprecedented fascist means, that is, by an obliteration of the state/society distinction.
Anderson’s book marks a similar Weimar moment. She thinks the liberal distinction between state and society is essential to, or just is, political discourse as we moderns have come to know it. So, unlike Schmitt and Brunner, she rightly fears its impending immolation—by the erosion of democratic norms as well as specific legislative acts and the courts’ (re)interpretations of them.
Still, what is to be done? The way only forward via Anderson’s argument is to return to the tradition of labor republicanism, which, again, equated wage labor and wage slavery or even chattel slavery, as per the specifications of the Workingmen’s Party and their latter-day, 21st-century spokesmen. In effect, she claims that we must reverse the course of industrialization, which entails wage labor, and return to a simple market society, even as she admits that prosperity as we know it “can be achieved only through large-scale workplaces,” where wage labor presumably prevails. (p. 133)
How can both goals be accomplished? One possibility is the aggressive deployment of a reinvigorated anti-trust law, as Lina Khan, Tim Wu, and David Leonhardt have proposed. As Khan for one recognizes, however, this approach would entail the sacrifice of those efficiencies specific to vertically integrated corporations like Amazon unless the Progressive Era model of “natural monopolies,” and its correlative policy of treating them as public utilities, are brought to bear on their regulation via, say, the Federal Trade Commission.
All four writers under discussion derive their political positions from this Progressive Era, ca. 1890-1916—that is, their thinking derives from the origin, the heyday, the apotheosis, of the anti-trust tradition, the moment of its invention. This common derivation encourages me to re-read Jane Addams, a brilliant yet neglected political theorist whose transformative work on the social ethics of democracy has never been adequately acknowledged, even though philosophers as significant as John Dewey and G. H. Mead said they followed her lead.
She proposed a simple solution to what Anderson deems “private government.” We might call this solution “economic democracy,” because it transposes the modern principle of political obligation—I need abide only by those laws or rules I have participated in making, by acting upon or merely declaring my citizenship—from the public to the private sector, from where I vote to where I work. Or we might just call it plain old social democracy. As a political theorist deeply influenced by Albert O. Hirschman, Anderson calls this solution voice (as against exit or loyalty, either escaping your master or bending your will to his).
However we name it, this attitude toward history frames the question first addressed in Addams’s incendiary Hull House lecture of 1984, “A Modern Lear.” Her two texts were Shakespeare’s King Lear and the apparent apogee of class conflict in the summer of 1894, when the fledgling American Railway Union expressed its solidarity with the striking Pullman Car Company workers by establishing a boycott of freight traffic through Chicago, the hub of the nation’s transportation system.
Lear’s modern counterpart, by her reading, was George Pullman, known as one of the great philanthropists of his day because he had built a “model town” for his employees, complete with company housing and store, wide boulevards and flower beds, a church, and even a theater. Like Lear, “the magnitude of his indulgence and failure corresponded.”
Cordelia’s modern counterpart was the labor movement that challenged Pullman’s suffocating paternalism: “She felt the tug of sympathies upon her emotions and faculties of the larger life, the life which surrounds and completes the family life.” By this account, the strikers represented the “social consciousness,” the “social ethics,” that had superseded the older “individual virtues” to which Pullman appealed.
As Lear could not imagine how Cordelia would “be moved by a principle outside of himself”—outside, that is, of the familial, dynastic domain that contained the centrifugal tendencies of modern individualism—so Pullman could not, by analogy, imagine that any “divergence between the social form and the individual aim” would be decided in favor of labor as against capital, equality as against liberty.
Pullman’s tragedy recapitulated Lear’s, then, but at a later and higher stage of human development, when women who aspired to the “larger life” beyond the “family claim” threatened neither the continuity of dynastic authority nor the integrity of patriarchal households—and when workers who insisted on self-management in the factories no longer violated the “natural right” of property.
So the “failure of the model town of Pullman” was the consequence of power exercised without regard to the historically determined needs, capacities, and opinions of those directly affected by it. “[Pullman] had the power to build the town, but he did not appeal to nor obtain the consent of the men who were living in it.” The “cruelties and reactions” that followed were inevitable.
The conclusion I would draw from Addams’s account is quite simple, and directly addresses Anderson’s dilemma as well as the trust-busting trio of Khan, Wu, and Leonhardt. It goes like this. There are no remaining rational grounds for treating consent as a principle of political obligation and nothing more. To confine its meanings to state-centered, policy-oriented, electoral politics, as the founders certainly did, is to ignore the dispersal of power from the state to society that the modern corporation inaugurated, and to remand workers to the custody of their employers, as if wage laborers are, in fact, slaves. That is Addams’s—and Anderson’s—central and indisputable claim.
In a larger sense, to limit the content and consequences of consent to its original precincts to is also to ignore the significance of cultural or sexual politics—by our time, in this #Metoo moment, we ought to know that the notion of consent is so elastic that almost any agreement between partners can be retrospectively revoked or reinstated.
Think of how far this new ethical itinerary has already gone. Authors must now sign on to “morality clauses,” which protect their publishers from the financial losses a writer’s prior sexual misconduct, once revealed, might create. “Consent” at this level of meaning makes readers invisible parties to an unstated but actionable bargain that gives them real, which is to say financial, leverage. Why not make workers live, vocal parties to a similar bargain?
A rhetorical question, I admit, but it’s the one Elizabeth Anderson asks. As I read her, she claims that insofar as we confine the meaning of consent to a principle of merely political obligation, we ignore the origins and the effects of cultural politics as such, in our own time. We ignore most of what has happened to us and through us, she claims, since 1890. She’s right.
But in a country created by corporations, the problem is not wage labor and its consequences, as Anderson would advise us. It is, as James Madison insisted, how to reconcile the “two cardinal objects of Government, the rights of person and the rights of property”—how not “to sacrifice the poor to the rich” and thereby make modern, popular, republican government just another political folktale. The problem, then, is to remember that labor time is not labor itself, that what we do for a living is not who we are—we’re not slaves without masters. So conceived, the problem is that both our corporate masters and their most convincing critics, including Elizabeth Anderson, think we’re still slaves.