Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Dead Ideas Live On: On Elizabeth Anderson's Private Government

I decided to illustrate this post with images from

Reading Elizabeth Anderson's Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk About It) was an interested and somewhat bewildering experience. At first I thought that I agreed with everything she said, but only differed in how I would say it--a difference of philosophical style or orientation--but, the more I read, the more I thought that there might be some substance to this difference of style. 

Anderson's argument has several different components. At the title states, she considers the wage relationship to be a form of government, with its own penalties, powers, and restrictions. As a form of government it is fundamentally arbitrary and coercive. It controls not only what people do and say, but when they can even go to the bathroom. As she puts it "Private governments impose control on workers that are unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military." I am with her on this point, less so when she calls this a "communist dictatorship" but more on that in a moment.

Her second part of her argument is perhaps the more interesting, at least in terms of its initial question. She asks why we don't see this, do not grasp the coercion at the heart of the labor relation, and by we she means primarily American political philosophy. It is not just that we do not see it, but market relations, including the labor market, are often presented as fundamentally freer than those of the state. (At this point it is American liberal and libertarian thought that she is dealing with). It is not just that we don't talk about the coercion and control at the heart of capital but that we talk instead of the free market. We see freedom where there is coercion. 

Anderson's approach to this is framed by two classic quotes. The first is Adam Smith's discussion of the basic principle of self-interest in The Wealth of Nations. As Smith writes, 

"Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

What Anderson stresses is the egalitarian nature of this formulation. The appeal to self interest is an appeal to the other as an equal. The figure of the beggar is as much a criticism of feudal relations of hierarchy and dependence as laziness and indolence. The first chapter of Anderson's book, "When the Market Was "Left" attempts to excavate an egalitarian dimension to such advocates of the market as Smith, Locke, and Paine. Anderson argues that these early advocates of the "free market" were less interested in justifying inequality than promoting a society of independent artisans and farmers (often at the expense of those displaced by colonies and excluded from the wage contract--a point Anderson acknowledges). 

In contrast to this is the second passage Anderson cites. It is one that I have cited often, several times on this blog, is from Marx. As Marx writes in Capital:

"This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding." 

These are two very different assessments of market society. As Anderson argues their emphasis is different. The first focuses on the initial stage of the contract, stressing the independence and self interest of those entering into it. This is what makes Smith one of the celebrators of the eden of the innate rights of man according to Marx. What puts an end to such celebrations is entering into the sphere of production itself, at that point equality becomes asymmetry and interest gives way to exploitation. 

For Anderson the difference between these two formulations is less one of their specific economic focus, from the market to the factory, or their position on capital, but a difference of history itself. The industrial revolution effectively nullified all dreams of independent farmers and producers. According to her modern acolytes of Smith, Locke, and Paine have neglected to note the expiration date on their particular vision of society. 

I am not unsympathetic to this idea of the profound anachronism of most contemporary defenses (and critiques) of capital. The first lesson of the maxim to "always historicize "is the recognition that all celebrations and critiques of capitalism must be interrogated in terms of their continued relevance to always moving and changing target. Speaking of Jameson, I would be remiss if I left out his scathing take on the same anachronism. 

"It is therefore into the vacuum left by the new taboos on Marx that the most significant and symptomatic revival of a philosophical discipline has been able to insinuate itself; I mean the return of political philosophy itself.‘Political science’ was never much more than an empirical and operation field during the long night of the modern (or Marxian) period, its theoretical heights all borrowed from sociology, its practical endeavors all in one way or another infeodated to statistics, its historical great texts gathering dust in the upheavals of a revolutionary and an ideological age for which they seemed to have little relevance. Now these last remerge into the light of the academic day, and seem once again to speak to the age of big business with a wisdom usefully committed to moderation. As though Locke or Rousseau, Hobbes or Carl Schmitt all had as their central ambition to make a contribution to the development of something called political science!…Today professionally scanned for useful material on the current four C’s of the ideological re-equipment of late capitalism—contracts, constitutions, citizenship and civil society—the classic texts, like so many well worn vagrants newly bathed, shaven and dressed up in respectable new clothes, find themselves reinstated on the syllabus, no doubt with suitable bewilderment."

Anderson cannot be accused of following through a taboo on Marx, but she can be criticized as not having a concept of capitalism. In other words, she does not seem to see that the traumatic event of the industrial revolution, which would place more and more workers under the control of the firm, was in some sense already part and parcel of the wage relation. Not to be too teleological but real subsumption follows formal subsumption. More to the point her focus on "private government" as government, as a system of regulations and authority, overlooks the extent to which the economic imperatives of capital function even without any institution to govern. It is not just that corporations function as private governments ruling over individuals' actions on and off the factory (or office) floor, controlling bathroom breaks and firing people for facebook posts, but this imperative of maximizing profit exceeds the control of any employer, large or small, and acts as a form of control that is all the more pervasive because it cannot be localized with a given form. Corporations are not little "communist dictatorships," whatever rhetorical force one wants to gain from that phrase, but are integral parts of actually existing capitalism. As Marx writes describing the dialectic of control and independence in capitalism,

"The same bourgeois consciousness which celebrates the division of labour in the workshop, the lifelong annexation of the worker to partial operation, and his complete subjection to capital, as an organization of labour that increases its productive power, denounces with equal vigour every conscious attempt to control and regulate the process of production socially as an inroad upon such sacred things as the rights of property, freedom and the self-determining ‘genius’ of the individual capitalist."

The control that makes the corporation seem like a private "communist dictatorship" is not some exception or aberration with respect to its freedom and independence but is the realization of the competition that underlies that freedom. This is true regardless of technology or size. In other words, even today's independent contractor is less a free individual than a human capital of one, forced to maximize his or her earning potential in every situation. A similar point could be made with respect to Anderson's second question, why does the image of the free and independent producer linger long after its historical expiration date. Anderson sees this as a kind of "institutional hemiagnosia" a failure to move beyond the market, beyond the initial terms of the labor contract to its execution. I would call this ideology pure and simple--a justification of the brutality of existing conditions through their idealization. 

Which is not to say her book is not worth reading, or that the entry of political philosophy into the factory floor is unwelcome. At least someone is paying attention to the vast terrain of unfreedom at the heart of a supposed free society. 

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