Private Government | Elizabeth S. Anderson

Summary of: Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)
By: Elizabeth S. Anderson

Final Recap

Anderson’s examination in ‘Private Government’ reveals the flaws within the modern capitalist market and workplace hierarchy, illustrating how employees have limited to no say or control over their work conditions and are subjected to restrictive commands. The book posits that fostering workplace democracy offers an alternative to the current authoritarian model, transforming corporate governance to ensure fair and equal participation. As a conclusion, the book summary leaves readers with an urge to re-think the existing workplace hierarchies and the importance of introducing democratic principles within modern work environments. The solution is not to eradicate the workplace government entirely, but to transform it into a public entity that empowers workers’ voices and promotes transparency and accountability.


In ‘Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It)’, Elizabeth S. Anderson sheds light on the undemocratic and highly authoritarian governing structures in modern workplaces. She argues that employers have far-reaching, dictatorial powers, which are rarely discussed in public. Anderson particularly emphasizes the need for workplace democracy and explores unions, co-ops, and codetermination as potential alternatives to the current private government model. The introduction provides a preview of the vital topics and themes of this thought-provoking book that challenges the conventional wisdom and understanding of the capitalist market.

The Authoritarian Structure of Modern Workplaces

In this book, the author explains how most modern workplaces are authoritarian and compares them to a communist dictatorship. The book illustrates how modern corporations have highly centralized authority structures where CEOs and managers make decisions, issue commands, and own all means of production. Workers, as inferiors, are expected to comply with company policies. Moreover, the book highlights that corporate governments have the right to violate employees’ privacy through surveillance and drug testing, and disobedience may lead to getting fired.

The Dictatorship of Employers

Employers wield dictatorial powers over their employees’ lives within some broad limitations. The CEO and board of directors constitute an oligarchy with control over the corporation’s “government.” The same goes for “superior” managers. Employees cannot challenge their decisions or remove them from office, and their avenues of recourse are limited to occasional egregious behaviors. The worst that managers can do is fire employees. Compliance with employers’ desires brings a continuous stream of income and the possibility of promotion.

The Illusion of Job Choice

In a capitalist economy, the idea of quitting your job and finding another one is not as simple as it sounds. Self-employment opportunities are limited, and most modern businesses require vast start-up capital, which most people don’t have access to. Moreover, in the US, employers can have their workers sign non-compete clauses. Even if we overlook these facts, quitting your job means losing your income, unemployment insurance eligibility, and more. It is also worse than being fired. The “freedom” to leave a company boils down to the freedom to wield your employer’s most harmful weapon of coercion against yourself. At present, the key message is that workers have the right to quit their jobs, but their ability to do so is highly constrained.

Employer’s Extensive Power

Many workers are unaware of the extent of an employer’s power, both inside and outside of the workplace. An employer’s ability to fire an employee is just the beginning. In the US, an “at-will” employment contract allows an employer to fire an employee for almost any reason, including activities outside of work. Employers can even pressure employees to support political campaigns, divulge personal information, and maintain certain lifestyles. Inside the workplace, employers can dictate employee behavior, speech, and attire, leading to a significant lack of freedom for most employees.

The Problem with Modern Workplaces

In most modern workplaces, there is a hierarchical governing structure, where the CEO, board of directors, and managers wield power over employees. The issue is not having a government in the workplace, but rather the nature of the government in question. The uneven distribution of power in the workplace can be acceptable, depending on how it is regulated, limited, and derived. Living in a democratic country is different from living in an authoritarian one, despite both being ruled by a government. Therefore, the problem with modern workplaces is not that they have a government, but the type of government they have.

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