Private Government By Corporations

Posts in this series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The second chapter of Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It) begins with a striking image: the US corporation as communist dictatorship. The employer has the absolute rights to do as it sees fit with its employees with few restrictions. She singles out a few of the more absurd rules: an employer can fire a worker because of the way the worker votes, or opinions the worker expresses about politics, or, as we learn in one case, because the son of a friend of the employer raped the employee’s daughter.

We usually think of government as meaning only the state. Anderson says we need a broader definition of government: the legitimate exercise of power by one person over another. Thus, masters govern their servants and slaves, parents govern their children, the Church governs the faithful, the bridge club leaders have the right to exclude people from their games, and so on. We see something akin to this in Foucault’s discussion of governmentality.

Then Anderson draws the distinction between private and public government. A government is public if it is required to consider the interests of the governed, if governed people have the right to participate in the management of the government, and to review its actions and hold it accountable. It is private if the interests of the governed are irrelevant, if they have no power to influence or question the actions of the government.

Anderson defines the state following Max Weber in his essay Politics As A Vocation.

Weber’s definition is the following: “The state is seen as the sole grantor of the ‘right’ to physical force. Therefore, ‘politics’ in our case would mean the pursuit for a portion of power or for influencing the division of power whether it is between states, or between groups of people which the state encompasses.”

The state as the sole grantor of the right of the use of violence has a specific meaning. Only the state can empower a private group to exercise government over others. The master has the right to control the slave because the government says so. Parents’ rights to control children have the sanction of the state. Under the law of Coverture, husbands had the right to control the bodies and wealth of their wives. Anderson points to John Adams’ response to Abigail Adams request to “remember the ladies” in the construction of a new government.

Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.

In each of these cases the state can regulate the control exercised by the grantee. For example, a state could determine that a parent hitting a child is abusive, and could punish the parent and take the child into protective custody. Or the state could simply withdraw its grant of control, as it did with slavery or the law of coverture.

The case of the corporation as employer is similar. The state could withdraw the right of the corporation to exercise any aspect of government it chose. It could, for example, make it illegal to fire a person who refused to attend a political rally for the candidate of the CEO’s choice; or more generally for any reason related to the employee’s politics. It can limit the right of an employer to fire an employee for illness.

In general, capitalists object to any infringement on their right to dominate the lives of their employee. The usual argument has to do with what capitalists call “freedom”, defined as the right to have the state leave them alone. Anderson could argue as she does in other cases, that this negative freedom for the capitalist inflicts massive losses of negative freedom on employees, who cannot support candidates of their choice, or stay away from undesirable political rallies, or organize into unions, or get sick. Thus, unrestrained control for capitalists requires substantial justification.

Instead, she points out that besides negative freedom, there are two other equally or more valuable kinds of freedom*: positive freedom, meaning having a wide choice of opportunities, and freedom from domination. It is frequently the case that restraints on negative freedom for a few produces much larger overall increases in these kinds of freedom.


1. The idea of private government mirrors the ideas of Bruce Scott and of Ellen Meiksins Wood on the role of corporations in the US. See this post.

2. Anderson seems to think a different outcome was possible, one in which the employer had control over the lives of employees only as to their jobs. I’m less sure of that. It seems to me that changes in the method of production do not impact the general governmental structures of a society. As Anderson points out, in England in the middle ages production was organized around feudal estates and guilds. Each was based on the idea that of top-down control. The monarch owned the real property and granted use rights to the aristocracy, which controlled agricultural production, and took much of the product for itself. Guilds acted as controllers of cloth and other artisanal goods, and decided who could participate and on what terms. In each case there was top-down control by agents empowered by the Throne to impose sanctions and discipline.

Private life followed the pattern. Husbands controlled wives, children, and servants. Churches exercised control over the religious lives of their parishioners, extracting tithes and demanding obedience.

As the methods of production began to change, these governmental structures remained in place. Apprentices were tacked onto that structure in the position of servants. When women started doing piecework for textile mills, they remained dependents. Fathers or husbands took their wages and used them as they saw fit. When children were put to work in mines and mills, they remained dependents of their fathers, who took their wages and used them as they saw fit.

The only change was the way people worked, not their social relationships. Those social relationships arose from ancient times. Anderson discusses the social theory that everyone must be controlled from above. This pattern starts with the Almighty, and continues through the monarch, down through aristos to common people to serfs and slaves, in what was known as the Great Chain of Being.

Social changes were in the long run influenced by the changes in the means and methods of production, as we can see from Anderson’s and Ann Hughes’ (Chapter 3) discussion of the Levelers and other dissidents in the mid-1600s. But those social relationships have a powerful hold on the minds of people. Like most bad ideas, the idea of the necessity of control from above is nearly impossible to eradicate. We see it today in different parts of society; where Biblical injunctions about wives and servants** still hold sway. John Adams was right. Men of all ranks will not want to give up their rights under their masculine systems.
*I discuss these freedoms at length earlier in this series. See the linked index.
** Some translations have “slaves”.

Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2

Introduction and Index To Posts In This Series


I began this series with a discussion of Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal by Philip Pettit, 64 Social Research, Vol. 1, P. 52. I want to emphasize the nature and importance of honor in this paper. Pettit says that decent societies

… do not deprive a person of honor. Specifically, they do not undermine or jeopardize a person’s reasons for self-respect. More specifically still, they do not signal the rejection of the person from the human commonwealth: they do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

… To be deprived of honor is to be cut out of conversation with your fellows. It is to be denied a voice or to be refused an ear: it is not to be allowed to talk or not to be treated as ever worth hearing. People differ, topic by topic, in how far they are thought worth listening to; they enjoy lower and higher grades of esteem. But to be deprived of honor is to be denied the possibility of ever figuring in the esteem stakes; it is to be refused the chance to play in the esteem-seking game.

Honor in this sense is perhaps the most important human need after our material needs are met. Pettit does not offer examples at first (his examples are discussed below), so I offer this one. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers; he was murdered while working on it. Here’s a Smithsonian article on the strike, which features this thrilling image.

I Am A Man

David Remnick of the New Yorker recently worte: “W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to enact policies to give freedmen land, a decent education, or voting rights resided, first and foremost, in “his inability to picture Negroes as men.”” I don’t know if Dr. King and the other organizers were consciously thinking of this quote, and I don’t know exactly what they meant by the words on the signs. But to me, the men in this picture demand recognition as a human beings. These men were willing to die rather than endure second class status. They insisted on being recognized as equal participants in society. Fair wages were an issue, but that’s not what the signs demand. They are not inferiors begging for fair treatment, or dependants asking for a higher allowance. They are each on of the Men in All Men Are Created Equal. They demand what Pettit would call honor.

Once you notice the demand for this kind of honor, you see it everywhere. This is from an op-ed by Moira Donegan in The Guardian on Jeffrey Epstein:

He was protected by the broad cultural antipathy toward treating sexual abuse as real harm, the often hostile reaction to the premise that teenage girls should matter as much as adult men.

This is from a piece on being a good customer at a restaurant, also in the Guardian:

There are strategies galore for dealing with rudeness, which mostly end with a waiter spitting in your food, but the main reason you should behave properly as a diner is that you are human and so are they.

Denial of honor in societies based on noninterference

Pettit says a society which prioritizes freedom as non-interference can permit institutional humiliation, domination, and denial of honor, even in a constitutional system supposedly based on equality. How? Imagine you are charged with making laws in such a society. You will recognize that all laws are interferences with the freedom of your members. They will have to observe laws, they will be penalized if they violate them.* You will recognize that some forms of interference are unlikely, and others unlikely to cause what you consider serious injury. You will not want to pass laws to limit the freedom of your members unless you are certain that the benefits will outweigh the costs of enforcement.

In that situation, some people will have the ability to interfere with the liberty of others. People will know that those others can interfere with their freedom, even to dominate them. That in turn leads to servility: the effort to avoid domination, and to ingratiate themselves with the dominator. He offers this example:

Think of the way Mary Wollstonecraft deplores the “littlensses” and “sly tricks” and “cunning” to which women are driven, in her view, because of their vulnerability in relation to their husbands.

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of man; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent of their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish.

Cites omitted.

This “cunning” is dramatized in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen**.

“Elizabeth Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.


1. In current usage, the word honor means formal respect, and we reserve it for special occasions: to honor the victorious US Women’s soccer team; to honor a dead war hero. In our usage, it is something we do woth respect to others, not something we seek or need for ourselves; it’s not as a personal matter. We occasionally use it to describe a goal for individuals: to live honorably. Pettit uses it more like a combination of political and social equality. In our political discourse, the word equality is contested, sadly. I’m going to use the term civic dignity, which is clumsy but at least not contested, and which seems to me to capture the essence of Pettit’s term honor. I will also use the words honor and dignity together to convey the idea.

2. It’s fascinating to read this material in the context of Trump and the Republicans. They flatly reject the premise that all humans are entitled to civic dignity. It reminds us that we have to fight, literally, for honor for all if we want to keep it for ourselves.


* Pettit also says that taxes are a violation of negative liberty, and that citizens will be taxed to pay for enforcing all laws. This is true at the state level, but not at the federal level. See, e.g. Beardsley Ruml, Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete.

** The context of this passage is that without quite saying so, Austen makes us understand that Caroline Bingley wants to attract the affections of Mr. Darcy. This isn’t the first time she has attacked Elizabeth, and it isn’t the last time she uses cunning to reach her goal. It’s passages like this one that make Pride and Prejudice worth multiple readings.