This May Day, the Common Wealth think tank launched the UK hub for the Centre for Democratising Work. The Centre is hosting a series of conversations with key thinkers on how we can democratise, decommodify and decarbonise our workplaces. Here at Renewal, we will be posting some of this content. In this interview, Common Wealth’s Amelia Horgan spoke to philosopher Elizabeth Anderson about tyranny at work, the power of philosophy, and democracy.
Could you speak about the importance of starting theorising from or with the concrete experiences of ordinary people? How does this differ from a standard or other kind of theoretical or philosophical approaches?
I’m a pragmatist in the John Dewey tradition. Dewey argued that deliberation, including all kinds of moral and political deliberation, begins from problematic experiences in which the habits, norms, traditions, and rules of interaction that are currently in place are no longer working for people. Or maybe they never worked, but people didn’t have a chance to voice their discontent. And maybe they have to get together and share experiences in order to realise that say, a problematic experience they’re having, is not just them, that other people share similar things. And that could turn it into more of a political problem than an issue of self-blame. Basically, when people have problematic experiences, that makes it feel like “I can’t go on in this way; we really need to change something”. That’s what sparks critical reflection on the way things are — we search for a diagnosis of those problematic experiences, see whether other people share them — share our ideas about what’s going on. Maybe at that point, we will need to enlist empirical researchers of various kinds in the social sciences to help us organise some causal analysis of what’s going wrong, and then we can start thinking constructively about how to solve or at least ameliorate the problem that we’ve diagnosed. But basically, until we reached the point of deliberation, reflection isn’t really going to get us much.
Often, I think, in political philosophy, we take for granted certain structures and then we imagine justifications for them. But what we really want to know is “Does something need to change?”. Pragmatism gives us an entry into that by taking seriously the problematic experiences of ordinary people. It’s very easy to construct an ideal theory justification of some system or way of organising human affairs which looks great on paper but it’s not really connecting with the experiences of the people who live under those structures. Dewey always stressed the need to talk to the people who are subject to those structures, to find out whether they’re really working. Abstract theory isn’t going to tell you that.
The emphasis on deliberation seems important. It’s not just experience but experience plus some form of deliberation or collective thinking.
Absolutely. If you look at social movements, that’s often how they arise. The second-wave feminist movement started with consciousness raising. Women who were discontent with their lives and the constraints that they were living under got together and asked: “Well, what feels wrong?” “What is problematic?”. And then they see “Oh my goodness, we actually have some shared experiences here!”. And from there, critical theorisation takes place.
Can philosophers or philosophy change the world? And if so, how?
I think philosophy does have enormous impact. And so did the great British economist, John Maynard Keynes. I’m going to read you a very famous passage that that Keynes wrote in his classic The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. He wrote:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers both when they are right, and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.
His basic point is that ideas rule the world. It couldn’t be otherwise because all of our laws, customs, and procedures are organised ways of getting things done and are based on ideas. Those ideas embed assumptions about who is entitled to what, who has rights, how duties are to be distributed, who has authority, who must be listened to. All of these ideas are embedded in the way we operate and get things done in the world. How else could we be ruled? Even when we’re doing things by habit or custom, those are just ideas that have been habituated so that we no longer have to think about them and can simply operate automatically.
So, philosophers are able then to create the ideas which end up habituated, and they can analyse and diagnose the ones that exist within it within a particular historical moment.
The next question is about workplace and public government. What brought you to the question of workers and the freedom or the power that employers have over employees?
That’s a great question. It’s a combination of being exposed to philosophy when I was an undergraduate and then going to work and finding that the critiques of how capitalism organises labour were right.
When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to be an economics major. I was studying economics, but in my second semester of my first year in college, I took Introduction to Philosophy. In that course, we read Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which contain a biting critique of what Marx condemned as alienated labour under capitalism. Marx has a very rich theory of alienation at work. Among the things he criticised was that work under capitalism puts people in antagonistic relationships to one another. Workers compete dog eat dog with other workers for the relatively few jobs available. Capitalists are busy trying to extract as much labour from workers while minimising their pay. People are in essentially antagonistic relationships. Also, work in the factory system during the Industrial Revolution was tedious and mind-numbing. Formerly under the craftsman-based system of manufacturing you had real skills, and it was kind of interesting, you’re designing the product, you are using manual labour to realise an idea in your head into the object using multiple skills and multiple tools. And then under the factory system, you don’t get to use your imagination to design things because that’s all in the design department. And you don’t use multiple tools and multiple skills anymore because each factory labourer was assigned to a single operation that they had to repeat endlessly throughout the day. Adam Smith also complained about that in his famous study of the pin factory, where he noted that one person would be assigned to polishing the tip of a pin hundreds of times a day, and another would be cutting the wire to the exact length of a pin and so forth, and broke it down to multiple operations, each one assigned to a single person.
Smith, like Marx, lamented the fact that this is mind-numbing, boring work that dulls the mind. It fails to provide a field in which people can exercise a wide variety of skills. Smith was deeply worried about that. Marx turned it into a biting critique of the whole system. Smith was more ambivalent because he saw that the factory system massively increased productivity. It could produce way more pins per hour with fewer workers than crafting each pin individually. And so, he was ambivalent, but deeply worried about the impact — what do we make of ourselves and how are we degrading our own capacities and virtues by being reduced for most of the waking day to a single operation? Both of them were pretty much on the same page in terms of what was wrong.
Anyway, when I got a job at a bank in the summer after my second year in college, it wasn’t at all like the factory system; it wasn’t brutal, unsafe, and polluted. Nevertheless, I did notice that the workers were under a system of domination, where the boss can impose certain structures on the workers without any consultation. Had consultation taken place, things could work out a lot better. I was a bookkeeper in a bank around 1979. We were in an open office architecture, which was great for the bookkeepers, because we could pass documents easily from desk to desk. At the same time, we could also keep up a little sociability, talk to each other, make jokes or whatever during the working day.
And then our manager imposed cubicles on us. These days open offices have returned to popularity and now you have lots of workers who are coming in with noise-cancelling headphones, because they can’t stand the chatter. It all depends what kind of work you’re engaging, whether you need to concentrate, or whether it’s relatively routine and compatible with chatting.
We objected because our work lives were far less efficient when we had to get up out of our desk and walk around to another cubicle to exchange documents that we needed to process, rather than just reaching out and passing the document to the person behind us. It’s less efficient, but it also cut us off from each other. Talk about alienation of workers from each other! We were feeling that, and we objected. Keeping the open office structure would have been better for both the bank and the workers, because we would have been more efficient, and we could have this collegial atmosphere that was shut off. Without any exposure to Marxist theory, my colleagues in the bookkeeping department spontaneously said: “Oh, our boss is doing this just to isolate us so they can control us more” — exactly what Marx would have said!
That was one problematic experience I found at work. It wasn’t horribly oppressive; we were paid reasonably, and it wasn’t awful like the old factory system. But you could see how that authoritarian structure where the boss refused to consult the workers led to a worse situation with no real gain for the workers or the bank.
That inchoate or everyday sense of that unfreedom or the feeling of the employer or the manager being on your back is so tangible to so many people. I think that’s one of the real strengths of the idea of domination.
You describe workplaces as undemocratic, even dictatorial, or subject to private government, what do you mean by that?
Within the workplace, the employer, certainly in the United States and the UK, has overwhelming power. A lot of that is derived from the doctrine of employment at will. So, in every state in the United States, other than Montana, employers can fire workers for any reason or no reason at all, except with a tiny number of exceptions that mostly have to do with discrimination – they’re not allowed to fire people on the basis of race, gender, religion, age. That means that employers have effectively dictatorial control over workers. I want to stress that it’s not just the control that they have while the worker is at work, because they can fire workers for any reason at all. It’s not uncommon for bosses to fire workers because they disagree with opinions or political positions they’ve taken off duty, even if they never bring those opinions and political positions into the workplace. People can be fired for supporting a particular political candidate, or saying stuff on Facebook that the employer disagrees with. They can also be fired for lifestyle choices. Some people smoke pot over the weekends. I don’t think they should be fired for that. I don’t think it’s any of the boss’s business. Now, if they show up stoned, and they’re not performing well on Monday, okay, they could be fired for poor performance. But they shouldn’t be fired if they show up sober and they’re working just fine on Monday. It’s a lifestyle choice. Not necessarily wise, but it’s none of the boss’s business to police that kind of behaviour. Employers often put pressure on workers to contribute to their political causes. They’re monitored for whether they contribute to the corporate political action committee. I find this scandalous. It’s none of the boss’s business, what political causes a worker supports.
But even on duty, I think the authority of bosses over workers is often problematic. We find workers subjected to hyper-intensive surveillance these days, where every keystroke on their computers is monitored. With the pandemic and the rise of remote work, people have to have their cameras on at home, and they have software that makes sure that their eyes are on the screen every last moment. This is nuts. It’s not even promoting productivity, because we do know that human beings can’t have 100 per cent concentration all the time. Our minds work better if we concentrate for a stretch and then we take a little break. Maybe we’re just like browsing on the web, but we need those breaks, or a little daydreaming. And then we can get back and we can be more productive and creative. So, it’s a kind of false productivity monitoring. But it’s also oppressive to be monitored so intensively all the time. It’s an expression of distrust, and it’s an attempt to exploit every last motion and minute of a worker’s day.
The employers’ authority over workers is oppressive, both on duty and off duty.
How does the current arrangement of work harm workers in addition to that feeling of being mistrusted or the effects of surveillance? Does it hurt society as a whole?
Let’s keep in mind that most adults are workers, most of them are in an employment situation. Some people are self-employed, but the proportion is not that large in the rich democracies. So that’s a huge chunk of society.
But also, I think that the antagonistic relationship between workers and employers has its own costs. Class conflict is not the best place to be. In the United States, we’re seeing more and more strikes. I support striking workers. This raises the question of why do workers so frequently have to resort to strikes and other work actions just to be heard? There’s a better way to do things. That is for workers to have an organised voice within the firm where their interests and concerns are automatically fitted in the structure of how the firm operates. Workers need to have a say about the conditions of their work. If you do that there’s less reason to strike because workers have influence over how things operate.
What’s the best way to change the arrangement of work to reduce workplace unfreedom?
The ideal that’s always been put forth — I think it’s great, but I also think it’s hard to achieve — is workers’ cooperatives, where workers own the firm where they are working, or they have shares if it’s a large firm. The classic example is Mondragon in Spain, which is a big conglomerate with lots of different business entities beneath it. All the workers have shares in this corporation, as well as a voice in their specific workplace. Workers’ cooperatives can be really a great system. But how accessible is that for the ordinary worker? Maybe it’s not so easy to move to that system, partly because workers would have to raise a lot of capital to buy out the current shareholders.
A more accessible form of bringing in workers’ voice would be codetermination. This is a system of joint management between workers and representatives of shareholders. That wouldn’t require a total reorganisation of share ownership. It’s been working in Germany for decades. Since the post-war era, it’s spread to many countries in Europe, especially Scandinavia. I think there’s enormous scope for expanding and deepening codetermination so that workers have a stronger voice.
In codetermination, workers’ voice operates at two different levels. First, workers sit on the board of directors. Board membership can play an important role, especially in strategic decisions — for instance, about outsourcing production offshore — that have a profound impact on the prospects of current employees, their ability to retain their jobs. But boards of directors in modern capitalist corporations do not have day-to-day responsibility for how the work process is organised. They have limited contact with how things are operating. Second, under codetermination there are works councils, where workers also have direct managerial responsibility at the shop floor level, where the actual experience of work on a day-to-day basis is determined. That’s where work processes are determined — the actual content of those processes, and where people work out issues such as pace and scheduling. These are critical features of how well work is working for workers. If anything, I think probably the works councils at the shop floor have a more direct impact on the nature and conditions of work than at the strategic level of the board of directors.
In Private Government, you point to marginalisation of trade unions within American public life as a reason for thinking that they are perhaps less likely practically to be to be vehicles for this kind of transformation. I wonder whether the recent strike wave has pointed to ways in which they could be viable agents for changing the workplace.
Ah, so, let me just explain some peculiarities of the US situation with labour unions.
Labour union membership as a percentage of all workers has been declining steadily since the end of World War Two. There are many reasons for this. There have been changes in the law. There was a notorious labour union law reform in 1947 that constrained union activities. Also, since the 1980s, corporations have adopted extremely aggressive methods for destroying unions. Even when these methods were illegal, the federal government failed to stop them. The labour union organisation model in the United States — in which you have to organise workers shop floor by shop floor — is very tedious and extremely expensive. It means that in a corporation like Amazon, a giant corporation with many workplaces in all these different warehouses, you have to organise the workers warehouse by warehouse rather than all at once.
In the 1930s, and 40s, you had vertically integrated firms. The Ford Motor Company was a giant place concentrated in Southeast Michigan. You could organise huge numbers of workers in one drive because Ford employed them in one place. But these days, corporate structures are fissured into many more employers, each of which only employs a small number of people. Most people don’t even have formal employment relationships where they work. Apple, for instance — a supergiant corporation — only has a few thousand permanent employees. There’s a lot of gig workers, workers on temporary contracts, workers outsourced from other firms to come in to work on a project, temporary workers of all kinds whose employers are actually the temp agency, all kinds of ways that corporations have devised to avoid having a formal employment relationship with the people who are actually working for them. Those are all ways to shed the costs of employment and to derail any attempts to organise workers as a coherent body.
There are many reasons why unions are in decline. What has risen in their place is a series of worker movements that are broadly known as “Alt Labor”. These are people who are not represented by labour unions, but they still have rights to organise protests, they can go on strike and so forth. A lot of the most creative worker agitation these days is taking place under Alt Labor organisation. They’re not subject to some of the same constraints that labour unions are, and they don’t have to undertake the costs of organising. But it also means that they lack certain rights. They don’t have the right of collective bargaining. We have a very fractured and fragmented mode of worker organisation in the United States. But if anything, that’s making them more active these days than a lot of the traditional labour unions, which are mostly just trying to conserve benefits for the shrinking number of people who already belong. Most of the traditional unions, with some exceptions, are not organising very successfully to organise new groups of workers.
Do workplaces that are democratic or give space to worker voice sufficiently address the problematic balance of power between workers and employers or in general or are there additional steps needed to address that?
I think a lot more needs to be done besides altering the internal governance of firms. There’s been an increasing concentration of industry. In any given sector of production, fewer and fewer firms are controlling the vast majority of production or sales. That ends up having bad effects.
Take for instance the retail sector: there are a few giants such as Amazon and Walmart. Amazon has an overwhelming advantage in online retail. They’ve used that to squeeze third party vendors. Amazon is taking a higher and higher percentage of their revenues, because they have an effective monopoly on online sales. Or you could take Walmart, which also has an extremely exploitive relationship to its vendors. It can bargain very hard for extremely low prices. These vendors don’t have a serious alternative. If they’re not selling at Walmart, they can’t sell at volume. Because it’s cutthroat competition to get shelf space at Walmart they get squeezed. That means that they have to squeeze their workers. This whole process is manifested across the economy.
We’re experiencing a form of capitalism that’s called the fissured workplace, replacing vertical integration, where a big firm like the Ford Motor Company or General Motors would do everything. There used to be a famous auto plant called River Rouge, where the Ford Motor Company made their own glass and their own steel — even the basic materials — and then they assembled cars at the end of this process; all on the same site. That’s long gone. Now everything is outsourced to suppliers and all that Ford does is assemble the final product. Apple is an even more extreme case. It makes almost none of its own components. It outsources the manufacture of parts of the iPhone to dozens of different manufacturers. And it doesn’t even assemble the final product. It outsources that job to Foxconn in China. Apple has a monopoly on all the intellectual property, the branding, the marketing, the image-making. That’s really all it does. It does the design; it has the intellectual property over the design work.
Apple is enormously profitable because they’re collecting all of the monopoly rents that are due to them in virtue of their ownership of all the patents and the branding power. That means that all the suppliers get squeezed. The suppliers make profits by tightening the screws on the workers. Whereas under the old-fashioned, vertically integrated workplace, all the workers shared in the rents that were being collected. That’s why in the heyday of labour unions the external benefits of work were relatively high for ordinary workers. I’m not saying that the content of the work was great — that was often very boring and tedious and dangerous. But the wages and benefits were high because the workers shared in all the rents that were being collected.
But now most workers are cut out because of the fissured workplace. We have to do major antitrust to break up these big monopolies, to prevent them from exercising illegitimate market power — to squeeze the vast majority of workers in smaller firms who are in a subordinate relationship to the firm that holds all of the intellectual property. We have to limit their ability to hoard profits just for themselves and their shareholders.
Is there anything that democratisation should be balanced against, any trade-offs?
The classic justification for the current authoritarian structure of the workplace is based on efficiency. The idea is that you’re going to be way more efficient with an authoritarian structure. Many studies have been done on codetermination, particularly on Germany, which invented that system. Where studies have found efficiency differences, they’re insignificant and not robust. Similarly, for workers cooperatives — it’s hard to find serious downsides to cooperatives. There is one important upside of workers’ cooperatives, an extremely important difference between owning the firm versus being an employee of the firm. When there is a recession, they don’t fire people. Instead, they institute work-sharing. Everybody takes a cut in hours and hence a cut in their income. You have to do belt-tightening, but that’s a lot less bad than being tossed out and then having to apply for uncertain unemployment insurance and be subject to all the insecurities of desperately seeking work somewhere and possibly having to take a major step down.
Workers in cooperatives collectively take care of each other. Traditional capitalist firms will just fire a bunch of people. They won’t cut pay much, because if you cut pay, the best workers are going to leave. Then, of course, the remaining workers have to take on the load. Their work intensifies without an increase in pay. The result is higher inequality.
Your work politicised a relationship of power that had maybe received less scrutiny than other asymmetrical power relations within political theory or political philosophy. What do you make of the turn to work within those two disciplines? Which of the directions within that turn do you find the most exciting?
Within political philosophy there have been trends in the past few decades toward analysing power outside of the state. Before then, political philosophy was just obsessed with state power. That was a kind of ideology that didn’t make a lot of sense. People were thinking, well, that’s where the power is because that’s where the law is. Yet the state structures power in other domains and dimensions of social life.
In feminist theory and critical race theory, people were theorising power outside of specifically state structures, power that’s exercised more broadly in society, some of it upheld by laws, but a lot of it upheld by customs and social norms. I find the workplace an interesting place to be doing political theory, because these organisations are backed by law, but they are also able to create their own internal laws of operation. They have a sharper organisational structure and force that they can use to enforce the norms that they create, than what you have more loosely in civil society generally, where people are interacting and maybe obey certain oppressive norms, but not via an organisational structure.
Think about the movement for Democratizing Work — initiated by Isabelle Ferreras, Julie Battilana, and Dominque Méda — I, among many others, am a signatory to their statement. This is turning into an international workers movement. Not just for the sake of workers, but for the sake of the earth. We have reason to believe that companies in which workers have a voice are more likely to go green, and they’re just more likely to be decent.
One of the things we discovered during the pandemic — certainly in the United States, and in the UK as well — was extreme burnout on the part of healthcare workers. The causes are somewhat different in the two countries. In the United States, for-profit corporations dominate the healthcare sector. To compete with the for-profits, non-profits are adopting many of their techniques. This has led to systematic short staffing of healthcare workers, especially nurses. The remaining nurses are subject to gross overwork in which they suffer moral injury because they’re unable to do right by each of the larger number of patients for whom they have responsibility. They feel like they can’t do their duty by their patients.
Doctors and nurses felt the same under the pandemic in the UK, even though it’s publicly-funded, because the Tory party has been savagely cutting the budget for the National Health Service for many years, relative to the increasing demand for services. So, you have extreme staff shortages and similar rates of moral injury inflicted on healthcare workers. The Conservatives want to push people into for-profit services, despite the disastrous American experience with for-profit healthcare. The only credible way to make profits in healthcare (outside of price-gouging) is to cut the staff, cut the training of the staff, force them into incredibly long unbearable hours, and deprive them of the ability to properly care for their patients. If workers control things like healthcare systems, they will not inflict moral injury on themselves. They will organise themselves in ways that will enable them to do right by their patients. For-profit corporations don’t care about that; nor do non-profit organisations when they are forced to compete with the for-profits for patients. It drives them all into a catastrophic situation. So, we should democratise work for the sake of patients’ health, for the sake of the moral conscience of the workers, and for the sake of greening the economy, because most workers also don’t want to destroy the habitability of the earth.
What book or other texts should people read about work and workers’ power?
I think that the most accessible work is Democratize Work. It’s a short, accessible read. If people want something a little bit more on the academic side, they could check out Private Government. Thomas Piketty has interesting recommendations in Time for Socialism.
If people want to have an understanding of why we are where we are, and why work is the way it is, I have a book coming out in September from Cambridge University Press called Hijacked: How Neoliberalism Turned the Work Ethic Against Workers and How Workers Can Take It Back. It’s a big romp through the history of the work ethic from the original Puritans who invented it in England in the 17th century, all the way up to the present. I show that what passes for the work ethic today is a version of the work ethic that was hijacked by lazy landlords and exploitative capitalists, who were the original targets of Puritan critique. If you read these Puritan ministers and their sermons, they’re attacking the lazy landlords and all kinds of businesses that have exploitative and oppressive business models. It’s those people who hijacked the work ethic and gave us both the awful working conditions under which most workers have to operate, as well as the very stinting and oppressive welfare state we find in the US and UK.
I show that there’s another side to the work ethic that comes from the original Puritans, and that was developed through the history of political economy, through some of the classic thinkers, including Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, in a line of progressive thinking that ultimately led to social democracy. I’m showing that social democracy has its deep roots in the original Puritan work ethic, and that it’s a more honest and consistent development of that ethic. I’m arguing for a revival and strengthening and renewal of social democracy. What I’m arguing for is pretty similar to what Thomas Piketty is also arguing for. But I think my book will be more accessible than his long history, Capital and Ideology, which is still a fabulous book, but maybe at 1064 pages is a bit of a slog for most people. Mine is considerably shorter and it also goes into more detail into why the welfare systems of the UK and the United States are so awful.
Is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven’t covered yet?
Can I just add one more thing that I think is really important? The United States is subject to democratic backsliding, under the pressure of populist authoritarian movements. To a lesser degree, the UK is also affected by this phenomenon. This raises the importance of democratising the workplace. Because when workers have a voice in the workplace, which is a little government, they develop the skills of democratic deliberation in discussing discussion, that can deliver immediate results that they can experience in their day-to-day lives. And that can reinforce commitment to democracy at the larger scale of the nation. Workplace democracy develops civic mindedness and skills of democratic deliberation. So, democratising the workplace is also a very important way to support democracy at larger scales.
Elizabeth Anderson is the Max Shaye Professor of Public Philosophy at the University of Michigan and the author of Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) (Princeton University Press, 2017). Amelia Horgan is Common Wealth’s Democratising Work Lead and Editorial Strategist. She is the author of Lost in Work (Pluto Press, 2021).