Elizabeth Anderson: Should We Have Democracy In The Workplace?

Employers have enormous amounts of power over workers. Elizabeth Anderson argues that workplaces should be more democratic, granting workers more power over their own lives and terms of employment.

Jun 22, 2023By Joseph T F Roberts, PhD Political Philosophy
elizabeth anderson democracy in the workplace


Not all workers notice how little say they have in how their workplace operates. Not only can employers regulate how and when they work, they can also exert control over workers outside of the workplace.


Elizabeth Anderson’s Private Government: How Employers Rule our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It shines light on the power of employers and argues that greater workplace democracy would help reduce the power employers have over employees.


Elizabeth Anderson on Employers and Employees 

portrait elizabeth anderson at her desk
Photo of Elizabeth Anderson, by John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Via wikimedia commons.


Employers have an enormous amount of control over workers. Not only can they determine what someone spends their work-day doing, when they have to turn up for work, when they get to go home, when they get to rest and what language they speak; in many instances employers’ power over people’s lives extends beyond the workplace. Employees can be drug tested to see if they have consumed illegal narcotics outside work, be required to adopt certain hairstyles, be required to support particular candidates, and fired for their off-duty social media posts.


Somewhat surprisingly, these blatant exercises of power have mostly escaped the attention of political philosophers (who would be outraged if a government had this amount of control over people’s lives). Based on her 2015 Tanner Lectures at Princeton University, Anderson’s book Private Government aims to shed light on these issues, providing a way of speaking about them, and proposing ways of mitigating the power of employers.


Free-markets and Egalitarian Social Relations 

private government front cover
Cover of Private Government by Elizabeth Anderson. Via Princeton University Press.

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Private Government is divided into two parts, each based on one of Anderson’s Tanner Lectures. Her first lecture, ‘When the Market was ‘Left’’ offers a  whistle-stop tour of the ideas of the Levellers, John Locke, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine. The chapter briefly outlines how their defenses of free-market capitalism were, originally, aimed at promoting more equality amongst people.


When classical liberals argued for economic freedoms, they did so as part of a wider programme aimed at demolishing not just economic monopolies, but also social, religious, and political monopolies. The Levellers, for example, argued that freedom and independence in matters of thought and religion required economic independence too (Anderson, 2017, p. 14).


In Locke, Smith and Paine’s vision of a free market, power is not concentrated in a small number of hands. Instead, the market is primarily composed of independent merchants, artisans, or participants in small-scale enterprises. In other words, it was a market of self-employed workers, working independently of and trading with one another.


portrait john locke
Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1779. Via the Hermitage Museum.


This diffusion of power, they argued, allows for more equal relations, as no individual is beholden to another. Neither the buyer or the seller of goods has the power to force other people to do their bidding. Both parties must agree to transact, and not having power over each other, they must agree to transact on terms that benefit both of them.


This, however, is not what came to pass. The advent of the industrial revolution shattered the hopes of building a more egalitarian world in which self-employed independent individuals traded with one another freely: ‘Economies of scale overwhelmed the economy of small proprietors, replacing them with large enterprises that employed many workers’ (Anderson, 2017, p. 33). As a consequence, the relations between employers and employees changed. Whereas self-employed individuals or small scale artisans had a personal stake in their working conditions, employers in large scale enterprises did not. Employers no longer did the same kind of work as their employees, making it easier for them to impose conditions they would not tolerate themselves. (Anderson, 2017, p. 34)


Private Government

empty cubicles office
Offices at the Oregon Department of Transportation. Via Wikimedia commons.


Anderson’s main claim in Private Government is that the modern industrial firm amounts to an arbitrary and unaccountable form of private government, a dictatorship in all but name.


According to Anderson, we are subject to a private government when two conditions obtain. First, ‘you are subordinate to authorities who can order you around and sanction you for not complying over some domain of your life’, and (2) the authorities treat it as none of your business […] what orders it issues or why it sanctions you.’ (Anderson, 2017, p. 45).


In the USA especially, companies don’t just claim to regulate employee’s activities whilst they are on the job; in many instances they also seek to regulate worker’s out-of-hour behaviors too. Perhaps the most egregious (historical) example of this tendency was the Ford company’s creation of a Sociological Department, which visited employee’s homes unannounced to conduct inspections. ‘Workers were eligible for Ford’s famous $5 daily wage only if they kept their homes clean ate diets deemed healthy, abstained from drinking, used the bathtub appropriately, did not take in boarders, avoided spending too much on foreign relatives, and were assimilated to American cultural norms’ (Anderson, 2017, p. 49).


Although no longer as extreme, workers are still subject to similar restrictions; especially when it comes to health insurance policies, which can include premiums for employees who do not comply with employer imposed wellness conditions. Higher earners and those with in-demand skills are able to escape the worst of this; but for those at the bottom of the hierarchy abuses are rampant and include unpredictable schedules, wage theft, sexual harassment and arbitrary dismissals.


Warehouse by Axisadman. Via Wikimedia commons.


At this point one might object that, unlike political dictatorships which tend to try and prevent the population from leaving their jurisdiction, people subject to the dictatorship of an employer are free to leave their jobs. In response, Anderson argues that, whilst people may be formally free to quit, for many employees the costs would be considerably too high. While the higher-skilled, higher-earning individuals in a firm may truly have a choice to leave, the lower-earners who already bear the brunt of the arbitrary power of managers are less likely to have the effective freedom to leave.


This isn’t to say that private governments and states are the same in all respects. Employers generally have much more limited power to sanction people than states. Whereas employers can fire people (i.e. cease to purchase their labor), modern states have a much wider range of punishment options, including deprivation of liberty through incarceration and, in some cases, death. That said, the rules that employers can impose on employees  are much more fine-grained, minute, and exacting than the rules prescribed by most democratic governments.


Four Ways of Bringing Democracy to the Workplace According to Elizabeth Anderson

picket line
Picket line by Hullian111. Via Wikimedia commons.


Towards the end of her second lecture, Anderson considers how the power of private government can be reduced. In general, Anderson argues, there are four options for mitigating the power of a government. The first option is to strengthen people’s rights to exit. Anderson suggests this could be done, for example, by abolishing non-compete clauses (which prohibit workers from taking second jobs in the same industry).


Other alternatives for strengthening people’s right to quit Anderson doesn’t consider would be for the government to offer generous unemployment benefits, the receipt of which isn’t conditional on being fired, or the provision of a universal basic income.


Another option Anderson considers is limiting employers’ power through an employees’ bill of rights, or a workplace constitution. This constitution could limit the employer’s ability to regulate out-of-work activities such as political speech and ensure better health and safety protections at work. However, as these protections will need to be uniform across industries, they will likely only offer minimum standards. Moreover, these protections are likely to be under-enforced at the lower levels of the job hierarchy, as making a claim will be harder for those with less resources. As a consequence, Anderson argues we need to explore a fourth option: giving workers’s voice in the private governments they are subjected to.


ballot box
Ballot Box by Rama. Via Wikimedia commons.


Just because work is organized hierarchically does not necessarily imply that those at the top of the hierarchy ought to be unaccountable to those they govern. There are two ways that workers could be given more voice: strengthening labor unions, and workplace democracy. However, although Anderson is clear on the direction of travel, the essay ends rather inconclusively in that she doesn’t explore precisely what form unionization or workplace democracy should take. Instead, she calls for experimentation with new forms of corporate governance to remedy the defects of private government.


To fully understand her proposal, therefore, we need to go beyond Anderson’s brief book. One way in which workplace democracy could be instituted is by giving workers a vote in the same way that shareholders have a vote. Another option would be to go further and institute a cooperative form of management, giving workers shares in the company (and thus votes at shareholder meetings). There are countless other options, all of which will have their pros and cons. However, given that what is at stake is freedom in our work-life (which takes up most of most people’s waking hours), it is clear these options are worth exploring.




Anderson, Elizabeth. (2017) Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It) Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ.

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By Joseph T F RobertsPhD Political PhilosophyI am currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Law and Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Prior to this, I completed my Ph.D. in Political Theory at the University of Manchester, where I wrote a thesis on the moral permissibility of Body Modification Practices and, specifically, whether or not we have the right to pursue them without being interfered with by others. My current research focuses on the limits of consent, embodiment, and the regulation of recreational drugs.