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August 30, Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: Reviewed by Wayne Norman, Duke University The pumping heart of this little volume is furnished by Elizabeth Anderson's two already-published Tanner Lectures, delivered at Princeton in Complementing the broad and transdisciplinary subject matter of Anderson's lectures are chapter-length commentaries from the historian of modern England, Ann Hughes; the literary theorist and historian of ideas, David Bromwich; the political philosopher, Niko Kolodny; and the political economist and small businessperson, Tyler Cowen.
The two lectures are preceded by Stephen Macedo's introduction, which surveys the entire discussion. And the volume concludes with Anderson's lengthy reply to her commentators. The three-part title highlights the three interrelated objectives Anderson stakes out for this bold essay.
The first part of the subtitle, "How Employers Rule Our Lives," identifies the neglected normative issue she is prodding her readers to take seriously. She concedes that her readers will be mostly political philosophers, or students aspiring to be, but she writes in a style that could engage any educated reader interested in problems of social justice.
The entire book could work equally well, albeit in different ways, in a freshman or a graduate seminar. Through dozens of quick examples of oppressive, yet perfectly legal, managerial practices, Anderson unveils what she considers to be the pervasive "authoritarian governance in our work and off-hours lives" by corporate America in the twenty-first century.
She reckons that a quarter of employees already "understand that they are subject to dictatorship at work. But this 80 percent receives almost no recognition in contemporary public and academic discourse. Of course, questions about the legitimacy of authority; the justice of government-determined privileges and rights; freedom and coercion; and the role of the governed in decisions about and by the governors, are all core concerns in political philosophy.
It follows, then, that the critique and reform of private government should be right in the political philosopher's wheelhouse. Political philosophers should be bothered by the fact that "private governments impose controls on workers that are unconstitutional for democratic states to impose on citizens who are not convicts or in the military.
As she has done throughout her career, Anderson aims to blow up what she sees as her scholarly community's blinkered agenda of core problems and its misconceived core concepts.
And to do this she needs to explain why something so apparently obvious has managed to go unnoticed by most mainstream scholars in the tradition for as long as anyone can remember.
Anderson will weave such an "error theory" from several distinct strands. Much of the first lecture revisits English and American social history before and after the Industrial Revolution, along with a fresh rereading of some of the key contemporary texts in political economy from Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Karl Marx and others.
For this was a period, Anderson argues, when transforming the conditions of working life was considered to be a necessary step toward realizing political ideals of freedom and equality. She also engages explicitly in ideological critique, notably of libertarian and Cold War influences on academic and public perceptions.
And she defends philosophically the reconceptualization of her two-word title. As she puts it in the Reply to Commentators, "The main point I have argued in these lectures is that the problem of workplace governance needs to be put on the table for what it is: How does one go about getting a largely-ignored problem "put on the table for what it is"?
There are a few famous examples of great philosophers being awoken from dogmatic slumbers, scales falling from eyes, upon exposure to a clever and seemingly irrefutable argument to recall Kant's and Bentham's recollections of reading Hume. But tight philosophical arguments are unlikely, on their own, to shake up a calcified agenda reflecting what the gatekeepers of an academic field's journals consider to be the problems that really matter.
Topics and approaches typically become hot for unpredictable reasons, and path-dependence ensures they will stay hot, or at least warm, long after they have ceased to be interesting.
Once-vital debates are more likely simply to die of exhaustion than to be killed decisively by an argument for their irrelevance. It is even rarer that a scholarly community is convinced by way of a long and careful scholarly argument that it has been blind to a large quadrant of its legitimate problem space; especially when rectifying this neglect would require philosophers to bone up on historical and contemporary facts, and to skill up on sophisticated theories from law, economics, sociology, and psychology all of which are indispensible for understanding the dynamics and reform of organizational cultures and governance structures.
As a case in point, consider how little impact on the field some philosophically respectable works on Anderson's very topic have had so far. The Political Authority of Corporate Executives University of Pennsylvania Press, -- that tackle exactly the problems that Anderson wants philosophers to take seriously.
Yet Anderson herself seems never to have cited or read? The opening lines of McMahon's most recent monograph announce: In a modern capitalist society, the senior executives of large, profit-seeking corporations play an important role in shaping the collective life of the society as a whole.
I call the species of capitalism that results public capitalism. Compare how they introduce their common problem. Here are the first lines of McMahon's first book: This book is an essay in political philosophy. It depicts government and management as two components of an integrated system of social authority that is essentially political in nature.
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