Why do dictatorships never last?

Elizabeth Anderson: "The modern company is a dictatorship"


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ZEIT ONLINE: Ms. Anderson, are we living in a dictatorship?

Elizabeth Anderson: Most Americans live under the dictatorship of their employers. Think of the #MeToo movement that showed how widespread sexual harassment is in the office. For me, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Workers experience all kinds of arbitrary and dignified treatment in the workplace. In Europe workers may be better protected, but there are also very vulnerable groups that can easily become victims, such as temporary workers. The modern company is a dictatorship, a private government of a few who are not elected, over many who have no say.

ZEIT ONLINE: But a company is different from a state. Isn't the comparison misleading?

Anderson: There are sure to be differences. Obviously, employers cannot throw their employees into jail like the state can. Nonetheless, we have to understand that any organization that has to coordinate the activities of its members needs some form of government. Like any government, this government has a constitution that can be democratic or authoritarian. Most companies tend to have an authoritarian constitution.

ZEIT ONLINE: After all, employees can quit if they are dissatisfied with their superiors.

Anderson: Leaving a company is definitely easier than leaving a country. But that alone is not enough to safeguard the rights of the members of an authoritarian organization. Think of the following situation: Before the end of communism there was freedom of movement within the Eastern Bloc. Those who wanted to emigrate only had the choice between other communist dictatorships. It is similar with companies. There are very few truly democratic companies in the USA in which employees have the say or at least extensive say. The realistic exit options for most workers are other dictatorships.


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ZEIT ONLINE: You write in your book that at work we are used to accepting things that we would never let a state get away with.

Anderson: Of course, a company has different requirements to meet than a state. The work of the employees must be coordinated in such a way that a certain production result or a certain service is achieved. The state does not have to coordinate its citizens for a specific purpose. Essentially, it must ensure the freedom of citizens and ensure that they do not step on one another's feet. Much therefore runs very indirectly. For what the state does, it does not have to closely dominate people's lives for eight hours a day. The state can therefore afford to proceed with comparatively gentle interventions.

ZEIT ONLINE: Employer not?

Anderson: Their powers over employees are usually less clearly defined and more extensive. Efficient employment contracts are incomplete, they do not specify everything exactly that an employee might be asked to do. All kinds of contingencies can arise during production that cannot be foreseen and are therefore not regulated in detail in the employment contract. But with that power comes the possibility of abuse. Bosses can easily give all sorts of orders to their employees - even those that don't have much to do with real work or are humiliating.

ZEIT ONLINE: For example?

Anderson: The slaughterhouses in the United States often have immigrants who speak little English and who are just happy to have a job. A very easily exploitable group. Some establishments forbade slaughter workers to use the toilets during shifts. The workers were therefore forced to come to work in diapers. That hurts their dignity.

ZEIT ONLINE: What companies are allowed to do is regulated by the state - and that is at least democratic for us. Are these dictatorships not legitimized in some way?

Anderson: It is not enough that we have democracy above the corporate level. Government agencies have very limited control in a country with thousands and thousands of companies. The world of work is so diverse and fragmented that workers within a company need a voice. At least in the USA, this is extremely seldom the case.

ZEIT ONLINE: You write: "Many directors of American companies who consider themselves libertarian individualists would be surprised to see themselves portrayed as dictators of a small communist government." How is it that we overlook tyranny in the workplace? Why, as it says in your book, do we so seldom talk about how bosses rule our lives?

Anderson: Because we have preserved an idea of ​​free markets that dates back to a time that cannot be compared with today. We cultivate a liberalism that is a holdover from an earlier era that blinds us to the present. For Adam Smith and other thought leaders, the free market was a liberation project directed against the government, serfdom, and the guild monopoly. People should be given the opportunity to become economically independent. To be his own boss - that was the promise of the free market, not wage labor. Abraham Lincoln once said that if you remain a dependent worker all your life, you also have a somewhat defective, dependent character. America is based on the dream of universal independence. Americans should be a race of small farmers, artisans, and tradesmen. The existence of an employee was never actually intended in this founding myth.

ZEIT ONLINE: You even go so far as to say that the free market was once a leftist idea.

Anderson: Absolutely. A society of independent small business owners is the ideal image of a society of equals. Nobody has to obey a boss. Everyone meets at eye level in the market.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why is so little of it left?

Anderson: The industrial revolution undermined the idea. For Adam Smith, the father of economic liberalism, it was still inconceivable that it could be efficient to produce certain goods on a large scale with a huge army of dependent workers. The needle factory, which he describes in the wealth of nations, has just ten employees. With industrialization, production was concentrated in large companies, making economic independence unattainable for many. However, this has not been adequately reflected in our political discourse. We talk about free markets today as we did in Smith's day, overlooking what is really going on. Political rhetoric always knows only two alternatives: the free market and state control. The company hardly appears. This picture obscures the fact that most people spend much of their waking hours under the supervision of these small private governments.