It’s the rare person who works for a living and can’t easily recall their worst boss. In October, The New York Times and The New Yorker reported that for dozens of women in Hollywood, that boss was Harvey Weinstein. The revelations prompted a surge of women in other industries to come forward with their own accounts of sexual misconduct by their professional superiors. Among the still-ballooning roster of prominent men accused of lecherous or predatory behavior were Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, celebrity chef John Besh, and a number of high-status media personalities, including former Today host Matt Lauer, former talk-show host Charlie Rose, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, and former NPR and New York Times editor Michael Oreskes. All of these men, multiple women have alleged, exploited their positions of authority to sexually harass, coerce, or even assault their female subordinates.
Because the vast majority of the individuals reporting the misconduct have been women, it’s easy to see how sexism and misogyny shaped their treatment in the workplace. It’s also easy to offer “rape culture” as a shorthand explanation for why men like Weinstein were positioned to harass and assault women with impunity, sometimes for decades. But there’s another dimension to these cases of harassment and assault that has been somewhat less discussed. In the majority of the incidents that have come to light, the victims’ second-class status as women has been deeply entangled with their second-class status as employees.
Many of the incidents, as the journalist and Nation contributor Bryce Covert notes, expose loopholes in our federal labor laws, which currently deny sexual-harassment protection to independent contractors, a category that includes actresses and other freelance workers in the arts and entertainment industries. But even beyond that, these cases demonstrate the fundamental inequality of the employment relation itself. While most people understand that the predations of longtime abusers in the workplace are the result of those abusers’ inordinate “power,” it’s crucial to unpack exactly how that power operates and why it exists at all, if we’re to have any chance of contesting it.
This particular power dynamic is the subject of Private Government, the new book by Elizabeth Anderson, a professor of philosophy and women’s studies at the University of Michigan. In it, Anderson argues that employers today exert a degree of authority over their employees that, in many cases, is more restrictive than the authority that the state wields over its citizens. Employers can dictate how we dress, what we’re allowed to say on social media, even what we do with our free time. It is perfectly legal, Anderson notes, for Tyson Foods to refuse its poultry-plant workers bathroom breaks, or for Apple to rifle through the belongings of its retail staff on a daily basis, causing them to lose up to half an hour of their unpaid personal time waiting to be searched. It is also perfectly normal for employers to surveil workers’ communications, to order them to undergo medical testing, or to punish them for their political preferences. And yet, as Anderson points out, “if the U.S. government imposed such regulations on us, we would rightly protest that our constitutional rights were being violated.”
In part, this is because we are subject to more than one kind of government in our lives. Government, by Anderson’s definition, “exists wherever some have the authority to issue orders to others, backed by sanctions, in one or more domains of life.” Federal and state governments are, at least in theory, public—that is, constrained by democratic norms and law—and therefore we expect a degree of transparency, and also to have some say in the decision-making. Those in charge of corporations, however, make and execute rules privately and therefore exert total domination over their subjects. For subjects under private government, how the rules are crafted, or when and how they’re applied, is simply none of their business. Today, many of those rules are also deemed to be none of the public government’s business, either. “Private government,” Anderson writes, “is government that has arbitrary, unaccountable power over those it governs.”