free market

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 - 9:22pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 30/01/2018 - 9:22pm in

Well, I feel better now.

On 30/01/18 13:15, Talent Acquisition Team [company name witheld] wrote:
> Hello Matthew,
> We're writing to you regarding your application for the above position of
> [interchangeable anonymous cubicle drone] at [company name witheld].
> Unfortunately, we have not received your completed Talent Assessment so are
> unable to progress your application at this time. If you’re still interested in
> working with us, please refer to the [company name witheld] Careers
> <>
> or LinkedIn page <> for opportunities.
> We wish you all the very best for your future career choices and hope to hear
> from you again soon.
> Warm regards,
> Talent Acquisition Team - [company name witheld]

Hi Warmly Regarding TAT,

That would be because your online application process set a cookie with a very limited expiry time given the amount of information I was expected to assemble, and deliberately cut me off (my working hypothesis at the time), or else just crashed or futzed up in some unidentifiable way.

I was a software developer in a past life, but - even so - was not inclined to report a bug, even if there were some self-evident way to do so. You see, the larger issue, to the determined jobseeker, arises from losing whole days to combing through job search websites which all screen-scrape each other, and consequently all index the same jobs, albeit with differently-dreadful database query interfaces. Once you have painstakingly whittled down a shortlist your patience and optimism levels are at a low ebb, while your bleak hopelessness and can't-give-a-fuckedness is soaring.

To my mind, ignorant as I am about the transition from HR to TATs (which appears to have happened about the time The Rock became Dwayne Johnson; coincidence?), the personal qualities required to submit, submit, and submit again in a lengthy and repeatedly failing multi-stage job application process (never mind what is required to get far enough to begin that process) are not necessarily consonant with what is desirable across all the roles in a large organisation. In the jargon of a hypothetical recruiter, I expect this to yield applicants who are less "warm and customer-focused" than they are "detail-oriented", as in "Dustin Hoffman turned in bravura performance as the detail-oriented Rain Man".

However, I am pleased to report that for you, the fine people of the Talent Acquisition Team, the news is all good. Given that the cascade of flaws, all the way up the recruitment chain from to your good selves, introduces so much baked-in randomness to the process, anything that you could personally add is negligible.

You are off the hook! After showing up for a morning coffee and apricot danish, you might as well spend the rest of the day in the pub! I only wish that I could join you there on the coalface of the optimally efficient job market. If you find your roster of talent too loaded with twenty-something boys who can't tear their gaze away from their shoes, just drag in a homeless person from the street. They're quirky! They're the new office character! They think outside the box, then go home to it!

Hope this has helped, and warm regards,


American Tsarism

Going though YouTube the other day, I found a clip, whose title quoted a political analyst, radical or politicians, as saying that the American political elite now regards its own, ordinary citizens as a foreign country. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten who the speaker was, but I will have to check the video out. But looking at the title of what the leader of the Conservative branch of the Polish nationalist movement said about the Russian Empire. He described how the tsars and the autocracy exploited and oppressed ordinary Russians, stating baldly that ‘they treat their people as a foreign, conquered nation’. Which just about describes tsarist rule, with its secret police, anti-union, anti-socialist legislation, the way it ground the peasants and the nascent working class into the ground for the benefit of big business and the country’s industrialisation. The system of internal passports, which were introduced to keep the peasants on the land, and paying compensation to their masters for the freedom they had gained under Tsar Alexander, and to continue working for them for free, doing feudal labour service: the robot, as it was known in Czech. It’s no accident that this is the word, meaning ‘serf’ or ‘slave’, that Karel Capek introduced into the English and other languages as the term for an artificial human in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots.

We’re back to Disraeli’s ‘two nations’ – the rich, and everyone else, who don’t live near each other, don’t have anything in common and who may as well be foreign countries. It’s in the Tory intellectual’s Coningsby, I understand. Disraeli didn’t really have an answer to the problem, except to preach class reconciliation and argue that the two could cooperate in building an empire. Well, imperialism’s technically out of favour, except for right-wing pundits like Niall Ferguson, so it has to be cloaked in terms of ‘humanitarian aid’. Alexander the Great was doing the same thing 2,500 years ago. When he imposed tribute on the conquered nations, like the Egyptians and Persians, it wasn’t called ‘tribute’. It was called ‘contributions to the army of liberation’. Because he’d liberated them from their tyrannical overlords, y’see. The Mongols did the same. Before taking a town or territory, they’d send out propaganda, posing as a force of liberators come to save the populace from the tyrants and despots, who were ruling them.

What a joke. Someone asked Genghis Khan what he though ‘happiness’ was. He’s supposed to have replied that it was massacring the enemy, plundering his property, burning his land, and outraging his women. If you’ve ever seen the 1980s film version of Conan the Barbarian, it’s the speech given by Conan when he’s shown in a cage growing up. I think the film was written by John Milius, who was responsible for Dirty Harry ‘and other acts of testosterone’ as Starburst put it.

And it also describes exactly how the elite here regard our working and lower-middle classes. We’re crushed with taxes, more of us are working in jobs that don’t pay, or forced into something close to serfdom through massive debt and workfare contracts. The last oblige people to give their labour free to immensely profitable firms like Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s. And at the same time, the elite have been active in social cleansing – pricing the traditional inhabitants of working class, and often multicultural areas, out of their homes. These are now gentrified, and become the exclusive enclaves of the rich. Homes that should have people in them are bought up by foreigners as an investment and left empty in ‘land-banking’. And you remember the scandal of the ‘poor doors’ in London, right? This was when an apartment block was designed with two doors, one of the rich, and one for us hoi polloi, so the rich didn’t have to mix with horned handed sons and daughters of toil.

I got the impression that for all his Toryism, Disraeli was a genuine reformer. He did extend the vote to the upper working class – the aristocracy of Labour, as it was described by Marx, creating the ‘villa Toryism’ that was to continue into the Twentieth Century and our own. But all the Tories have done since is mouth platitudes and banalities about how ‘one nation’ they are. Ever since John Major. David Cameron, a true-blue blooded toff, who was invited by the Palace to take a job there, claimed to be a ‘one nation Tory’. Yup, this was when he was introducing all the vile, wretched reforms that have reduced this country’s great, proud people, Black, brown, White and all shades in-between – to grinding poverty, with a fury specially reserved for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled. These last have been killed by his welfare reforms. Look at the posts I’ve put up about it, reblogging material from Stilloaks, Another Angry Voice, the Poor Side of Life, Diary of a Food Bank Helper, Johnny Void, et al.

But that’s how the super-rich seem to see us: as moochers, taxing them to indulge ourselves. It was Ayn Rand’s attitude, shown in Atlas Shrugs. And it’s how the upper classes see us, especially the Libertarians infecting the Republican and Conservative parties, whose eyes were aglow with the joys of the unrestrained free market and the delights of South American death squads and the monsters that governed them. Walking atrocities against the human condition like General Pinochet, the Contras, Noriega. All the thugs, monsters and torturers, who raped and butchered their people, while Reagan slavered over them as ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers’. And you know what? An increasing number of progressives are taking a hard look at the Fathers of the American nation. Patricians to a man, who definitely had no intention of the freeing the slaves, or giving the vote to the ladies. and who explicitly wrote that they were concerned to protect property from the indigent masses. Outright imperialists, who took land from Mexico, and explicitly wrote that they looked forward to the whole of South America falling into the hands of ‘our people’. If you need a reason why many South Americans hate America with a passion, start with that one. It’s the reason behind the creation of ‘Arielismo’. This is the literary and political movement, which started in Argentina in the 19th century, which uses the figure of Caliban in Shakespeare’s the Tempest to criticise and attack European and North American colonialism, with the peoples of the South as the Caliban-esque colonised. It was formed by Argentinian literary intellectuals as a reaction to America’s wars against Mexico and annexation of Mexican territory, and their attempts to conquer Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

That’s how South America responded to colonisation from the North and West. And colonialism – as troublesome ‘natives’ to be kept under control, is very much how the elite see ordinary Brits and Americans, regardless of whether they’re White, Black, Asian or members of the First Nations.

But you can only fool people for so long, before the truth becomes blindingly obvious. You can only print so many lies, broadcast so many news reports telling lies and twisted half-truths, before conditions become so terrible ordinary people start questioning what a corrupt, mendacious media are telling them. The constant scare stories about Muslims, foreign immigration, Black crime and violence; the demonization of the poor and people on benefit. The constant claim that if working people are poor, it’s because they’re ‘feckless’ to use Gordon Brown’s phrase. Because they don’t work hard enough, have too many children, or spend all their money on luxuries like computers – actually in the information age a necessity – or computer games, X-Boxes and the like.

You can only do that before the workers you’ve legislated against joining unions start setting up workers’ and peasants’ councils – soviets. Before the peasants rise up and start burning down all those manor houses, whose denizens we are expected to follow lovingly in shows like Downton Abbey. Which was written by Julian Fellowes, a Tory speechwriter.

Before ordinary people say, in the words of ’80s Heavy Metal band Twisted Sister, ‘We ain’t goin’ to take it’.

Before decent, respectable middle class people of conscience and integrity decide that the establish is irremediably corrupt, and there’s absolutely no point defending it any longer.

A month or so ago, BBC 4 broadcast a great series on Russian history, Empire of the Tsars, present by Lucy Worsley. In the third and last edition, she described the events leading up to the Russian Revolution. She described how Vera Zasulich, one of the 19th century revolutionaries, tried to blow away the governor of St. Petersburg. She was caught and tried. And the jury acquitted her. Not because they didn’t believe she hadn’t tried to murder the governor of St. Petersburg, but because in their view it wasn’t a crime. Zasulich was one of the early Russian Marxists, who turned from peasant anarchism to the new, industrial working classes identified by Marx as the agents of radical social and economic change.

And so before the Revolution finally broke out, the social contract between ruler and ruled, tsarist autocracy and parts of the middle class, had broken down.

I’m not preaching revolution. It tends to lead to nothing but senseless bloodshed and the rise of tyrannies that can be even worse than the regimes they overthrow. Like Stalin, who was as brutal as any of the tsars, and in many cases much more so. But the elites are preparing for civil unrest in the next couple of decades. Policing in America is due to become more militarised, and you can see the same attitude here. After all, Boris Johnson had to have his three water cannons, which are actually illegal in Britain and so a colossal waste of public money.

Don’t let Britain get to that point. Vote Corbyn, and kick May and her gang of profiteers, aristos and exploiters out. Before they kill any more people.

Book Review: Private Government: How Employers Rule our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It) by Elizabeth Anderson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/12/2017 - 10:39pm in


free market

In Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), Elizabeth Anderson argues that beneath the facades of market freedom and contractual equality, contemporary firms are actually akin to authoritarian private governments. While this is a compelling and provocative analysis that sheds important light on the coercive and hierarchical facets of modern workplaces, Abraham Singer wonders whether the rise of the gig economy might demand new concepts for understanding the firm today. 

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

Find this book: amazon-logo

In Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), a version of her 2015 Tanner Lectures, Elizabeth Anderson argues that modern workplaces are coercive and hierarchical institutions, a fact that is camouflaged by the facades of market freedom and contractual equality. By privileging the free market, current policy and discourse occlude the actual nature of work, leaving us without a language to articulate the problems it presents. Instead, Anderson urges us to see capitalist firms as arbitrary governments, antithetical to our moral commitments to freedom and equality.

Anderson explains that originally free markets and private property were defended on ‘leftist’, egalitarian grounds. This seventeenth- and eighteenth-century egalitarian defence of markets (espoused by those such as the Levellers, John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine and even Abraham Lincoln) was premised on a vision of economies dominated by small proprietors and self-employed workers. The market was meant to decompose the feudal and monarchical organisations of crown, church, guild and plantation, thereby freeing people from the social hierarchies and material dependencies such institutions buttressed. This changed with the industrial revolution. By massively altering our ability to capture economies of scale, the industrial revolution recomposed the economy into new sorts of organisations – namely, large businesses and factories. The market failed to effect egalitarian dreams because in the process of this re-composition, social hierarchy found a new economic basis in the inequalities between boss and worker.

The problem is not simply the existence of such inequality; it is that we continue to act like we are in a world of small, self-employed proprietors trading with one another. But the existence of the firm belies this. As Anderson notes, the economic understanding of the firm was launched by Ronald Coase’s insight that it is defined by precisely the supersession of the mechanisms that characterise the market: firms exist because hierarchy is often comparatively more efficient at coordinating activity than price-mediated transactions are. However, the twentieth-century Chicago School law and economics movement deployed free market ideology to essentially erase this insight. Such scholars attempted to reimagine the firm as a nexus of contracts, a catallactic arrangement of individuals organising themselves according to their own desires in a free market. In this view, because workers enter the firm voluntarily and are free to exit as they please, there is no reason to think that authority exists therein: a boss’s order is analogised to a price for a good given by a grocer, which a customer is always free to refuse.

For Anderson, this is the pathology of free market ideology. The insistence upon seeing the world through the lens of free markets makes one unable to see the power dynamics at work (pun intended). There is no authority, no domination, no indignity here: workplaces are just voluntarily-chosen contracts amongst equal and autonomous agents!

Image Credit: The office (John CC BY 2.0)

Thus the language of markets, developed for pre-industrial societies in the name of egalitarian goals, gets used in our post-industrial world to obscure and justify inegalitarian arrangements. Anderson offers her titular concept, ‘private governments’, as an alternative way of understanding firms. Workplaces are ‘governments’ in that they are environments where some have sanction-backed authority over others. Workplace governments are ‘private’ not in the sense that they exist in some ‘private sphere’, but in that their exercise is understood as a concern only for those governing them. Thus, firms are private governments in that management can give sanction-backed commands to workers without justification or accountability.

As always, Anderson’s analysis is as compelling as it is provocative. Still, there are things to quibble with. Is the theory of the firm-as-market as influential in public discourse as Anderson contends? Insofar as Americans accept workplace arrangements as legitimate, I doubt it’s because they don’t recognise the authority therein: most know who’s giving orders at work. What seems a more commonly accepted idea is the theory of the entrepreneur-as-disruptive-innovator. The celebrity of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs or Bill Gates isn’t due to their being mistaken as contractual equals, but a perception of them as deserving to be in charge, due to some characteristic they possess or some unique contribution they can make. Challenging the governmental nature of work requires engaging with this pervasive idea as well.

Furthermore, are ‘private governments’ as private as Anderson suggests? Publicity and privacy are not just about proximate accountability; larger social and institutional contexts can check and affect decisions, as Anderson observes (45). But then we must note that workplace governments are affected from without by various factors. Anderson doesn’t really get into how market competition and industry structure, for example, obviously shape what decisions will be profitable in any given instant. But this is a vital check on management: managers who ignore the market’s price signals do so at their own peril. Of course, markets can be imperfect, under-regulated or unfair. Such things ought to be remedied. But these shortcomings of market structure are distinct from questions regarding the firm’s relatively unaccountable authority, which is more complicated when we take its competitive environment into account.

Anderson explores various institutional remedies for de-privatising private governments, emphasising the importance of mechanisms for worker influence and control. But there is another option: abolish firms entirely. Anderson dismisses this as implausible (64), but with the transaction-cost-reducing nature of digital technology and the rise of gig economy businesses, this may not be completely true. The Hegelian in me wonders if Anderson is not delivering this lecture at the closing of an economic epoch dominated by firms. Perhaps the grey walls of the supervisor’s lounge, on which Anderson paints her grey philosophy, will be ripped down tomorrow by a Silicon Valley startup. Maybe the Owl of Minerva’s share price is only knowable after the closing bell.

This is likely overstated. Still, just as eighteenth-century free market ideology doesn’t fit a post-industrial-revolution economy, perhaps the language that Anderson introduces is becoming less relevant in a smartphone age. To illustrate, recall the criticisms Uber faced for turning off surge pricing when taxi drivers refused to service airports in protest of Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. By lowering the price of a ride, critics argued, Uber was incentivising people to break the cab strike. This makes sense with a traditional firm, where the price is only mediating the transaction between the administered enterprise and the customer. But Uber is not exactly a ‘communist dictatorship in our midst’ (as Anderson describes firms), in the technical sense that drivers aren’t following commands but responding to prices. Consequently, lowering the price was not only an incentive for riders, but a disincentive for drivers to offer a ride. This type of arrangement is becoming more common, but it is less legible if we are interpreting the economy through a framework of private governments.

None of this is to defend Uber or celebrate the gig economy, which certainly presents urgent political and moral dilemmas. But they are different sorts of problems requiring different concepts. With Private Government, Anderson has offered an important corrective to influential libertarian theories by bringing the governmental nature of firms into sharp relief. I only worry that she might be downplaying how distinctive these kinds of governments are, thereby obscuring the conditions they presuppose and the factors that can influence or eclipse them. The stakes Anderson so convincingly elucidates are too high for us to afford to ignore such subtleties.

Abraham Singer is Assistant Professor of Management at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. His teaching and research focuses on business ethics, political theory and the relationship between the two.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.