Until late August, Kenneth Storey was a visiting assistant professor of
sociology at the University of Tampa. Then, on Sunday, August 27th, he
wrote an insensitive tweet about the victims of Hurricane Harvey: “I
dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas.
Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.”
Storey deleted the tweet, but screenshots of it circulated on Twitter; a
hashtag, #FireKenStorey, sprang up. Storey apologized, and explained
that he’d been thinking about the Republican Party’s stance on climate
change, but, two days after posting the tweet, he was fired. In an
official statement, the university wrote that Storey’s tweet did not
reflect its “community views or values.”

It’s sobering to contemplate the reach of private government. Anderson
focusses mainly on the exercise of corporate power within the workplace,
and for good reason—that’s where the most egregious abuses happen. But
private government can also stretch to encompass our off-duty lives,
shaping and proscribing our activities as “private” citizens. In a 2015
article, “A Chill Around the Water Cooler: First Amendment in the
Workplace
,”
Jeannette Cox, a professor at the University of Dayton School of Law,
rounds up many cases similar to Storey’s, including that of Lynne
Gobbell, who, in 2004, lost her job at an insulation-manufacturing
company after her boss, a supporter of George W. Bush, saw a John Kerry
bumper sticker on her car. Polls show that most Americans believe that
they enjoy First Amendment protections at work—“We repeat, and cherish,
the aphorism: ‘I can say what I like. It’s a free country,’ ” Cox
writes—but, in fact, the First Amendment only stops the government from
interfering with our speech; except in certain narrow circumstances,
such as whistle-blowing, companies can punish us for what we say. Cox
paraphrases Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who explained that an employee
“may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no
constitutional right to be employed.” Legal scholars say that this
doctrine rests on the “right–privilege distinction.” Michael
Italie
,
a sewing-machine operator, had the right to run for mayor of Miami, on
the Socialist Workers Party ticket, in 2002. His campaign, however, cost
him the privilege of a job at Goodwill, where he worked sewing military
jackets. (According to Italie, his boss told him that his socialist
views were a “disruptive force” at work.)

These firings trample on the division we imagine exists between the
“private” and “public” spheres. We object that Ken Storey tweeted on
his Twitter account; that Lynne Gobbell put that bumper sticker on
her car; that, if Michael Italie wanted to be a socialist, it’s his“private” business. In fact, although that distinction justifies
circumscribing the government’s interest in us, it has nothing to say
about what our employers might find interesting. Sometimes, in fact,
bosses are justified in caring about the private business of their
employees. Earlier this summer, James Damore, a Google engineer, was
fired for writing a misogynistic
memo
arguing that his company’s diversity initiatives were a misguided waste
of time. When Google fired Damore, it did so in order to guarantee its
female employees the right to a gender-equal workplace in which their
biological fitness for their jobs was not up for debate; in Google’s
judgment, such a guarantee outweighed both Damore’s right to free speech
and the wider “chilling effect” his firing would have on conservative
speech at Google. Damore happened to upload his memo to an internal
e-mail list run by Google, but the argument for firing him has nothing
to do with location of that e-mail list. Had he posted his memo to
Medium, or shared it as a Facebook post, Google would have been equally
justified in firing him. If Damore had been an independent contractor
without co-workers—a “masterless” coder—his opinions wouldn’t have
mattered as much. Then again, there aren’t many jobs for solitary
coders.

Such cases highlight an ironic quirk of private government. Anderson
argues that companies should be held to more democratic standards;
workers should be given “a voice,” perhaps through a system of workers’
councils, to allow them to elect representatives who participate in
executive decision-making. (Such “co-determination” systems have been
tried, in
Germany
and elsewhere, and they have
sometimes made workplaces better.) And yet, for many employees, having a voice is
what gets them into trouble. Google and the University of Tampa are more
“publicly governed” than most workplaces: university professors are
encouraged to have opinions, and Google, which is famous for its open,
“horizontal” corporate culture, provides many forums for employees to
debate the direction of the company. Even so, for better and for worse,
private government lurks in the shadows, ready to pounce on employees
who cross the line.

If two people commit similar crimes, they should receive similar
punishments—this is a fundamental principle of justice. By its very
nature, though, private government is arbitrary. Presumably, many other
people wrote tweets similar to Storey’s; because they weren’t college
professors, however, they weren’t punished. There must be coders at
firms other than Google who agree with James Damore, but their memos go
unnoticed; many people besides Lynne Goddell had John Kerry bumper
stickers, but they kept their jobs. When some companies police their
employees’ speech more than others, some Americans end up having less
freedom to participate in politics than their fellow-citizens do. This,
of course, is just one of a number of ways in which pervasive private
government is an affront to our sense of how America
should—ideally—work.

In some cases, it’s easy to see how we might prune the vines of private
government. Workers should never be subjected to widespread sexual
harassment or denied access to a bathroom; labor laws could be extended
and enforced to insure that those abuses don’t happen. In other cases,
we might resist private government by rebalancing competing interests.
In many European countries, for example, bosses cannot fire workers who
aren’t materially harming their business. Those prohibitions come with
costs—among other things, they encourage companies to hire
temps
—and
some countries, such as France, are
starting to change their minds about them. Still, we might decide the trade-off
is worth it.

And yet, some significant amount of private government is ineradicable—a
non-negotiable part of life in a corporate age. Anderson shows that, in
reality, the dream of a society of “masterless men” never had a
chance—it was always going to be derailed by technology, which both
demands and facilitates the close coördination of workers in vast
companies. Anderson’s subtitle is “How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why
We Don’t Talk About It).” One reason we don’t talk about it is that we
don’t want to acknowledge how much the rhetoric of American freedom
outruns the constraints of private government. Corporate power was
always going to win out over libertarian fantasy. This defeat is hard to
admit.

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