The Capitalist Road to Serfdom

Some multinational corporations are now larger and more powerful than individual nation-states. If those companies were countries, they would be authoritarian dictatorships.

A worker packs items while fulfilling orders at an Amazon warehouse on November 18, 2021 in Brieselang, Germany. (Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

There is a long-standing right-wing caricature of what life might look like in a socialist society, typically something resembling Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: daily life is highly regimented; the state is centralized and all-pervasive; dissent and freedom of speech are severely curtailed; surveillance is panoptic and constant; absolute loyalty is expected of citizens, who are disciplined if they break from the party line; and elections, if held at all, are a sham.

The great irony of this dystopian sketch, given who tends to invoke it, is that its closest analogue today is actually found in the modern, multinational corporation.

By design, the corporation is not a democratic enterprise. Its management is hierarchical, its imperatives are growth and profit, and its structure is a de facto class system of owners, managers, and workers. You could argue that in the earliest days of capitalism, something like the concept of free enterprise actually existed: firms of various sizes competed, with even the largest dwarfed in both size and influence by most nation states. Today, the world’s biggest companies not only wield monopolistic power and exert considerable political influence, but in many cases have market capitalizations exceeding the GDPs of entire countries.

One reason that’s significant: if many multinational companies actually were countries, they would be authoritarian dictatorships more ruthlessly efficient than any in existence. At many such companies, managers wield virtually unchecked power over subordinates and, thanks to modern technology, increasingly practice advanced techniques of monitoring and surveillance as well.

Consider Amazon, where, as the Intercept’s Ken Klippenstein reported in 2021, some employees say their performance is “monitored so closely by the firm’s vast employee surveillance arsenal that they are constantly in fear of falling short of their productivity quotas.” Various reports have confirmed that the company’s quotas are so stringent, workers often urinate in bottles for fear of losing time and facing discipline or even termination as a result. Last year, Klippenstein further reported that top company officials were teasing a new internal social media app for workers complete with a built-in system of rewards for correct behavior and a host of words associated with discontent or dissent blocked by design — among them “grievance,” “pay raise,” “compensation,” “diversity,” “injustice,” “fairness,” “union,” and even the word “freedom.”

Unions can act as counterweights to the sometimes terrifying power held by management. Unfortunately, most workers aren’t lucky enough to belong to them. Thanks to current US labor law, many union elections are about as democratic as those held in banana republics — and that’s assuming workers are even able to initiate a union drive in the first place.

Thanks to the vast prerogatives afforded to management, some companies aren’t satisfied with controlling workers’ behavior on the job and are now seeking to control their hearts and minds as well. One 2012 book by the chairman of the UK-based Metro Bank lays out this psychological approach to employment relations in dystopian detail, noting how the company attempts to “de-program” new hires and stating with zero irony that “it doesn’t take [them] long to see that our philosophy is much more than a corporate mission statement: it’s a way of life.” As Abi Wilkinson wrote in 2016, the upshot is typically an onslaught of “jargon-laden propaganda about ‘corporate values; and humiliating, infantilising activities” through which “senior managers attempt to mold compliant, dedicated customer service-a-trons whose work becomes their central purpose in life.”

The inevitable rejoinder to all of this is that employment is ultimately voluntary: an Amazon employee who dislikes stringent work quotas or a supermarket cashier who refuses to perform their company’s spirit dance can always find gainful employment somewhere else. When labor regulation has been stripped to the bone, however, and when an increasingly small number of ever-expanding corporate conglomerates dominate the labor market, “somewhere else” often looks remarkably familiar.

For the vast majority in most societies, the choice between having a job and not having one isn’t really a choice at all. Market societies are by design also class societies in which a minority owns the means of production and extracts surplus value from workers, while a much larger group produces to earn subsistence through wage labor. Faced with the choice to starve and be homeless or spend the lion’s share of our adult lives earning a wage, most of us will opt for the latter even if the conditions it imposes are absolutely horrendous. A handful might ascend the class ladder or even become owners themselves, but the basic structure will remain unchanged.

That’s particularly significant given that some firms are now genuinely global in scope and effectively run as private dictatorships whose leaders travel on superyachts and inhabit postmodern Xanadus while worker-citizens are forced to swear their allegiance and pee in bottles. Big Brother is indeed watching you — and he’s doing so from an air-conditioned office right before heading off to the company picnic.