American Dictatorship

We must act to save the millions of Americans trapped under despotic, authoritarian regimes.

I write to you with an urgent message. Myself and millions of my peers are trapped in oppressive dictatorships. We are assigned superiors who we must obey. Our orders are arbitrary and change without warning. With no rule of law, our superiors are completely unaccountable to us. There are only a few narrow cases in which we can seek legal redress, and even then our odds of winning a case are slim.

While the highest-ranking members of our society have considerable freedom, most of us have our movements and speech minutely regulated. There is no sphere of autonomy free from sanction. We are forced to abide by a dress code, our phone conversations can be recorded, we are submitted to mandatory medical testing, and many topics of discussion are banned outright. We are sometimes sanctioned for our sexual identity and occasionally required to engage in political activity we disagree with.

The authorities secure compliance with carrots. They control all income in our society, and so they reward those who follow orders well and promote them to a higher rank. They control communication, and their propaganda apparatus is strong. Many people support the regime because they profit from it, or because they enjoy exercising power over their inferiors.

Fortunately, the sanctioning powers of this dictatorship are limited. It cannot kill or maim anyone for failing to follow orders. The most common sanction is exile. We are also free to emigrate, although reentry is often impossible. Exile or emigration often have serious consequences — most of us have no option but to try to immigrate to another regime. However, a lucky few are able to set up their own dictatorships or escape into anarchic wastelands.

The most degrading part of this dictatorship is the daily routine. Every day I must face dozens, sometimes hundreds of people and declare my allegiance to the regime. They walk to my register and I say, Hello, welcome to McDonald’s. What can I get you today?

Many readers, particularly those of you who have never worked in the service industry, may be surprised to hear me describe waiting tables as akin to living under a despotic regime. However, employers in the US have the right to surveil and curtail employee activity. The default employment contract in the US is employment at will. Aside from a few exceptions, employers can fire employees for any or no reason. This grants employers sweeping authority over employees’ behavior both on and off the clock. Employees can be fired for hanging out with a friend their boss doesn’t like or just being too hot. To quote former Yale and UPenn law professor Clyde Summers,

“The employer, as owner of the enterprise, is viewed as owning the job with a property right to control the job and the worker who fills it. That property right gives the employer the right to impose any requirement on the employee, give any order and insist on obedience, change any term of employment, and discard the employee at any time. The employer is sovereign over his or her employee subjects.”

My business-loving co-contributors will claim this authority simply does not exist. The employer can only “punish” an employee by withdrawing future business — and this is akin to “punishing” your plumber by fixing a leaky faucet yourself. The power that an employer has over an employee is limited, according to them, to that of telling a plumber to fix this pipe rather than that one. Neither you nor your plumber have any obligation to continue your working relationship.

This argument seems to hold that wherever one is free to leave a relationship, authority cannot exist within it. This is like saying Stalin was not a dictator because people could emigrate. Alternatively, they may claim that authority does not exist when the only sanctions are exile or civil suit. This would be a great surprise to the many people subject to state regulation backed only by civil suits. Moreover, a state regulation would not lose much force if the penalty was losing one’s job.

Many are fooled by the superficial symmetry of the employment contract; under at-will employment, employees may quit at any time for any reason. Some then equate quitting with firing one’s boss, but workers have no power to remove the boss from their position. Moreover, quitting is often worse for workers than being fired; quitting your job voluntarily makes you ineligible for unemployment benefits. It doesn’t make much sense to say that workers have a symmetrical power over their bosses when employees suffer more by exercising it than when faced with the worst punishment their boss can impose upon them!

We depend upon our jobs. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. We get insurance through our employers, and jobs give our lives a sense of meaning. This dependence gives employers power over us. We can be sanctioned for our dress, our speech, our identity, and our politics, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In Germany, employees are guaranteed representation in company board rooms. Even in some states, like California, stricter laws surrounding employee handbooks require employers to make it clear before hiring employees what is and is not grounds for termination.

However you feel about the authority employers have over employees, we cannot begin to make substantive change until we admit that it exists. We must recognize that many millions of us live under a McDictatorship.

This article was inspired in large part by Elizabeth Anderson’s book “Private Government.” I highly encourage the slim minority of my viewers who can read to check it out.

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UVA ‘23

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Grady Martin

Grady Martin

UVA ‘23

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