It's 7 a.m. and the lights in your corporate apartment turn on, the focus-group tested alarm plays through the speakers telling you to wake up. You aren’t on the clock for another two hours, but the boss is already telling you what to do.
You glance at the cameras in your room, management thinks they’ve hidden them well, but as always, management is clueless. For a brief moment you wonder if someone’s watching you right now, you shiver at the thought of some corpo-creep watching you change, but you have to change, if your uniform isn’t clean, if you smell, corporate docks your pay.
The other day I was watching a political commentary live stream — yes, I’m that kind of nerd — and an article about how the governor of Nevada plans to introduce legislation that would allow private companies with enough land to functionally create their own municipal government came up.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Nevada. My grandparents had a home up at Lake Tahoe, so it’s a place close to my heart. Everything within these so-called “Innovation Zones” would be owned, directly or indirectly, by the corporation holding the right to that Innovation Zone. The housing, groceries, retail and utilities would likely all be owned and operated by the corporation or by some company they contracted. Such a level of control over the lives of employees would expand the already abysmal amount of control corporations hover American workers.
This is not a new or innovative idea. In fact, it's a rather old idea. The company town has a very dark and twisted history in this country, one that is rarely taught in our schools — likely because doing so would require a demonstration of the true power of unions and would prompt a questioning of our basic assumption that capitalism is the best economic model.
In the company towns of the Gilded Age, everything was owned and controlled by the boss. Wages were not paid in U.S. dollars but were instead issued as company scrip, an abstraction of U.S. currency only good at the company store, thus trapping the worker in the company town economic ecosystem. Likewise, housing was owned by the boss, meaning that if you decided to quit, you and your family would instantly become homeless.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the coal fields of West Virginia were dominated by company towns. Many company towns were host to what were known as “Rape Rooms,” where in order to pay off debts and afford food, the wives and daughters of coal miners were forced to exchange their bodies for the barest of necessities. The conditions endured by mine workers were so bad, it was compared by former slaves working in those mines to be nearly as horrific as slavery.
This near total control which mine operators exercised over their workers led to a myriad of other abuses, which ended up sparking what is known as “The Mine Wars.” This conflict culminated at the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the mine workers took up arms against the bosses, shot mine guards and engaged in full-blown trench warfare.
Nowhere in the draft of the Nevada bill is the word “democracy” mentioned. Elections are mentioned, and they would be under the purview of county governments. The bill also mentions innovation zone boards being allowed to create their own judicial systems, which is terrifying.
At present, the nature of the traditional capitalist firm is already extremely authoritarian. In a traditionally structured capitalist business, when the boss tells you what to do, you must do it. They don’t have to tell you why; you are simply required to listen to directions and obey. Additionally, the nature of “at will employment” means that at any time, you can be fired and the employer is under no obligation to provide you with a reason as to why.
The pandemic has already blurred the line between work and home life, with workers averaging longer hours. Under Nevada’s proposed Innovation Zones, which are nothing more than a 21st century version of the company town, employees could be under near 24 hour surveillance by their employer. At present, the conditions in Amazon warehouses are cruel and inhumane, and if that were extended into the home life, the possibility of workers taking collective action against the boss and reclaiming some sliver of power for themselves all but evaporates.
There is a certain view that might argue that while the abuses of company towns are bad, they helped spark radical union action as seen in the Mine Wars. To this I would say that regardless of the potential for radicalization, the harm done to the people living and laboring under the tyranny of the boss is too great for any empathetic person to seriously consider. Furthermore, while the rate of unionization spiked slightly just before the Mine Wars a much larger rise came about with the New Deal.
Even today, corporations have a concerningly large amount of control over how we live our lives, what we purchase and where we purchase it. The introduction of Innovation Zones would hand over even more control to the engine of the profit motive, gradually chipping away at individual liberties until our society is nothing but a patchwork of neo-feudal corporate towns.
I do not want to live in a world where Americans are no more than serfs, slaves to their corporate overlords in all but name, given the illusion of freedom, unable to even recognize their chains.
Nick Finan is a junior political science major. Reach him at email@example.com