AGAINST AMAZON

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In his classic 1936 comedy, Modern Times, silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin depicts the trials and tribulations of a harried factory worker trying to cope with the sprockets, cogs, conveyor belts and “efficiencies” of the new industrial culture. The poor fellow finds himself caught up (almost literally) in the grinding tyranny of the machine. The movie is hilarious, but it’s also a damning portrayal of the dehumanizing consequences of mass industrialization.

The ultimate indignity for Chaplin’s everyman character comes when he is put on an assembly line featuring a mechanized contraption that force-feeds workers as they work. Not only does this “innovation” eliminate the need for the factory owner to provide a
lunch break, but it also transforms human workers into automatous components of the machine itself.

Of course, worker-feeding machines were a comedic exaggeration by the filmmaker, not anything that actually existed, nothing that would even be considered in our modern times, right? Well …. If you work for Amazon.com, you’d swear that Chaplin’s masterpiece depicts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ idea of a properly run workplace.

Why pick on Amazon? After all, isn’t it a model of tech wizardry, having totally reinvented retail marketing for our smartphone, globally linked age? Doesn’t it peddle a cornucopia of goods through a convenient “one-click” ordering system, rapidly delivering them right to your doorstep? And doesn’t it offer steep discounts on nearly everything it sells (which is nearly everything)? Yes, yes and yes.

However, as an old saying puts it: The higher the monkey climbs, the more you see of its ugly side. Amazon certainly has climbed high in a hurry. Not yet 20 years old, it is already a household brand name and America’s 10th-largest retailer. The establishment press marvels that Bezos’ obsession with electronic streamlining and systems management allows Amazon to sell everything from books to bicycles, barbecues to Barbies, at cheap-cheap-cheap prices, undercutting all competitors — even Walmart.

But what is the source of those efficiencies and the low prices so greatly admired by Wall Street and so gratefully accepted by customers? Are they achieved strictly by being a virtual store, saving the costs of building, staffing and maintaining brick-and-mortar outlets? Or is Amazon achieving market dominance the old-fashioned way — by squeezing the life out of its workers and suppliers, by crushing its competitors with monopolistic muscle, and by manipulating our national and state tax laws?

Voilà! There’s the ugly side.

Amazon and Bezos scream for more scrutiny because Amazon, more than any other single entity, has had the infinite hubris to envision a brave new computer-driven order for our society. Bezos isn’t merely remaking commerce with his algorithms, metrics and vast network; he’s rebooting America itself, including our concept of a job, the definition of community, and even basic values of fairness and justice. It amounts to a breathtaking aspiration to transform our culture’s democratic paradigm into a corporate imperium led by Amazon.

Walmart, the “Beast of Bentonville,” is now yesterday’s model of how far-reaching and destructive corporate power can be. Amazon is the new model, not just of tomorrow’s corporate beast, but the day after tomorrow’s.

 

Only it’s already here.

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october, 2021

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