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The Dark Side of Amazon

At Jeff Bezos' online retail colossus, "cheap" comes at a very hefty price.



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, including monotonous assembly-line work, ruthless bosses demanding more and faster output, mass unemployment, rank inequality, union busting, and the deployment of police to enforce the corporate order.

The ultimate indignity for Chaplin's everyman character comes when he is put on an assembly line that includes 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 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, you'd swear that Chaplin's masterpiece depicts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' idea of a properly run workplace.

The Brave New Paradigm

Jeffrey Preston Bezos is the founder and CEO of Amazon, the online retailing colossus that trumpets itself as "Earth's most customer-centric company." So why pick on a company that has built a positive reputation with millions of consumers and even has a rather hip vibe going for it?

After all, isn't it a model of tech wizardry, having totally reinvented retail marketing for our 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 twenty years old, it's already America's tenth largest retailer.

Yet, mesmerized by its digital charm and explosive growth in sales, few have looked closely at the Amazon animal. Its media coverage has been more gee-whiz than questioning. The press marvels that Bezos' obsession with electronic streamlining and systems management allows him 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.

As we've learned in recent years from exposés of the business practices of Walmart, "cheap" can come at a very heavy price. That price is no less revolting when it's offered by a company that has a internet cachet and is based in cosmopolitan Seattle instead of rural Arkansas. Bezos and Amazon scream for scrutiny because Amazon, more than any other single entity, has had the infinite hubris to envision a brave new, computer-driven oligarchic order for our society — and has then proceeded to assemble it.

For some thirty years, large corporations have steadily been enveloping major elements of our society — workplaces, politics, education, media, and more. This encroachment is not the result of some immutable economic force-marching through history — it is the product of corporate money and power being relentlessly asserted by individuals.

No one has imagined corporate domination as expansively nor pushed it harder or further than Bezos, and his Amazon stands today as the most advanced and the most ambitious model of a future under oligarchic control. Bezos isn't merely remaking commerce with his algorithms, metrics, and a vast network, he's rebooting America itself, including our concept of a job, our 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.

Inside the Beast

The establishment media are unabashedly infatuated with Bezos and have crowned him with numerous laurels, from "Person of the Year" to world's best living CEO. In May, however, Bezos was awarded a less coveted title by the International Trade Union Confederation: "World's Worst Boss."

Even high-rankers in the corporation's hierarchy describe him as a cold, controlling, and often-vengeful boss with little empathy for the people who work for him. As far back as the 1980s, when Bezos was a Wall Street banker, he was perceived as lacking the human touch. "He was not warm," remembers one who knew him then. "It was like he could be a Martian for all I knew."

To witness the full Bezonian disregard for workers, however, one must look beyond the relative comfort of Amazon's expansive campus headquarters and visit any of its forty-some "fulfillment centers" spread across the country. These are gated, guarded, and secretive warehouses where most of the corporation's 100,000 employees work. The warehouses — Amazon announced earlier this year that it was opening one in the East Bay city of Newark — are dehumanizing hives in which Bezos has produced his own sequel to Modern Times.