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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

We Must Save and Strengthen Our Precious Public Assets

If we do not fight for the commons, Jeff Bezos will own your life.

It probably won’t be long before Amazon decides to crush the U.S. Postal Service altogether. There is talk of the Trump administration privatizing the USPS, but I don’t think that should be our biggest fear—people could be mobilized to defend that institution. But what if Jeff Bezos decides to destroy it? Amazon, which now has a giant, highly efficient shipping apparatus, could open brick-and-mortar shipping stores by post offices around the country and start offering person to person shipping. The USPS, which is creaky and inefficient, will be further financially damaged by Amazon undercutting it on prices and speed. There’s a law against private carriers using federal mailboxes, but the Trump administration wants to change that, and even if they don’t, I’m sure “Amazon boxes” would start popping up next to people’s ordinary mailboxes. What use will there be for a postal service anymore? With Amazon’s giant fleet of vehicles and network of warehouses, why couldn’t it run the mail? (This is not some far-off dystopian idea; it has already been suggested that Amazon displace public libraries.) 

Amazon is ruthless and they will never stop expanding into more and more areas of life. They went from the “world’s biggest bookstore” to the “everything store” to the “everything business.” That means they dominate cloud computing (40 percent of all of it occurs on Amazon Web Services), they own grocery stores and a movie studio, and they are trying to “slowly take over all shipping and logistics direct from manufacturers in China and India.” They are the second-largest employer in the United States; more people work for Amazon than live in the entire U.S. state of Vermont. 

So expect to see more and more Amazon in your life. They’ll probably do healthcare soon enough. Amazon clinics. They’ll build private roads to save Prime members from traffic. They’ll enter the rideshare business—why not? Will Amazon’s delivery drones be weaponized and sold to the military? I don’t see why not—the military is certainly buying. Amazon has such colossal power that it can dominate almost anyone it chooses to take on. They win, in part because the services they offer to customers are usually cheap and high-quality, in part because they do not care about making money, they care about building power. 

Do not think by “cheap and high-quality” I mean that Amazon is good. The company’s “customer first” policy is also an “employees last” policy. (Actually, employees don’t last, they die on the warehouse floor after being reprimanded for failing to ship packages efficiently enough.) Amazon is incredible from the buyer’s perspective—anything I want, delivered overnight! But that’s only possible because there are thousands of people rushing around trying to make sure everyone gets their stuff on time and terrified of being automatically fired if they can’t meet their quotas.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon are smart. They know how to keep public opinion from turning against them. They make sure their customers are well taken care of, and that everyone is a customer, so that everyone has had some kind of positive experience with Amazon. When they are shamed over their pitiful wages, they raise them just enough to keep people from complaining, and then present themselves as a leader on wages. As a result, though we lefties despise them, they are one of the most popular companies in America.

That means that they will continue to slowly wrap their tentacles around everything. It is already becoming impossible to “boycott” Amazon—half the websites you visit use Amazon Web Services. The more they grow, the more futile it becomes to try to use “consumer choice” to stay away from Amazon. But that does not mean we should resign ourself to the “Bezos future.” You might not worry about Amazon displacing the postal service. After all, it would be more efficient. The postal service is bureaucratic. It hasn’t innovated

But what Amazon is slowly building is a terrifying feudalistic “private government.” There is no democracy in Amazon: Workers obey orders, and if they do not obey orders, they are terminated. Now, imagine if termination also meant the company would take away your access to Amazon’s services forever. The more dominant Amazon becomes, the more power it wields over individuals. The typical libertarian response to the tyranny of the Amazon workplace is: “If workers don’t like it they can quit” (which is like saying that if people don’t like living under dictatorships they should emigrate). But what if they make it harder and harder to quit? If Amazon is paying for your school (because we don’t have free public college), then you’ll feel much more intense pressure to not drop below your package fulfillment quota. Oh, sure, we have some workplace safety regulations that should theoretically keep them from working you to death. But they’ll just ignore those, and nobody will do anything, because Amazon can easily buy its way out of any problem. (If you try suing them, good luck taking on their giant team of lawyers; plus you’ve already signed away your right to a day in court). 

It is important to consider how all of this will continue to unfold, because we are slowly handing more and more control to a single company and a single man, and they are less and less accountable to anyone. Bezos is driven by a downright insane vision of ruling over his own privatized space colonies. He believes the destruction of the earth through limitless growth is inevitable, and therefore his plan is apparently to accelerate that growth as much as possible and use the proceeds to build a space empire to which he can flee. The guy is a demented Bond villain. 

I don’t necessarily think he is going to succeed at building a space empire. But I have no doubt he will succeed at privatizing a lot of public assets (that is, taking things that are currently yours and making them his). A central lesson of the Obama presidency should be: If the other side is playing a ruthless game of strategy against you, and you don’t even think of yourself as playing a game, you are going to lose. If we do not recognize what Amazon is doing, and that it needs to be fought, then Amazon will get everything it wants. You can say goodbye to the USPS, and all its well-paying jobs, within a few decades. Deliveries in the future will be made by a combination of robots and (mostly) overworked, underpaid human serfs. 

To stop this from happening, we need to care about (1) saving our public institutions and (2) making them better. We don’t just need to stop the USPS from going under, because people have a nostalgic “small town America” attachment to letter carriers. We need it to (I hate this word) “innovate,” or rather, improve. We need to introduce banking services and make the thing run more efficiently without reducing jobs. When I go to the post office I am stunned by some of the bad processes: I have to write out the entire address by hand, and then a USPS worker has to type everything I have written into the computer, poring over my terrible handwriting. Obviously, I should just be able to type the address in, and there’s no reason to preserve pointless work even as we want the USPS to be a provider of high quality jobs.

If the government doesn’t work for people, the private sector will step up if there’s money to be made. Walmart is now starting to offer health clinics. The problem, of course, is that private enterprise isn’t actually concerned with efficiently promoting the public good. It’s concerned with making money, and while many people insist those two things are the same, they’re not. Starbucks, because of its power, can crush a beloved local coffee shop even if that coffee shop is preferred by most of the community. Amazon siphons every dollar it can out of merchants and publishers, and we are all funding Bezos’ mad private space program because Amazon has become so inescapable through its predatory practices. 

You get pushes to privatize the school system in part because we haven’t built the kinds of public schools that people feel proud to defend. Same with public airports. This is not because private enterprise is inherently better—the countries that have better schools and airports than we do also have public control of them. It’s because in the United States neither the Democratic nor the Republican party has cared about building strong public institutions that serve people well. We used to do this—Medicare and Social Security are good, though constantly under threat. We have to do it again, building the kinds of public services and public places that serve everyone well. We need not just a decent socialized insurance program, but a fantastic one, one that is not exasperatingly bureaucratic and does not generate endless wait times. 

There is a solution to the problem posed by Amazon, too: Eventually, when it becomes clear that nobody else can ever seriously compete with Amazon (thus making the idea of market competition a joke), it will need to be nationalized and operated in the public interest. Then it can be turned into a democratic and less exploitative organization, one with a unionized workforce and a good pension plan and some regard for interests other than expanding its own power. The Amazon logo has an arrow from A-Z, because the company offers everything, and perhaps we’ll rename it “the A-Z,” the general hi-tech socialized automated luxury public distribution apparatus. As Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski write in the fascinating People’s Republic of Walmart, giant corporations are in some ways becoming like socialist economies. If Amazon is building what will ultimately be a private postal service that is brutal to its drivers, that’s bad. But if they are building something we can fold into our existing public postal service, that won’t be a terrible outcome. The call should not be to boycott Amazon, but to take Amazon (like Facebook and Google) into public ownership where they can be operated in the interest of society, rather than operated in the interests of billionaire overlords. 

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