This week was an important one for me: it marked the one-year anniversary of my failed attempt to buy some bendy rollers. I wanted these because my cheap-ass curling iron was destroying my hair, and every time I used it I ended up with tiny burns all over my hands.
My plan was simple: I would catch the bus to a nearby food court, buy a bowl of my favourite soup for lunch and then pop into the adjacent Priceline to pick up the rollers. Just a classic afternoon of consumerism. Buy a few pieces of cheap plastic garbage I don’t really need, recirculate my wages, do my bit to continue the catastrophic destruction of the only planet that supports human life.
But Priceline didn’t have the rollers. Neither did the other two Pricelines I visited, or the Target, or the Kmart, or the hair supply store. After what felt like a millennium wandering the shopping centre, I was in a state of extreme annoyance that I’m sure anyone who has had this experience will recognise. My feet hurt because I hadn’t worn comfy enough shoes. When two people in front of me stood abreast on the escalator, blocking my path, I involuntarily pictured murdering them with a huge shiny axe. People say civilisation is two missed meals away from barbarism but, for coddled consumer society brats like myself, it’s more like two hours trapped in a mall that is denying me access to a set of tiny pool noodle hair curlers.
“Screw this,” I thought to myself on the bus home. “When is Amazon opening up its international store to Australia?”
As it turns out, precisely one year later, just in time for the Black Friday sales and the attendant protests and strikes conducted by Amazon workers who don’t enjoy being treated like scum, pissing in bottles, or conducting lives of itinerant precarity out of campervans and trailers.
Amazon’s ecommerce arm relies on the fundamental truth that people’s love for good deals on plastic crap will almost always override any concerns about worker mistreatment or environmental hazards. Obviously Amazon isn’t unique here – if you buy an object without knowing exactly who made it, there’s a pretty high chance its supply chain involves the kind of horrifying evils that drive companies to obscure their supply chains in the first place. That’s just how the whole thing works. Nothing is good, everything you touch was made by slaves, the rush of pleasure in bargain-hunting relies on an unimaginably complex apparatus of exploitation and destruction, everybody knows this, I wonder what the special buys are at Aldi this week …
Amazon seems to get particular attention because there are a couple of other things going on. The first is an intra-capitalist conflict between Amazon and other retailers, particularly brick-and-mortar chain stores, which have been driven to the brink in recent years. As my bendy roller anecdote probably illustrates, I find it very hard to care about this, at least from a consumer perspective. Shopping malls are awful places and I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep if they all disappeared tomorrow. Lots of people seem to agree with this – Amazon now ranks as the second most trusted institution in America. And anything that makes Gerry Harvey throw tantrums in public can’t be all bad.
The disappearance of local retail jobs comes with a high risk of rising un- and under-employment, but any negative consequences arising from this are purely a matter of political choice. There are lots of potential solutions – my favourite is an underappreciated idea from Keynes, who advocated a reduction in working hours so that available work could be spread out more evenly among workers. Then you’ve got the UBI folks, the job guarantee folks, the social wealth fund folks and so on.
The other thing going on with Amazon is the creeping realisation that its founder, Jeff Bezos, the richest guy on Earth, is not really using Amazon’s ecommerce arm just to rake in short-term bucks. There are legitimate questions about whether it makes any profit at all, and certainly the web services arm of Amazon is where the company’s real money comes from.
Bezos has been saying for years that his long-term plan is growth, which means putting everyone else out of business in order to build a gigantic supranational retail marketplace monopoly. Half the stuff people buy on Amazon doesn’t even come from Amazon itself but rather third-party sellers that deliver the company money through simple ticket-clipping.
But even this doesn’t have to be scary. Amazon’s recent decision to raise the wages of its US and UK employees demonstrates that, regardless of its size, it is still vulnerable to pressure from organised labour, activists and politicians in exactly the same way as other companies.
Amazon’s enormous global distribution network makes purchasing goods extremely convenient, a huge improvement on the stupid time-wasting practice of “going to the shops”. The bad stuff about it is it has some obvious remedies that go unapplied, not because the company is uniquely powerful or evil but because those remedies would affect all of its competitors as well. The relevant conflict here isn’t between Jeff Bezos and Gerry Harvey – it’s between both of them on one side and the large mass of the rest of us on the other. Give me my bendy rollers but also a fair economic system that works for everyone.