Amazon Is Becoming the Government

Tuesday, October 22, 2019
By Paul Martin

By Taylor Lewis
October 22, 2019

“You can’t trust anybody or anything anymore.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve cited journeyman Johnny Whitmire’s inelegant lament. America’s receding trust in institutions is well trod territory. Our political distemper, with a reality TV star leading the nation, reflects the depleted reservoir of faith the public has in great, long-lasting public bodies.

Grizzling over institutional irreverence is now commonplace in journalism. But fear not! For there is one organization that the people still put their hopes and dreams into. And no, it’s not our cinque-sided, ultra-fortified military headquarters in Arlington, Va.

What is this outsized institution in American life? The bookstore cum everything store, Much like the sprawling rainforest itself, Amazon’s limbs ramify over an impressive amount of territory, affecting nearly everyone.

And here’s the most surprising part: Amazon is trusted. Despite the immeasurable power its bald-pated founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, wields, Amazon is seen as one of the few big outfits in America that can deliver, figuratively and literally. “In contrast to the dysfunction and cynicism that define the times, Amazon is the embodiment of competence, the rare institution that routinely works,” Franklin Foer writes in a recent profile of Bezos for The Atlantic.

Foer’s piece, which is critical of Bezos’s Hank Rearden–like stature, was published on nearly the same day as another long-form profile in The New Yorker. Both write-ups expatiate on Amazon’s growing command of commerce and the internet. The company’s portfolio is impressive, if unwieldy: second-biggest private U.S. employer; conduit for 40% of all e-commerce transactions, including almost half of all paperback book sales; a high-quality grocery chain; superintends nearly half the cloud-computing industry through Amazon Web Services, whose servers host Netflix, General Electric, and the CIA. Bezos is also the owner of the Washington Post, which, for almost anyone else on Earth, would mean unexampled influence but is only a garnish on the CEO’s sumptuary stock of cultural control.

Two major profiles in the country’s most well-read magazines isn’t coincidental. Bezos, along with his Silicon Valley tech cousins, increasingly finds himself subject to unfriendly scrutiny. In spite of all the trust reflective in its no-analog market share, Amazon is treated like a catawampus by both sides of the political class. Elizabeth Warren regularly puts the screws into the retail giant, inveighing at the recent Democrat presidential debate against its stringent requirements for small businesses within its marketplace. President Trump has contemned its creeping political influence and lack of tax payments into the public till. Bernie Sanders, who curates inside dirt on the company from aggrieved employees, has introduced the Stop BEZOS Act to fleece Amazon for every dollar its employees receive in public assistance.

Trashing Amazon is easy politics. But avoiding its convenience isn’t so simple. Sanders’s presidential campaign spent over $130,000 on Amazon merchandise during the second quarter of this year. Warren’s spent $80,000; the Trump campaign dropped $45,000 on the commercial giant.

Swearing off Amazon is no easier than ditching the grid entirely, so far-reaching is Bezos’s arm. Not that the company’s fief-like area of control is an accident. Amazon’s pervasiveness is the result of a number of forces coinciding with an elite vision of the future. Yes, Bezos had the foresight to get ahead of the internet revolution, commodifying digital connectedness to profit off our insatiable consumerist appetites. But his technocratic approach aligns with the latest iteration of what James Burnham called the “managerial revolution,” where accountants and middle men opaquely run society behind walls of big data.

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