Leaving Amazon

“Even though it is indeed not true that success also justifies the evil deed and the reprehensible means, it is similarly out of the question to regard success as something that is ethically wholly neutral. It so happens that historical success creates the ground on which alone life can go on. The question remains as to whether it is ethically more responsible to go to war like Don Quixote against a new age or, conceding one’s defeat and freely consenting to it, finally to serve the new age. Success, after all, makes history, and the One who guides history always creates good from the bad over the head of the men who make history. It is a short circuit when the stickler for principle, thinking ahistorically and hence irresponsibly, simply ignores the ethical significance of success. It is good that for once we are forced to engage seriously the ethical problem of success. As long as the good is successful, we can afford the luxury of thinking of success as ethically irrelevant. But the problem arises once evil means bring about success.” 
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, On Success

The other day, I had a negative experience with Amazon customer service. I had no prior problems with the company and so I hadn’t earlier given it much thought. But this recent experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t dealt with honestly. It took me by surprise, as I didn’t expect such treatment. I’m used to customer service, in any business, treating me the customer as if I mattered. This has led me to question my use of Amazon and to think more carefully about what kind of company it is.

It’s not that I’ve been clueless and unaware of certain aspects of Amazon that are less than optimal, such as their refusal to pay local taxes and their practice of underselling brick-and-mortar bookstores for years at a profit loss. I’ve never liked these the anti-competitive tactics. It’s been sad what large businesses in general have done to small businesses, local economies, and once thriving downtowns. But Amazon has gone beyond the standard problems of big biz.

As I looked around, it became clear that many people have had difficulties with Amazon. With or without warning and explanation, Amazon takes actions that can be frustrating or even harmful. They regularly suspend accounts of third party sellers and, in many cases, this forces those sellers out of business because of how much Amazon’s platform dominates the online market. Customers can even get lifetime bans on making purchases or making comments. For some people, they’ve eliminated all Kindle ebooks from their accounts. There is little an individual can do. Getting a repeal or even just a fair response from a private bureaucracy can be challenging, assuming you can get a response at all. You can hire an arbitration company or something, although in many cases that isn’t successful either.

I’ve come to realize that Amazon isn’t a company I can depend upon and trust. Worse still, Jeff Bezos sounds like a psychopath. This wouldn’t be surprising, as studies have shown that psychopaths are common among corporate executives (one study showing that more than one in five, about the same percentage as found in the prison population); and others have noted that, if we take seriously corporate personhood, corporations fit the description of a psychopath. The way Amazon is run is more than a bit sociopathic with heavy leaning toward authoritarian-style Social Darwinism. Employees are treated like crap with one of the highest employee turnover rates.

Bezos is well known for publicly screaming at and demeaning people. He even has a highly disturbing evil laugh. He once bizarrely demanded that employees act with empathy or else they’d be fired, it not occurring him that such a demand was the complete opposite of empathy (his emotions mattering while the employees emotions not so much) Employees are encouraged to report on each other and that means they have to be constantly on the defense to protect themselves from anonymous complaints, sometimes without being told exactly what is the complaint. It’s a fairly common practice to receive an email from management or from Bezos himself with just a single word in it or just a question mark, apparently with the expectation that employees can read minds.

Working there would leave a normal person in a constant state of anxiety and paranoia, which is to say that to succeed in such an environment would require you to be extremely abnormal in the psychological sense. But that is the point. Bezos doesn’t want normal people working for him and because of how he dominates the online market he can demand almost anything he wants, burning through employees as if they are of little value. It’s a situation of severe inequality of power where employees have no leverage and have no union to turn to.

There is a large community of ex-employees that share horror stories. One guy a while back attempted suicide by jumping off one of Amazon’s buildings, after sending Bezos a scathing email. In the warehouses, employees are constantly monitored by a camera about every ten feet and are expected to work at high speed for long hours and for little pay and benefits. During a heat wave, employees were forced to continue working without air conditioning until they dropped from heat exhaustion and were carted away by a waiting ambulance. One employee talked about his hearing being damaged from the loud machinery, even with wearing ear protection, but the company doctor denied that it was work-related so that their insurance wouldn’t have to pay for it.

On top of all that, Jeff Bezos has become the poster boy of Friendly Fascism by hiding his company’s dark side. He is a wealthy and powerful man with proven ability to influence political outcomes. Using the pseudo-libertarian rhetoric of corporatism, Bezos likes to push the standard plutocratic worldview of school privatization, anti-labor organizing, tax cuts for the rich, tax avoidance/exemptions for big biz, etc. He has expanded his business through entering numerous new markets, by buying the Washington Post and Whole Foods, and by getting a highly lucrative contract with the CIA. Unsurprisingly, his acquired newspaper has used anonymous CIA sources and he kicked Wikileaks off Amazon’s servers.

Amazon was troubling enough in the past. But it feels like the company has moved into a new stage of dominance. That is why many people are once again talking about anti-trust laws, specifically in relation to Amazon. Trump has been threatening Bezos which makes for an interesting dynamic, two plutocrats challenging each other’s power. I guess we can count our blessings that at least the rich and powerful are somewhat divided at the moment. That often happens before major societal changes, if not reform then possibly revolution. Nick Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon, has since come to warn of the pitchforks coming for the plutocrats. One might note that the corruption and oppressiveness of big biz corporatism was a major reason for the American Revolution which, after the country’s founding, caused the founders to narrowly define corporations as being required by law to serve the public good.

I’ve done a lot of business with Amazon over the years. Maybe I shouldn’t have. I regret having recently bought a new Kindle. I didn’t realize how bad it was getting, but now my conscience is bothering me. I feel compelled to begin the process of separating from Amazon. I’ll look around for new companies to do business with. It won’t be easy. The first step is that I won’t buy any further content from Amazon. I presently cancelled my Amazon Prime membership and Audible membership. Maybe this means I’ll have to go back to reading physical books and become reacquainted with the local bookstores.

In the long term, this will be a good thing. I don’t want to personally participate in the further decline of America, as we head into a dystopian future. I’ve been told that I should vote with my dollars, which always seemed like an idiotic thing to say when plutocrats control so much of the world. It’s about impossible to avoid big biz these days. Still, I don’t like the feeling of being complicit in these problems. I suppose my small actions might mean little, but we each have to start somewhere. Thomas Paine, for example, took his first step toward revolution simply by writing a petition that by itself meant nothing for it had no hope of influencing the British Empire. Yet after losing his job over that incident, it eventually led Paine to meet Benjamin Franklin who invited him to the colonies.

So, let me take my first step toward wherever it will lead. I can hope that others will head in the same direction.

* * *

Update (11/26/17) – I decided to send a final email to Amazon. I haven’t shopped there since my banning them. And I don’t plan to ever shop there again.

The only way this decision would change is with some kind of drastic change at Amazon — if not trust busting, then maybe something along the lines of new ownership and management that ended the sociopathic company policy of worker exploitation, price gouging, and tax evasion. Another thing that could help change my mind would be an international movement of labor organizing and government regulation that forced Amazon to act according to moral standards and social norms that are beneficial, rather than harmful, to the public good of democracy and to fair competition of free markets.

Here is the final email:

To Communities Team,

As it is the holiday shopping season, I’m here to inform you that I’m no longer doing business with Amazon. The lies and mistreatment I received have caused me to place a lifetime ban on Amazon.

On average, I spent thousands of dollars a year in the past. So over my lifetime, Amazon will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of profits because of failed customer service. I will instead spend the rest of my life discouraging anyone else from shopping at Amazon. Because of social media, I could have an influence on hundreds of people over my lifetime. Multiply that by all the other lost business from similar failed customer service to other customers. That costs Amazon millions of dollars of lost revenue every year, possibly far more. As employees of Amazon, how forgiving do you think Jeff Bezos would be toward this harm to his business?

I realize some employees let their power go their heads. They think they are untouchable because they have a larger, wealthy, and influential corporation behind them. But I wouldn’t be so confident. If Wikileaks ever leaks Amazon info, including maybe names and addresses of employees, will Amazon protect those employees? Of course not. And imagine what kind of juicy info would be released from internal emails. Just think about the scandals that would follow and who would get scapegoated in the aftermath.

The harm that you cause to others sometimes has a way of coming back to you. Or else coming back to those you represent, which in this case is Amazon. I know Jeff Bezos fears anti-trust actions. Your customers are also citizens, sometimes also people with varying degrees of wealth, power, and influence. Anger the wrong person with the right connections and there would be consequences — it’s bound to happen eventually. If you continue to let power go to your head, it won’t end well.

I wanted to put this on the official record. I don’t expect nor want a response back. Knowing the anti-democratic and anti-competitive activities of Amazon, I now consider the company and its employees to be an enemy of the state and a threat to my freedom. I will spend the rest of my life ensuring that, at the very least, anti-trust actions will be taken against such oligopolies. I will be a single issue voter from now on and this is my single issue, to end plutocratic corporatism.

Do not respond back. You are blocked.

Sincerely,
Benjamin D. Steele

* * *

Free Yourself From An Exploitative Culture
by Margaret Flowers & Kevin Zeese, Popular Resistance

Amazon and the run-away wealth divide

While we’re talking about truth, let’s look at ways our exploitation-based culture is hurting all of us. One example is the concentration of wealth in the United States, which is accelerating at an alarming pace. In 2010, 400 people owned wealth equivalent to the bottom 50%, over 150 million people. We thought that was outrageous, but by 2015, the number was down to 20 individuals.

A new report by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie of the Institute for Policy Studies finds that now just three people in the United States, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, own wealth equal to the bottom 50%. That percentage may have changed yesterday because online sales raised Amazon’s stock values so much that Bezos is now a hundred billionaire ($100,000,000,000).

Amazon has become a giant predator in the US economy with a strong grip on Washington politics. Bezos bought the Washington Post, and then signed a $600 million contract with the CIA to build a ‘private cloud’ for the spy agency, raising concerns about conflicts of interest over the Post’s reporting on the CIA and federal government. This month, because of Bezos’ heavy lobbying efforts, Congress took steps that could lead to a $53 billion contract for Amazon to provide goods to the Pentagon.

Amazon is so powerful that cities across the US and Canada are tripping over themselves to lure Amazon with huge tax breaks and land give-aways. James Wilt explains how this is a “textbook ‘race to the bottom’ situation, in which governments are expected to commit massive public funds to subsidize a for-profit corporation so it doesn’t lose the ‘opportunity’ to another jurisdiction.”

Simon Head describes Amazon’s business model as one that puts increasing pressure on workers for greater output and fires them if they fail to perform. Workers have gone on strike to protest “unpaid wages and overtime, dangerous conditions, a lack of breaks and water during hot summer months, and retaliation by management against their organizing efforts.” Amazon also exploits workers who deliver its products. Instead of using the US Post Office for the ‘last mile’ of delivery, Amazon now employs “a network of supposedly self-employed, utterly expendable couriers enrolled in an app-based program which some believe may violate labor laws.”

In this disposable worker economy, it is no surprise that poverty is growing. Collins and Hoxie’s wealth inequality report described the ‘underwater nation’: one in five households either have zero or negative wealth (they are in debt). Hoxie also published the report, “The Road to Zero Wealth” this September, which delves deeper into the significant racial wealth divide. If nothing is done to change the current trends, black households are on track to reach zero wealth by 2043. (Listen to our interview with Collins and Hoxie on Clearing the FOG Radio)

This trend is happening world wide. Another report found that globally, billionaires increased their wealth by almost 20% last year. This level of wealth disparity has not existed since the Gilded Age. John Atcheson writes that this is a natural result of capitalism with its drive for ever greater profits.

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