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Torn in the USA

Purpose, identity and social status, how this book reveals the three things lacking on the shop floor at Amazon


This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Amazon’s net profits increased by 84 per cent in 2020. As Covid-19 swept across America during March and April, Jeff Bezos’s personal fortune increased by $24 billion. In contrast, nearly a million American manufacturing jobs were lost in the decade up to 2010 due to competition from China, whose accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001 sounded a death knell for car plants and steel works that formed the backbone of organised labour.

Fulfillment: Winning and losing in one-click America by Alec MacGillis, Macmillan, £22

A new book, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America by MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, charts this parallel rise and fall through the lives of blue-collar Americans living hand-to-mouth in the country’s ravaged former industrial districts. Into this void has stepped Amazon, the multinational founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, a libertarian who believes that free markets can, as he puts it, “solve many of the world’s problems”.

When market forces decide that it is cheaper to produce things in Shenzhen than Detroit, Amazon offers replacement jobs in its vast “fulfilment centres”. Millions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks follow, as local officials try to entice Amazon to their area. However, local excitement dissipates as the realisation dawns that the new jobs are significantly worse than the old ones.

Told through the lens of Amazon, Fulfillment is a tale of the growing divide between what the author calls “winner-takes-all cities” and declining towns and suburbs. MacGillis spends time in prosperous Seattle, the location of Amazon’s corporate HQ. From there he moves to rural and small-town America, which is experiencing a decline “unlike anything it had experienced since the offspring of farm families had started fleeing to cities en masse a century earlier”.

Dayton, Ohio was once an industrial powerhouse. Today its residents scratch out a living. We meet Todd and Sara, a young couple brought up amid a sense of genuine material progress. Yet during the George W. Bush era, one in three local manufacturing jobs vanished. Todd works at a local cardboard box factory — one of the few firms to survive Amazon’s retail dominance — and the couple live in a homeless shelter.

MacGillis notes that when Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, he did so by “racking up big numbers” in depressed areas that had not voted Republican for decades — the sort of places Amazon has chosen to build its fulfilment centres. “He’s gonna raise the economy back to the way it was when my parents were working,” says Todd, who voted Obama twice before voting for Trump in 2016.

Fulfillment is one of the better books looking at “left behind” regions of America, not least because of the sheer breadth of its investigative reporting. It gets under the skin of America’s forgotten communities; it also shows compassion for its subjects at a time when liberal politics is preoccupied with ideological purity and rooting-out suspected “deplorables”.

Indeed, locating the material roots of rage and discontent is unfashionable among affluent Democratic party elites who reside in coastal cities. They were appalled by Trump, but also by the people who voted for him. The 2016 election result produced “an instant revulsion toward the parts of the country that had made him president,” MacGillis writes. “It was time, they said, to pull the plug on these places, economically and politically.”

That may yet be unnecessary: opioid and suicide epidemics are ripping the heart out of working-class America. “‘Deaths of despair’ — the astonishing rise in mortality among white people without college degrees caused by suicide, alcoholism, and drug addiction… was concentrated heavily in Ohio and neighbouring Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana,” writes MacGillis. “In just five years, from 2012 to 2017, death rates for white people between twenty-five and forty-four years old jumped by a fifth.”

Fulfillment is one of the better books looking at “left behind” regions of America, not least because of the sheer breadth of its investigative reporting

Besides material prosperity, working class Americans have lost something else that is alluded to in one of the chapter titles, dignity. “I never dreamt of retiring, because I enjoyed that job. I don’t care how dirty, how dangerous it was, how busted up I got. I loved it,” says William Kenneth Bodani Jr., a 69-year-old former steelworker from Baltimore who now works at Amazon. “You might even say that he found it fulfilling,” writes MacGillis of Bo’s experiences making $35 an hour in the steel industry. Today Bo earns $13.75 and works a 10-hour shift with a 20-minute break.

MacGillis doesn’t romanticise the old industrial jobs. However, he is wise enough to recognise what Franklin D. Roosevelt once called the “joy and moral stimulation of work”. Labouring jobs in steel plants, coal mines and car factories may have been dirty and dangerous, but they gave millions of Americans a sense of purpose, identity and social status — three things lacking on the shop floor at Amazon.

Amazon has attempted to replicate the old sense of fraternity with PR gloss and phony corporate uplift. “Aren’t you excited? Come on, clap!” MacGillis reports an Amazon HR manager telling workers at a warehouse in the San Bernardino Valley in 2018 after the company reluctantly raised their pay (it emerged that Amazon was a leading employer of food-stamp recipients).

When I was working undercover at an Amazon fulfilment centre in England in 2016, a company manager told us that we were “one big happy family at Amazon”. Yet Amazon is a strange sort of family: the head of the household lives in a $23 million “pharaonic” DC mansion with 25 bathrooms, whereas workers in the company’s fulfilment centres are reduced to urinating in Coke bottles.

As MacGillis documents, it isn’t just the labouring classes squeezed by Amazon. Small businesses are driven to the wall by the company’s 15 per cent commission for third-party business sellers. Moreover, the data Amazon gleans from these third-party sellers is used against them, thanks to “Amazon’s penchant for seeing which products were selling most and then offering its own products to supplant them”, MacGillis writes.

Despite Amazon’s destruction of in-person retail, which has created a growing landscape of boarded-up store fronts, politicians have broadly welcomed the company’s ascendance. A revolving door between Washington and corporate jobs in Silicon Valley has popularised the idea that what is good for Amazon is good for America. As MacGillis writes: “David Plouffe, whose tactical brilliance had helped Obama win in 2008, headed to Uber. Lisa Jackson, Obama’s EPA director, headed to Apple. And in February 2015, less than a year after leaving the White House, Jay Carney [Obama’s former White House press secretary] joined Amazon.”

Amazon’s approach of “working backwards from what customers want”, as Amazon’s associate general counsel Nate Sutton phrases it, has given us one-click shopping with same-day delivery. Yet as Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee and someone Jeff Bezos once called, “the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com”, has pointed out, Amazon’s “customer obsession … might not be good for people who aren’t customers”.

Which is all of us in a sense: besides being consumers we are also members of our respective communities. Human beings need dignity, purpose and self-respect; in a word, we need fulfilment, something the Amazon model seems to actively work against.

Yet as MacGillis’s excellent book demonstrates, it is for reasons of social cohesion that we must stand up to Amazon, before it is too late.

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