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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/14/14

Like Walmart, only with supercomputers and drones: At "cheap" comes at a very hefty price

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Cross-posted from Hightower Lowdown

It's time to pay attention to what Jeff Bezos and his online retail colossus are doing

IN HIS CLASSIC 1936 COMEDY, ModernTimes, silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin depicted the trials and tribulations of a harried factory worker trying to cope with the sprockets, cogs, conveyor belts, and managerial "efficiencies" of the new industrial culture.The poor fellow continuously finds himself caught up (almost literally) in the grinding tyranny of the machine. The movie is hilarious, but it's also a powerful and damning portrayal of the dehumanizing consequences of mass industrialization, including monotonous assembly-line work, ruthless bosses demanding more and faster output, mass unemployment, rank inequality, union busting, and police deployed to enforce the corporate order.

The ultimate indignity for Chaplin's everyman character came when he was put on an assembly line that included a mechanized contraption that force-fed workers as they worked. Not only did this time-management "innovation" eliminate the need for factory owners to provide a lunch break, but it also transformed humans into automatous components of the machine itself. Of course, worker-feeding machines were a comedic exaggeration by the filmmaker, not anything that actually existed in his day, and such an inhuman contrivance would not even be considered in our modern times. Right? Well... if you work for, Inc., you'd swear that Chaplin's masterpiece is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' idea of a properly run workplace.

Brave new paradigm

Jeffrey Preston Bezos is the elfish, almost preternatural man of unbounded ambition who founded Amazon, the online retailing colossus that trumpets itself as "Earth's most customer-centric company." At first blush, you might wonder why the Lowdown is digging into a company that has built a strong reputation with millions of consumers and even has a rather hip vibe going for it.

After all, isn't Amazon considered a model of tech wizardry, having totally reinvented retail marketing for our smart-phone, globally-linked age? Yes. And doesn't it peddle a cornucopia of goods through a convenient "1-click" ordering system, rapidly delivering the goods right to your doorstep? Yes, yes, and yes. Also, doesn't it offer irresistibly steep discounts on the price of nearly everything it sells (which is nearly everything)? Yes, again.

However, as an old saying puts it: The higher the monkey climbs the more you see of its ugly side. Amazon certainly has climbed high in a hurry. Not yet 20 years old, it's already a household brand name and America's 10th largest retailer.

Yet, mesmerized by its digital charm and explosive growth in sales, few have looked closely at the Amazon animal. Its media coverage has been more gee-whiz than questioning, generally attributing the retailers' phenomenal rise to Bezos' ceaseless search for ever-greater corporate efficiencies. The press marvels that his obsession with electronic streamlining and systems management allows him to sell everything from books to bicycles, barbeques to Barbies, at cheap-cheap-cheap prices, undercutting all competitors -- even Walmart.

But what is the source of those "efficiencies" and the low prices that are so greatly admired by Wall Street and so gratefully accepted by customers? Are they achieved strictly by being a virtual store, selling everything through the World Wide Web, meaning that it doesn't have to build, staff, and maintain any retail outlets? Or is Amazon achieving market dominance the old-fashioned way -- by squeezing the life out of its workers and suppliers, by crushing its competitors (from small shops on Main Street to big chain-store rivals) with monopolistic muscle, and by manipulating our national and state tax laws?

Voila! There's the ugly side.

As we've learned in recent years from exposes of the revolting business practices of Walmart, "cheap" can come at a very heavy price. And that price tag is no less revolting because it's asserted by a company that has a cachet of online cool and is based in cosmopolitan Seattle instead of rural Arkansas. Thus, in both this month's issue and September's, the Lowdown will take a hard look at what Amazon is doing to whom -- and where that is leading our society.

We're focusing on Bezos/Amazon ("BeZon" would be a more appropriate corporate name, for the man is the corporation and vice-versa), not because this is yet another badly behaving behemoth. Rather, Amazon screams for scrutiny because it, more than any other single entity, has had the infinite hubris to envision a brave new, computer-driven oligarchic order for our society -- then has proceeded to assemble it.

For some 30 years, corporate control has steadily (and stealthily) enveloped major elements of our society -- workplaces, politics, education, media, upward mobility, etc. This encroachment has even been given a benign name: "The new normal." But it's not normal, and it's not the result of some immutable economic force, marching through history -- it is the product of corporate money and power being relentlessly asserted by individuals.

No one has imagined corporate domination more expansively nor pushed it harder or further than Bezos, and his Amazon stands today as the most advanced and the most ambitious model of a future under oligarchic control, including control of markets, work, information, consumerism, media... and beyond. He doesn't merely see himself remaking commerce with his vast electronic networks, algorithms, and metrics -- but rebooting America itself, including our society's concept of a job, the definition of community, and even our basic values of fairness and justice. It amounts to a breathtaking aspiration to transform our culture's democratic paradigm into a corporate imperium, led by Amazon.

Bezos, an admirer of Walmart's predatory business strategy, didn't just duplicate it -- he wired it into his supercomputers, applied the Big Data techniques of the NSA to it, and routed it through the matrix of his own grandiose imagination. Walmart, the "Beast of Bentonville," is now yesterday's model of how far-reaching and destructive corporate power can be. Amazon is the new model, not just of tomorrow's corporate beast, but the day after tomorrow's. Only, it's already here.

Going inside Amazon

The establishment media are unabashedly infatuated with Bezos and have crowned him with numerous laurels, from "Person of the Year" to world's best living CEO. This May, however, the reigning God of TechWorld was awarded a less-coveted prize by the International Trade Union Confederation: "World's Worst Boss."

Even high-rankers in the corporation's hierarchy describe him as a cold, remote, controlling, ungenerous, and often vengeful gnome of a man with no empathy for the people who work for him. As far back as the 1980s, when he was a Wall Street banker, he was perceived as lacking the human touch. "He was not warm," remembers one who knew him then. "It was like he could be a Martian for all I knew."

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Jim Hightower is an American populist, spreading his message of democratic hope via national radio commentaries, columns, books, his award-winning monthly newsletter (The Hightower Lowdown) and barnstorming tours all across America.

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