Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has a personal fortune of US$144 billion, makes about $1,240 per second, $74,500 per minute, or $4.5 million per hour, give or take $20,000. The median annual wage for one of his employees in 2017 was $28,446. It would take one of them more than five million years to reach their boss’s current net worth.
Bezos has become the world’s richest person not through some superhuman ability for hard work and innovation, but through building a business empire based on extreme exploitation. Every day around the world, hundreds of thousands of people wake up to alarm clocks and go to work for Jeff Bezos. They turn the gears of global distribution; they make Bezos rich and they come home exhausted.
Amazon’s warehouses are called “fulfilment centres”. William Blake might have called them “dark satanic mills”. Workers are put under robotic surveillance for performance time as they hurry around the giant facilities. They are expected to work unceasingly at “Amazon pace”, a sort of almost jog. Unable to access the toilet while on shift, workers have in some cases urinated in plastic bottles while continuing to race the clock and avoid the sack. On the other hand, if they are too efficient, they are also punished. The ABC reported last year that workers at the Dandenong, Melbourne, facility could be sent home early without pay when orders are completed.
Friedrich Engels once recounted a conversation with a Manchester businessman: “I spoke to him of the bad, unwholesome method of building, the frightful condition of the working-people’s quarters, and asserted that I had never seen so ill-built a city. The man listened quietly to the end, and said at the corner where we parted: ‘And yet there is a great deal of money made here; good morning, sir.’”
This same moral universe guides Amazon through the COVID-19 pandemic. With money to be made, management has tried to charge through the unprecedented health crisis at minimal cost or inconvenience. The result is workers’ health and lives put at risk.
Compelled to work in facilities threatened with infection, some workers have begun protesting to protect their safety. Dozens of workers walked out of Amazon’s Staten Island, New York, facility in late March, demanding the workplace’s closure and cleaning after a co-worker tested positive. With the coronavirus rapidly spreading in the city, they also demanded paid time off for anyone experiencing symptoms or otherwise needing to self-isolate. Amazon’s response? To fire the strike leader, Chris Smalls. “I don’t know how they sleep at night”, Smalls told the New York Post.
Such events give us a clue as to what the most powerful entities in the world think of us plebs. And since March, they have been repeated, over and over. In April, “user experience designers” Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa circulated a petition to co-workers about health risks in the company warehouses. They were sacked. Taking time off to recover from respiratory symptoms, medical technician Enesha Yurchak raised concerns about the health threats in her warehouse. She was sacked. In May, delivery worker Andre Kirk asked in a workers’ discussion forum whether anyone had tested positive. He was sacked.
At the time of writing, eight US Amazon warehouse workers have been announced dead from COVID-19. The company refuses to disclose exactly how many have been infected.
Bezos epitomises ageing capitalism. But corporations like Amazon also show the technical possibility of an alternative economic system based on production for human need and coordinated internationally.
Capitalism is both planned and unplanned. Production is governed by chaotic competition in world markets; the endless mission to accumulate more wealth leads to unpredictability, crisis and war. But alongside anarchic competition between businesses, extensive planning and coordination takes place within firms. Amazon, with its huge global distribution network, epitomises this.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, in his pamphlet Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, documented the rise of large-scale monopoly capitalism. At the opening of the 20th century, monopoly capitalism was eliminating smaller scale competition, concentrating vast productive forces and centralising the planning of global supply chains. This stage of capitalism led, in Lenin’s words:
“... directly to the most comprehensive socialisation of production; it, so to speak, drags the capitalists, against their will and consciousness, into some sort of a new social order, a transitional one from complete free competition to complete socialisation. Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognised free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.”
Bezos is a monopolist with unprecedented influence. Amazon boasts 175 “fulfilment centres” around the world, occupying over 14 million square metres of space and commanding more than half a million workers. Its logistical reach is extraordinary. Its workers can organise the delivery of almost anything across the globe within days – proof that there is no technological or logistical barrier to fulfilling human need on a mass scale.
This is not to suggest that the surveillance technocracy of Bezos represents anything progressive. His planning is driven by only one concern: how best to exploit workers and maximise profits. As Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski argue in their recent book The People’s Republic of Walmart, “Planning works, just not yet for us”.
Only a struggle for working-class power could achieve socialism. It is not difficult to imagine how much better things would be if major companies such as Amazon were controlled by workers, making democratic decisions about how best to distribute goods worldwide to those who need them.
We have already seen a small glimpse of this in Amazon workers’ resistance during the pandemic. Naturally, they know which measures are necessary to combat health and safety risks in the warehouses. In a more fundamental sense, collective control would introduce dignity to the world of work. Not needing to satiate the profit-hungry Bezos, workers would not need to work themselves to the brink of collapse to meet quotas.
Under socialism, workers’ immense resources (and the money in Bezos’ bank account) could be put to work to improve society. It would be possible to raise the living standards of the world’s poor, and to minimise and deal with the climate catastrophe.
There is no point in billionaires like Bezos existing. They play no useful role in the real economy. Like the kings and slave-owners of the past, all they do is amass obscene fortunes based on other people’s labour. Like those past rulers, they should be overthrown. We’d be better off without them.