The New York Times has published a deep look at Amazon’s brutal white collar workplace norms, which is somehow both unsurprising and shocking. Unsurprising in that this type of 80-hour-a-week bullshit (despite the evidence of diminishing returns and the huge incentive to just pretend that idle hours were spent “getting things done”) is everywhere in the high-tech economy beloved by the upper classes, and shocking in how completely dehumanizing Amazon’s entire system has become. It has turned its relentlessly efficient supply chain management on itself. So a company most famous for shipping books, diapers, and anything else to you at lower cost and in less time than anyone else (it seems kinda trivial to put it like that) has made these traditional retail stakes – I’m sorry, “innovations” – the ambitious ends justifying a bleak set of means.
I am not going to dive into everything that is deplorable about Amazon’s approach; the problem here is rooted in the history of American capitalism, techno-utopianism, and sexism (Amazon has no female top-tier executives) and the scope of this entry is much smaller. Instead, I am more interested in how Amazon has created white-collar equivalents of many of the indecencies of increasingly precarious blue-collar work. Whereas the latter has obviously suffered for decades under the dissolution of unions, the offshoring of labor, and the overall eclipse of labor by capital, the (really) upper middle class white-collar world has all the while maintained a facade of control and direction in the current economy, captured in the obsessive use of terms like “flexibility” and “leadership.”
But it’s just that: a front. Being “flexible” in the context of the workplace often means having to yield – in one’s time or in how one uses one body (this is why ‘flexible’ is such a telling term) – to undetermined forces, whether they be writ small -“efficiencies” – or large – “the market -” to disguise the fact that they’re just policies approved by upper class real human beings, subject to passing ideologies like neoliberal economics. In Amazon’s case, the perennial capitalist crisis of low profits, which is currently roiling the Chinese monetary system, has been the norm since day 1, which helps explains why the retailer – which despite having made virtually no money in its entire existence is valued at a hundred of billions of dollars – is perhaps even more notably inhumane than its sea of peers from Uber to Apple. It’s had plenty of time to bide its time and sharpen its claws.
While Amazon’s highly compensated mid-to-upper management employees are likely not what most people think of as ‘the middle class,’ I think that their subjection to crying fits and ridiculously petty harassment over email is the inevitable upward migration of manipulative techniques first tried-out on the underclasses (say, Amazon’s warehouse workers and the billions of their ilk all over the world). This is not the orthodox position, though. On Twitter, where fascination with Amazon has shaped the low-stakes non-ideological commentary of writers like Farhad Manjoo and Ben Thompson, the NYT’s revelations have instead spurred a sort of foggy “choice” narrative that is typical when trying to discuss neoliberal economic institutions without getting into politics.
In since-deleted tweets, for example, Thompson talked about how companies like Amazon “don’t happen by magic” and that many people still choose to work there. I think this viewpoint oversells how much any individual “chooses” to subject herself to the workplace wringer that Amazon et al are continually refining (and not in a good way; iteration is not necessarily positive). When the paths to the upper class are so narrowed by inequality that transversing them requires extraordinary measures such as the will to take on student loans and later be subjected to 24/7 interference (and all of this as an introduction), the romanticized idea of “choice” loses its luster. Today’s optionless (in all senses) 1099 warehouse stocker is tomorrow’s product manager with a caveat-laden contract and no down time.
Moreover, the narrative of “leadership” and “impact” are more of the anti-democratic, hyper-competitive worldview of the business elite, one that doesn’t really square with how the global economy operates (as Paul Krugman has explained) but nevertheless retains regrettable sway over individuals eager to “rally the troops” and do whatever it takes – bust unions, subject even the lowest-paid workers to humiliating screenings each night – to stay ahead in some fictional race. The idolized “leaders” of the new business world, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and secularly sainted Apple founder Steve Jobs, are seen as following straight lines from fanatical hard work to riches, which is ridiculous: they are also successful because they occupied certain historical moments with particular opportunities, and because capital accrued to them from sources other than their labor. Yet the hardworking, deserving CEO myth lives on.
Fortunately, I think there has finally been some push back to the Great Companies coverage that has been de rigeur across the Web ever since Google IPO’d and made it seemingly cool to not be “evil,” even if an organization was just another profit-seeking outlet like G.E. or Standard Oil before it. Thompson deleted many of his Amazon tweets following frustration over others who ‘assume malice‘ in his remarks about how “choice” factored into the Amazon wringer, how these practices were necessary to make a company “like Amazon” possible, and how the NYT was somehow the real villain in all of this because of its style of coverage (?).
I believe him that he was not defending Amazon consciously in the deleted tweets. Still, the style of commentary he exemplifies – i.e., one that argues that a given product/service is “the future” despite its unclear/possibly negative social value, that money from VCs and Wall Street is somehow mostly (and miraculously, considering the rent-seekers we are talking about here) directed at tech projects that improve the lives of people, and that the Interent and all of its derivatives such as the click-based economy are just immutable facts of business that we cannot change – will almost inevitably be read that way given the deteriorating economic environment for so many in countries like the U.S., Amazon’s home. The true orice of Amazon-style convenience is finally becoming clear to many of us, and that’s a good thing.