The Covid-19 pandemic produced the latest iteration of capitalist crisis and the reshuffling of corporate power which will have enormous consequences for the future of work and the global economy.[i] Amazon is now the world’s most powerful corporation. By mid-2020, its market cap increased to $1.58 trillion (surpassing Microsoft) as demand for its services surged during the pandemic.[ii] As the global death toll from the pandemic neared one million deaths, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, became the first person in world history to amass a personal net worth of over $200 billion[iii], and the corporation doubled its net profit year over year to $5.2 billion.[iv] While millions of workers were laid off across the world, Amazon hired nearly 400 thousand more workers since 2019, increasing its (directly employed) workforce to over 1 million workers.[v] For the blue-collar workers in warehousing and delivery, the pandemic exacerbated Amazon’s ‘extreme high churn model’ – the continual replacement of workers in order to sustain dangerous and gruelling work-pace demands.[vi]
The meteoric rise of the corporation represents a significant shift in the global political economy, that we identify in our book The Cost of Free Shipping as ‘Amazon capitalism’. This new iteration of capitalism takes form in the concentration of corporate power seen in the sheer scale and magnitude of Amazon’s influence over the world’s economy. It has also propelled many novel features that currently animate the world’s economy that we discuss below. The problems associated with Amazon’s increasing dominance over workers, consumers, economies and communities are linked to the broader global capitalist system, which is embedded and interacts with other social and political relations of domination – including systemic racism – that operate at multiple scales, from the local to the global.
Amazon and racial capitalism
‘As a Black worker at Amazon you don’t get the opportunity as your white counterparts … My leadership didn’t fit their culture … their culture was to follow the rules and do what you’re told… the majority of the rules didn’t benefit the Black community … these corporations don’t stand with us’ – Chris Smalls, a former Amazon New York (JFK8) warehouse worker who was fired for his labor activism during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York[i]
‘It [is]… mainly black and brown bodies [working the warehouses] and the only white people were managers ’ – Paola, an Amazon warehouse worker in Inland Southern California[ii]
The late Cedric J. Robinson’s indispensable work on racial capitalism provides a useful framework to analyze contemporary corporate power. White supremacy is such a normalized part of capitalism that it often obscures the racial violence inherent in capital accumulation. Indeed, a fundamental logic behind Amazon’s record profits that is rarely discussed is its exploitation of thousands of low paid, hyper-surveilled Black, Latinx and immigrant/migrant workers who do all the hard labor to make Amazon’s Prime shipping possible. Bezos’ personal fortune isn’t the result of his supposed ‘brilliance’ nor an outcome of his ‘innovative business acumen’ that the corporate media tends to suggest. Rather, his wealth is actually the result of the large-scale exploitation of a vast racialized blue-collar labor force who are treated as ‘cheap’[iii] and disposable,[iv] many of whom are also women of color.[v] The devaluation of racialized labor and subsequent extraction of differential value is the foundation of Amazon’s global empire. In this system, workers of color and immigrants/migrants remain concentrated in the most labor-intensive, precarious, dangerous, low wage and hyper-surveillance-driven jobs in Amazon’s supply chain. Meanwhile, a mostly white male executive class reaps the profit.
Amazon is the world’s leader in anti-worker technologies
‘One thing that can be stressful is that my boss always knows exactly where I am because of the Rabbit. So, if I am behind on my route, they tell me about it … They call me on the radio and tell me to hurry up. I’m constantly rushing, and on most days, I don’t even have time to take a full lunch break, so I just go to a drive-thru. And if I’m lucky I’ll just eat in the van as I am working … So, the thing about this job is that it is very stressful, and you are constantly rushing’ – Miguel, a subcontracted (DSP) Amazon delivery driver in Los Angeles[i]
‘These technologies are used very selectively to target people who management wants to get out for whatever reason’ – John Hopkins, an Amazon warehouse worker-activist in the San Francisco Bay Area[ii]
Amazon maintains the largest database on warehousing labor in the world. All human activity in warehouses is monitored; workers’ movements and ‘human inefficiencies’ become the raw material for integrating future anti-worker technologies, including robotics and other technological innovations. In order for Amazon to ensure its packages will arrive on time, the corporation has invested in building a massive digital, algorithmic management[iii] cloud infrastructure, relying upon real-time technologies of worker (and consumer) surveillance across its massive global logistics empire[iv] and last mile (package) delivery network.[v]
Shoshana Zuboff (2019) describes ‘surveillance capitalism’ as the ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.’[vi] If Google is credited with creating surveillance capitalism, Amazon is now leading the development of normalizing the mass surveillance of workers through its algorithmic management system, or ‘proprietary productivity metric.’[vii]
Amazon’s technologies are also sold to other corporations and government sectors, and pose serious privacy and civil liberty threats in the context of the company’s operations and relationships to governments and municipal police. Along with providing cloud data storage for the US Pentagon and the CIA, Amazon’s 2018 acquisition of the Ring home surveillance system has also fueled the rapid penetration of the state-corporate nexus of surveillance of everyday life.[viii] In addition to Ring, police departments in many US states are already using Amazon Rekognition, a new face-recognition computer system and database that is under fire from civil rights organizations because it more commonly misidentifies people of color more than white people. Despite this, the system has also been offered to the US Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.[ix]
Amazon as a site to resist capitalism, racism, and mass surveillance
It is clear, then, that Amazon’s ‘free shipping’ is certainly not free; rather it creates enormous costs for workers and communities, particularly for communities of color. Amazon capitalism is representative of many of the destructive forces inherent in capitalism, including the exploitation and dehumanization of workers; corporate welfare and tax avoidance; extreme wealth inequality; nativism, racism and sexism; an obsessive mass-consumer culture; surveillance; the erosion of privacy; monopolistic practices; neoliberalism and the public subsidization of corporations; and the assault on the ecological integrity of the earth. However, while the power of Amazon capitalism grows, so too does popular discontent. We are seeing new waves of popular rebellion with Amazon as a strategic new target that is inspiring activists to further collaborate across movements, cities, regions and borders. Amazon provides a key site for building alliances among activists not only across space, but also across different types of movements, including movements for economic, racial and social justice.
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese are the editors of The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, which is available now.
Jake Alimahomed-Wilson is Professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach. His research focuses on race, gender, labor, logistics, and global workers’ struggles. He is the co-editor (with Immanuel Ness) of Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain (Pluto Press, 2018) and the author of Solidarity Forever? Race, Gender, and Unionism in the Ports of Southern California (Lexington Books, 2016), and co-author (with Edna Bonacich) of Getting the Goods: Ports, Labor, and the Logistics Revolution (Cornell University Press, 2008).
Ellen Reese is Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Labor Studies program at University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on gender, race, and class, public policy, and social movements. She is the author of They Say Cutback; We Say Fightback! Welfare Activism in an Era of Retrenchment (American Sociological Association’s Rose Series, 2011) and Backlash Against Welfare Mothers: Past and Present (University of California Press, 2005). She is also co-editor of The Wages of Empire: Neoliberal Policies, Repression, and Women’s Poverty (Paradigm Publishers, 2007) and co-author of The World Social Forums and the Challenges of Global Democracy, 2nd Edition (Paradigm Publishers, 2014).
[i] This article features some excerpts and quotes from the Introduction (Jake Alimahomed-Wilson, Juliann Allison), and Ellen Reese); Chapter 4 (Jake Alimahomed-Wilson); Chapter 6 (Ellen Reese); Chapter 17 (DCH1 Amazonians United); and the Conclusion (Alimahomed-Wilson and Reese) of Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake and Ellen Reese. 2020. The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. London: Pluto Books.
[ii] Savitz, Eric. 2020. ‘Amazon is the New King of Seattle as Market Cap Passes Microsoft.’ Barrons, July 31. https://www.barrons.com/articles/amazons-market-cap-passes-microsofts-after-earnings-51596221342
[iii] Kiersz, Andy and Taylor Nicole Rogers. 2020. ‘Jeff Bezos is the first person in history to be worth more than $200 billion. Here’s how the world’s richest man makes and spends his fortune.’ Business Insider, August 26. https://www.businessinsider.com/jeff-bezos-net-worth-life-spending-2018-8
[iv] Faulkner, Cameron. 2020. ‘Amazon doubled its profit during a pandemic.’ The Verge, July 30. https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/30/21348368/amazon-q2-2020-earnings-covid-19-coronavirus-jeff-bezos
[v] Sumagaysay, Levi. 2020. ‘Amazon reaches 1 million workers amid pandemic hiring frenzy.’ MarketWatch, July 30. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/amazon-reaches-1-million-workers-as-pandemic-pushes-total-up-11596136565
[vi] Iren Tung and Deborah Berkowitz, ‘Amazon’s Disposable Workers: High Injury and Turnover Rates at Fulfillment Centers in California.’ National Law Employment Project, 6 March 2020 https://s27147.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/Data-Brief-Amazon-Disposable-Workers-Injury-Turnover-Rates-California-Fulfillment-Centers3-20.pdf. Accessed April 19, 2020.
Amazon and racial capitalism
[i] Interview conducted by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson in 2020.
[ii] For more on race and gender in Amazon’s warehouses, see Chapter 6: Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake and Ellen Reese. 2020. The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. London: Pluto Books.
[iii] See: Robinson, Cedric. 2000. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, pp.39. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
[iv] While Black and Latinx workers are the primary group of racialized warehouse and last mile logistics workers in the United States, there is a growing number of migrant workers across Amazon’s vast global supply chain network throughout Europe. For more on the racialization of Amazon’s logistics supply chain, see: Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake. Forthcoming. ‘The World is a Warehouse: Racialised Labour Regimes and the Rise of Amazon’s Global Logistics Empire’ in Labour Regimes and Global Production, edited by Neil Martin Coe, Elena Baglioni, Liam Campling, and Adrian Smith. New York: Agenda Publishing.
[v] For the gender and racial composition of these workers in Southern California, see page 34 in Flaming, Daniel and Patrick Burns. 2019. Too Big To Govern: Public Balance Sheet for the World’s Largest Store. Los Angeles: Economic Roundtable. Available at: https://economicrt.org/publication/too-big-to-govern/
Amazon is the world’s leader in anti-worker technologies
[i] Interview conducted by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson in 2019. For more on Amazon’s exploitation of last mile delivery drivers, see Chapter 4: Alimahomed-Wilson, Jake and Ellen Reese. 2020. The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy. London: Pluto Books.
[ii] Interview conducted by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson in 2020.
[iii] Altenried, Moritz. 2019. ‘On the last mile: logistical urbanism and the transformation of labour.’ Work organisation, labour & globalization, 13(1): 114-29.
[iv] Struna, Jason, Ellen Reese, and John Aldecoa. Forthcoming 2020. ‘Automation and the Surveillance-Driven Warehouse in Inland Southern California’ in The Cost of Free Shipping: Amazon in the Global Economy, edited by Jake Alimahomed-Wilson and Ellen Reese. London: Pluto Books.
[v] For more on the challenges facing parcel delivery workers, see: Moore, Sian and Kirsty Newsome. 2018. ‘Paying for Free Delivery: Dependent and Self-Employment as a Measure of Precarity in Parcel Delivery.’ Work, Employment and Society, 32(3): 475-492.
[vi] Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human at the New Frontier of Power, Pp.1. New York: Hachette Book Group.
[vii] See: Lecher, Colin. 2019. ‘How Amazon automatically tracks and fires warehouse workers for ‘productivity’.’ The Verge, April 25. https://www.theverge.com/2019/4/25/18516004/amazon-warehouse-fulfillment-centers-productivity-firing-terminations
[viii] Alfred Ng, ‘Ring Let Police View Map of Video Doorbell Installations for over a Year,’ CNET, December 3, 2019. www.cnet.com/news/ring-gave-police-a-street-level-view-of-where-video-doorbells-were-for-over-a-year/. Accessed April 20, 2020.
[ix] Harwell, Drew. 2018. ‘Amazon met with ICE-officials over facial recognition system that could identify immigrants.’ The Washington Post, 23 October. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2018/10/23/amazon-met-with-ice-officials-over-facial-recognition-system-that-could-identify-immigrants/