It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. In the 1980s the Rust Belt began to oxidize. As foundational industries began to flee the Midwestern heartland, the Micro Millenium was going to save it. Sunrise industries based on the microchip would replace the aging, sunset manufacturing base. Productivity gains and the new tech industries would generate good jobs. New technologies had always created something to take the place of what it had destroyed. Creative destruction. At the same time, the personal computer, made official by the IBM PC in 1982, became the new knowledge appliance that would democratize knowledge and access to information.
Fast forward to 2019. Amazon’s fingers are grabbing everything. Billionaire John Malone, of Liberty Media, states in a recent issue of In These Times that Amazon is a “Death Star moving into striking range of every industry on the planet.” There are over 100 million Prime subscribers in the United States alone. Every 1% increase in online sales means the closure of some 7,000 retail outlets. Amazon wants it all.
What about the good jobs? Everyone has heard about the horror of working in Amazon’s warehouses. The woman pictured above is part of the new army of quiet desperation. And even that job is insecure, because of robots. Sears, J.C. Penney, delivery workers, third-party sellers, the growing number of independent contract workers have all been squeezed or eliminated by this death star.
Gizmodo reports that a training video was sent to the managers of Whole Foods last year. Whole Foods is owned by Amazon. The video shows managers how to detect “early warning signs of potential organizing.” These warning signs include workers “suddenly hanging out together”, using union words like “living wage.” (Jake Johnson, “Unions are Lying, Cheating Rats: Leaked Video Reveals Amazon’s Belligerent Anti-worker Tactic”, Common Dreams, September 27, 2018). It was the unions that forced the social contract between labor, government, and industry. It was a contract that existed since the Fifties but had a cardiac arrest in the ’80s. It was a Cold War-inspired agreement that in exchange for labor peace, workers gained the means to buy a house, a car, go on vacation, send their kids to college, and retire with a defined pension. No longer.
I ordered products from Amazon this morning. I am a Prime subscriber. Like the other 100 million subscribers, we have a decision to make about Amazon. Companies like Amazon have created a new class system, except it seems worse than the old class system. I understand the logic of capitalism demands greater efficiencies, building the better mousetrap. Mr. Bezos has done that brilliantly. But the cost is the renewal of an age-old system of misery, where the efficiencies still depend on the sweat and sacrifice of workers who have nowhere else to turn. The builders of the Pyramids, the slavery on the plantation, the assembly line workers, now the sweatshops around the world and the warehouse workers of Amazon, are all connected by a continuous line.
Couldn’t we make robotics and AI work for the average person? If every individual is sacred, then every individual has the right to be nurtured, given scope to explore with their imagination, to develop their talents; to contribute to the common fund of human wisdom. Why keep the bulk of humanity in debt slavery and labor servitude?