The insatiable Amazon

Daniel Little
Dec 1 · 7 min read

Imagine a company out of the dystopian fiction of William Gibson (Neuromancer) or the films of the Matrix series. Think of a company that manages to disrupt and eventually capture the traditional retail businesses built around selling books, appliances, electronic devices, cosmetics, pet food, clothing, and groceries. Turn your mind to a company that is looking to put shipping companies like FedEx and UPS into a second tier, destined for a much smaller future.

Now think of a company that has undertaken to create a wired world of electronic awareness and surveillance, from your home to your neighborhood to your city. It is in the name of convenience, but a possibly sinister future is created based on these same tools. Alexa, I’m talking to you — also to you, Mr Ring doorbell!

And now think of the relentless business philosophy that drives the employment philosophy of this company, from top to bottom. Efficiency at all costs, monitoring, algorithms that promote or fire workers (link); warehouse wages that pay less than half the unionized jobs the same factory buildings witnessed when they were auto plants; unconscionably high workers’ accident rates (link), stress levels that lead to bad health outcomes (link).

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

Imagine the difference you would experience as a worker in the hardware store mentioned in the New York Times story (driven out of business by online competition) and as a worker in an Amazon fulfillment center. In the hardware store you provide value to the business and the customers; you have social interaction with your fellow workers, your boss, and the customers; you work in a human-scale enterprise that actually cares whether you live or die, whether you are sick or well; and to a reasonable degree you have a degree of self-direction in your work. Your expertise in home improvement, tools, and materials is valuable to the customers, which brings them back for the next project, and it is valuable to you as well. You have the satisfaction of having knowledge and skills that make a difference in other people’s lives. In the fulfillment center your every move is digitally monitored over the course of your 10-hour shift, and if you fall short in productivity or quality after two warnings, you are fired. You have no meaningful relationships with fellow workers — how can you, with the digital quotas you must fulfill every minute, every hour, every day? And you have no — literally no — satisfaction and fulfillment as a human being in your work. The only value of the work is the $15 per hour that you are paid; and yet it is not enough to support you or your family (about $30,000 per year). As technology writer Amy Webb of the Future Today Institute is quoted in the Times article, [It’s not that we may be replaced by robots,] “it’s that we’ve been relegated to robot status.”

Amazon fulfillment center (NYTimes 12/1/19)

What kind of company is that? It is hard to avoid the idea that it is the purest expression that we have ever seen of the ideal type of a capitalist enterprise: devoted to growth, cost avoidance, process efficiency, use of technology, labor control, rational management, and strategic and tactical reasoning based solely on business growth and profit-maximizing calculations. It is a Leviathan that neither Hobbes nor Marx could really have visualized. And social wellbeing — of workers, of communities, of country, of the global future — has no role whatsoever in these calculations. The only affirmative values expressed by the company are “serving the consumer” and being a super-efficient business entity.

What is most worrisome about the Amazon employment philosophy is its single-minded focus on “worker efficiency” at every level, using strict monitoring techniques and quotas to enforce efficient work. And the ability to monitor is increased asymptotically by the use of technology — sensors, cameras, and software that monitor the worker’s every movement. It is the apotheosis of F.W. Taylor’s theories from the 1900s of “scientific management” and time-motion studies. Fundamentally Taylor regarded the worker as a machine-like component of the manufacturing process, whose motions needed to be specified and monitored so as to bring about the most efficient possible process. And, as commentators of many ideological stripes have observed, this is a fundamentally dehumanizing view of labor and the worker.

Business and technology historian David Hounshell presciently noticed the resurgence of Talyorism in a 1988 Harvard Business Review article on “modern manufacturing”; link. (This was well before the advent of online business and technology-based mega-companies.) Here are a few relevant paragraphs from his piece:

Rather than seeing workers as assets to be nurtured and developed, manufacturing companies have often viewed them as objects to be manipulated or as burdens to be borne. And the science of manufacturing has taken its toll. Where workers were not deskilled through extreme divisions of labor, they were often displaced by machinery. For many companies, the ideal factory has been — and continues to be — a totally automated, workerless facility.

Now in the wake of the eroding competitive position of U.S. manufacturing companies, is it time for an end to Taylor’s management tradition? The books answer in the affirmative, calling for the institution of a less mechanistic, less authoritarian, less functionally divided approach to manufacturing. Dynamic Manufacturing focuses explicitly on repudiating Taylorism, which it takes to be a system of “command and control.” American Business: A Two-Minute Warning is written in a more popular vein, but characterizes U.S. manufacturing methods and the underlying mind-set of manufacturing managers in unmistakably similar ways. Taylorism is the villain and the anachronism.

Predictably, both books arrive at their diagnoses and prescriptions through their respective evaluations of the “Japanese miracle.” Whereas U.S. manufacturing is rigid and hierarchical, Japanese manufacturing is flexible, agile, organic, and holistic. In the new competitive environment — which favors the company that can continually generate new, high-quality products — the Japanese are more responsive. They will continue to dominate until U.S. manufacturers develop manufacturing units that are, in Hayes, Wheelwright, and Clark’s words, “dynamic learning organizations.” Their book is intended as a primer. (link)

Plainly these more positive ideas about worker motivation, knowledge, and creativity play no role in Amazon’s thinking about the workplace. And this implies a grim future for work — not only in this company, but in many others who emulate the workplace model pioneered by Amazon.

And where is the worker’s ability to resist? The New York Times story (link) makes it clear that individual workers have almost no ability to influence Amazon’s practices. They can choose not to work for Amazon — of course! — but they can’t join a union, because Amazon has effectively resisted unionization. And in places like Baltimore and other cities where Amazon is hiring, the other job choices are even worse (even lower paid, if they exist at all). Amazon makes a great deal of money on their work, and it manages its great initiatives based on their Chaplin-esque speed of completion (one-day delivery). But there is very little ability to change the workplace towards a more human-scale one, and a workplace where the worker’s positive human capacities find fulfillment. An Amazon fulfillment center is anything but that when it comes to the lives of the workers who make it run.

Marx described the “so-called primitive accumulation of capital” — the historical process where rural people were dispossessed of access to land and forced into industrial employment in cities like Birmingham and Manchester (link). We’ve seen another kind of primitive accumulation in the past thirty years — the ruin of well-paid manufacturing jobs based on unionized labor, the disappearance of local retail stores, the extinction of bookstores and locally owned hardware stores, all of which offered a large number of satisfying jobs. And we’ve seen a new set of bad choices for displaced workers — McDonald’s servers, Walmart greeters, and Amazon fulfillment workers.

Is there a better philosophy that Amazon might adopt for its work environments? Yes. It is a framework that places worker wellbeing at the same level as efficiency, “1-day delivery” and profitability. It is an approach that gives greater flexibility to shop-floor-level workers, and relaxes to some degree the ever-rising quotas for piece work per minute. It is an approach that sets workplace expectations in a way that fully considers the safety, stress, and health of the workers. It is an approach that embodies genuine respect and concern for its workers — not as public relations initiative, but as a guiding philosophy of the workplace.

There is a hard question and a harder question posed by this idea, however. Is there any reason to think that Amazon will ever evolve in this more humane direction? And harder, is there any reason to think that any large modern corporation can embody these values? Based on the current behavior of Amazon as a company, from top to bottom, the answer to the first question is “no, not unless workers gain real power in the workplace through unionization or some other form of representation in production decisions.” And to the second question, a qualified yes: “yes, a more humane workplace is possible, if there is broad involvement in business decisions by workers as well as shareholders and top executives.” But this too requires a resurgence of some form of organized labor — which our politics of the past 20 years have discouraged at every turn.

Or to quote Oliver Goldsmith in The Deserted Village (1770):

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made:
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroy’d, can never be supplied.

Written by

Philosophy of social science; social and racial justice in the United States; China; higher education. Blogs at www.understandingsociety.blogspot.com

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