Jeff Bezos Just Pulled a Rockefeller
In the late nineteenth century, John D. Rockefeller faced an insurmountable problem. He was the world’s richest man, but he (and his family) was plagued by stress-induced illnesses and was reviled by the public for decades of immoral and illegal business tactics. Moreover, his gigantic multinational corporation, the Standard Oil Company, was about to face an onslaught of anti-monopoly lawsuits that would eventually land them at the Supreme Court.
Being a shrewd fellow, he decided to retire at the top of his game.
By all accounts, John D. Rockefeller was not a good man. (He was a money-hungry skinflint who even charged his children for being late to morning prayers.) More importantly, with the use of predatory pricing, financialization, monopolistic coercion, democratic usurpation, and illegal railway kickbacks, Standard Oil bankrupted thousands of businesses, put an untold number of people out of work, and set a precedent of crony capitalism that turned America into the corporatocracy it is today.
Unlike the hundreds of thousands who died in poverty at the hands of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller didn’t suffer in his retirement. His health returned, his family was reinvigorated, and when the Supreme Court broke his monopoly into 34 separate companies, his wealth skyrocketed.
If this story sounds familiar, it’s because we’re watching the 21st-century reboot play out in real-time with Jeff Bezos.
John D. Rockefeller wasn’t a particularly brilliant businessman, and his products weren’t light years better than their competitors. By all accounts, without his shady tactics, he never would’ve been more than a mildly successful Cleveland oil refiner. So he cheated.
In our times, Jeff Bezos became the world’s largest hoarder of extreme wealth because he was the first person in online tech to fully weaponize financialization in order to destroy his competition and decimate democracy.
The cold hard fact is that Amazon wasn’t significantly better than all the other online shops at the time; they just had access to more capital, and the discipline to use it to strangle them all to death and then leverage their position to extract additional gains from the commons by dismantling democracy. It’s a model that many tech companies like Uber and Lyft now use to devastating effect.
But no one has done it better in our day than Jeff Bezos. It’s quite disturbing to think of how voracious this one man’s appetite has been. Books weren’t enough. Retail wasn’t enough. Nor entertainment, groceries, health, cloud computing, the space race, or invasive surveillance. As Amazon evades taxation and sets itself above the law, it has become its own de facto virtual nation. As Steve Levine recently put it:
“Why sprint across one industry boundary after another, watch as blood flows on Main Street, the middle class is hollowed out, and workers teem into cavernous warehouses to work like ants and be managed by algorithms?”
It’s a hellish template he’s created.
With a market cap of $1.6+ trillion, its hands in the CIA’s servers, its total dominance of the infrastructure of the Internet, its anti-competition business practices, and its ongoing siege of democracy, it’s no wonder that Amazon has entered Congress’s crosshairs, just as Teddy Roosevelt aimed his anti-trust long-gun at Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
And now, Jeff Bezos makes his perfectly-timed exit.
Rockefeller was 63 when he retired from Standard, handing over the reins to his son John Jr. and VP John D. Archbold. Let the young Turks fight in court for a decade or more. Bezos, just 57, probably doesn’t relish the fight against a new generation of creative and hungry pro-democracy activists.
So what does he do now?
In his old age, Rockefeller used a sliver of his gargantuan wealth to whitewash his reputation with very public acts of philanthropy. It was a textbook move at the time — the murderer Andrew Carnegie bought his legacy with 3,000 libraries, while African colonist Cecil B. Rhodes did the same thing with his scholarships and war profiteer Alfred Nobel did the same thing with his peace prizes. By the time he died, Rockefeller had endowed the University of Chicago, the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, and Spelman College, along with huge donations to Yale and Johns Hopkins and dozens of grants to other institutions. Today, he is essentially remembered as a benign philanthropic tycoon.
Jeff Bezos will now spend his days becoming the nation’s beloved Mars guy.
Evidently, America has learned nothing in the past century.
Jeff Bezos’s company has yet to be broken up, and now he’ll head off into the sunset with several hundred billion to his name. He’ll whitewash his reputation from all angles — space, philanthropy, the arts. He’ll become a pater familias, an elder statesman, an éminence grise.
He should be taxed.
His company should be broken up.
The truth about his company should become public record.
Corporations should be banned from interfering with democracy.
Rockefeller left behind broken men, bankrupted businesses, and an untold number of suicides. America rewarded Rockefeller for corporatizing and monopolizing the country, and the nation still hasn’t righted the downward trajectory.
Jeff Bezos now leaves behind a model of marauding financialization, predatory conglomeration, and exploitation the likes of which Rockefeller only dreamed. If America now rewards Bezos for architecting the modern Menace Economy, things will only get worse from here.