Why Amazon Reminds Me of the British Empire

by Emrys Westacott

“Life—that is: being cruel and inexorable against everything about us that is growing old and weak….being without reverence for those who are dying, who are wretched, who are ancient.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science)

ScreenHunter_562 Mar. 17 10.40A recent article by George Packer in The New Yorker about Amazon is both eye-opening and thought-provoking. In “Cheap Words” Packer describes Amazon's business practices, the impact of these on writers, publishers, and booksellers, and the seemingly limitless ambitions of Amazon's founder and CEO Jeff Bezos whose “stroke of business genius,” he says, was “to have seen in a bookstore a means to world domination.”

Amazon began as an online book store, but US books sales now account for only about seven percent of the seventy-five billion dollars it takes in each year. Through selling books, however, Amazon developed perhaps better than any other business two strategies that have been key to its success: it uses to the full sophisticated computerized collection and analysis of data about its customers; and it makes the interaction between buyer and seller maximally simple and convenient. It also, of course, typically offers lower prices than its competitors. Bezos' plan to one day have drones provide same-day delivery of items that have been stocked in warehouses near you in anticipation of your order is the logical next step in this drive toward creating a frictionless customer experience.

Amazon's impact on the world of books has been massive. Over the past twenty years the number of independent bookstores in the US has been cut in half from four thousand to two thousand, and this number continues to dwindle. Because Amazon is by far the biggest bookseller, no publisher can afford to not use its services, and Amazon exploits this situation to the hilt. Publishers are required to pay Amazon millions of dollars in “marketing discount” fees. Those that balked at paying the amount demanded had the ‘Buy' button removed from their titles on Amazon's web site. Amazon used the same tactic to try to force Macmillan to agree to its terms regarding digital books. And of course Amazon's Kindle dominates the world of e-books, another major threat to traditional publishers and booksellers.

The argument for viewing Amazon in a positive light is not difficult to make.

They offer the customer a bigger selection of books than anyone else, usually at lower prices. Buying online as a returning customer with a registered credit card is laughably easy. Any wannabe writer can self-publish with Amazon, and those whose books sell receive a much higher percentage in royalties. In opening up this opportunity to all, and in basing its advertising and promotional decisions on computer analysis of customer behavior rather than on some self-styled expert's opinion, Amazon eliminates the unnecessary middlemen, professional tastemakers, and elitist gatekeepers that have controlled—and constrained—publishing for so long, replacing them with the dynamic democracy of the digital market place.

For all that, more than one person I know reacted to Packer's article by pledging to avoid buying stuff from Amazon in future, at least as far as and for as long as this is possible (which judging from the way things are going may not be too far or very long). Why this reaction? Well, when I told my daughter about Packer's article her immediate response was to say that Amazon sounded a bit like the British Empire. Which set me thinking.

What parallels can be found between the premier online retailer and the largest empire in history? I see similarities in three areas: beliefs and attitudes; practices; and impact on affected populations. Let's consider these in turn.

According to Packer's account, the prevailing attitude among those in charge at Amazon is arrogance. Here is where I think the echoes of imperialism are most apparent. British imperialists typically viewed themselves as superior to those they displaced or ruled on various counts: birth, race, heritage, education, culture, morals, religion, ability, and character, all resulting in and backed up by superior political and military power. The proof of this superiority could be seen on any map of the world that showed the extent of Britannia's rule. The Amazon execs are indifferent, of course, to such things as birth or pedigree; what matters to them is being smart. But thinking of themselves as smart is the basis for a particular kind of arrogance which they seem to share with other successful types in places like Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The way one top exec is described to Packer by a colleague is revealing: he's said to be “the smartest guy in the room at a company where everyone believes himself to be just that.”

This fetishism of smartness is certainly not confined to techies, but it assumes a specific and perhaps especially intense form among them. Obviously, there are many different ways of being intelligent. One can excel at abstract reasoning, creative problem-solving, learning languages, understanding people, remembering information, noticing patterns and connections, interpreting works of art, manipulating people and events, mastering a practical skill, recognizing opportunities, artistic creativity, witty repartee—the list is virtually endless. So there are many people out there who are smart in various ways. But at any particular time and place, certain kinds of intelligence will be especially valued. It might be the ability to track an animal, or plan a battle, or discourse fluently in Latin, or demonstrate erudition, or make accurate and discriminating observations, or solve technical problems using mathematics and logic. These are all forms of smartness that at different times have been applauded and rewarded. And of course one kind of smartness is to recognize just what kind of smarts the present or immediate future will reward.

Today we live in an age when science enjoys cultural hegemony and most educated people earn a living by processing information. Naturally enough, therefore, certain kinds of smartness are now much in demand and are rewarded accordingly. Prominent among these is fluency in computer science and technology. The market value of knowledge and skills in this area has been greatly enhanced by the growth of the internet since this has expanded to an unprecedented degree the potential customer base or audience for any online enterprise.

The fetishism of smartness at places like Amazon is thus, naturally enough, oriented towards technological fluency and business acumen. But it seems to be accompanied by a moral subtext. Our success is not due to chance or luck; it's due to our intelligence; therefore it's deserved. On the face of it, this might seem dissimilar to the attitude of a British imperialist who, after all, could hardly claim credit for being born British (Cecil Rhodes supposedly said that “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life”). But it is similar insofar as the British attributed their success in conquering and ruling much of the world to their possession of certain qualities—intelligence, industry, organization, moral and cultural superiority. The similarity extends also to the contemptuous attitude felt and sometimes expressed toward those who suffer as a result of this success. One former Amazon employee cited by Packer says that execs at Amazon view the older publishers as “antediluvian losers” and describe whole sections of the print world as the “Rust Belt media.” Imperialists like Winston Churchill regularly referred to the native populations whose settlements, property, and whole way of life he cheerfully helped to destroy when serving as a military officer in Africa as “primitive,” “backward,” barbarous,” “ignorant,” “savage,” and “improvident.”

In the eyes of both, what legitimizes this contempt—and reinforces the arrogance—is the conviction that they are on the side of history. As Jeff Bezos said to Charlie Rose: “Amazon is not happening to bookselling. The future is happening to bookselling.” The attitude is a form of Social Darwinism. Countries with superior military power and political organization will naturally dominate people who are lacking in these. (“Whatever happens we have got / The Gatling gun, and they have not.”) Businesses that know how to use the latest technology effectively will inevitably send to the wall those that still rely on dated methods that are less efficient: that's the way capitalism functions. The ultimate and unarguable proof of superiority is real world success: the subjugation of native populations; the growth of market share. Might is right.

Seeing themselves as being aligned with the forces of inevitable historical change is accompanied, naturally enough, by the belief that they are agents of progress, that the changes they help being about are desirable. Obviously, this self-perception can be self-serving; but that doesn't make it foolish. There is an idealistic strain in enterprises like Amazon, Google, or Facebook that is not simply a piece of self-deception or a marketing strategy. Amazon really does make books available to people who lack a local bookstore (although in some cases, of course, this lack may be largely due to the local bookstore being put out of business by Amazon). Their constantly expanding inventory–Bezos' eventual goal is to warehouse copies of every book ever written–means that it is now much easier than ever before to buy obscure and out of print titles. Electronic self-publishing makes it easier and cheaper for all writers to put their work out in the public domain. British imperialists also saw themselves as benefiting the world. Churchill, reflecting on what the British had achieved in Africa, thought that future historians would judge them to be “a people, of whom at least it may be said, that they have added to the happiness, the learning and the liberties of mankind.” Cecil Rhodes was bracingly blunt: “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

Moving from attitudes to actions, we should first of all be fair to Amazon. They don't massacre by the thousand those who resist their growing power; they don't torch villages in acts of punitive reprisal; they don't use gunboats to force the Chinese to keep buying opium from British drug traffickers. But within the parameters of legal business operations, they do seem to be pretty ruthless. Some of their success is undoubtedly due to their clever use of up to date methods, from automated, individual-oriented advertising to warehouses staffed by non-unionized workers who are already being replaced by robots. But according to Packer their success in bookselling is also largely due to a strategy whereby they “created dependency and harshly exploited its leverage.” Refusing to sell books by publishers who won't cough up a sufficiently large “marketing discount” fee is a case in point. This is, in effect, a legal extortion racket. To be sure, it isn't as crude as the way the British persuaded the Chinese to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which required China to hand over twenty-one million dollars, grant all sorts of trading concessions, and cede control of Hong Kong (the British method was to threaten Nanking with gunboats). But the underlying mentality isn't so different. Where one isn't constrained by moral considerations, all that remains is a power struggle; and all that ultimately matters in that struggle is who wins. As Quirrell says in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, echoing Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Nietzsche: “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.

Of course, Jeff Bezos is hardly the first capitalist to play hardball, so it wouldn't make much sense to single out his company as singularly ruthless in its business strategies. The ethics of Amazon are pretty much the ethics of any big business striving toward monopoly status. What is troubling, though, about the mindset described by Packer is the seeming indifference to, or even satisfaction over, the negative impact of the company's actions on significant numbers of people. Packer reports that among “people who care about reading, Amazon's unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning.” This could equally stand as a description of those who found themselves powerless to resist British rule. But in both cases, the view from the seat of power is that those who aren't with the program either don't recognize what's in their best interests or deserve to disappear.

“Innovate or die.” “Move fast and break things” Such mantras are associated with the technological revolution, but there is nothing essentially new here. They express the essential spirit–and reality– of capitalism that Marx describes in The Communist Manifesto. Those who find themselves surfing the waves of innovation naturally enough sing the praises of the new. So much is understandable. It feels good to be a winner, doubly good if you sense the wind of history at your back, and triply good if you believe you're making the world a better place. British imperialists felt good on all three counts, yet we are now critical of their attitude in large part because of their indifference to the individuals, communities and cultures they affected and in many cases destroyed. They could have done with more humility and more humanity. The same goes for the Amazon execs described by Packer. What is unbecoming, even ugly, in both groups is the callousness drifting into contempt toward those who, also understandably, lament the destruction of something they cherish, whether it be a secure job (like working in a bookstore), a respected occupation (like print publishing), a skill that is no longer marketable (like editing), a pleasure that may soon no longer be available (like browsing in used bookstores) or, indeed, an entire form of life.