As the year 1000 AD approached, many in the Christian world expected the Second Coming. As the third millennium approached in 2000, there were also apocalyptic expectations, some religious, some secular. Would the world end somehow, or change radically? Would alien spaceships land? The year got a nickname in advance, Y2K.
Now, in our present age of capitalist apocalypse, there’s a new name for the world-changing event that looms on the horizon: HQ2. Amazon, the flesh-eating corporation that has bored its way into what seems every aspect of our lives — destroying and transforming basic industries and institutions, habits of daily living, and the very configuration of our cities — is planning to open a second massive headquarters … somewhere.
Not perhaps since Constantine decided to build another capital for the Roman Empire on a site on the Bosporus called, naturally, Constantinople, has there been such feverish speculation about where Jeff Bezos would land Spaceship Amazon to bring his dubious mixture of blessings and curses. Small cities and large have come to the emperor’s court, bringing their gifts of free real estate and tax exemptions, peddling their wares, and pleading their case. Oddsmakers have ranked the major and minor contenders: Atlanta at 7:1, New York and Chicago at 14:1, Philadelphia at 18:1. You can keep score at SportsBettingDime.com.
The only thing to compare with this circus is the quadrennial competition for the sites of the Olympic Games. But the Olympics usually bring substantial financial cost and sometimes economic devastation; Athens is still trying to recover from hosting the 2004 Summer Games. Amazon promises fathomless riches in jobs, investment and civic renovation, after of course exacting its initial price. It is almost as if the future of urban civilization itself, which began to flourish so suddenly with the Industrial Revolution and to decline so precipitously with its latest fruit, the Digital Age, is at stake. In this sense, HQ2 is not simply a large business decision. It is an event that symbolizes the future of society.
I hate Amazon. With its former compeer Apple, it destroyed the bookstore, the cultural anchor of great cities and one of the great pleasures of my life. It is wiping out retail chains, the jobs that go with them, and the experience of shopping, dining and socializing that brought people together. It has left in its wake a vast isolation in which we can all remain in the sealed shells of our homes and apartments, connected to the world only by the computer keystroke. Your shipment is at the door.
“Convenience” is the sell. Old-fashioned getting and spending was labor- and time-consuming. It involved getting out and around, rain or shine, and lots of capital investment in building and transportation. It made for a lot of crushing and pulverizing of the natural world. The new workless, virtual world toward which we are headed promises ease and satisfaction with minimal effort. It also promises human emptiness and dependence on distant and unaccountable forces we can neither understand nor control. As we simultaneously “master” and destroy the environment around us, both natural and human, we are entering a robotic new world in which the ultimate thing to be replaced is ourselves.
Amazon is hardly responsible for all this; it is simply a pimple on the process. But the sheer size, arrogance and presumption of the HQ2 sweepstakes is an unprecedented show of corporate muscle in a developed country, let alone what is still the world’s largest economy.
It has often been remarked that corporations can be richer than entire nations. But never before has a single corporate entity made the major cities of the country that regards itself as the world’s preeminent power grovel for the pearls of its favor. The finalists have now been reduced to twenty cities. They each received short, curt nods by email in mid-January; Boston’s was typical: “We would like to move Boston forward in the process so that we can continue to learn more about your community, your talent and potential real estate options.” Boston, the Cradle of Liberty and the site of the Tea Party. Tell us more about what you’re prepared to let us shake you down for.
Newark, also one of the Chosen, has already offered Amazon $7 billion in tax breaks over the next 20 years, money it certainly doesn’t have itself and which would effectively mortgage the state of New Jersey, representing as it does 14 percent its current business tax base. It’s not that the money would mean anything to Amazon, as it amounts to only 0.2 percent of its current earnings per annum. It is tribute money, of the sort lesser states used to pay to the great Chinese empire. It means submission.
Amazon has moved into product lines now and just about everything else: it is too big to stop, even if the government were still able to look the word “monopoly” up in the dictionary. It started, though, producing nothing. It was just a big warehouse that delivered other people’s stuff. For this, it was rewarded with the power to snuff out entire industries. After a career of avoiding taxes, it now demands nonpayment of them as a right. It claims to bring jobs but delights in killing them, as in its new cashierless supermarkets, Amazon Go.
Many of those it employs work at poverty wages without benefits and in harried and sometimes horrific conditions. Those it doesn’t send to the unemployment line it exploits in what is rapidly becoming the world’s largest sweatshop. Its founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, is the world’s richest man. He owns The Washington Post, a fearful thought. Having made himself a master of the universe on earth, he now wants to travel into outer space, a goal in which we wish him well. He was voted the World’s Worst Boss by the International Trade Union Confederation.
Megacorporations now rule us. HQ2 only makes the point unmistakably. Their money owns cities, states and the federal government. Labor lies at their feet. The smartest talent around serves them — conscienceless scientists, slick lawyers, finagling accountants, anything they need. With all the skill and brainpower at their command, however, they are mindless and nihilistic, serving only the rodent-like goal of endless accumulation, of purposeless power and profit. They’ve been dining out, ideologically, on the economist Joseph Schumpeter’s description of the capitalist process as one of creative destruction, with the latter justified by the former.
Actually, Marx and Engels said much the same thing in The Communist Manifesto. The difference was that they saw the energies of capital as self-destructive in the end. If that end can’t be reached in time, though, they stand to destroy us, politically, economically, ecologically and above all morally and spiritually. The ITUC, in making its award to Jeff Bezos, cited him as a prime specimen of the “inhumanity” of the contemporary corporate executive. Our humanity is, indeed, modern capital’s ultimate target.