The Most Important Thing You Can Do on Prime Day Is Not Shop at Amazon
This is a chance for you to take stock of your relationship with what might be the most powerful company in America.
Jeff Bezos in 2012. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores/Corbis via Getty Images)
On Monday at 3 PM eastern time, one of the most powerful corporations in human history will flex its muscles and invite you to worship at the alter of late capitalism. For the fourth year in a row, retail goliath Amazon will launch a (day-and-a-half-long) "Prime Day," its very own Black Friday–esque global shopping holiday targeted at subscribers to its free-shipping buyer's club. Preliminary estimates pegged pending sales at $3.4 billion, or roughly the the amount Donald Trump proposed cutting from heating assistance for low-income and elderly people in his first budget last year.
This is the first time Amazon will open the floodgates for millions of people hungry for discounted electronics and other items ranging from food to kitchenware to clothing since acquiring brick-and-mortar grocery retailer Whole Foods last year. It's also the first Prime Day since Amazon helped kill an historic tax intended to fund affordable housing in Seattle. That means it represents a great opportunity for you and millions of others across America who might be more focused on the latest Trump-related outrage to train that energy at abstaining from ruthless postmodern capitalism, if only for 36 hours.
Monopoly—or, more fundamentally, the problem of corporate concentration—has not loomed very large in the national conversation in recent years. Certainly, when the president is yukking it up with Vladimir Putin behind closed doors within days of a bevy of Russian officials being indicted for hacking Trump's Democratic opponents, it might seem like a weird thing to fixate on. But consolidation in the business world is one of the most significant factors shaping how Americans live their lives, from how they consume media to where they shop on holidays like the Fourth of July.
Experts remain somewhat divided on just how fair it is to brand Amazon a monopoly, but a few key facts are clear: As of last year, even before the Whole Foods deal, the company controlled 43 percent of online retail sales, a number that spiked to 73 percent for e-books. And as of this spring, it was within striking distance of becoming the largest clothing retailer in America, poised to surpass even Walmart.
All that market share would be one thing if the company were operating as a relatively harmless apolitical entity, a sort of steward of America's retail world that kept the packages coming in on time and little else. (It should be said that Amazon Prime does seem to be providing a real service for some remote locales in rural America.) But as with many of the companies atop the American business pyramid, the closer you look, the uglier things get. Conditions at Amazon's order fulfillment warehouses—often staffed by elderly Americans—have come under a steady stream of scrutiny in recent years. Likewise, the company's spending on playing the Washington, DC, influence game—a.k.a. corporate lobbying—has spiked 400 percent in the last half-decade, just as Bezos took the reins of the most important newspaper in the Beltway. And a new report out this month from the nonprofit Free and Fair Markets Initiative estimates the company has enjoyed $1.5 billion in US government subsidies or breaks since 2000, while dishing out $6 million in campaign contributions and nearly $10 million in state-level lobbying.
Meanwhile, as the economy has improved in the last few years, and corporate coffers and Wall Street stocks enjoyed huge gains, growth in middle-class incomes were largely wiped out by inflation. Tens of millions of Americans remain underwater on credit-card, student-loan, or mortgage debt—if not a toxic stew of all three. Chances are, a healthy chunk of that $3.4 billion in anticipated Prime Day revenue will arrive in the form of new debt for you or someone you know. Maybe you're already underwater on a regular credit card or even one of Amazon's very own lines of credit. Either way, way, celebrating Prime Day means supporting the company and its political aims.
"They're becoming central planners of the American economy," Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute think tank whose research has focused on corruption and monopoly, told me. "Prime Day is just about pricing games, and they're becoming the Soviet States of Amazon."
So take a second and think about it. Do you really want to funnel more wealth to a company that—along with other Seattle powerhouses like Starbucks—decided $12 million in taxes (out of $3 billion in profit) was too much to pay to help address a homelessness crisis in its home city? Do you really want to be a part of a trend toward a consumer environment where one master corporation has the potential to set prices and even give its own products preferential treatment in a system used by basically everyone? Do you really want to add more fuel to the fire of politics running on a slush fund of organized money?
"This is just a way to enhance their power over everybody in the economy," Stoller added of Amazon's fabricated holiday.
Of course, it's only understandable that Americans might not want to miss out on all the deals (how good they are is a subject of some dispute). But as if to drive home the stakes for Americans, at least some Amazon workers in Germany and Spain went on strike Monday to protest long hours, a lack of bonuses, and concerns about worker health. The spectacle should unnerve you given the sharp turn in America's legal system away from workers' rights and toward unlimited power for the rich and corporations.
No, it's not like your buying a laptop on Monday is somehow going to restructure American labor law, but throwing your money at businesses that have a history, as Amazon does, of sticking it to workers and the poor is not sending the right message. When so much of our politics is about money and who wields it—and with a Supreme Court that seems virtually certain to favor big business over workers even more passionately than it has been—registering a modest protest by abstaining from this fake holiday isn't a meaningless act of virtue-signaling. It's a way for you to remind the most powerful people in America that never-ending corporate consolidation isn't the only way to organize our society; it's just the one we're stuck with right now.
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