Homo Amazonicus

Homo Amazonicus. By Sohrab Ahmari.

The regions generally fall into two categories. One set enjoys the upsides of the new tech economy dominated by the likes of Amazon, either by attracting high-tech workers who prefer to cluster together (Seattle, the Bay Area), or by underwriting this new economy with finance capital (New York), or by offering the new oligarchs access to political and journalistic power (Washington).

Then there are the peripheral regions, those in thrall to the center: places like Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Dayton, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, which, having lost their manufacturing base to free trade with China, now supply cheap labor to the logistical machine that makes it possible for you to order an obscure monograph on Manichaeism (or pet food or a bed frame or a beekeeping suit) and have it delivered to your door the very next day.

The widening divide between core and periphery makes these “parts of the country incomprehensible to one another — one world wracked with painkillers, the other tainted by elite-college admissions schemes” — ­different but parallel disorders.

The travails of people far removed from the core make for especially painful reading. They seek but cannot find “the dignity of being able to support one’s family in a middle-class existence.” Fathers want to provide normal family lives for their wives and children, but they can’t — not on the wages on offer in the warehouse and transport peripheries of the Amazon empire, not with the welfare nets so thin and seemingly designed to be antifamily, not with their own parents’ social capital depleted by previous waves of globalization and automation. …

Why doesn’t Amazon care about the family conditions of its employees? Why do it and similar firms use ­algorithmic scheduling that deprives workers of predictability in their schedules, essential to being able to spend time with children?

The inescapable conclusion of MacGillis’s book is that this is Amazon’s vision of American life: upscale distractions and ultra-­convenience for those who can afford it; precarious employment relieved by weed and opioids for those who cannot; and both groups ­ultimately unbound from the familial ties and community limits that make for a truly human life. …

The production of Homo amazonicus — which is finally the whole tendency of high-tech capitalism — requires the destruction of anything that stands in the way of ­efficiency — including communal bonds and family ties. Homo amazonicus has no need of father, mother, or child, of family, place, or political community.

MacGillis’s reporting raises the question of whether Amazon’s business model and corporate culture are compatible with the goods proper to family, faith, and community — that is to say, the things traditionalists profess to hold dearest. …

America will not enjoy a true moral renewal until believers see that sermonizing alone will not do much of anything for Bezos’s hyper-exploited workers — or for the nation he is remaking, one online checkout at a time.

Does this economic efficiency lead inevitably to its morally and socially unacceptable consequences? No. The industrial hell of nineteenth century England was eventually conquered. So too can Amazon’s profit making machine.

hat-tip Stephen Neil