THE NATION | Amazon’s Defeat Is Local and Global
Jamie Merchant | The Nation
It’s official: Amazon, one of the most powerful corporations in the world, has been booted out of Long Island City, New York, thanks to a determined coalition of grassroots organizations and their elected allies. Together they mounted a scathing public campaign against Governor Andrew “Amazon” Cuomo’s shameless corporate-welfare handouts. They also went after the company’s role in selling facial-recognition technology to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its outright hostility to unionized workplaces. In the end, the anger and outrage was simply too much for Amazon to bear, so it packed up and left. It’s a beautiful thing.
Commentators have rightfully focused on the need to check Amazon’s outsize power as a monopolistic monster. But it is crucial to keep in mind that its monopoly position in the US market, indeed its very business model, is made possible by the wider, global economic geography in and through which it has emerged. Amazon’s profits come not from its innovative culture or Jeff Bezos’s entrepreneurial genius, but from profits on capital extracted from the global worker. Like every other multinational corporation, Amazon depends upon the ability to source labor at the cheapest price, wherever it may be in the world.
This is true not only for manufacturing its own high-tech products, but also for those of all the companies it hosts through its various services, who themselves rely on global supply chains to produce commodities at a cost low enough for them to afford those services and the access to markets they provide. They, too, must take advantage of a competitive paradigm in which countries compete with one another to win the contracts that will deliver the same coveted jobs. Jeff Bezos’s dystopian dream of a click-to-order world in which drones and robots eliminate the need for human labor can and will never be realized so long as the race to the bottom in wages and working conditions for global labor continues to exist.
Just as Amazon rolled out its search for HQ2 by courting US cities and trying to extract the best deal—until yesterday, New York was preparing to deliver tax benefits worth $3 billion in public funds to the company—companies like Amazon engage in a similar race to the bottom globally, shopping around for jurisdictions with the lowest taxes, the best incentives, the most lavish benefits, and so on.
On a national level, the downward spiral of competition locks communities into a muted civil war. Internationally, the same dynamics are at play, only between nations themselves: For example, Ireland has long been a keystone in the global game of “tax arbitrage,” through which corporations exploit the differences between national tax codes to reduce what they pay to the bare minimum. Tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple—among many others—have taken advantage of Ireland’s super-low corporate-tax rate and various legal loopholes, locating major offices or even their international headquarters there.
Ireland is just one case, but it vividly illustrates how countries are compelled to offer these incentives in order to cultivate a “business-friendly environment.” Every country that hopes to attract capital investment is forced into the same debilitating shell game. And at the end of the day, it is the public who pays for the right to be exploited.
The absurdities of the Amazon deal, which enraged New Yorkers and motivated them to fight back, are globalized absurdities present in every factory, every office, every farm, and every export-processing zone across the planet in which people are treated like cattle, offered by their governments to Amazon and other world-striding corporations as a cheap resource to be exploited. This outward-looking, supranational view is already implicit in New York’s anti-Amazon movement, which, much to the company’s displeasure, broadened its perspective to encompass Amazon’s general attitude toward unionization, corporate welfare, and immigration policy. In other words, the movement’s was a holistic critique: rejecting Amazon’s values for a wholly different idea of the kind of world we want.
Labor rights, tax justice, and the free movement of people are issues that go far beyond not just Queens but also US national borders, potentially linking together communities who are struggling for the same goals in similar conditions across the world. By tying the local fight against Amazon to bigger structural problems, the Queens activists opened a window onto a transnational, anti-corporate politics in which laborers everywhere recognize their shared stake in a common fight against the corporate domination and crushing inequality of the present order.
As the movement for economic, racial, and environmental justice continues to grow, activists should keep tying community and grassroots campaigns to bold ideas for a new global system. The Queens anti-Amazon movement just showed us the way forward.
Jamie Merchant is the media director for the Center for Progressive Strategy. His writing has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Baffler, and Al Jazeera English. He has been a leader with justice is Global since 2016.