Books

Alec MacGillis
Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-click America

In Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-click America, Alec MacGillis connects the so-called “Everything store” to, well, everything. In his introduction, he describes how “the cataclysmic year of 2016” convinced him that Amazon provided “an ideal frame for understanding the country and what the country was becoming”.

The resulting book rather resembles a Dos Passos novel, with the biographies of disparate individuals – a warehouse worker confronting Covid-19 in Denver; an office supplies manufacturer struggling to compete in El Paso; two anti-poverty activists fighting for affordable housing in Seattle – illustrating the broader forces shaping America.

Behind them looms the company that epitomises the American polarisation, with Jeff Bezos worth an eye-popping $US200 billion, even as some of his employees rely on food stamps.

Amazon now dominates the employment market so thoroughly that in many rural areas it sets terms without competition, driving down wages and spreading dystopian techniques of management surveillance across the low-wage sector. Its monstrous scale means other retailers can’t afford not to sell on its platform. Yet when they do, Amazon uses its real-time data to identify their most profitable products – and produces cheap imitations under its own brand.

MacGillis calls the Amazon approach to tax avoidance “a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab”. In Ohio, for instance, it negotiated an exemption from property taxes for 15 years and so contributed nothing to the emergency services regularly attending the accidents at its warehouses.

Like the other Big Tech companies, Amazon has moved aggressively into lobbying, recruiting a string of former Obama administration officials. Handily, Bezos now also owns The Washington Post, “the primary organ for covering the nexus of corporate influence and politics in Washington”.

Fulfillment describes a United States divided into segments so different as to be incomprehensible to each other: on the one hand, cities such as Seattle, Washington and Boston, where the tech boom has made a small elite richer than Pharaohs; on the other, the small towns and rural areas where “deaths of despair” from suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction spiral out of control amid the ruins of 20th-century industry.

MacGillis notes that, as the US economy crashed during the pandemic, Amazon reported record profits, “flourishing more than ever before at one of the lowest moments for the country as a whole [as] the fates of the company and the nation … diverged entirely”.

It’s not always clear whether he sees Amazon as a cause, a consequence or an example of the conditions he describes. Nevertheless, this is an important and timely book, particularly given the one-click Australia taking shape all around us.

Jeff Sparrow

Scribe Publications, 400pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Alec MacGillis, Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-click America".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow