Opinion: Why Defending Democracy Means Taking on “Amazons” of America

After Americans paused last July 4 weekend to celebrate the nation’s historic step of declaring independence from its colonial overlord Great Britain 245 years ago, it is worth reflecting on the fact that a key element of the famous document was also a declaration of a different fundamental truth the founders hoped would be established as the bedrock principle upon which political and social life in America would be organized: the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal.”

It is also worth reflecting on the durability and vitality of that truth, on the nation’s vexed commitment to living by that truth. Certainly the nation has been struggling over its history of racial injustice and inequity, which has embedded racism and its attendant violence stubbornly in the social, political, economic structures of American life.  Addressing this structural violence and inequity is key to realizing the fundamental truth the founders articulated.

Another belief system deeply embedded in the structures of American life, also severely at odds with the self-evident truth of people’s equality, is what we might call the “Amazon” mentality, or maybe even more appropriately the “Bezos” mentality. This mentality operates nakedly and proudly according to the stark belief in the inequality of people, which also contains the corollary belief that thus some people deserve or are entitled to more than others, have lives that matter more than others, and are more or less than disposable than others.

A recent piece in The New York Times by Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise, and Grace Ashford, exposing working conditions in an Amazon warehouse, underscores how Bezos’ rejection of the founders’ self-evident truth is operationalized in ways antagonistic to democracy in the workplace.  The piece details how workers’ every movements are minutely scrutinized, how they risk being fired for even one off day in which they don’t achieve maximum efficiency in their movements, generating an atmosphere of terror and anxiety. The piece emphasizes how Amazon takes great care of packages but devotes little care to its workers.

Rooted in Jeff Bezos’ belief that people are inherently lazy, Amazon treats workers as disposable, churning through workers precisely because it does not want a stable, long-term workforce that might become “disgruntled” over time. While Bezos believes that people over time will try to figure out how to exert as little energy as possible in doing their jobs, which is why Amazon has such constant turnover in its workforce, it’s hard to think he believes this about himself.

People like Bezos, meaning many of the wealthiest among us, simply believe they are different from and superior to others. It’s a version of supremacist thought we are often pretty quiet about in American.

Again, while Bezos is an exemplar of this creed, he is hardly alone. The belief that some lives matter more than others are held not just by the wealthiest but rather matter-of-factly and unquestioningly infuses American culture and politics, which largely ratify gross economic inequality.

Take Robert Mercer, a reclusive hedge-fund manager and billionaire, who became a major financial force behind Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency and was also a major stakeholder in Breitbart News.  According to a former senior executive at his company, David Magerman, who opposed what he characterized as Mercer’s supremacist and racist politics, “Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make. A cat has value, he’s said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he’s a thousand times more valuable.”

It should be clear this belief system is counter to, hostile to, democracy. Realized in social and economic structures and promoted through policy in the political realm, such a belief system results in an anti-democratic culture and set of institutions.

This is why it is so important that in late June, at its 30th international convention, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of America’s largest labor unions with 1.4 million members, passed a resolution to help unionize Amazon.

While it is important that Congress address the assault on democracy in the form of voter suppression legislation and attempt to curb economic inequality, having large non-governmental organizations amassing and giving coherence to people’s power and voice is hugely important to challenging the anti-democratic belief systems and structures organizing American life.

As I wrote recently in the pages of PoliticusUsa, Amazon is an exemplar of corporate efforts to erode democracy.  The company actively undermined the unionization drive by its workers in Bessemer, Alabama, engaging in tactics that prevented a free and fair election.  If we can’t have free and fair elections for our government officials, we don’t have democracy.  The same holds true, though, throughout our society, including the workplace.

And, as I’ve been trying to stress, taking on these undemocratic structures throughout American society, is also taking on these dangerous and inhumane anti-democratic belief systems that fuel the political and social dynamics that devalue American lives and deem their voices less meaningful in determining how our political and social institutions function and how the fruits of our collective labors are shared.

So, the Teamsters resolution to take on Amazon globally is a chief organizing effort for democracy itself.

Randy Korgan, the Teamsters’ national director for Amazon, said, “Together we will fight for workers everywhere. We can go further, there are more countries and workers to partner with. We must fiercely pursue the opening of new fronts in our global fight. Working people everywhere should be emboldened by the global solidarity that is taking root as we continue to take on the behemoth that is Amazon.”

We can’t simply rely on elected representatives to fight for democracy, especially when elections themselves are vexed by gerrymandering and enable minority rule.  We need large organizations that bring people and their power together to insist that people matter and deserve a voice in shaping the world in which we live—in short, in recognizing people’s equality.

That’s what the Declaration of Independence was about.