Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-click America

Alec MacGillis

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

Alec MacGillis

In 1937, the famed writer and activist Upton Sinclair published a novel bearing the subtitle A Story of Ford-America. He blasted the callousness of a company worth ‘a billion dollars' that underpaid its workers while forcing them to engage in repetitive and sometimes dangerous assembly-line labour. Eighty-three years later, the market capitalisation of Amazon.com has exceeded one trillion dollars, while the value of the Ford Motor Company hovers around thirty billion. We have, it seems, entered the age of one-click America - and as the coronavirus makes Americans more dependent on online shopping, its sway will only intensify.

Alec MacGillis’s Fulfillment is not another inside account or exposé of our most conspicuously dominant company. Rather, it is a literary investigation of the America that falls within that company’s growing shadow. As MacGillis shows, Amazon’s sprawling network of delivery hubs, data centres, and corporate campuses epitomises a land where winner and loser cities and regions are drifting steadily apart, the civic fabric is unravelling, and work has become increasingly rudimentary and isolated.

Ranging across the country, MacGillis tells the stories of those who’ve thrived and struggled to thrive in this rapidly changing environment. In Seattle, high-paid workers in new office towers displace a historic black neighbourhood. In suburban Virginia, homeowners try to protect their neighbourhood from the environmental impact of a new data centre. Meanwhile, in El Paso, small office-supply firms seek to weather Amazon’s takeover of government procurement, and in Baltimore a warehouse supplants a fabled steel plant. Fulfillment also shows how Amazon has become a force in Washington, DC, ushering readers through a revolving door for lobbyists and government contractors and into CEO Jeff Bezos’s lavish Kalorama mansion.

With empathy and breadth, MacGillis demonstrates the hidden human costs of the other inequality – not the growing gap between rich and poor, but the gap between the country’s winning and losing regions. The result is an intimate account of contemporary capitalism: its drive to innovate, its dark, pitiless magic, and its remaking of America with every click.

Review

On the face of it, Amazon has made consumption very easy for a lot of people in America and elsewhere in the world: order goods online at discounted prices, and the items will arrive at your door before you could have even made it to the shops. But the true cost of this convenience is extensive. As has been well documented – most recently in this outstanding book by award-winning journalist Alec MacGillis – this trillion-dollar company is fundamentally changing industries, compromising the vibrancy of high streets, shifting urban landscapes and cities’ fortunes, rerouting global transport logistics and commodity production, impacting the opportunities and conditions of work for many people, and driving inequality. Amazon previously traded on its early identity as a ‘disruptor’, but it is now a dominating force that continuously concentrates its power over the passage of goods and information in unprecedented ways, its ideology turbocharged by the pandemic where stay-at-home and lockdown orders have driven yet more shoppers into its online embrace. Using the stories of individuals whose lives have intersected with Amazon in different ways, MacGillis tells a chilling but utterly gripping dystopian tale of the impact of Amazon on American life and many of its cities, where it seems almost nothing is left untouched by the company.

There is so much uncovered by this investigation that beggars belief and had me audibly exclaiming ‘what?!’ while reading, most notably the descriptions of the company’s interactions with city, state, and federal governments, all of which seem to be falling over themselves to accommodate this breathtakingly wealthy company’s ambitions with tax concessions and other financial incentives. MacGillis also tells an important story about the decline of heavy industry and manufacturing in parts of the country – workplaces that had been the basis of community pride, identity and belonging. This steady erosion of work opportunities alongside increasing demand for labour in warehousing and distribution at Amazon’s fulfilment and data centres, means that, for a significant cohort of workers, a job at Amazon is now the only option in town, and that work is often lower paid, precarious, and seasonal. The social and cultural impact of this transition is profound, and is essentially invisible during an online shopping session.

This book is absolutely essential reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the politics of work, the dynamics of corporate power, and late capitalism. It is also a crucial cautionary tale for us in Australia, where the true extent of an Amazon-dominated future has not yet been realised.


Alison Huber is the head book buyer at Readings.

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