Who needs crisis government when you’ve got Amazon to keep things running? | John Naughton

While Trump blusters, the online giant has taken on the role of regulator and benevolent dictator

As we wait for the tsunami, the mood becomes increasingly apocalyptic. This is right and proper, but not for the reason you might think. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary tells us that “apocalypse” actually means “revelation” and that sounds spot-on to me.

In his magisterial book, Epidemics and Society, the historian Frank Snowden examined ways in which disease outbreaks have altered the societies through which they have spread. “Epidemics,” he said in a recent interview, are “a category of disease that seem to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also ... show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today.” They are, in other words, revelations.

Two recent episodes illustrate that point nicely. Waiting to check out at Aldi one day, I noticed that a box of hand sanitisers near the till was empty, and mentioned it to the cashier. He said that they sold out every time they put up a new box. Being a soap-and-water man, I was unperturbed, but on arriving home I logged onto amazon.co.uk to see how matters stood online. There were pages and pages of hand-sanitiser gel, though relatively few with the 60%+ of alcohol content recommended for the coronavirus. But I found one for £6.99 with free delivery and so put it in my basket, only to discover that the “free” delivery would only get it to me a month hence. On the other hand, I could get it in a week if I opted to pay. Q: how much was delivery? A: £48. The polite term for this is price-gouging.

Exhibit B is a New York Times story from across the pond. According to the newspaper, on 1 March, the day after the first coronavirus death in the US, two Tennessee brothers, Matt and Noah Colvin, went to every store in their home town and cleaned it out of hand sanitiser. Over the next three days, Noah embarked on a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a rented truck with thousands of bottles of the stuff and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes.

Having cornered the market, the Colvins then set about selling their wares on Amazon. Initially they sold 300 bottles for between $8 and $70 each, and presumably started laughing all the way to the bank. The glee was short-lived, however, for the next day Amazon pulled their items and thousands of other listings for sanitiser, wipes and face masks. The company also suspended some of the sellers behind the listings and warned many others that if they kept increasing prices, they’d lose their accounts. In this way, the Colvin boys found themselves with 17,700 bottles of sanitiser and nowhere to sell them. (In the end they donated two-thirds of them to charity; the remaining third were confiscated by the Tennessee attorney general’s office, which had launched an investigation.)

These two stories demonstrate how a pandemic reveals aspects of human nature that we’d prefer not to think about. But they also reveal an important truth about our economies, namely the extent to which Amazon has become so central – and so powerful. In fact, as Julia Carrie Wong pointed out the other day, Amazon in the US is beginning to behave more like a government than is the Trump administration. Wong likens the hiring of 100,000 staff and a $2-an-hour pay rise to a 21st-century version of FDR’s famous Works Progress Administration (WPA). The company’s sudden support for small businesses around its Seattle HQ (so that they might live to serve Amazonians another day) is, she says, akin to a government stimulus package. And its decision to stop accepting non-essential products from third-party sellers who use its warehouses essentially amounts to government-style market regulation.

This pandemic will radically transform the industrial and commercial landscape of western societies. Lots of companies – large and small – will go to the wall, no matter how fervent government promises of support are. But when the smoke clears and some kind of normality returns, a small number of corporations – ones that have played a central role in keeping things going – will emerge strengthened and more dominant. And chief among them will be Jeff Bezos’s everything store.

What we will then have to come to terms with is that Amazon is becoming part of the critical infrastructure of western states. So too perhaps are Google and Microsoft. (Apple is more like a luxury good – nice but not essential, and the only reason for keeping Facebook is WhatsApp.) In which case, one of the big questions to be answered as societies rebuild once the virus has finally been tamed will be a really difficult one: how should Amazon be regulated?

What I’m reading

Tipping point
“The last global crisis didn’t change the world. But this one could.” A terrific Guardian column by William Davies.

Speaking ill
“Disease as Political Metaphor”: a famous essay by Susan Sontag in the New York Review of Books.

Facing facts
“We need to save ignorance from AI”. A provocative article on the Nautilus site by Christina Leuker and Wouter Van Den Bos.

Contributor

John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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