‘Tis the season: Amazon and its critics

Christmas is a season for invented traditions. There’s the Christmas tree, which first became popular in early modern Germany before spreading across Europe in the nineteenth century. There’s Father Christmas, loosely based on the historical figure St Nicholas, a fourth century Greek bishop and emphatically not a jolly fat man who lives at the North Pole and gets about in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer. There’s the now standard service of ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’, a format first used in 1880 at Truro Cathedral. Then there’s all the special food and drink we consume – mince pies, mulled wine, turkey or goose, Christmas pudding and brussels sprouts – none of which have any obvious relevance to the birth of Jesus.

Over the last few years we’ve added a new invented tradition to the list: shopping at Amazon. Truly Amazon is ubiquitous this Christmas. At first I thought it was just me. I’ve become used to rolling over in the morning and checking my BlackBerry to find that I have two messages: one from my girlfriend saying good morning, and one from Amazon saying why not buy Robert Harris’s new novel or a DVD of Tosca? Deleting this obligatory daily email from Amazon has become as much a part of my morning ritual as brushing my teeth or getting dressed.

Amazon

But then I started asking friends and colleagues whether they were using Amazon for any of their Christmas shopping this year. I haven’t yet found anyone who has said no. The moment I realised the full extent of Amazon’s grip on the Christmas gift market though was when I went to the post office this week to collect a parcel (which turned out, ironically, to be a present I had bought on Amazon). As I stood waiting for the man to find my package, I couldn’t help but notice that the store room was stacked wall-to-wall with parcels of all shapes and sizes, all wrapped in the familiar brown cardboard bearing Amazon’s simple black logo. The post office might as well just be re-named an Amazon distribution point at this time of year.

The trouble with this latest addition to the list of Christmas traditions is that it’s not quite as wholesome and harmless as singing a few carols or pretending to young children that the presents they get in their stocking on Christmas morning were made by elves and delivered by a man who somehow got in and out via the chimney. Amazon’s had a lot of bad press recently, first for its particularly aggressive approach to tax avoidance and more recently for the way it treats its workforce.[1]

But what really interests me is why this negative press has so little impact on our behaviour (mine included). Unless you’ve been stranded on a desert island for the last few years, you can’t credibly claim ignorance, so why do we just plough on regardless? The fact that boycotting Amazon is such a far-fetched idea reveals some painful truths about the society we live in:

  1. The idea that an ethical consumerism is going to somehow take hold and make the world a better place is a load of cobblers. Amazon is brilliant at serving our needs and wants as consumers so who cares whether they pay their taxes or exploit their workforce?
  1. Free market ideology has completely paralysed our ability to respond to the misdeeds of Amazon. How could they possibly be anything but worthy winners in the Darwinian struggle for profits? We shouldn’t be dwelling on the fact that they treat most of their staff like shit. We should be grateful that they are ‘creating jobs’ at a time when unemployment is such a big problem. Never mind about the people who used to work for bookshops or any of those other quaint retailers that used to litter our high streets, before they were put out of business by Amazon. And taxes? It appears that Ben Franklin’s famous quip that ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’ is no longer strictly true. At least not for Amazon and co. And who can blame them? As their cheerleaders like to remind us, which of us would choose to pay tax if we had the choice? The trouble is that for most of us paying our taxes isn’t a choice. It’s just the law.

The excuses we use, when challenged, to explain our failure to shake our Amazon habit are also rather revealing. They are based on a number of assumptions that are corroding our ability to behave ethically:

  1. Greed is human nature. We can’t blame Amazon for freeloading and exploiting their way to higher profit margins. It’s just the way we’re programmed as human beings.
  1. They’re all as bad as each other and because it’s difficult to know where to draw the line, I’m just not going to bother to draw it at all. If I’m not allowed to shop at Amazon, where exactly do you expect me to buy my Christmas presents? You can’t seriously expect me to only shop at Oxfam? If, like me, you’re middle class and read The Guardian, it’s relatively easy to boycott Primark, because the stuff they sell is low quality and their stores are invariably horrible places to be. But ask us to give up our shiny, sexy Apple products (or in my case the rather battered old macbook I’m writing this on) and you’ll get a very different answer.
  1. It’s the system’s fault. The problem with (or the great strength of, depending on your point of view) Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ metaphor is that it’s basically an argument for collective irresponsibility. And the beauty of it is that it works equally well regardless of whether free markets are creating positive outcomes or not. When free markets produce negative outcomes, there’s nothing we can do because nobody is to blame. Therein lies the real tactical genius of the free market ideologues.

It’s a very un-Christmassy message, but the reality is that the story of our shameful relationship with Amazon is core to what Christmas has become. It’s too late for 2013, but when we wake up hungover on New Year’s Day 2014, I think we need to take a long hard look at ourselves in the mirror and ask whether this is really the kind of progress we want. This is about a lot more than whether or not we boycott Amazon. It’s about the most basic values and assumptions of the society we live in.

My hope is that 2014 will be a new dawn ideologically. The moment when finally, six years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we’re able to move beyond the free market fundamentalism that has so completely shaped the world we live in. And Christmas does provide us with at least one reason to be optimistic about this possibility: we have a track record of being bloody good at inventing new traditions and modes of behaviour.

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One Response to ‘Tis the season: Amazon and its critics

  1. Another reason you might consider. Why would I, a person with limited time on earth and even more limited resources, sacrifice my own happiness in order to, in the short term, punish executives I don’t know and increase the chances those exploited workers – who are evidently not so exploited they quit – get fired?

    That is why boycotts and “responsible consumerism” are such weak tools against corruption. You really must fight the incentive structure instead of moralizing at the consumer if you want to fix this sort of thing.

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