When Amazon was first founded in 1994, its name was not a reference to the world’s largest river, but instead “Cadabra”, an allusion to the pronouncement by a magician in the conclusion of their trick’s execution. The company set out to take advantage of the coming wave of home internet access to make a bookstore magically appear out of nothing into our web browsers. In this era of technological production, companies like Cadabra looked to dematerialize the storefront into the digital space and become the conduit through which we can all be our own magicians and make books and other goods appear on our doorstep like a rabbit out of a hat.
Like any other magician, Amazon looks to dazzle you and treat your impulsive desires, but it also looks to deceive you. A magician is not interested in showing you how the trick works. By having a clear picture of the mechanics and means, the trick is no longer entertainment, but becomes a rote and repetitive process like operating simple machinery.
Amazon has played a magnificent trick on society: that it is an enlightened, efficient, and productive part of society. Its tricks of low prices, fast delivery, and market dominance obscure the organizations true identity: that of a colonizer, one that operates like the colonialist European great powers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th century.
It is this identity that makes the old Cadabra’s current name so fitting. The Amazon is no longer just the name of the largest river in the world, Bezos found the name fitting Amazon shot up from being a large online bookseller to becoming the largest retailer in the western world. The Amazon river is also one of the ecological landmarks of Brazil is a nation still wrestling with the impact of colonial Europe’s influence and power structures. It was through Brazil that a massive proportion of kidnapped African peoples were processed into the slave trade. Their labor and lives laid the foundations of capitalist infrastructure of the Americas.
As explained in the excellent “Age of Napoleon” podcast, many of these slaves would be shipped and sold to work in the sugar plantations of the French Haiti, where they were made to work in extreme heat, fighting the symptoms of malaria, while hacking at sugar plants with machetes the size of swords. Due to the extremely high levels of mortality among plantation workers, there was literally no way the plantation owners could staff their plantations and produce the levels of sugar demanded by the European Gentry. So they sent African slaves to their death in order to produce sugar in the fields, knowing that the supply of labor going from West Africa to Brazil meant that the cost of buying another person was less than the profit they would get get from the rums and sweets produced from their array of sugar fields. This was the economic reality of sugar production in 18th century Haiti, a place that would soon enough stage the largest slave revolt in history through organizing and bravery, finding an ironic role model in their colonial owner’s own revolution.
Similarly, like the French plantation owners, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos, looks to find environments, populations, and products to maximize profit. On a moral scale, Bezos is still dwarfed by the horrors of Haitian sugar production in the 1700’s. But, like all capitalists,Amazon looks to create massive wealth by extracting value from preexisting environments and social relations, operating within the social norms of their era. Amazon is rapidly trying to claim as much territory as it can, in a race with against the rival powers of Google, Facebook, etc. buying up companies, holding a massive proportion of the internet server business, becoming the rentiers of the dematerialized digital commons. But even though so much of these tech companies products and services appear to exist effervescently through their digital platforms, there is still are great material costs and needs that must be met.
The city of Seattle has become a colony within the multinational corporation. The Amazon Spheres, now a landmark on Seattle’s maps, serve as a deeply prophetic example of the colonial status of broader society and Amazon. These three gigantic glass and metal orbs mark the colonial magistrate’s home, as the homeless lay destitute on the streets never escaping a state of precarity that impedes an ability to marvel at how quick Amazon can get a pair of bluetooth earbuds to your microstudio. But now, twice a month, members of the public can visit the spheres and experience the awe of the Governor Magistrate’s wealth and splendor while teachers have to work weekends as a Lyft driver to pay for their autistic son’s medical expenses.
As explained in the Bezos owned paper, the Washington Post, the company planned to create “lively, urban neighborhoods integrated into the cities around them” in Seattle. As explained by Amazon’s John Schoettler: “Jeff said the type of employees we want to hire and retain will want to live in an urban environment. They are going to want to work, live and play in the urban core.” Instead of building a large suburban campus like every other tech giant before them, Amazon looked to just absorb the city around it. This completely redefined the real estate market in an already expensive city, putting massive stress on some of the city’s most delicate infrastructural systems, all while paying minimal taxes. In fact, according to the zombie pro-growth consensus, every city should want an Amazon headquarters in their city, considering all the civic prostrating that went on in the Amazon HQ2 “race”.
We cannot forget how places like Seattle are themselves products of colonization as well. The city center is built on stolen Duwamish land, one of the many Native tribes in North America who contributed innumerably to the value extracted by colonial powers. These people’s cultures, heritage, and material powers were crushed and marginalized in the name of productivity and technological superiority. We hang in effigy the absorbed and discarded culture by naming our city Seattle, from the chief who worked to accommodate the white settlers of this land. Perhaps another great accommodationist will arise from the local political establishment to be so deserving of an honor.
Sometimes, these historical cycles of domination and extraction seem inextricable from our circumstances. Workers are being pushed towards greater economic precarity, leading them to places like Amazon that can give them more things for their stagnated wages, thus financing practices that encourage lower wages around the world. A greater political formation needs to unite against the colonization of our cities and citizens in the name of efficiency and profit. This does not require a magic trick or new startup idea, but a demand for those who extract value from our cities that they contribute their fair share to making them a more free, fair, and just place to live.
These manners of economic and political domination are common place throughout our hyper capitalist society. Our communities cannot view them as a force of nature outside of our control or critique, but rather as one of the key engines of exploitation, atomization, and domination in modern life.