Maybe there is a little Amazon in every office nowadays. The recent New York Times report on the demanding conditions of white-collar Amazon.com workers has caused tremendous debate—more debate, incidentally, than revelations about the company’s even more disturbing treatment of blue-collar workers. Perhaps there is something about the mixture of affluence and ruthlessness, like Gordon Gekko declaring that greed is good, that we’re not sure whether to love or to hate.
This week I heard from an America reader, Kevin Bailey, who has been discerning what a Christian’s responsibility is in light of these revelations:
You probably have seen the New York Times exposé of the Amazon corporate work culture. I know you also write about technology from time to time and was wondering what you might have to say about where a corporate culture such as Amazon’s leaves us as consumers. I’m personally tempted to cut ties and not support it with my dollars. Yet it’s a tough choice because we rely on Kindle texts and the convenience of delivery to save us time and money.
I suppose I’d start by wondering if we can do better than thinking of ourselves as “consumers.” What if we consider ourselves here as human beings, people made in the image of God whose every action has moral consequences? That, I think, is the frame that Kevin is speaking from when he tells of his temptation to break with Amazon. Consumers are fictional beings who seek products and “satisfaction” wherever it can be found for the lowest possible monetary cost. People, however, make decisions based on other kinds of values. What interests us, in addition to stewarding money, is stuff like relationships, justice, creativity, and authenticity.
An Amazon for people, rather than consumers, might look more like Fairmundo, a German online marketplace organized as a cooperative among its vendors. Members will be on hand, along with those of other human-centered online enterprises, at an event on “platform cooperativism” that I’m co-organizing at the New School this fall. It’s hard to imagine that the worker-owners of a cooperative would impose Amazon's punishing conditions on themselves.
Another question is efficacy. The Times notes that Amazon is now the most valuable retailer in the country, even more so than Walmart. Challenging its value system is an extraordinary challenge—just ask the book publishers—and it will require more than a conscientious few going elsewhere for their ebooks. (There are lots of other options, by the way.) It will require, probably, a whole different culture around how we behave in the economy.
Recently in Rome I sat down with Leonardo Becchetti, a (Jesuit-educated) Italian economist who is part of the “civic economy” school—an approach that looks beyond the homo economicus to a much broader vision of what the economy is for and what it means to participate in it. Among his many publications is a new book called Next, Vote With Your Wallet!, which explores strategies for the kind of conscious consuming that Kevin is contemplating.
“What you have in the civil economy are consumers who are socially responsible and involved with the world,” Becchetti told me. “Citizens must be active, they vote with their wallet. We should exploit this act of freedom that individuals have. It’s a very bottom-up, grassroots vision, the civil economy. It’s not the state that decides for everyone.”
Becchetti, along with fellow civic economist Stefano Zamagni, has been an influential voice in the formation of recent Vatican teaching on the global economy. It's fitting, then, that in his thinking on Amazon, Kevin also brought up Pope Francis’ new encyclical:
After reading “Laudato Si,’” it’s clear one of the main themes is conversion. A cultural conversion is needed around these kinds of issues. How do we want our economy to look? How do we want our work lives to look? Do we want just a few large corporations providing us everything? At what social and moral cost?These are the questions we should be asking in our parishes, but I’m afraid in the USA we’re not even close yet.