What if we nationalized Amazon?
by James Kaelan, Ty Foster, and Charlie Faith
The night of March 19, as Governor Gavin Newsom was declaring a state-wide lock down to slow the spread of COVID-19 in California, my buddy Charlie texted our group thread to let us know he was on a town hall conference call with Rep. Adam Schiff.
“I’m in the queue,” Charlie wrote. “What question should I ask?”
“Ask him about the insider trading,” suggested Ty, the most sansculottes in our group of proto-radicals. News had just broken that a number of Senators, including Kelly Loefler (R-GA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), had dumped millions in stock before the Dow nose-dived 30% on news that the coronavirus pandemic was, indeed, a pandemic. “They want to get guillotined, I swear to god.”
“Holy shit,” said Charlie. “It’s all socialists calling in from Silver Lake. One woman just said she doesn’t want to live beneath the Gower underpass, so what’s happening with rent?”
“Jesus,” said Ty.
“Schiff singing a song about U.B.I,” said Charlie. “Starting at $1,000 per month.”
“He’s behind the times,” said Ty. “$2,000 per month is the minimum bargaining position now.”
“What am I asking this guy?!?!” said Charlie.
“Ask if we can nationalize Amazon,” I offered. “Seize all their goods and distribute them for free and pay the drivers out of Jeff’s account.”
“Schiff just cited the Defense Production Act,” said Charlie. “Maybe this is my in?”
At a press conference the day before, in response to a national shortage of surgical masks and ventilators — equipment key to combating the spread of COVID-19 — President Trump had invoked the Defense Production Act.
Passed in 1950 to aid the Korean War effort, the D.P.A. contains four main provisions.
The first authorizes “the President to require businesses to sign contracts or fulfill orders deemed necessary for national defense.”
The second permits “the President to establish mechanisms (such as regulations, orders or agencies) to allocate materials, services and facilities to promote national defense.”
The third allows “the President to control the civilian economy so that scarce and/or critical materials necessary to the national defense effort are available for defense needs.”
And the fourth enables “the President to requisition property, force industry to expand production and the supply of basic resources, impose wage and price controls, settle labor disputes, control consumer and real estate credit, establish contractual priorities, and allocate raw materials towards national defense.”
“It’s totally within the government’s purview,” I said. “We’re in the most emergency of emergencies.”
“And Bezos is mysteriously absent?” said Ty. “We never have to take his claims of philanthropy seriously again. Here’s an opportunity to give away half your wealth, minimum. You will never notice the difference and you’ll become a world-historic benevolent figure if you play it right. Guess what? That isn’t a legacy he gives a fuck about.”
“Yeah,” said Charlie. “Maybe worth opening with a broad denouncement of these Tony Stark wannabes all disappearing/going full Lex Luthor. Like, Elon Musk being passive aggressive about people coming to work at his spaceship company. What a hero.”
“What number in line are you?” I asked Charlie.
“Don’t know,” said Charlie. “What WWII industry is the ideal comparison to Bezos? Auto?”
“Auto is probably a perfect example,” said Ty, “because the point is not (just) that we’re being vindictive about an evil trust. The immediate concern is how useful their infrastructure could be for saving lives. So, what arguments are we making? Are we breaking up Standard Oil to protect consumers? Are we using emergency powers to commandeer infrastructure? Or are we seizing outsize wealth to use it better?”
“I think it’s about commandeering infrastructure, first,” I said. “Then it’s about wealth redistribution.”
“Question about Trump cancelling the election!!!” said Charlie. “Never mind. Boring. Schiff says vote by mail.”
“Well, that helps Trump,” I said.
“Back to Amazon,” said Charlie, “I think there’s an argument to be made that today’s rich guys are a bunch of unpatriotic cowards. Howard Hughes lost his mind trying to build planes made out of wood to free up steel for tanks.”
“I think the point we want to make,” said Ty, “is that infrastructure on that scale cannot be responsibly wielded privately. And we need to figure out how to engage people on the very concept of collective struggle. It’s completely alien to Americans now. Not just rich people, but everyone else, too.”
“Patriotism is an interesting angle to me,” said Charlie. “We have this Saving Private Ryan idea of WWII patriotism, but collective struggle/national pride was woven into every aspect of American life during the war. Buying war bonds, going to your job at the factory: all valued as patriotic acts.”
“For the most part,” said Ty, “people understood that it was all-in from everyone or else the Nazis won. Simple. Nothing’s simple now.” And then he added, “And everyone’s alone.”
“But the emergency isn’t just coronavirus,” I said. “The emergency is actually climate change.”
“James,” said Charlie, “give me your elevator pitch so I can tell Schiff.”
“Okay,” I said. “COVID-19 is our preview of a late 21st century climate change global catastrophe. But instead of needing to see first-hand the perfect toxic mix of fires, drought, sea level rise, and hurricanes needed to trigger the famine, mass migrations, and war that might well decimate the global economy by the 2080s, we’re getting a dress rehearsal now.
“Capitalism got us here. And I mean that in two ways. Capitalism is the system that made possible the industries that created the pollution and waste and ecological destruction that we’re starting to suffer through now. And capitalism also created the technologies that can help us escape.
“But we can’t escape our current predicament as capitalists. Why? Because capitalism is about growth. Capitalism is about one enterprise dominating its competitors by harnessing technological efficiencies that give it a strategic advantage in a given market.
“Furthermore, capitalism is about personal gain — which naturally concentrates wealth. As companies like Amazon move toward an increasingly automated work force — first it was Kiva robots; soon it will be drone delivery and autonomous vans and workerless factories—fewer and fewer people, like Jeff Bezos, will own larger and larger pieces of the economic pie.
“Than they already do you mean?” asked Ty. “They already own, like, half the wealth.”
“Industrial capitalism bad,” said Charlie. “Automated capitalism worse.”
“And a few decades before the full-on automated production era,” I said, “where Bezos employs, like, 10 executives and a billion robots, COVID-19 has delivered us an unexpected emergency. Like the Hayekian think-tankers who seized on the oil crisis to implement a neoliberal agenda, it’s time for a revolutionary counter-shock doctrine.”
“Seize the means of production!” said Ty.
“40% of our economy is discretionary,” I said, “and in an emergency, we don’t spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. By next week, the unemployment rate will be 20%. The G.D.P. will be on pace to contract by 10% in the second quarter at a MINIMUM. Congress is trying to get their trillion dollar aid package passed…”
“Schiff just said the Republican aid bill would EXCLUDE low income people,” Charlie interjected. “These ghouls are fucking SHAMELESS.”
“This is the PERFECT time,” I said, “to put maximum pressure on our Reps to ensure that they hold the oligarchs accountable. The biggest argument against radical regulation of industry, even by people who are nominally opposed to capitalism, is that it will fuck the economy.”
“But the economy is already fucked!” said Charlie.
“Exactly!” I said. “Even if he had the will and the vision, Obama couldn’t have created a global emergency. To unilaterally shut down all travel, all non-essential production and commerce to fight climate change —that would’ve started an insurrection.”
“He would have NEVER,” said Ty. “Obama was powerless to implement any meaningful bulwark against climate change because his beloved markets never dictated that it was necessary. There is no need for leadership within the neoliberal framework: only reaction to, and divination of, market behavior.”
“But now we’ve got a real global pandemic,” I said, “and the President has just invoked the Defense Production Act. This gives the Executive broad powers to seize any business — any industry — and nationalize it for the duration of the emergency.
“If Bernie was president right now, this would be a no-brainer. It’s war. Take that shit over. But it’s fucking Trump, who’s incoherent. He despises Jeff Bezos, at least, which I guess is a good thing.”
“But for totally different reasons,” said Charlie. “He hates Jeff because of WaPo. And because Jeff is a better businessman. We hate Jeff because he’s accumulating all the capital.”
“This is really fucking complicated,” said Ty. “Above all other things, Trump is a populist at heart. Adulation is his sole motivating principle. So he’s just as happy to be a socialist dictator as he is a fascist one — if that’s what makes him popular in that moment. But he lacks object permanence. So the next room he enters could switch everything back again, or have an even more unpredictable effect on his next massive, history-altering policy decision.”
“Which is why,” I said, “we need our Representatives to get out on the bow of the ship and navigate. Trump is all about seizing industry if it raises his approval rating. But left to his own devices, he’ll just make Amazon a subsidiary of Trump Inc.”
“I think I’m third in the queue, by the way,” said Charlie. “How should I ask this question so Schiff doesn’t immediately mute me?”
“So,” I said, “our goal is much bigger than getting Amazon to aid in the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to take the systems they’re building to transport — and produce — goods and convert that into a carbon-neutral, sustainable, publicly-owned hyper-factory whose products are distributed equitably.”
“Schiff’s brain will explode,” said Charlie.
“Lol,” I said. “So don’t ask that. Just be like, ‘Now that we’re in a global financial meltdown because of COVID-19, will you encourage Trump to nationalize Amazon and distribute its food and durable goods to all Americans who need it?”
“He’s totally going to come back at me,” said Charlie, “with something like, ‘Maybe we can consider a voucher program that allows people who’ve started at least three businesses in low-income communities to buy select products at Amazon at a slightly reduced price.”
“So just tell him,” said Ty, “that we believe it’s unconscionable for the Bezoses of the world to be benefiting during this crisis. Amazon is hiring 100,000 new employees to meet demand. That’s fantastic. But they shouldn’t profit a single dime. And nationalizing them is the only way to ensure that.”
“Right,” said Charlie. “Otherwise Jeff comes out the other end of this even more powerful than he is now.”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Fuckkkkkkkkk,” said Charlie. “They’re ending it.”
“Noooooooooo,” I said.
“Noooooooooo,” said Ty.
“Apparently they’re doing it again next week?” said Charlie.
If you want Charlie to encourage Rep. Adam Schiff to nationalize Amazon on next week’s call, let us know! The revolution is on, babyyyyy. Stay healthy and sane!