The company town of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was marked by a level of authoritarian control in all spheres. The workplace was dangerous and often fatal; it destroyed the environment around it. People were paid in scrip (rather than cash money), redeemable only at the company, which was the only store in town. The store charged whatever it wanted. The mayor and police chief were nominally elected but served at the pleasure of the company. The company often owned the workers’ housing. And the whole place was patrolled by Pinkertons (armed quasi-judicial agents) who surveilled, harassed, assaulted, and sometimes executed "troublemakers." It was the fiefdom of the company, and everybody else lived in it. It was small-scale authoritarianism.

Like slave plantations, indentured servitude, forced Indian resettlement, and Jim Crow, the company town deployed techniques of repression and exploitation that survived its demise. The underlying logic and the mechanisms of such systems live on, updated for the times, reasserting themselves where democratic power is weakest. In the authoritarian playbook, these systems — low wages and debt, surveillance and armed intimidation —  remain enduring standards.

In many places, it took decades of pitched battle to overturn the company town, and it took everyone: workers, yes, and also family members, community members, and elected officials. But as capital accumulates and a few corporate giants again dominate society, the company town’s toxic mode of governance has re-emerged in updated forms, facilitated, as in the 19th century, by captured lawmakers and police departments —  the modern day manifestation of Pinkertons — charged with protecting capital from democracy generally and people of color in particular. 

On days like Labor Day, we might remember the working conditions and the courageous strikes, but too often we don't remember the rest — the necessary solidarity from people outside the workplace and the total authoritarian governance beyond the job. Worker justice efforts need to remember it all, though, to meet challenges of our own moment, which are even larger than those of the company town. 

 

Amazon.com: Company Town 2.0

Amazon.com is not just today’s company store, though it is that too. Amazon is best understood as a conglomeration of many companies, like Whole Foods, the Ring video doorbell, Zappos , the Marketplace (i.e., Amazon.com), and Amazon Web Services, the profit engine of the company. 

Thanks to Ring and its associated app, Amazon has developed more than 1,000 partnerships with local law enforcement agencies — including in many communities with Amazon facilities, such as Shakopee, MN. With these partnerships, police departments can gain access to a wide array of surveillance footage captured by customers’ cameras — footage that the customers do not control. Law enforcement is not often required to produce a warrant to review it (Ring, in fact, works with police departments on access). This is an effective mechanism for enforcing the racialized boundaries of citizenship and safety, belonging and exclusion. It’s like a Pinkertons-on-call service. (Neither Amazon nor Ring has changed those partnerships, despite the “Black Lives Matter” banners all over your Prime Video and Jeff Bezos’s self-righteous Instagram posts.) 

Amazon isn’t only a store and the products it sells. It’s also the roads and bridges of online commerce. Through Amazon Web Services — a data storage and processing service sold mostly to other businesses which nets the company most of its revenue — Amazon powers most of the contemporary tools professional workers use to do our work (Zoom, Slack) and then to decompress (Netflix). If you use the internet, a total extrication of your life from Amazon is literally impossible.

All this makes us call Amazon “Company Town 2.0” because, thanks to the internet and scale, it now (almost) doesn’t matter which town you live in, where you shop (online or offline), or where you work. No matter what, you live under Amazon’s governance. And Amazon’s governance is unquestionably authoritarian - and its interest fit neatly in the Trumpist approach.

If you sell or buy things online, if your neighbors have Ring cameras on their doors, if you’re dependent on the internet and apps to do your work — Amazon’s choices govern what’s available to you, how those tools work (and who has access to them), and how much freedom you have. The company has the power to change the rules at any time — and it does. It also has the power to make rules that would fix the problems — and it doesn’t. 

For example, Amazon.com carries many counterfeits and faulty or mislabeled products. If you end up with a fake sandal or a malfunctioning Brush Hero, Amazon can refuse responsibility for that, meaning you’re out a couple hundred bucks. This is a minor example — but applied to hundreds of thousands of people’s health and livelihoods, Amazon’s power to set the rules becomes a widespread social danger. 

The most obvious place to see Amazon’s unilateral power in action is at its workplaces. Amazon is the second-largest private sector employer in the U.S. behind Walmart. At least 800,000 people work for Amazon, and that doesn’t include all the subcontracted delivery service providers and others not directly hired by the company. 

In the first flush of the COVID crisis, Amazon offered the people who work there unlimited unpaid time off (a relatively small gesture for a company worth a trillion dollars). Amazon also promised (but didn’t always deliver) two weeks of paid sick time, and the corporation paid some people hazard pay (a $500 bonus and/or $2 an hour). This “generosity” was a bare minimum solution to keep people laboring at a pace that allows a box to appear at your door two days after you click “purchase.” In other words, Amazon secured its own ability to capitalize on the crisis, despite the cost to the communities around it. 

Six months later, the pandemic is still raging, but all of those policies are gone. Amazon told a judge in New York that the company has stopped penalizing people for failing to meet punishing production quotas (known as “time off task”), which prevented employees from taking COVID protection measures like washing their hands.  Yet the company is doing exactly that, recently disciplining Hibaq Mohamad, a worker in Minnesota, for alleged “time off task” infractions. Whether — or how — the rules are enforced? It’s all up to Amazon.

Amazon’s power goes far beyond the workplace to encompass all kinds of things a community cares about, like whether your now-empty mall becomes a warehouse or how much your town subsidizes Amazon. If Amazon doesn’t like your town’s rules and regulations, they’ll sue to change them. And, since Amazon is worth a trillion dollars and your town is probably not, it’s hardly a level playing field. Amazon’s huge COVID-related gains in stock price, market share, and revenue both reflect and contribute to its governing power. 

Jeff Bezos — now the richest person on Earth — has used his personal wealth to buy a leading national news source (Washington Post) and establish a home in DC known as the "Amazon Embassy," at which he entertains people like neighbors Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Amazon also has ties to many Democrats, including Obama spokesperson Jay Carney, who now serves as the company’s chief spokesperson. The revolving door between capital and government is another red flag of authoritarianism. 

Despite the high-profile Trump-Bezos feud, Amazon benefits directly from many of the Trump administration’s policies and rhetoric. This ideological function serves a material basis, allowing Amazon to retain goodwill and support from its affluent customer base and continue to grow its market power, even as the company benefits directly from Trump administration policies. For example, Trump’s attack on the post office only benefits Amazon’s private delivery service. The indemnity from COVID liability supported by both the Trump labor board and Congress is likewise a boon to Amazon. 

Amazon uses its enormous market power as employer, government contractor, culture producer (they have a movie studio), and biggest online shopping site (more than half of all online product searches start on Amazon.com) to bully elected officials at all levels into permitting the corporation to expand into communities, regardless of the cost to the people living there. Often, communities pay for the privilege. In return, Amazon treats them like vassals. For example, Carteret, New Jersey Mayor Dan Reisman, once a booster of the company’s presence in his town, recently decried Amazon’s lack of transparency and anemic response to the COVID crisis — which has exacerbated the crisis for both the people who work at the company and those who live near its facilities

Many of the high costs of hosting Amazon in your community, from bad air to bad subsidies,  go unnoticed. Often, the progressive movement focuses on Amazon’s poor conditions for workers as the sole problem to address. But doing so ignores the myriad other problems (surveillance and environmental racism among them) that stem from our lack of governing power over companies like Amazon. 

The last century’s company towns presented more problems than the horrific conditions inside the mines, factories, or farms. There was the crippling debt associated with the company store, the environmental destruction, the lack of health care and adequate housing (sound familiar?). Company Town 2.0 similarly requires solutions that abolish the company’s near total control, that protect and provide for the most vulnerable residents (both those who work at the company and those who don’t), and that expand real democracy. 

 

Corporate Authoritarianism 

In 2020, increasingly concentrated capital and the emergence of oligarchy in the U.S. are deeply entwined with the rise of authoritarianism. The violent extremes of wealth inequality that characterize U.S. oligarchy require an ever-more militarized social order to keep discontents in line. This is one of several points of convergent interest between corporate oligarchy and the anti-democratic social movements that have found a champion in the 45th president of the United States. 

At Political Research Associates, the research and strategy center Tarso runs, we work with social justice movements to block authoritarianism and build democracy. The fight for workplace democracy in the U.S. has seldom been more closely linked to the fight against authoritarianism on a societal and even global scale. In turn, the fight to defend and expand real democracy requires that we rein in racial nationalism and theocracy along with their authoritarian cousins: neoliberalism, monopoly capital, and oligarchy.

These threads give Company Town 2.0 a new spin on the old standard features of authoritarianism, like violent exclusion based on race or ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. One twist is neoliberalism, austerity measures that render the government unable to provide even basic protections in the face of a pandemic — such that some have suggested Amazon might be “the new Red Cross.” Privatizing public goods doesn’t just enrich corporations and executives; it cements and consolidates the power of companies. In contrast, ensuring that government provides the basic needs of the people in our communities builds the power of democratic institutions.

Severe economic inequality leads to a more militarized society and corporate governance erodes democracy. But these are not the only ways giant corporations are driving us towards authoritarianism. When government — whose contracts are the golden ticket for "free market" entrepreneurs even as working people starve — seeks out more robust technologies of repression, captains of industry build authoritarianism into their business model for products and services, from digital surveillance to border walls and detention facilities. Just as General Motors and IBM provided technologies that enabled the Nazi regime, companies like Palantir, Amazon, SalesForce, Google, and others are providing technologies that enable Trump’s proto-fascist agenda.

The rise of Trump is part of a world-historical wave of authoritarianism driven by economic austerity, mass conservative religious movements, and the ascendency  of racial nationalism. Just as what’s emerged in the U.S. and around the globe isn't our (grand)parents’ authoritarianism of mid-century death camps or post-war military coups, today's monopoly capital isn't characterized by railroad barons or massive factory floors. The quasi-democracies of our time are falling less to military interventions than to the ruthless starvation of public services and institutions of resources. The dismantling of public institutions (in the case of the postal service) or their conversion into the private profit centers of aspiring oligarchs (in the case of public schools), undermines the privileges of even long-dominant racial and religious groups, opening the door to aggressive othering and ever-more-exclusionary definitions of We, the People. And the quintessential company town of today isn't a manufacturing, mining, or mill community; thanks to the internet and the data economy, it’s everywhere, connected online and offline.

In this way, fighting authoritarianism challenges some of the basic tenets of worker organizing — especially those focused on the bargaining unit, the industry, or the sector. Worker organizing is necessary but not sufficient to address Amazon’s outsized power in our society, over our public officials, and in our culture. If we look through the lens of Amazon as a governing power, abysmal working conditions are a symptom, not a cause, and improving them must be bound up in a broader fight for democracy. 

At Athena, the coalition Dania heads, we’re focused on Amazon’s massive, toxic power by recognizing the many valences of its reach. The fifty-plus organizations that make up Athena are taking on Amazon because, if Amazon can dictate what we, through our elected representatives, can or cannot regulate, tax, or determine, we simply do not have a democracy at all.

 Upending the power the company exerts — as what scholars sometimes call an authoritarian private government — is deeply related to the political, social, ecological, and spiritual crises we face as a society. The fight for our democracy under the fast-track authoritarianism Trump presents and the slower-but-no-less-authoritarian option Company Town 2.0 presents is a fight both to counter further right-wing capture of public institutions and consciousness and to remake democracy to finally represent and fight for all of us. For both, we need the most radically inclusive “we” — the largest community of interest we can create. Arrayed against that “we” is the Trump administration and the business interests that enable its policies. 

Workers are definitely important, yet they’re not the largest community of interest surrounding Amazon. The Marketplace and Whole Foods customer base is massive — more than one in two families in the U.S. has a Prime account. Amazon Web Services caters to a million businesses. And there are the 140,000 “third party sellers” — independent businesses — that offer their products on Amazon. Larger still are the numbers of people who, one way or the other, are denizens of Company Town 2.0, from the communities harmed by the air pollution of Amazon facilities and delivery routes, to the people whose lives are upended by Amazon’s contracts with immigration enforcement, police departments, or other law enforcement and security agencies.

The pandemic has given us a new opening to build this community of interest. In the first months of the pandemic in the U.S., Amazon workers who took courageous public action received incredible solidarity from tens of thousands of customers, neighbors, small business owners, and others who understand themselves to be in Amazon’s grip. That’s because people see that the perilous and often contagious working conditions in Amazon warehouses aren’t the only danger the company poses to working-class people, particularly people of color, for whom environmental and occupational racism is a comorbidity

Athena is designed to be nimble for this reason; our organizing can shift to meet the local conditions as they change. In Northern Virginia, the For Us Not Amazon coalition originally formed to stave off the massive subsidies for the corporation’s HQ2 in Arlington, VA. The deal passed, but the coalition’s work was just getting going. Coalition members have demonstrated in solidarity with workers and recently succeeded in preventing the Arlington police department from forming a partnership with Ring. This is a success story about finding the commonality among the people affected by Amazon, even as workers, neighbors, immigrants, Black people, and people with asthma (and some are all of the above, of course) are harmed differently by the company. 

The power of such a broad coalition is not limited to fighting Amazon — it’s what we need to defeat the conditions that give rise to authoritarianism and to institute governance that prioritizes human needs first. All of these communities are necessary for progressives to win elections and to force public officials to champion our needs, from real climate change mitigation and universal health care, to guaranteed housing, debt protection, and COVID relief, to stronger, enforceable workplace standards. 

Some workers are already breathing new life into job actions as a way to demonstrate solidarity with people outside their workplace, transcending previous ideas of “self interest.” Take Ogilvy workers’ confrontation of the CEO, the Wayfair walkout, or the original Google actions— all of them high-profile contests over the moral implications of the business practices of their companies. Big public sector actions — like the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Chicago, and Los Angeles — also featured community demands alongside the usual mandatory subjects of bargaining: wages, benefits, and other working conditions. This Bargaining for the Common Good approach and the solidarity walkouts listed above accomplish an important goal for any worker’s response to the “private-public partnership” of Company Town 2.0: connecting the interests of people who work for the Company with everyone else governed by it. 

 

Looking Forward

As we write this, players in almost every major league sport have struck in solidarity with the second wave of antiracist uprisings in the past three months. It’s these kinds of expressions of solidarity that embody a multiracial, cross-class, and feminist assertion of We the People that we need — both as rebuke and alternative to the ruthless abandonment or outright expulsion of tens of millions under the logics of a Christian, misogynist American nationalism, white supremacy, and oligarchy.

For worker justice movements to play their part in the takedown of Company Town 2.0, we need to look beyond the confines of bargaining units, sectors, or industries and beyond previous understandings of wages or benefits as proxies for power. Of course, working people need better conditions at work. But we also need to fight the governing power of private companies. That means what companies produce, how and what they externalize, what they lobby for, and how public officials regulate them (or don’t). To win that kind of power, to dismantle Company Town 2.0, we, again, need everyone. Worker democracy must be a building block of actual multiracial, feminist democracy — and worker democracy must also be antiracist and feminist. Today, for us to trounce not just Trump but Trumpism, worker justice movements must fight authoritarianism in all its forms, both private and public. 

Share

Created with Sketch.

Related Articles

Comments