In a 2018 survey out of Georgetown and New York University, Americans reported that they have more confidence in Amazon than in any other institution in the country except the military. Third on the list was Google; local government, ninth; the press, sixteenth; and Congress, dead last at twentieth. The survey is not an anomaly. In his opening statement to Congress in July 2020, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asked, “Who do Americans trust more than Amazon to do the right thing? Only their doctors and the military.” 

Even the inclusion of Amazon on an institutional confidence survey like the one above—not to mention the results—testifies to the presence of Amazon in America today. Amazon (and Google, though I will not dwell on it) was included on a list alongside the pillars of American government—and it beat them. This week, I examine Amazon’s rise not in the American economy but rather in the American mind. By building on Foucault’s idea of governmentality, we can construct how Amazon has used its dominance to influence and to profit on Americans’ reimagination of themselves in a neoliberal, commercial society. Though more subtle than market power, the power to ingratiate an intrinsically consumptive ideal—epitomized by the goal of “consumer ecstasy”—into the American mind is another aspect of Amazon’s dominance. 

Amazon’s inclusion on a list of American institutions is partly explained by its increasingly large role in many facets of American society. Two thirds of Americans report that they have bought something from Amazon, which accounts for around 92 percent of online shoppers. More than 40 percent of online shoppers buy something from Amazon at least monthly, and one in 100 buy something from Amazon every single day. Over 800,000 sellers on Amazon Marketplace use it as their only source of income. Even when people are not shopping on Amazon, the company’s servers and services support much of the internet, making it difficult to escape online.

Amazon’s size is such that people turn to it to solve social problems. The company has long been credited with keeping the U.S. Postal Service in business by shipping 40 percent of its packages through the company. Amazon also manages election data for over 40 states, and calls for it to provide personal protective equipment and other health safety tools at polling places abound. During the pandemic itself, households across the country relied on the company’s fast delivery for essential goods. At the personal level, the wealth CEO Jeff Bezos has gained from Amazon has allowed him to revitalize The Washington Post, fund space exploration, and donate to charities and political campaigns. When governments and social institutions fail, companies like Amazon step in to fill the gaps—when they so choose.

Understanding Amazon as an institution alongside Congress, universities, and the free press is comprehensible only under the neoliberal economy that has taken shape in America since the mid-twentieth century, mostly as a result of the work of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. One of the crucial ideas of neoliberalism is that the individual ought to be conceptualized as a consumer, which makes social problems into problems of consumption. Jared Kushner explained in 2018 that, “the government should be run like a great American company. Our hope is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.” Within this framework, suddenly Amazon and Congress start to look more similar—or at least to have similar ends.

Neoliberalism understands the individual to be rather shortsighted and ignorant, perpetually unable to understand the broader workings of the orderly free market. As described by Professor Philip Mirowski of Notre Dame, Hayek believed that “if only the masses could learn to subordinate their ambitions and desires to market dictates, then their deficient understandings and flawed syllogisms would appear as convenient expedients smoothing the path to order.” Hayek places the market above human understanding as an arena for structuring the chaotic desires and opinions of individuals. In doing so, he supplants the ideal of the rational governor with the entrepreneur, a figure “relegated to bask in the unknowable risk of a chaotic future, prostrating himself before the inscrutable market, with its Delphic valuations.” From this perspective, Amazon’s experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation surpass the bogged-down inefficiencies and shortcomings of government.

The neoliberal ideal helps to explain why Americans understand Amazon as a social institution and trust it so highly, but it cannot explain why neoliberalism has taken root in our country today. To explicate this rise is a task that far exceeds the bounds of this article, but I nonetheless want to dwell on the project of shaping such a system and draw attention to the overlooked role that companies like Amazon play in the process.

In his lectures at the College de France in 1978, Michel Foucault’s attempts to explain the way societies shape their individuals through the concept of governmentality. Foucault describes how the modern state wields power: “it is not a matter of imposing a law on men, but of the disposition of things, that is to say, of employing tactics rather than laws, or, of as far as possible employing laws as tactics; arranging things so that this or that end may be achieved through a certain number of means.” Foucault here recognizes how much larger governance is than law. He opens a field dedicated to exploring how societies coerce individuals to regulate themselves to be good members of society.

Foucault and other scholars who draw from him have explored how a variety of para-governmental institutions contribute to this shaping of society. Schools are an excellent instance, as their influence does not come from law yet they still wield state power. The “Citizenship” classes that so many high school students take blatantly train young people how to be good citizens, but examples need not be as obvious. Returning to the question of neoliberalism, the values of rugged individualism, traditionalism, and freedom that run through history textbooks prepared the population for the rise of neoliberalism—the actual laws alone were insufficient for the task.

Yet the case of neoliberalism is more complicated because, as discussed above, the framework itself potentially creates new institutional powers, like Amazon. The neoliberal shift in antitrust law discussed in my previous column legitimized the largely unregulated growth of titanic companies such as Amazon. These companies themselves thus start to look like para-governmental institutions, entrenched in the functioning of society with the accompanying influence and power their positions entail.

Amazon, for its part, has wielded its power to advance a neoliberal consumer-oriented model of personhood—to convince individuals to think like consumers. At the start of Prime Day, 2020 (October 13-14), an Amazon promoter announced on the company’s live-streamed launch, “No matter what you’re looking for, I’ve got an answer for you and a product for that.” The line is not an attempt to sell a single service or good but rather to sell shopping itself. 

Amazon tethers entertainment, law enforcement, sports, relationships, and more to its products and to consumption. I watched Amazon’s livestream for hours during Prime Day. It ran incessantly. Grandparents talking to grandchildren over video hardware, men describing their skin care routines, Russell Wilson (the Seahawks quarterback) and his wife Ciara advertising their cutting boards, and countless other promotions appeared and disappeared over the 48-hour sale. Prime Day also became a hit in the entertainment world, generating endless videos on YouTube and other platforms of people chasing sales and offering commentary. Beyond Prime Day, PBS’s Frontline described how Amazon employed police officers “like Avon salesmen” to promote its new home security product, “Ring.”

Amazon itself captures this tethering of the world to commerce with the phrase: “customer ecstasy.” In a conversation with PBS’s Frontline, that phrase is how Jennifer Cast, V.P. of Specialty Recruiting at Amazon and longtime employee, described the company’s “customer first” mindset. It is a strange goal. “Ecstasy” is not usually associated with online shopping, let alone any kind of commerce; it carries a euphoric connotation that is lacking in the standard phrase, “customer satisfaction.” Yet Amazon’s Foucaultian project is to teach people to feel ecstasy when shopping because that is the kind of world in which Amazon thrives.

 It would be hyperbolic to claim that Amazon is responsible for the rise of neoliberalism, and some skeptics might charge that Amazon cannot wield Foucaultian power because it cannot coerce people. Milton Friedman loved the free market precisely because he believed no one could have coercive power within it: “When you vote daily in the supermarket,” he wrote, “you get precisely what you voted for, and so does everyone else. The ballot box produces conformity without unanimity; the marketplace, unanimity without conformity.” Amazon, then, could not be retrenching its own dominance in people’s minds. Instead, Amazon’s messages would be legitimate advertising that compels people only insofar as they benefit from it. Amazon itself would be an “institution” only in a general sense of the word and—unlike, for example, Congress—would lose its power as soon as it stopped delivering what people wanted.

While I largely agree with the above critique, it fails to capture the broader vantage: it is not that Amazon’s institutional power coerces people in their choices but rather in what choices they can make and how to choose at all. Amazon and its fellow businesses push us to accept that Amazon can sustain government institutions, support elections, use police officers as spokespeople because it is efficient, and thus strips us of the metrics that would allow us to contemplate a different choice. Asserting the market framework is itself a normative claim. As Daniel Zamora and Niklas Olsen of Jacobin Magazine write, “coercion and normalization are not just the products of centralized institutions and do not simply disappear when those institutions do.” Contrary to Friedman’s argument, the market conforms us by asserting its own framework of choice, not by compelling us to a single choice. 

Of course, Amazon alone cannot be shouldered with all of the blame or the power, but neither can it be held blameless. Amazon arose in the middle of the neoliberal revolution in America because the neoliberal reforms were necessary for its business practices to thrive. Yet economic structure alone does not make a corporate project successful, nor does finding the perfect place in the market. Companies are culturally-embedded entities. Amazon’s limited success in places like Italy has often been explained in reference to this cultural mismatch. At the same time, we recognize that economic orientation can influence cultural orientation and vice versa. During the pandemic, Amazon’s sales in Italy spiked as two million Italians shopped online for the first time. According to reporting by The New York Times, the pandemic gave Amazon a “foothold” in Italy’s market, one that is not fading even as coronavirus recedes. 

Like neoliberal reforms helped give Amazon a start in America which it then built upon, the pandemic has allowed the company to increase its cultural influence in Italy as its economic prospects grow. Since last year, Amazon has sponsored a Christmas festival in a rural Italian town and unveiled a school funding incentive with a Prime membership. In Italy we can witness what in America is harder to see: Amazon beginning to win over a people. The company—like any institution, even governments—cannot create desire for its products where none exists, but it can cultivate and augment already-existent trends and quiet others (like Italy’s long-standing loyalty to in person shopping and small business). Amazon’s power is thus diffuse and contextualized, but not infinitesimal, nor without peril. 

The peril of Amazon’s power arises from Friedman’s astute note that companies are not designed for normative governance, that is, the market is not a place to guide morals and societies because it revolves around profit. Like any good advertiser, Amazon has argued for a moral/philosophical/sociological project (improving society through neoliberalism, freedom of choice, free markets, etc.) in service of an economic one (profit). While the company offers no objections to the idea that it has “saved” the U.S. Post Office, it uses the Post Office for almost exclusively the most costly deliveries (those in rural areas far from warehouses or normal travel routes). Because the Post Office does not vary charge based on destination, Amazon can use its own delivery vehicles to transport goods cheaply between major hubs and save money on the “last mile” from hub to doorstep. Amazon “saves” the Post Office only insofar as the Post Office makes it more profitable. As another example, after Prime Day 2020, Amazon announced that the holiday “marked the two biggest days ever for small & medium businesses in Amazon’s stores worldwide.” The company claimed that small and medium-sized businesses had made $3.5 billion over the two days. It declined to release its own sales, which analysts had predicted could have reached $10 billion. Amazon undoubtedly sent a lot of money to other businesses, but it did chiefly to its own benefit.

In both of these examples, the point is not to fault Amazon for doing things that make profits and spinning them advantageously. The point is rather that societies cannot be built on the pursuit of profit because that is a hollow—and hollowing—project. That Americans have more confidence in Amazon than in the education system or Congress is troubling because Amazon is not invested in the well being of Americans so much as it is invested in convincing Americans that we need Amazon for our well being—and more, that we will never stop needing it. The pursuit of profit realized by an ever-growing demand for consumption lies at the heart of Amazon’s business, but it cannot lie at the heart of our society.

Amazon’s role as an institution in our country has more than economic and political significance: it affects the way we understand and imagine ourselves and our society. Amazon’s ideal of “consumer ecstasy” starts from a neoliberal framework of economic expression and fills in a concept of identity. As we place our confidence in Amazon, we cannot escape its accompanying norms and regulation. Figuratively, “consumer ecstasy” captures perfectly the ends of Amazon. It is the promise of incredible satisfaction delivered to our doorsteps, satisfaction that vanishes almost as soon as it arrives, ultimately undeliverable, replaced not by disappointment but by longing. Amazon cannot sustain us. It does not want to. Though I have been rather light on solutions here, I suggest we start by asking what can.

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