Winning and Losing in One-Click America
by alec macgillis
farrar, straus and giroux, 400 pages, $28
For religious conservatives, Alec MacGillis’s Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America is one of the most important books to appear in quite some time. That may sound like an odd claim. As his title suggests, MacGillis has written about Amazon’s dramatic reorganizing of the way we work, shop, and live, with a particular focus on the regional economic transformations wrought by the online retail giant. A veteran of the old New Republic who now does investigative reporting with ProPublica, MacGillis is certainly no religious conservative.
Nevertheless, Fulfillment is a wake-up call for a certain kind of traditional believer: those who still cling to the late twentieth century’s free-trade dogmas; who sharply divide the state of American virtue and spirituality, on one hand, from the material conditions of ordinary Americans, on the other; who lament declining rates of church attendance, marriage, and childbearing while offering only moralizing uplift in response; who decry “woke capital” but fail to see the specific ideological function wokeness performs for U.S. oligarchs and the professionals who manage their affairs; who daren’t talk about class.
Amazon, of course, recently drew the ire of many religious conservatives for its decision to delist Ryan T. Anderson’s 2018 book about transgenderism, When Harry Became Sally. For weeks, Amazon refused to provide a reason for the censorship, before finally claiming—preposterously—that Anderson’s scholarly work violates the firm’s policies against “hate speech.”
What stands behind incidents like this one? The problem, some on the right would say, is that recent college grads reared on exotic Continental “critical theories” now have their hands on the levers of corporate power and are using that power to enforce woke orthodoxies. In this telling, the best long-term solution to elite deformation is to restore “Western Civ” courses. As for the economic inequalities and power disparities of the new economy, they are best addressed through the shoring up of a “public moral culture” that will foster human flourishing for downscale workers and their families. Ignored almost entirely is the natural, material substrate of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.
MacGillis draws attention to these realities. He tells a sprawling story of cities and regions, with a large cast of Americans spanning the divide from the multibillionaire Bezos to his millionaire lobbyists to a working dad who consistently seems to have exactly zero dollars to his name.
The regions generally fall into two categories. One set enjoys the upsides of the new tech economy dominated by the likes of Amazon, either by attracting high-tech workers who prefer to cluster together (Seattle, the Bay Area), or by underwriting this new economy with finance capital (New York), or by offering the new oligarchs access to political and journalistic power (Washington).
Then there are the peripheral regions, those in thrall to the center: places like Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Dayton, Ohio, and Baltimore, Maryland, which, having lost their manufacturing base to free trade with China, now supply cheap labor to the logistical machine that makes it possible for you to order an obscure monograph on Manichaeism (or pet food or a bed frame or a beekeeping suit) and have it delivered to your door the very next day.
The widening divide between core and periphery makes these “parts of the country incomprehensible to one another—one world wracked with painkillers, the other tainted by elite-college admissions schemes”—different but parallel disorders.
The travails of people far removed from the core make for especially painful reading. They seek but cannot find “the dignity of being able to support one’s family in a middle-class existence.” Fathers want to provide normal family lives for their wives and children, but they can’t—not on the wages on offer in the warehouse and transport peripheries of the Amazon empire, not with the welfare nets so thin and seemingly designed to be antifamily, not with their own parents’ social capital depleted by previous waves of globalization and automation.
MacGillis does not conceal his subjects’ personal failings. One of the most striking stories in this book belongs to Todd Swallows, his long-term partner, Sara, and her three kids, who live in shelters on the outskirts of Dayton. Their miseries cannot be traced to any one source. They result from a confluence of globalization-driven economic ruin and Todd’s drug-abuse and anger-management problems. Both he and Sara come from broken homes (though Todd’s was unbroken and relatively affluent until his father’s trucking business went bankrupt during the Great Recession). Both are determined to provide a measure of normalcy for the kids. Both also make bad decisions (Todd the larger share of them).
But larger material forces conspire with Todd’s defective will. MacGillis tracks Todd’s employment across roughly a decade, spanning the end of the George W. Bush administration to the rise of Donald Trump. Todd worked dozens of jobs during that span—and he worked hard, beginning in pizza parlors and ending with a cardboard manufacturer, a key Amazon supplier in the region. By the end, he is still making what he did when he entered the labor force, just above Ohio’s then-minimum wage of $8.30.
No one seemed to care that “when I became an adult everything was a hundred times worse than what it was for [my parents] growing up and working,” he tells the author. Real wages have not risen, making it that much harder to build a life apart from a culture that has declined. As MacGillis closes the chapter, we leave him and Sara and the kids in the shelter—what was supposed to have been a temporary arrangement—with Todd presiding over a dinner table “as if it were his own, in his own home, with his own food.”
Is Todd and Sara’s condition partly a result of failures of personal virtue? Yes. But is it easier to develop stability in the virtues when society is ordered to that end, not least by attending to the common good of the whole, rather than the economic autonomy of any one enterprise or industry? Is the common good served not only by exhortations to virtue, but by providing men with a family wage? Of course. Yet that latter point remains a matter of contention even in some corners of the religious right.
As MacGillis notes, many of Amazon’s upper-echelon employees are themselves childless; the firm’s J. G. Ballard–esque campus outside Seattle furnishes endless amenities for dogs, including a dog park, “complete with Astroturf and yellow fire hydrants,” as well as a “café that cooked food only for dogs.” The neighborhood also includes a “wizard pub,” where Amazon employees “could get personal wands—‘made to fit each individual, with date of birth determining species of wood, then infused with one of 12 magic essences by the wandmaker.’” MacGillis archly comments: “The city had few children, but it had many adults with the disposable income needed to reenact childhood.”
Why doesn’t Amazon care about the family conditions of its employees? Why do it and similar firms use algorithmic scheduling that deprives workers of predictability in their schedules, essential to being able to spend time with children? The inescapable conclusion of MacGillis’s book is that this is Amazon’s vision of American life: upscale distractions and ultra-convenience for those who can afford it; precarious employment relieved by weed and opioids for those who cannot; and both groups ultimately unbound from the familial ties and community limits that make for a truly human life.
So, of course, a firm like Amazon would censor dissent against woke gender ideology. It isn’t just that Bezos’s woke preening distracts attention from the abhorrent situation of his labor force. The production of Homo amazonicus—which is finally the whole tendency of high-tech capitalism—requires the destruction of anything that stands in the way of efficiency—including communal bonds and family ties. Homo amazonicus has no need of father, mother, or child, of family, place, or political community.
MacGillis’s reporting raises the question of whether Amazon’s business model and corporate culture are compatible with the goods proper to family, faith, and community—that is to say, the things traditionalists profess to hold dearest. Too often, religious people have spoken as if material problems could be addressed merely by a moral revival. But as many moral revivalists in the past have recognized, addressing material problems cannot be separated from broader calls to virtue and holiness. America will not enjoy a true moral renewal until believers see that sermonizing alone will not do much of anything for Bezos’s hyper-exploited workers—or for the nation he is remaking, one online checkout at a time.
Sohrab Ahmari is author of The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos.