By now we all know that Jeff Bezos has a rocket ship. This is obviously very big news, bigger even than the new Jack Ryan show everyone is talking about (the title is everywhere). In America it may no longer be reasonable to expect something silly, like an increase in wages or a return to 1970s levels of real estate purchasing power, much less a functioning transit system in our capital city. But this is still a great country, one in which any person with a high net worth but mysteriously little taxable income can do anything he sets his mind to.
Naturally Bezos is very excited about his big achievement. What’s more, he says he is grateful to all of Amazon’s customers and employees for having “paid for this.” This was very big of him. It is certainly true that if thousands of employees did not spend their days letting computer watches track how long it takes them to pee, down to the exact microsecond, and inputting the averages into a spreadsheet for review by their supervisors, he would not be able to approximate c. 1957 Soviet space capability in his backyard.
I couldn’t help but feel that he ought to have gone further and given all the shuttered mom and pop hardware stores and the millions of East Asian sweatshop workers a shout-out as well, along with four successive Departments of Justice who have allowed him to engage in dumping and other obvious violations of antitrust law with impunity. But that’s just me.
Still, let’s not distract ourselves from the real nature of the achievement. Bezos has built his own mini NASA for fun. Think about the possibilities this opens up for other rich people. Maybe Bill Gates will create a fully workable toy IRS or a private navy to guard the private island that he owned, at least until recently (some of his friends have had them too, if I recall correctly). In turn Tim Cook will respond with an exact replica of the Department of Agriculture, complete with workers to inspect his play meat. Donald Trump was already briefly in charge of the nuclear codes, so it’s hardly a stretch to imagine him inviting some Iranians down to Mar-a-Lago. I myself can’t wait for the Oprah Library of Congress.
We are supposed to be very excited about the fact that what until recently were widely considered functions of the state are now the province of these hero-entrepreneurs. We haven’t got a government capable of doing very much—in fact, one of our two major political parties is founded on the premise that it can’t by definition—but we have got private companies whose legal obligations do not extend beyond the maximization of shareholder value in de facto control of the digital communications technologies that ground virtually every function of our national life.
Some public-facing examples of this are obvious (Facebook and Twitter and increasingly even Amazon serving as de facto licensors). But think of the enormous power that Microsoft and its rivals have because they control the cloud systems that make virtually all government activity possible or the consulting firms who “design” what they call “solutions” for bureaucrats who cannot be bothered to run their own agencies or the federally funded research corporations whose PowerPoints ultimately determine both the interpretation and the implementation of legislation written by lobbyists. The leverage is all in one direction.
Ever since Jimmy Carter’s break-up of the old postwar consensus on the mixed economy—strict government regulation of oil, airlines, banking, trucking, and other crucial sectors—we have not really had a theory of the state in this country. In the old days right-wingers thought of the government as an impediment; now it is just one more “client,” a customer on whose behalf business is doing “dynamic” things like “engagement” in “progressive-strategic theme areas.”
It’s not just that the state has been subsumed into commerce. It’s that everything has been. At the same time that the actually meaningful sphere of activity belonging to the state decreased, so did the portion once occupied by the real private sphere, i.e., family life. This is the ultimate legacy of the so-called gig economy. Everyone who owns a house or an apartment is encouraged to be a hotelier. Everyone with a car is a potential cab driver or a courier for some phone-based delivery service. Pictures of one’s children shared with millions of strangers can be monetized. The most basic human communications are “content.” We rate and review our neighbors the same way that audiophile magazines used to do stereo equipment.
This, I think, is how we should try to make sense of what Bezos is really doing. He has no choice. Earth has exhausted his ambitions, which is why the next step (as he admitted the other day) is intergalactic shipping containers bringing you T-shirts from Martian factories. Who says there are no worlds left to conquer?