Know Your Billionaire: Jeff Bezos

The richest man in the world wants you to work as much as he does—for one millionth of the pay

Branko Marcetic

(Illustration by Annee Schwank)

Is Jeff Bezos a hor­ri­ble boss and is that good?” That was the ques­tion posed by Forbes mag­a­zine in 2013, a sen­ti­ment that helps explain why Amazon’s founder and CEO is detest­ed by the Left for his oli­garchic ambi­tions, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly admired by America’s cap­i­tal­ist class for his busi­ness suc­cess. Iron­i­cal­ly, Bezos is also loathed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, while cel­e­brat­ed by many lib­er­als for so-called resistance.

But with Bezos and his $115 bil­lion for­tune lay­ing claim to the title of rich­est man on Earth, and with Ama­zon play­ing an increas­ing­ly influ­en­tial role in pub­lic life, it is worth ask­ing: What does Jeff Bezos stand for?

A gift­ed child born to a teen mom, Bezos grew up not know­ing his bio­log­i­cal father, who was once one of the top-rat­ed uni­cy­clists in Albu­querque, N.M. Instead, Bezos was raised by the man his moth­er soon mar­ried: Miguel Bezos, who had fled Cuba and the Com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion, which had shut­tered the elite pri­vate Jesuit school he attend­ed, as well as his family’s lumberyard.

Jour­nal­ists have spec­u­lat­ed whether Bezos’ near-patho­log­i­cal com­pet­i­tive­ness is a prod­uct of his ear­ly aban­don­ment, sim­i­lar to that of fel­low tech over­lord Steve Jobs. No doubt equal­ly for­ma­tive was Bezos’ adop­tive father, who told Brad Stone, author of The Every­thing Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Ama­zon, that their home life was per­me­at­ed” by com­plaints about total­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments of both the Right and the Left.

Bezos envi­sioned the con­cept of an every­thing store” while work­ing for a Wall Street hedge fund in the 1990s. He opened Ama­zon in 1994 as an online book­shop, a prag­mat­ic start­ing point. Bezos gave the com­pa­ny his own $10,000 cash injec­tion, took out inter­est-free loans, and received $245,000 from his par­ents and fam­i­ly trust.

Many of Amazon’s con­tro­ver­sial labor prac­tices can be traced to these ear­ly years as a plucky start-up. Amazon’s small team ran on tire­less ambi­tion to live up to the company’s cus­tomer-focused promise — key to its even­tu­al mar­ket dom­i­na­tion. Stone reports that, to meet Bezos’ get big fast” direc­tive, employ­ees devot­ed them­selves com­plete­ly, work­ing long, unusu­al, fren­zied hours. One ear­ly ware­house work­er who biked to work sim­ply for­got about his improp­er­ly parked car, even­tu­al­ly dis­cov­er­ing it had been tick­et­ed, towed and sold at auction.

Such a relent­less pace is one thing for a small group of true believ­ers but is quite anoth­er when applied to low-wage work­ers just mak­ing ends meet. By 2011, Amazon’s work­place cul­ture became known through a series of head­line-grab­bing reports that have come to define its pub­lic image: bad­ly paid, cease­less­ly sur­veilled, over­worked work­ers, strug­gling to main­tain a break­neck pace.

Bezos cre­at­ed a cul­ture in which every­one from the low­est peon to the high­est-rank­ing exec­u­tive is expect­ed to match his own devo­tion, an approach that result­ed in spec­tac­u­lar lev­els of staff turnover by the ear­ly 2000s. A declared ene­my of social cohe­sion,” Bezos pushed his under­lings to reject com­pro­mise and instead fierce­ly debate and crit­i­cize col­leagues when they dis­agreed. One for­mer employ­ee described it as pur­pose­ful Dar­win­ism.” Known for with­er­ing put-downs — Are you lazy or just incom­pe­tent?” Did I take my stu­pid pills today?”—Bezos also isn’t above pulling out his phone or, in some cas­es, sim­ply leav­ing the room when an employ­ee fails to impress.

The flip­side of Bezos’ intel­lect is a cold, clin­i­cal approach to human rela­tions. Bezos described him­self as a pro­fes­sion­al dater” dur­ing his Wall Street days, try­ing to improve what he called his women flow” — a riff on the Wall Street term deal flow.”

He was not warm,” one per­son who knew Bezos dur­ing his Wall Street days told the East Bay Express in 2014. It was like he could be a Mar­t­ian for all I knew.”

Bezos’ piti­less lead­er­ship style bled out beyond the Ama­zon board­room as he used the company’s grow­ing mar­ket share to bul­ly book pub­lish­ers into his terms. The com­pa­ny launched the Gazelle Project”—as in, go after pub­lish­ers the way a chee­tah would pur­sue a sick­ly gazelle” — allow­ing Ama­zon to under­cut its com­pe­ti­tion at the cost of lit­tle to no prof­it for small­er publishers.

As Ama­zon inched clos­er to Bezos’ orig­i­nal vision, it began lob­by­ing efforts in 2000 and became more trans­par­ent­ly polit­i­cal by 2011, spend­ing mil­lions to defeat an inter­net sales tax and play­ing hard­ball with state gov­ern­ments, threat­en­ing to shut­ter Ama­zon facil­i­ties if its wish­es went unful­filled. In 2013, Ama­zon began lob­by­ing Con­gress to cut cor­po­rate taxes.

The same year, Bezos bought the Wash­ing­ton Post, invest­ed in Busi­ness Insid­er and donat­ed to the pub­lish­er of the lib­er­tar­i­an mag­a­zine Rea­son. Though Bezos argues his pur­chase of the Post was moti­vat­ed by a love affair [with] the print­ed word” and a desire to sup­port Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, oth­ers sus­pect Bezos’ inter­est in media is relat­ed to bad press fol­low­ing a scathing Lehman Broth­ers report in 2000, which sent Amazon’s stock price tumbling.

Lead­ing up to the Post pur­chase, Bezos was increas­ing­ly dis­play­ing what ear­ly Ama­zon investor Nick Hanauer called his lib­er­tar­i­an pol­i­tics.” In addi­tion to spend­ing $100,000 in 2010 on a cam­paign to defeat a pro­posed Wash­ing­ton state tax on high-income earn­ers, Bezos put hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars toward boost­ing char­ter schools and oth­er neolib­er­al edu­ca­tion reforms.

Bezos’ polit­i­cal involve­ment reached a new apogee in 2019 dur­ing the re-elec­tion bid of Seattle’s social­ist city coun­cil­woman, Kshama Sawant, who called Bezos our ene­my” and tried to pass a head tax to fund hous­ing for those dis­placed by Amazon’s Seat­tle foot­print. Ama­zon spent $1.5 mil­lion against Sawant and oth­er pro­gres­sive can­di­dates, a record at the local lev­el, with more than a dozen of the company’s exec­u­tives con­tribut­ing to Sawant’s oppo­nent. (Sawant won re-elec­tion anyway.)

As for Bezos’ endgame? A Trekkie since child­hood, he has long dreamed of fund­ing space explo­ration, a mis­sion pur­sued by oth­er super­rich moguls (such as Elon Musk) in the face of the cli­mate emer­gency. Open­ing the doors of his secre­tive Blue Ori­gin aero­space com­pa­ny to jour­nal­ists for the first time in 2016, Bezos told the New York Times he envi­sioned a future of mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in space,” exploit­ing the nat­ur­al resources of sur­round­ing plan­ets and rezon­ing Earth as light indus­tri­al and residential.”

Iron­i­cal­ly, as Bezos pours the wealth he wrung out of exhaust­ed, low-wage Ama­zon work­ers into space explo­ration, Ama­zon is busy has­ten­ing the very plan­e­tary col­lapse Bezos claims he’s try­ing to pre­vent — by silenc­ing work­ers who speak out against Amazon’s assis­tance to oil and gas companies.

Let’s imag­ine, how­ev­er, that Bezos, who accu­mu­lates $9 mil­lion an hour, lived in a world with Bernie Sanders’ 8% wealth tax (just on for­tunes over $10 bil­lion). A sin­gle year would see $9 bil­lion flow from Bezos’ trea­sure trove into gov­ern­ment cof­fers, more than enough to cov­er the 10-year cost of Eliz­a­beth Warren’s uni­ver­sal child care plan ($1.7 bil­lion) and main­tain safe drink­ing water under Sanders’ plan ($6 billion).

Bezos’ career is a tes­ta­ment to the cru­el autoc­ra­cy and sense­less mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources that our neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem enables. But his opu­lence also reveals that the wealth exists to build a fair­er and more equi­table soci­ety — if redis­trib­uted. Bezos may loathe social cohe­sion, but in a world orga­nized around democ­ra­cy rather than the whims of space-bil­lion­aires, it’s some­thing we may well be able to achieve.

Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin mag­a­zine and a 2019 – 2020 Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing fel­low. He is work­ing on a forth­com­ing book about Joe Biden.
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