Or: A Cordial Proposal To Rescue British Culture
by Chris T-T (with a hyphen)
Everyone knows it’s bad news, yet everyone still keeps flirting with it. Amazon.co.uk now has a near-monopoly on the physical distribution of culture in the UK. It’s always hotly debated but there’s a fair case to make that Amazon’s (supplier squeezing, price depressing) ‘business’ model does greater damage than any illegal downloading or filesharing. Certainly it’s a bigger problem right now than the gradual “shift to digital”, since overall sales of physical cultural items clearly continue to hold up relatively strongly compared to equivalent high street sales. Go figure.
Propped up by the blind collusion, daft short-sightedness and cowardly surrender of its biggest supplier corporations, plus easy let-offs from government and an aggressive global rise, Amazon thrives and I think has done (is doing) immeasurable harm to the publishing, music, film and TV industries. Hundreds of independent (and chain) book shops and record shops have vanished from UK high streets and – crucially for capitalists who otherwise might not give a shit – no major rival is rising from the Magic Interwebz to force proper competitive behaviour, so Amazon continues to under-price and undervalue, alongside other punitive conditions, without suppliers being able to find comparable alternatives elsewhere. And all the while it siphons accrued riches overseas without contributing properly to the society hosting it, through anything like fair taxation.
I find it simply amazing how this one corporation has infiltrated and normalized its process into the heart of our day-to-day arts life with almost no barriers. I get less money from Amazon sales than almost anywhere, yet still I’m desperate to be on there, every time. If you don’t distribute your works through them, you’re left with your own mailorder set-up and those of the small shops (tiny, inconsistent and ghetto-ised by comparison). It demonstrates vividly what damage can be done when a private monopoly is allowed to fester. Amazon is a cancer in our nation’s cultural bloodstream. I propose we take it.
I know, I know. But allow me a few paragraphs of fantasy before you stamp on it. First, in the name of all that is good and noble, we launch an immediate compulsory purchase order of all Amazon’s UK assets, assessing its value solely on declared profit, backed up with ferocious boots on the ground if necessary. That way we get a shit-hot deal. We guarantee to all workers below senior management level that they’ll keep their job and see significantly improved salary and working conditions within, say, one year, if they stay on.
We guarantee senior management individuals the right to remain at liberty within the UK and offer immunity from personal prosecution on grounds of mass tax fraud, in return for their promise of no legal resistance anywhere in the world, nor co-operation with any international lawsuits launched by Amazon’s global owners. We hold those who refuse on remand in custody, perhaps under anti-terror legislation, enabling the denial of legal representation. Maybe render them extraordinarily to the Chagos and quietly tell the Americans they’re carrying state secrets.
Once we own it, the real fun starts. First rebuild the relationship with the post office from the ground up, so it is symbiotic instead of leaching. Keep open all lines of cross-fertilisation and trade with international Amazon sites, which – after squealing like little piggies for a bit and begging Obama to invade Hertfordshire – they will accept, in melancholy realisation that they’ll still make more than enough to feed their kids. We guarantee all suppliers an improved proportion of their sales that is competitive with independent privately owned bookshops and record stores – and also does not significantly undercut those outlets’ retail pricing.
It would work. It would. Purely in infrastructure terms, if it were run for social reasons with the mission statement of helping to improve our country via the comprehensive distribution of culture – rather than solely with eyes on fat profit – Amazon could offer a perfect set-up for a nationalised approach to art engagement that would provide all these amazing arts and entertainments to the population – while at the same time protecting and supporting the supplier end of the chain by, well, not ripping them the hell off. It could do that while co-existing far more equably with independent, small (private) retailers, becoming a fair part of their supply chain. This would be vastly better for you in the long-run, whether you’re a socialist or a dyed-in-the-wool free trader.
Eventually, perhaps we could remove money from the equation altogether by providing networks of sustenance across the country, which cultural providers could access in return for their labours. At which point the copyleft brigade would really have a leg to stand on. Yes, it’s a little bit Hugo Chavez. But then, look what happened to Venezuela’s working population under Chavez. Even aside from powerful moral and ideological cases, this would be a fascinating post-digital economic experiment in removing the profit motive and re-injecting the educative, inspirational value into a major forward-looking ‘business’ until it got down on its knees and thanked you for what you did.
Even if the experiment were to fail, it would fail in such a glorious destructive way that the resulting, vastly more chaotic, competitive market of ‘new amazons’ bursting into fecund life in a new (through gritted teeth) private sector, fuelled by the richness of the soil of our graves in which they blossomed, would still be far, far more healthy for all concerned than the single rotten behemoth we have now.
In other words, it can’t go wrong.
Next time: how to nationalise Spotify and Paypal before Zuckerberg gets them.