The work in some Amazon warehouses is so gruelling, unpleasant and poorly paid that the annual turnover of jobs reaches 100 per cent – which is just the way Amazon likes it, according to author Alec MacGillis.
“They actually prefer having turnover be that high because it deters unions from organising,” MacGillis told the Writers’ Week audience via a link to the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Gardens from Baltimore, one of the “have-not” parts of the US which is home to Amazon warehouses. “It’s harder to build solidarity if workers don’t get to know each other before they leave.”
MacGillis, whose book Fulfilment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America interrogates the role of Amazon’s practices in America’s regional decline, said workers hated their jobs so much the company put speed bumps in the car parks to slow them down as they left.
“When people leave the warehouses now, they go screaming out to get the heck out of there at the end of their shift of this very gruelling and depressing work.”
This burning desire to leave prevented friendships or a sense of community forming among workers, again in Amazon’s interests. MacGillis said in the old days a steel worker rolled out at the end of shift and often joined other workers at a tavern nearby where they formed bonds and talked about work and conditions.
Speaking on the final day of the 2022 Writers’ Week, MacGillis said Amazon was both a product of the broken society it served and a force contributing to its breakup. He claimed the company took specific actions that exacerbated the problem of an America divided by wealth and opportunity more deeply than ever before.
“They have been especially zealous in pursuing all the different tax breaks and tax subsidies… and local officials give them huge subsidies to set up their warehouses and data centres in their communities.”
MacGillis believes the lower standard of living afforded by Amazon jobs, often in depleted cities once supported by middle-class manufacturing, is fuelling anger over inequality that helps explain the 2016 rise of Donald Trump. Trump offered a way out for desperate people alienated from educated, well-heeled Democrats and country-club Republicans.
“There is a realignment going on,” MacGillis said. “Trump offers this sort of third choice.”
Amazon’s move into data centres, which manage the giant and energy-hungry cloud servers of huge industries, banks and the government, concentrates so much data in the keeping of one company that McGillis said there were huge risks if something went wrong.
“The move into data servers is extraordinary; they are very strange and there is a whole sea of them outside Washington in what used to be horse farmland in north Virginia. It’s now been taken over by these massive, windowless concretes boxes … And very few people work in them, they just hum away, and they hum quite loudly.”
MacGillis did not leave his audience in despair, saying it was possible to push back against Amazon’s influence, as some in America have. He was not advocating a boycott of Amazon, just less reliance on it.
“I do believe this shift we have all had in the last couple of years towards this one-click kind of life, where you are fulfilling cold, hard needs through the laptop screen, through the phone, is not healthy. It is so important that we now return to our communities, not just in our shopping but in all sorts of other ways.”
Later in the day, Irish writer Colm Tóibín, a regular inclusion on the Booker Prize shortlist, cleared up any ambiguity about the exquisite blond boy, a child in a sailor suit, who was the obsessive sexual interest of the fictional author Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s novel, Death in Venice. Aschenbach, played in the Hollywood movie by Dirk Bogarde, follows the boy around Venice and becomes dangerously obsessed.
No, it is not a metaphor for the downfall of Germany, or an idealisation of beauty, says Tóibín, whose book The Magician is a lightly dramatised personal history of Mann, the German author and Nobel Prize winner. Mann’s wife, Katia, in her late-life memoir, confirmed she was in Venice with Mann in 1911 when he became infatuated with a beautiful boy.
“And yes, Tommy did start looking at this boy on the beach, this absolutely beautiful boy, that is what happened,” Tóibín quoted her as saying. “He didn’t follow him through the streets, that he didn’t do, but she is absolutely clear that Death in Venice isn’t a novel about some symbolic idea of beauty or decay in Europe. It is based on a trip they made.”
Mann, whose homosexuality was revealed in diaries published 20 years after his death, was a towering figure in German literature who opposed the Nazis in World War II and sought refuge in the US, only to fall foul of its Cold War crackdown on communism. Tóibín, speaking at the Writers’ Week session from California, said his book accurately portrayed details of Mann’s life, but his marriage to Katia, a clever and wealthy woman with whom he had six children, was complex and not fully understood.
“One of the cliches I was interested in was that she was married to a homosexual and that must have been very hard, but it wasn’t. And that it made them both very unhappy, but it didn’t.”
In another scene from The Magician, Katia arranges for her husband to have private time with a waiter in Switzerland to whom he took a fancy. That, again, was true. Tóibín said Mann, who was then 75, took a shine to a fleshy Bavarian and it cheered him up to see him.
“It’s not as if they were going to have sex or do anything that might compromise him but he really likes him and wants to be served by him and look at him and watch him smile. So, it is sexual, and it is open, and the two women, the daughter and the wife, arrange for him to have further meetings.”
Tóibín said the story of Mann’s life was so fascinating there were times when he could not make sense of it or even find a pattern to it. All he could do in his book was to show what was going on.
“It is one of those great marriages that doesn’t seem to be based on mutual sexual attraction but somehow or other it works for both of them,” he said. “His life is almost unimaginable without her. He was the one who was much more vulnerable and his sexuality was always going to be a problem for him.”
Thursday was the final day of Adelaide Writers’ Week. Click here to read InReview’s coverage of other sessions.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.