In advance of what is sure to be a pivotal convening for pro-democracy movement-builders, we want to affirm the 22nd Century Initiative’s guiding framework by underscoring how concentrated corporate power helps give rise to authoritarianism. The framework identifies the global rise of authoritarianism as a project of aspiring oligarchs who incite and exploit fears and resentments, which often result from conditions created by wealthy corporations. We believe that by organizing to dismantle monopolies and disperse economic power broadly, we can invigorate multiracial democratic self-governance. Challenging corporate power directly gives us one way to put forward an alternative vision and build the political power necessary to change course. Targeting Amazon in particular offers unique strategic opportunities that will allow us to demonstrate what’s possible when organized people wrest the power to shape our futures from giant corporations.
Corporate power vs. democracy: the case of Amazon
Concentrated economic power makes a fully realized democracy impossible by denying us not just the freedom to make individual choices but also the ability to have a voice in the societal decisions that affect us every day. Right now, those decisions are suppressed by a powerful minority that essentially dictates how we live and how our country operates, writing laws that reinforce their wealth and power. In the US, this wealth and power are accumulated in megacorporations whose influence shadows every corner of our society.
The erosion of labor law, and thus labor power, is a prime example of this: corporations have used their political power to upend the rights of workers to organize, and as a result workers have less say in their own workplace and also less political power collectively.
But corporations’ capture of our democracy extends far beyond their ability to sway elections and policy decisions. Outsized corporate power also restricts our freedom in nearly every aspect of lives: our freedom and dignity at work, our freedom to build a small business, our purported freedom of choice as consumers, our freedom to safeguard and shape the future of our communities, our freedom to exchange ideas and information without interference from biased and self-serving corporate algorithms. The workplace in particular is a hotbed of systemic authoritarian practices, emphasizing the critical importance of democratizing the labor market as a key target in our struggle.
And as corporate power erodes democracy, and thus people’s faith in democracy, it opens space for authoritarianism to take hold. We’ve seen this throughout history — from the way industrial monopolies fed the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, to the role of land monopolies in sustaining slavery in the American South.
Arguably more than any other single corporation, Amazon exemplifies the dangerous accumulation of power and how it systematically undermines and supplants democratic government. As the second-largest private employer (on track for first place), the megacorp is leading a race to the bottom when it comes to working conditions, pulling down wages and benefits for logistics workers in community after community. Amazon’s workers are living under autocratic rule day after day; the company uses its own technology to drive unsafe production speeds and then, tracking workers through constant surveillance, uses that same technology to squash organizing efforts.
Amazon’s problematic accumulation of power has metastasized out of the workplace. Its ever-growing ecosystem (from amazon.com to its web services business to healthcare) goes beyond cornering individual markets and is set to become the market. From its ”invisible infrastructure” online to the ways it has successfully positioned itself as the sole intermediary between buyers and sellers throughout a series of industries, Amazon is entrenching serious structural power. In a one-two punch, the behemoth both strips our economic power within markets and uses it — through our public dollars and a decades-long tax avoidance scheme — to fuel its rise and reach.
Amazon also subverts our constitutional freedoms. It leverages structural racism to amass both market power and political power by, among other things, collaborating with police and ICE enforcement to surveil communities of color. Using Amazon Ring, for example, the company gives police access to user footage en masse without a warrant, probable cause, or judicial review, posing a direct threat to our rights, our democracy, and the lives of Black and Brown people in particular.
An authentic vision to counter faux populism
With neoliberalism losing its vise grip, our movements today are finding many opportunities to define and uplift a shared worldview for the world we want to build and the strategies we’ll need to apply to get there. We are also navigating well-known pitfalls, such as neglecting cross-issue solidarity, and anticipating new ones. A clear obstacle that’s making its way to the mainstream is a faux-populist agenda that brings together bigotry and fear with anti-corporate rhetoric — all in service of seizing political and economic power.
The cultural legacy of neoliberalism will go on for generations, and financial elites are leveraging this heritage through anti-democratic, libertarian politics that they present as a project of freedom. These political actions use discontent with neoliberalism to galvanize a base by stoking racism and sexism to drive an agenda that further entrenches consolidated wealth and power and advances oligarchic rule. If we do not address this directly, we will lose the opportunity to realize a multiracial feminist democracy that everyone deserves.
We believe that the best answer to this duplicity is an authentic challenge to corporate domination, which aligns with our belief that we need a North Star narrative and strategy that can lead our way in the struggle against insurgent authoritarianism and toward people-powered democracy. To echo the 22nd Century Initiative’s framing paper, taking action in this moment requires us “to be prophets, not just critics.”
As we take on Amazon, we are putting forward an alternative vision more appealing than racial animus and authoritarian control. We are declaring that together we can unrig the rules that Amazon uses to exercise control over us at work, in the marketplace, in our cities, online, and across our society. This will allow us to foster cross-community relationships, deepen strategic alignment, and put into practice the multiracial feminist pluralistic democracy that we need to ultimately reassert our collective control over the economy.
Targeting Amazon will allow us to flex our collective power as the counterweight to concentrated power. We can weaken the system and practice the democracy we need at the same time.
Calling out corporate power: the Athena Coalition
We believe that to break the hold of the megacorporations, we first need to give loud voice to the countless ways in which people are subjected to coercive, unaccountable power in our daily lives. We need to understand this power as no less tyrannical than that of a king. And we need to expose the ways in which it is devastating nearly every corner of the country: how the same dominant corporations are preying on urban neighborhoods and small towns alike, stripping them of their economic agency and local self-determination.
Second, we need to harness and deploy as many levers of local, state, and federal government as we can to check and dismantle outsized corporate power. Attraction to strongman politics is fueled by a belief that government only works for the powerful. Given how often our policy outcomes are driven by the priorities of executives and shareholders, rather than the needs and aspirations of everyday people, that’s hardly an unfounded assessment. The work in front of us is to restore faith in the functioning of our democracy by using our collective authority to stop corporate abuse and redistribute economic power broadly.
This is why PowerSwitch Action and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance joined with allies across issues and movements to create the Athena Coalition, which directly aims its organizing and advocacy efforts toward reducing Amazon’s power and building our own. We believe Amazon is both a critical threat and an opportunity. In the pursuit of profit and power, Amazon is among the most egregious megacorporations in its exploitation of people and the planet. By focusing on Amazon, we can bring together people impacted across Amazon’s sprawling empire to address its specific harms, begin to rewrite the rules that allowed Amazon to consolidate power in the first place, and demonstrate the power we can wield when we organize.
Our focus on Amazon serves two goals: Of course, we seek to curb its power in order to invigorate community autonomy and power. We also want to use our fight against Amazon to flex our movement’s muscle so we can remake the economy through collective governance. As the 22nd Century Initiative puts it, “We can weave organizing and narrative strategies that will help us go beyond simply being the majority, to acting effectively as the majority.” To do this, we need to prioritize local organizing, forge new networks of solidarity, and construct a shared story of the world we want to see.
The Athena Coalition offers an example of a big-tent alliance that can fight at the local, state, and federal levels, all while driving new narratives about economic relationships and multiracial feminist democracy. At the end of the day, Athena’s fight is about power, not behavior. No corporation should have the power that Amazon has; to confront it, we have to forge new alliances (e.g., among small business owners, workers, and overpoliced communities) that will usher in a revival of democracy. A redefinition of “we” in the face of corporate attempts to keep us apart and in our place.
As a national coalition of more than 50 organizations, Athena bridges bases, bringing workers, diverse communities, and small business owners together. Our idea is simple: To challenge this behemoth, we need to join together for racial and gender justice, workers’ rights, the environment, and our collective future. It’s about building a true democracy where we all thrive, not submitting to an autocracy by and for the wealthiest among us.
To do that, we need to think strategically about how we organize at multiple levels and use different levers to build power. We see how grassroots organizing at Amazon facilities and in local communities grows our base, focuses attention on issues like surveillance and safety, and can create momentum for state and federal policymakers to act. In turn, wins at the state and federal level can help shape favorable conditions for local efforts — from an NLRB with a greater commitment to workers’ rights to legislation like California’s AB 701 which regulates dangerous productivity quotas and creates stronger protections for workers against employer retaliation for exercising their rights.
This is what PowerSwitch Action refers to as “braided strategy,” and it’s why the Institute for Local Self-Reliance sees small businesses as a key base to build. By knitting together a broad, and even unexpected, range of allies through bottom-up organizing, we can live our future as we define it. (Although, to be clear, we are unwilling to work with anyone who promotes fascism and other oppressive ideologies, even if they espouse our stance on corporate power.) In other words, we can create the type of “shared practice of democratic inclusion and expansion, both political and economic” that the 22nd Century Initiative refers to.
The few benefit from corporate concentration, but the many have been harmed by it — and we can use that aspect of the majoritarian experience to our advantage. Amazon, monopolies and the authoritarian movement may be mighty beasts, but their time is coming to an end.
As we shape a collective power analysis for people-powered democracy at the 22nd Century Conference and well beyond, we must also create, share, and practice an affirmative vision for taking on and remaking corporate power.
Featured image: Melissa Ojeda, an Amazon warehouse worker and member of Inland Empire Amazon Workers United, speaks during a strike outside the corporation’s air hub in San Bernardino on Oct 14, 2022. Photo courtesy of Warehouse Worker Resource Center.
Convergence is pleased to co-publish this article with The Forge.