Goodbye to Amazon and the Wall: Politics Never Dies

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Goodbye to Amazon and the Wall: Politics Never Dies

Try to bury it. Attempt to deny it. Call it unnecessary, call it ridiculous, call it a distraction. Whatever you say, whatever you do, politics will always return.

Consider what happened in Queens on Valentine’s Day. As CNN reported last week:

Amazon put two years and untold amounts of staff time and money into negotiating with New York to save about $3 billion on a new campus in one of America’s most dynamic cities. It bypassed legislative bodies to avoid getting bogged down in local politics. And it kept the whole process secret, allowing the company, the mayor, and the governor to present the agreement as a fait accompli. All those carefully laid plans vaporized when Amazon declared the Long Island City project dead Thursday morning.

Amazon lost its New York deal. Amazon. The most powerful company in the world, headed by the wealthiest man on Earth, in the most capitalistic age in history, in the richest nation, under the most bought-and-sold government of American history, headed by the most corrupt chief executive since Nixon. Amazon tried to set up shop in the most unequal city in the country, in the lair of Wall Street, using the ultimate, most irresistible technology of our era. They put the deal together in private rooms, away from the eyes of the public. They kept it secret. They kept it safe.

And they were stopped.

According to the Verge:

“After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” Amazon wrote in a statement this morning. Amazon said it is canceling the plans because a “number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence.”

Team Bezos insulted New York’s pride, and they threatened the electoral prospects of its politicians. Amazon, an exploitative trillion-dollar monopoly, demanded goodies from the world’s most important city. They made the town fathers feel like desk clerks at a trashy motel. The de Blasio-Cuomo concessions were made behind closed doors. No transparency. The City’s got a memory. Try to bulldoze a Brooklyn brownstone, and you’ll catch hell for it. A project of this scale should’ve been done in the open. NYC has big problems that need fixing. The Amazon deal sucks up the money and effort that should go to solving these challenges. City voters don’t worry about “big tech investment.” They want their busted subway to work again. The MTA buses are catching on fire, and you’re paying Bezos to move here? The closer the pols looked, the worse it got. HQ2 would’ve imported tens of thousands of rich techies, increased gentrification, boosted inequality, busted unions, destroyed homes, and congested the city. The public got angry. So the city bigwigs started raising reasonable questions: Can we talk about unionization? What about rising real estate prices? Are you going to invest in the community? Amazon cut and run. No surprise: they’d acted high-hat from start to finish.

Why did local politicians oppose the presence? Because it became uncomfortable to be pro-Amazon. Because the people got wise. As Curbed New York explained last year, Amazon decided to split their new headquarters between Virginia and New York:

After the decision was made public, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo gathered with other city and state officials to gleefully announce that they had sealed the deal, which includes just shy of $3 billion in subsidies. … But for the project’s critics, the opacity of the deal—which Cuomo hammered out with Amazon execs—reinforced the governor’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude, as well as his willingness to throw money at often ineffective economic development initiatives.

If any human phenomenon should have been beyond the reach of politics, it would be Amazon. All that money, all that power. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

But they got beaten. Amazon got beaten bad.

What happened to Amazon is happening all across America. Time after time, high-placed decision makers have attempted to bypass popular will. Amazon’s defeat is simply the most delicious symbol of resistance to elite decision-making.

And evidence of the return of politics.

By politics, I mean exactly what you think I mean: popular decision-making and debate about important choices that affect us all. Sometimes we forget who has the power: we do.

For decades, single-payer health care was politically “impossible.” The well-paid people on TV told us so. But how times have changed! It wasn’t like scientists suddenly proved that Medicare For All was feasible. What happened was that Americans decided to use politics to change their country

The Very Serious People didn’t like Americans discussing single-payer. So, no surprise, the Very Serious People didn’t like New Yorkers discussing Amazon. The New York Times Editorial Board even got snippy about it: “It seemed that few were interested in having a constructive conversation about how to improve the deal and make it work for the tech giant and the city.”

Honestly, the Very Serious People find politics messy. Don’t take my word for it. Look around you. This is an age where powerful men try to rule by decree. Indeed, most of these men, from the President on down, got into power by claiming they would go beyond politics, somehow. In every place, at all times, the powerful wash their hands of politics. Every day, some influential pundit decries “tribalism.” If we just ignore politics, the thought goes, it will go away.

Meanwhile, the decrees continue. Trump decrees that the Wall will be built. Says it’s an executive order. Says it’s an emergency. The Beltway flatly states that famous war criminal Elliot Abrams is actually a human rights junkie. Pelosi says we’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is. The Koch Brothers, after a lifetime of funding injustice, recently decreed they were prison reformers. Google, Facebook, and Microsoft sponsor LibertyCon, the libertarian con where guests declared that climate change is made up. At Davos, the billionaire class laughs about a tax increase, as if it were impossible under the laws of the universe.

We’ve seen this before. It happens in sports:

“Don’t you know I’m God?” taunted Muhammad Ali, in the first of the epic trilogy of heavyweight prizefights with Joe Frazier that defined the early 1970s. Ali even took to accompanying each word — Don’t — you — know — I’m — God? — with a swing of his fists, unleashing another flurry of his lightning-fast punches.

Just as important, however, is what comes after the decree:

Frazier, undaunted … spat back through his bloodied mouthpiece: “Well, God, you gonna get whupped tonight!” And very near the end of that first encounter between them, on March 8, 1971 … Frazier made good on his promise.

This is what happened to Amazon in New York. And politics was the cause. According to CNN:

Council members who may have been persuadable turned hostile when Amazon showed little interest in further conversation about how to mitigate the traffic congestion and rising housing costs that could have ensued when thousands of highly paid tech workers flooded Queens. “If they were interested in being a partner, then they would engage in dialogue and conversation about these issues,” said Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander.

“Amazon doesn’t want the rules we’ve democratically set,” Lander continued. “They want a monopolistic version.”

DeBlasio and Cuomo, longtime ride-or-die buddies with the one percent, kept trying to muscle the deal through. But the city itself rose up like Cain, and threw out a whole raft of conservative Democrats last November. That kneecapped Cuomo; when the New York State Senate got a new majority leader, and when that majority leader appointed an Amazon opponent to a state board, Team Bezos was in trouble deep. State Senator Michael Gianaris told the TV network:

… Gianaris said he didn’t anticipate it would come with a $3 billion incentive package. He said he’d been locked out of the bargaining process from day one. “An affected community raised its hand and said, ‘I have some questions about this deal that we knew nothing about,’” Gianaris said. “Instead of dealing with those questions in a responsible way, Amazon took its ball and left town.”

The problem was plain to the whole wide world. New York had to loot its taxpayers and sell their future to keep Bezos happy. Rich men delight in making cities dance like dogs for treats. Your local pro sports owner pulls the same con every time he wants a new stadium. It’s classic plutocrat blackmail: tell the town fathers you’ll move away unless the taxpayers pay buy you a big building. Amazon followed the same playbook, but on a bigger scale: whoever bribes us, wins. New York didn’t knuckle under for Bin Laden, but they sure as hell decided to roll over for Bezos. Or at least their leadership did. They didn’t count on politics returning. As Jacobin noted:

Activists went door-to-door in Long Island City, talking to residents about why the Amazon scheme was bad for the neighborhood, emphasizing Amazon’s anti-unionism, the planned billions in tax breaks, and gentrification. While many residents initially supported Amazon HQ2, those conversations changed many of their minds. People were encouraged to contact their elected representatives, come to protests and town hall meetings on the issue, and get involved in the anti-Amazon fight. Many did. There were also a number of rallies, as well as disruptive protests of City Council hearings on the deal.

Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president, connected the threads in a letter to the New York Times:

The last week has been marked by a dangerous inclination toward authoritarianism. The president believes that he can usurp the power of Congress by declaring a national emergency. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, both articulate in criticizing President Trump for his autocratic ways, themselves ignored established land-use procedures and failed to consult with local officials or community groups in their haste to reach an agreement with Amazon. And Amazon, apparently astounded to discover that there was a need to meet and negotiate with anyone who had any questions about its plans and practices, made its own unilateral decision to pull up stakes, leaving the governor and the mayor surprised and confused. In every case the loser was our stated commitment to inclusion and democratic decision-making.

Again and again politics returns. Politics is group decision making. That’s all it is. So as long as there are humans making decisions in groups, politics will be there. You can no more strike it from the story of the world than you can trash talk the moon into early retirement.

Force is ultimately on the side of the mass of mankind. And if you try to bind them through trade deals, contracts, and binding resolutions, they will not abide. It doesn’t matter how many speeches you give about the rule of law. Human beings aren’t stupid. If the will of the people is ignored behind the facade of institutional decision making, they will figure it out eventually. Their voice will be heard.

With politics “gone,” there is no proven way to make group decisions. In a world where political discussion is bypassed, what remains? You only have hyper-empowered people making decisions that affect us all. Given the nature of rich folk, these decisions inevitably conflict with what the mass of people want. When that happens, politics, like gravity, has its say.

It could be any company. This particular time, its name was Amazon. And that’s appropriate. After all, the theme of politics is deliverance.

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