This article was originally published on 2023-09-06 in Jacobin: https://jacobin.com/2023/09/amazon-workers-sci-fi-writing-bezos-imagination-speculative-future
By Xenia Benivolski, Max Haiven, Sarah Olutola and Graeme Webb
Amazon’s punishing demands on its 1.5 million employees are infamous. Warehouse workers must match a pace set by artificial intelligence (AI) to maximize efficiency, with seemingly more care given to factory robots. A fleet of drivers and subcontracted delivery workers race to make quotas. Digital serfs compete to be paid pennies for microgigs on the Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform. Even higher-ranking white-collar staff report a ruthless culture where employees shoulder the burden of “customer satisfaction.”
It’s the stuff of heavy-handed science fiction — a dystopian fantasy in which ever more severe working conditions ravage large swaths of the workforce and a panoptic management crushes their self-determination. And it’s all just to maximize profits for a multibillionaire whose wealth is already incomprehensibly boundless.
Yet Amazon’s iconic founder, Jeff Bezos, today its executive chairman, presents his company to customers and shareholders in a rather different light. For this proud sci-fi nerd, Amazon is an angel from the future, disrupting inefficient industries from logistics to health care, from media to groceries, from web services to literature. This tells us one thing: Amazon embodies a form of capitalism not content to exploit workers in the present but bent on colonizing the future itself.
Faced with workplace pressures, workers certainly are organizing against Amazon’s empire. In the United States, the successful drive of the Amazon Labor Union in Staten Island caused shock waves and encouraged other efforts. Meanwhile, other unions, like Amazonians United, focus less on winning certification and more on building grassroots worker power. In the UK and France, major strikes have disrupted Amazon’s clockwork operations. In Germany, migrant-led efforts to organize independent workers’ councils have led to real gains. New global coalitions including Make Amazon Pay, Amazon Workers International, and Athena are linking workers’ struggles with others around the world and with civil society and activist organizations.
Yet all too often, we are so fixated on winning bread-and-butter gains for the working class, that we neglect to ask the big questions: What kind of future do those of us compelled to work want? How can we wrest power over the future from corporations and billionaires?
The hype-filled private space race between Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos reveals the deep influence of sci-fi as a source of seductive PR narratives.
To find out, we have, over the past months, been supporting rank-and-file Amazon workers to write speculative fiction about “the world after Amazon.” At the present moment, thirteen workers from North America are writing 2,500-word short stories, which we will publish in print, online, and as a podcast in 2024. In the future, we envision a viral spread, where workers support one another in cultivating their creative potential. At Amazon and beyond, it’s about workers’ right to reclaim the future from our corporate overlords.
Amazon’s Corporate Storytelling
A mere generation ago, science fiction was often seen as a concern of nerdy losers who dared to imagine the world could be different, or who tried to envision the dystopian endgame of capitalism. But since the dawn of the new millennium, the genre has moved from the margins of society to the center of the capitalist imaginary. It’s not simply the computer-generated imagery (CGI)–fueled growth of sci-fi epics in film and television. There has been a rise of self-aggrandizing tech corporations and billionaires who see themselves as swashbuckling space opera heroes, “disrupting” convention in the name of humanity’s bright future.
The hype-filled private space race between Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos reveals not only the obscene wealth capitalism has placed in the hands of these self-styled visionaries, but also the profound influence of sci-fi as a genre. It is both a personal inspiration to them and a source of seductive PR narratives that insist that these messianic figures will boldly go where no plutocrat has gone before.
Biographies and interviews with Bezos reveal his particularly intense love of science fiction. Colleagues report his massive collection of novels. He is reliably said to have modeled his bald-headed appearance and leadership style after the iconic Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a series that also led him to muse about calling his corporation “MakeItSo.com” after the commander’s iconic catch-phrase. Bezos is even credited with having single-handedly rescued the (fascinating) science-fictional series The Expanse from cancellation with a stroke of his pen, ordering his Amazon Studios to buy and prolong the beleaguered franchise. This move was especially ironic given the series’ strong sympathetic focus on working-class rebellion and evil corporate masterminds.
Beyond personal tastes, science fiction has been a crucial part of Amazon’s corporate vision. Many of Amazon’s most famous inventions, from the voice-recognizing Alexa to its robotized warehouses, are inspired by themes taken directly from science fiction books and television. The slogan “have fun, work hard, make history,” emblazoned on the walls of nearly all Amazon facilities, indicates its optimistic priority on transforming the world, even if the vast majority of workers will only ever get to experience the part where they work hard. Futuristic rhetoric, which peppered Bezos’s famous annual letter to shareholders while he was still the company’s CEO, contributed to Amazon’s success with investors. That wealth was used to bankroll a billionaire’s techno-utopian fantasy of being “the great disruptor” and pioneer of the future.
At stake is a kind of corporate storytelling, which goes beyond crass propaganda but works to harness the imagination. Like so many corporations, Amazon presents itself as surfing the wave of the future, responding to the relentless and positive force of the capitalist market with innovation and optimism. Such stories neatly exonerate the company and its beneficiaries from the consequences of their choices for workers and their world.
They rely on a dominant narrative that insists that both “technology” and “markets” are neutral and unstoppable forces. These carefully cultivated stories have also fueled Bezos’s sophomoric dream of boldly thrusting humanity into the stars, leaving planet Earth as a kind of living museum or nature reserve. Bezos and his cronies and rivals cast themselves as misunderstood visionaries, who are called by science and progress to invest the wealth the benevolent market has bestowed upon them on moon-shot projects that defy terrestrial priorities (like, say, paying workers a living wage).
But sometimes the truth comes out.
The utopian dreams of plutocrats like Bezos rely on a dystopia for workers — and for the world he intends to leave behind on Earth’s ruins.
At the press conference held following his 2021 journey to near orbit aboard his private company Blue Origin’s rocket, Bezos rubbed salt in the wounds, thanking “every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer” from the bottom of his heart. “You guys paid for all of this,” he joked.
The subtext could not be clearer: the utopian dreams of plutocrats like Bezos rely on a dystopia for workers and for the world he intends to leave behind on Earth’s ruins. What future will there be for workers who generated their wealth? Will we have a say in shaping the future? Or are we destined to fight for resources on a destroyed Earth or mine asteroids to fuel galactic empires? How can we reclaim the power of the sci-fi imagination for the working class?
Proletarian Science Fiction
In the nineteenth century, the founders of speculative fiction, like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were often members of the elite or middle class. Yet they were deeply inspired and shaped by an era of working-class struggles. Frankenstein’s cautionary tale about science run amok, for example, was influenced by the Luddite machine-smashing uprisings in Shelley’s native England, as that country’s working class was first attaining its historical collective self-consciousness.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, one of the first science-fictional films, revolves around a workers’ uprising and liberation by machines. In the Soviet Union, science fiction was developed as an appropriate (if potentially subversive) genre to reflect the liberated potential of modernity under state socialism. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Western writers throughout the twentieth century turned to science fiction as a means to explore other worlds for working people beyond the East/West binary, notably feminist novelists like Marge Piercy, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin. By the end of the century, critical literary theorists like Fredric Jameson and Darko Suvin noted that, far from just a mindless and commercialized distraction, the genre offered a unique vantage on capitalism.
In most of these cases, it is the writer, as the specialized worker, who is given the monopoly on the imagination, tasked with creating a world for the public to read. However, as the future has become increasingly captured by capital, social-movement organizers have found that the writing of speculative fiction is key to overcoming the impasses of the imagination — a world after capitalism, or in this case a world after Amazon.
Most famous among these efforts are adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha’s Octavia’s Brood, a coedited series of short stories written by community organizers. Inspired by the book’s namesake, Octavia Butler, the pieces were created on stories first developed in a series of workshops the editors offered at Detroit’s influential Allied Media Conference. For the editors, organizing among exploited and oppressed people is already a form of speculative fictioning:
When we talk about a world without prisons; a world without police violence; a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter, quality education; a world free of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexism; we are talking about a world that doesn’t currently exist. But collectively dreaming up one that does means we can begin building it into existence.
For brown and Imashira, taking back the power to envision alternate futures is, in itself, a form of community organizing. In a capitalist world that commodifies culture and entertainment, bringing people together to write and share their writing is not only dignifying but also emphasizes that the shape of society is too important to be left to politicians and corporations. This is especially so among groups who have, historically and today, been excluded from having any say over their or society’s future, notably women and racialized and working-class people.
A similar politics aimed at amplifying voices from the margin also inspired the Worker Writers School (WWS). The WWS brings together working people (mainly but not exclusively in New York City) and supports them to write haikus, which have been published as collections. For the poet Mark Nowak, the driving force behind the project, fostering worker writing isn’t just about lionizing the picket line or rhapsodizing revolution. It’s also about reflecting on the mundane elements of proletarian life, on small acts of solidarity, on the struggles of workers in the realm of social reproduction: the home, the family, the community.
WWS doesn’t focus on science fiction. But it does show the radical power of the imagination that comes when workers don’t just read inspiring words, but come together to write and thereby take the power of world-building and future-making back into their hands. This isn’t finding individual commercial or literary success, but dignity, imagination, and common struggle.
We’ve seen how companies like Amazon amply illustrate the power of capitalist storytelling in the idiom of science fiction. But how can workers reclaim and reinvent this power?
The initiatives we have mentioned are important, but they aren’t the first of their kind. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels encouraged their communist colleagues to send questionnaires out to workers to learn, from the shop floor, the reality for workers at the point of production. The point wasn’t just for intellectuals to discover the key struggles and tensions workers faced. Rather, they used the surveys as organizing tools, asking workers to discuss the provocative questions about exploitation with their coworkers, and thereby triggering a moment of solidarity and possibly resistance.
In a capitalist world that commodifies culture, bringing people together to write is not only dignifying but also emphasizes that the shape of society is too important to be left to politicians and corporations.
In the 1950s and ’60s, dissident organizers in Detroit, struggling against the conservatism and complacency of trade unions and the racism used by companies to divide industrial workers, revived this method of workers’ inquiry. They created venues to publish workers’ commentary on their everyday experience of exploitation and grassroots organizing that was otherwise made invisible, even by mainstream labor publications. These testimonies from workers in Motor City also made their way to Italy.
Such writing catalyzed a new wave of radicalism among intellectuals and workers, struggling to come to terms with the seismic industrial developments of cities like Turin and the new forms of worker militancy emerging on the shop floor. Beyond the control or influence of the Communist Party or its powerful trade union officials, organizers encouraged workers to study, discuss, and write about their struggles, as a way to dignify and acknowledge workers as intellectuals and also to build new relations of grassroots solidarity.
At stake in all these approaches to workers’ inquiry is the belief that rank-and-file workers, whose bodies and minds are exploited by capital, might have access to some knowledge about capitalism that is beyond even the most brilliant theorist or analyst of capitalism. Supporting workers to reclaim the power to tell and analyze their stories, to reflect on their lives and struggles, opens up a space where radical new insights might emerge. This is especially true in moments when capitalism is rapidly and radically transforming, as it was in Detroit or Turin in the decades after World War II.
When revealed, these insights might help workers overcome the limits of established forms of struggle. They empower workers to better recognize the adaptability of capitalism — and to see that they are also changing in response to or rejection of it. Facilitated by online sharing of technologies, this potential has never been greater than today. Workers’ inquiry aims to provide the tools through which the working class can see itself transform.
Can this approach be a catalyst for a new generation to develop its own forms of struggle — using both traditional and innovative techniques of worker power?
Beyond Capitalist Dystopia
Our “Worker as Futurist” project returns the power of the speculative to workers, in the name of discovering something new about capitalism and the struggle for something different. We have tasked these workers with writing their own futures, in the face of imaginaries cultivated by Amazon that see the techno-overlords bestride the world and the stars.
Thanks to funding from Canada’s arms-length, government-funded Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, our team of scholars, teachers, writers, and activists has been able to pay Amazon workers (warehouse workers, drivers, copy editors, MTurk workers, and more) to participate in a series of skill-building writing workshops and information sessions.
In each of these online forums, we were joined by experts on speculative fiction, on Amazon, and on workers’ struggles. At the end of this series of sessions, the participants were supported to draft the stories they wanted to tell about “The World After Amazon.” This is supported by an interview-driven podcast featuring organizers, artists, authors, and thinkers dedicated to contesting the world Amazon is building and fighting for different futures.
The Worker as Futurist project is about creating space and time for workers to exercise and share their imaginative worlds. At stake is not only the dignity of working-class people as creative and expressive souls, but the future we will collectively construct.
We must envision the futures we want in order to mobilize and fight for them together, rather than cede that future to those who would turn the stars into their own private sandbox. It is in the process of writing and sharing writing we can come to an awareness of something our working bodies know but that we cannot otherwise articulate or express. The rank-and-file worker — the target of daily exploitation, forced to build their boss’s utopia — may have encrypted within them the key to destroying his world and building a new one.