If you hate Amazon, blame Rishi Sunak

<span>Illustration by David Foldvari.</span><span>Illustration: David Foldvari/The Observer</span>
Illustration by David Foldvari.Illustration: David Foldvari/The Observer

Sitting in slow-moving traffic on the M1 the other day, I found myself looking at an enormous Amazon warehouse. It took 10 minutes to get past it, a testament both to its size and the dysfunctional nature of the nation’s motorway network. It looks horrible because, by convention, we don’t tend to beautify warehouses. Victorian ones can become beautiful as the passing decades apply a patina of post-industrial glamour – then they can be converted into desirable flats. It remains to be seen whether the warehouses we throw up these days will ever acquire an inhabitable ambience. But regardless of era, at time of building, nobody ever cares.

Not like cathedrals. The builders of Salisbury Cathedral wanted it to be enormous and keep the rain out, just as the Amazon warehouse builders did, but they also felt it should look amazing for some reason. I’m not 100% sure of the precise reason. To glorify God? To convince the peasantry for miles around that God existed? To pump public money into the depressed masonry sector? Just to be nice? Because it was the middle ages and there wasn’t much else to do? You couldn’t order a games console on Amazon to while away your mortal span, so you may as well spend it building the tallest and most beguiling spike anyone could imagine.

Warehouses are for storing stuff and stuff can’t see where it lives, so perhaps that’s why appearances are not prioritised. Still, people work there and have to drive past at the speed of a tectonic plate. Which might be the reason that, in the case of this particular warehouse, some attempt was made to make it look nice. It probably involved roughly the same amount of effort as went into just one of Salisbury Cathedral’s gargoyle’s nostrils but the argument could be made that it’s better than nothing.

What they did is they painted blue stripes along the side. The bottom stripe is mid-blue and then each one gets lighter and the top one is basically white. I think the idea is that it will blend in with the sky, but unfortunately the sky they chose was in California and the various azures contrast starkly with the slate grey cloud cover of an English February. It might have been better if they hadn’t bothered, or had just painted the word “Sorry” down the side. Or “The last time you clicked, this is what you made happen”.

It was comforting to be reminded that humans can get stuff done – that we have still got a civilisation going on

As we were about a third of the way along the outside, I noticed that the warehouse had dozens of tiny holes running along the bottom, and out of some of those holes little blue boxes protruded with “Prime” written on the side. It was a bit of a “That’s no moon” moment for me when I realised that each of those boxes was the trailer of a large articulated lorry. It struck me that if Amazon had built the Death Star – and I’m sure that’s what Jeff Bezos is planning – it would probably have been a cuboid because that would be cheaper. God bless the Galactic Empire with its sentimental aesthetic considerations.

Nevertheless, a part of me found it inspiring. The glimpse of the scale of the logistical enterprise, the physical manifestation of organisational competence, was thrilling. It was comforting to be reminded that humans can get stuff done – that we have, more or less, still got a civilisation going on. It’s easy to lose confidence in that if, like me, you work in the media and so can’t actually do anything necessary and hardly ever meet anyone who can. Plus, modern politicians don’t seem like people who are that interested in reality.

The political right is fixated on proving it has the clout to banish people to Rwanda because, however irrelevant it may be to the overall immigration situation, the prevailing Tory wisdom is that the scheme’s connotations of viciousness are a vote-winner. Almost as depressingly, the left has concluded that it cannot achieve power without the support of people too stupid to fathom the enormity of the climate emergency, so is no longer proposing to spend even a pitiful 15% of what renewing Trident is projected to cost on “green initiatives”. In that context, the intricate magnitude of Amazon’s terrifying and amazing retail offering is at least a reminder that not everyone in the world is a fucking child.

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But I couldn’t enjoy it properly and that’s the politicians’ fault too. There are many downsides to Amazon’s success – what it does to shops and high streets, how it destroys livelihoods and warps the structure of towns in a way few of us really want. But the way it has deployed technology to carve out an unequalled market share, and the previously undreamed-of service it now provides, smack of genius. As someone who basically goes along with capitalism, I embrace its inevitability. Mechanisation has always screwed people’s lives but the collective human view tends to be that, overall, there’s more to be gained than lost in the long run and it can’t be stopped anyway, so let’s accept it and try to be positive. That’s what we’ve done with everything from the seed drill to the steam engine to the cinema to the email.

The only problem is tax. Amazon doesn’t pay it – or not enough. So it is impossible to discern how much its success is due to brilliant innovation and how much to cynical accounting – or more pertinently, as we cannot expect the accounting of global corporations to be anything other than cynical, to the failure of the government to make it pay its fair share: it is tempting to blame Bezos but the fault lies with Rishi Sunak. He is prepared to legislate that Rwanda is safe, in defiance of a supreme court ruling to the contrary – he will use parliamentary sovereign power, of which the Tories are so fond, for that – but not to compel global corporations to contribute meaningfully to the societies in which they trade.

It’s not a complicated problem; notions of its complexity are the rhetorical hiding place of those who don’t want to solve it. While it isn’t solved, we can’t enjoy or admire Amazon’s stunning success. We are forced to resent it.

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