Italo Calvino, in his Invisible Cities of 1972, wrote:
In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless expansion of the territories we have conquered… It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin.
Jeff Bezos’ empire stretches across the globe. His company, Amazon, has physical infrastructure in twenty-four countries; his wealth-per-second exceeds the weekly wage of the median US worker. He is the world’s richest man and, after having dodged one of life’s certainties (taxes), he is now funding efforts to reverse the other (death).
Scandal routinely engulfs his factories. Reports of Amazon workers having to pee in bottles were first rebuffed, before an apology was issued — and even then only admitting that drivers were peeing in bottles. Harsh and ineffective COVID-19 policies at numerous Amazon locations caused strikes throughout the US, some of the strike organisers, such as Chris Smalls, subsequently being fired for “violating social distancing guidelines.”
As the head of the hydra, it’s unlikely Bezos has visited every one of his factories, improbable that he knows every location in a wide chain of factories, facilities, and sourcing locations, and impossible that he has met every one of his workers.
Like a contemporary Kublai Khan, Bezos’ influence stretches itself far beyond his capabilities. As the former CEO of the second wealthiest multinational to date, he sits within an interstitial space of realities. He is at once real and unreal. In a world where opportunity is dictated by monetary freedom, Bezos can ostensibly be considered the individual with the most freedom. In the concrete, Bezos has everything. There is no barrier for acquisition.
Yet, in an Oliver Sacks-esque contradiction, Bezos’ freedom is entirely one-sided. He has the empirical, the wealth, the power, the noise. And in this, he’s lost the human. He has become an icon of capitalism, the most finely polished embellishment on a dysfunctional Nozick machine. Articles exploring him look entirely to his business actions, the use of his money, his attitude as a boss. His money has become a shroud, a camouflage within which he is more notion than person. With notoriety and fame so widespread, moves notarised by the critical and the adoring, what is left of Bezos in the way of human experience? Could he catch a bus alone? When was the last time he genuinely had to introduce himself?
‘On the day when I know all the emblems,’ he asked Marco, ‘shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?’
And the Venetian answered: ‘Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems.’
It sounds a hyper-capitalist daydream to attempt to construct wealth as a limiter, a precluder, an inhuman burden — a pacification to class-struggle (“Why do you all complain about being poor? I’m rich and my tears are just as human as yours!”) And yet, I do not think it’s absurd. The frictions of life, the minutiae and the yearnings, are all profoundly important, the hammers to shape the form. This is only, of course, when living with your basic needs met — a general plateau existing at around $75,000.
Clay Cockrell, a psychotherapist who works with the “super, super wealthy,” describes on the podcast The Happiness Lab how his clients are unable to sleep at night, wracked with indecision and guilt. The internality of affluence is such that things should feel perfect, and they don’t. There is a deep-seated feeling of being trapped, the “Golden Handcuffs” of wealth.
“I have a lot of people who say ‘I can’t get rid of it because it’s amazing, it’s great, but God there’s so much unhappiness, isolation and guilt that comes along with having this.’”
The title of the world’s wealthiest man is time-locked ‘greatness’. It is Bezos’ sole defining feature — he has become both the emblem and master of a system that exalts ruthlessness and extorts the less fortunate. He is less-than-human, a formless, shapeless entity whose existence will be fleeting. Who can remember the world’s richest man of the 1950s? Even in the domain of space, Bezos is unremarkable: the pantheon of celebrated astronauts will not include a trillionaire tourist, sixty years late. There is no solid achievement yet recorded in the competition of the world’s richest flying to where the earth is the same size as their fists. There has been little solid achievement, too, in the life of Bezos, the barely-alive.
Perhaps he knows this. It could be that, surrounded by bodyguards and tinted windows, Bezos views each park, cafe, town, city and country as welcome to only his ghost. The anonymous phantom that appears in every mind, wondering what could have been, if only a different choice had been made, the invisible spectre of the unlived life.
‘Journeys to relive your past?’ was the Khan’s question… ‘Journeys to recover your future?’
And Marco’s answer was: ‘Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognises the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will not have.’
In that fugitive moment of regret, Bezos finds what is left of his humanity.