Doctorow lays into Amazon and chokepoint capitalism

Amazon came in for a roasting at the American Booksellers Association’s (ABA) Winter Institute gathering of booksellers held, appropriately enough, in Seattle, Washington, Amazon’s home city.

The opening keynote speaker was Cory Doctorow, co-author of Chokepoint Capitalism (Scribe).  He was introduced by Stacy Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and author of Big-Box Swindle (Beacon Press).

Doctorow outlined how Amazon introduced the concept of being “locked to the platform”.  The company attracted customers with subsidized shipping, and marketplace sellers reached huge audiences. Amazon took low commissions, so sellers were locked in. Next, Amazon got sellers to bid against each other, and then moved on to cloning products from its sellers.  Mitchell pointed out that this model “puts producers and consumers in alignment”, a situation in which everyone loses except the owner of the platform.

Mitchell called the ABA “a light in the darkness,” examining what a level playing field looks like and continuing to call out violations of the antitrust Robinson-Patman Act, the 1936 law that that ‘protects small businesses from being driven out of the marketplace by prohibiting discrimination in pricing, promotional allowances, and advertising by large franchised companies’.

Both Mitchell and Doctorow agreed that the problem could not be solved by individual action.  Mitchell said: “While cancelling your Amazon Prime account and shopping less on Amazon is good, it’s not really a path to change.”   The pair feel that virtuous shopping choices fail to address the exploitative structures and what Doctorow calls “the chokepoints in the capitalist system”.  Mitchell said that only “legislative action on behalf of citizens, instead of corporations, will work”.


This Winter Institute  was the first in-person gathering since Baltimore in 2020 and ABA CEO Alison Hill told delegates: “It’s been a long three years with challenges and heartbreak and loss and hard work like we’d never seen before. And yet here you are, your bookstores survived, in fact they grew stronger–forged by fire. And some of you even opened bookstores during the pandemic. Which is a whole other level of badass.”