“Amazon just bought Whole Foods,” my friend texted me seconds after the announcement of the proposed acquisition. “It’s over. The world.”
This unease is widespread, and has raised new calls for breaking up Jeff Bezos’s impending monopoly by force. Surely the company, which now generates 30% of all online and offline retail sales growth in the United States, and already controls 40% of internet cloud services, has reached too far. The 3% hike in Amazon’s share price since the announcement—which would alone more than pay for the acquisition—may attest less to the deal’s appropriateness than to investors’ growing fear that missing out on Amazon means missing out on the future of the economy.
Whatever you may think of Jeff Bezos, and whether or not antitrust regulations can justifiably be applied to a company whose expansion doesn’t raise but actually lowers costs for end consumers, may be beside the point. Many of us get that something is amiss, but are ourselves so deeply enmeshed in the logic of last century’s version of free-market industrial capitalism that we can’t quite bring ourselves to call this out for the threat it poses to our markets, our economy, and even our planet.
The reason why monopolies were broken up in an industrial economy was that they tended to gain control over the platforms through which their products were distributed. The biggest oil company ends up controlling shipping and refineries, the biggest airline controls too many gates, and the biggest phone company controls the wires.
But in a digital economy, the platform is the business. Netflix content sells its platform. Apple’s devices sell its supposed “ecosystem.” Amazon’s book business, like Uber’s cab business, was just an easy foothold—the low-hanging fruit of an existing but inefficient marketplace—through which to establish a platform monopoly. From that beachhead, the company then pivots to other verticals.