At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, the Congo River Basin was gifted to King Leopold II—a noble monarch bearing the gifts of Christianity, commerce, civilization, and education for Congo’s children. 137 years after Belgium took Congo, we saw the emergence of Amazon, Jeff Bezos’ “everything store,” which is now used nationwide. Amazon is the third-largest company in the world by revenue, the second-largest employer in the United States as of April 2022, a commerce and marketing powerhouse, and a global actor poised for conquest—just as Belgium once was.
Most recently, Amazon started an education grant initiative to upskill its employees with “easy access to the education and training they need to grow their careers.” Through the Career Choice Program, Amazon now funds college students, high school diplomas, General Educational Developments (GEDs), and English proficiency certifications for any of its front-line employees who are employed for at least 90 days.
In 2022, western civilization is burdened with competitive labour markets, increasing obsoletion of singular degrees as guarantors of progressive careers, and the efficient substitution of labour with technology. Amazon is setting out to be a hero and save western civilization from its own dark heart. The catch? Amazon is nurturing the same workforce that capitalist society often discards beyond the profit motive.
King Leopold II of Belgium took Congo as his private property. The hunt for wealth merged with paternalistic saviourhood. Anglo-Saxon aesthetics met racialized science to produce racism of the most gruesome violence. Religious edict granted license to purge, cleanse, and re-forge a pagan population. So, Belgium took minerals, ivory, and rubber, while successfully committing one of history’s most successful genocides. As Leopold drew $1.1 billion in profits from Congo, roughly 10 million Congolese died between 1880 and 1920. But, there was a silver lining—at least for King Leopold II.
The Congolese genocide came at a net benefit and focusing on conversations about powerful entities and the scramble for wealth entirely misses the point. The brutalities the Congolese were made to face in the name of a coveted western education from their Belgian stewards was all that mattered.
In discussing Amazon and the Belgian Congo, I am wary of powerful corporations cosplaying ethics. I am hesitant of money enabling spectacular plays of goodwill in the hunt for profit and monopoly status, and of education becoming another Machiavellian scheme to enslave the masses into further forfeiting art and literary works.
Amazon is only educating its employees to attract more workers.
The Career Choice Program targets roles in innovation and web services, as well as robotics technology and user experience design, and the funding is only available for as long as these employees choose to stay at Amazon. It is a program made possible by Amazon’s vast profits, and it is designed to increase its already significant growth and market share. It appeals to a generation aware that wealth existing for wealth’s sake is sinful—that some of it must be shared through taxes or taken through workers’ strikes, protests, looting, and outrage. Power in the West can no longer be gained under an iron fist, so they make programs like these.
We will take Amazon’s money because we need it and because without money, people might die. And death is frightening.
That is our net benefit: surviving.
I am wary of the Midas effect of growing corporations. Power is insatiable, and we must stay cautious of its bite. Counter programs to fund the arts, perhaps? Some way to sustain interrogations of the status quo, to keep these corporations accountable as they reap us into their payrolls and snuff out small businesses? Is this war? Peace? Who is to say?