Jay Carney knows all the right people.
By his own account, Carney’s move from journalism to White House politics took place because he’s in a band with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, Blinken was a foreign policy bureaucrat, and Carney led Time magazine’s Washington DC bureau, covering presidential politics — he’d even been on Air Force One with George W. Bush on September 11, 2001. Carney had been at Time for twenty years, and while he says he’d “been close to McCain,” when Blinken told him to consider a position as communications director for then-vice-president Joe Biden, he did.
Carney took the job in late 2008. Obama made him his press secretary in 2011, a position he held for three years. When he was appointed, a battle was raging in Wisconsin as then-governor Scott Walker sought to push through a bill that would strip public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights. As an uprising took place to oppose Walker, unions urged the Obama administration to send either Obama or Biden to Wisconsin to support the labor movement. But despite the president’s pro-union rhetoric, he declined to stand with the workers (this was far from the only time he abandoned organized labor). Instead of action, Obama offered words that did nothing to stop Walker, who succeeded in pushing through the bill. As Carney told the press at the time, Obama believes it is wrong for Wisconsin to use its budget troubles “to denigrate or vilify public sector employees.”
In 2014, Carney left the White House. After a brief stopover as a CNN talking head, he stepped into a new position, one created just for him.
“To lure Carney out of the news and politics realm, [Jeff] Bezos created a top-level position for him running public relations and public policy,” reports CNBC in a 2019 article on Carney’s “Life after Obama,” as the headline reads.
Amazon’s founder was determined to bring Carney on board. The company needed to ramp up its lobbying operations, and fast. Once a money-losing book-selling operation, by 2015, Amazon was on its way to becoming the behemoth we all know — this was the year it would make public the numbers on its lucrative Amazon Web Services (AWS) arm and begin reporting profits instead of losses.
Amazon’s business model is predicated on the ruthless exploitation of its workforce, surveilling workers down to the second and doing all it can to annihilate their humanity through control and domination. But it also relies on the non-enforcement of US antitrust laws, as well as the country’s corrupt, lax regulation more generally. As the company “got big fast,” per Amazon’s old slogan, it needed someone out front, leveraging their political connections to ensure the path toward Amazon’s expansion remained clear.
That person is Carney. The position Bezos created for him combines policy influence and press strategy, melding Amazon’s offensives by having the heads of AWS policy, public policy, and global innovation report to Carney, alongside directors of PR, publicity, and communications (to name only some of Carney’s direct reports). Bezos added Carney to the S-team, as Amazon’s top-level executive group is called.
The title for the position Carney started in 2015 is senior vice president of global corporate affairs. Carney quickly got to work proving his value to Bezos, and the deleterious effect of the revolving door between the public and private sector in the United States to the rest of us. The company spent $5 million on lobbying in 2014, before Carney was hired. In 2020, it spent $18 million on what former secretary of labor Robert Reich recently called “platoons of lobbyists,” DC schmoozers whose efforts are directed at a growing number of government agencies and issues. This influence machine now eclipses Amazon’s tech-industry rivals.
On PBS Frontline last year, Carney said that Amazon “is not lobbying in the traditional sense in terms of trying to persuade somebody to do something. It’s just answering questions and providing data and information.” This is, of course, total nonsense. Amazon has positions on online sales taxes, privacy standards, postal reform, workers’ rights, and antitrust enforcement. It lobbies on issues you’ve heard of, like its interest in drone delivery, and on ones you probably haven’t, such as the Music Modernization Act (that one concerns how artists get paid — or, more accurately, don’t get paid — when their work is digitally streamed). Amazon lobbies, and joins coalitions with other businesses, to advance its political goals. It works methodically to evade obstacles long before they materialize.
Carney was hired to beef up this lobbying operation. But there is a kernel of truth in his statement about lobbying: Amazon’s goals go beyond any particular legislation. The company wants to settle into the very marrow of the country — and, eventually, the entire planet — burrowing so deep that it cannot be removed. Amazon wants to be infrastructure, and flacks like Carney are paid to achieve that aim (Carney isn’t the only high-profile person Amazon keeps around for these purposes: Jamie Gorelick sits on the company’s board, not because she has any retail or cloud-computing expertise, but for her connections to such people as Merrick Garland, which offer an inside line on any legal challenges that might come down the pipeline.)
Amazon wants to insert itself into every part of our day, mediating life itself. To accomplish this requires that policymakers share the company’s perspective, believing that what is good for Amazon is good for America. When Carney speaks of “just answering questions and providing data and information,” that is what he means. The state doesn’t just happen to be a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie — that takes work! Amazon’s goal is an influence so pervasive that it is no longer recognized as such.
As Amazon’s chief flack, Carney doesn’t just wine and dine the powerful. He’s also an attack dog, cracking down on anyone the company believes stands in its way.
When the New York Times published damning allegations from white-collar Amazon employees about their working conditions, Carney took to Medium to write a 1,300-word response, accusing the paper of journalistic malpractice. When Christian Smalls, an employee at one of Amazon’s warehouses in New York, organized and spoke out about the company’s lackluster COVID-19 protocols last year, Carney was part of the meeting with Bezos in which a strategy was hatched to discredit Smalls, calling him “not smart or articulate.” Those actions were cited as evidence in a lawsuit against Amazon filed earlier this year by New York attorney general Letitia James. When workers continued to raise alarms about their lack of personal protective equipment, Carney didn’t budge, saying there was “almost no truth” to the accusations. (By October of 2020, at least 20,000 Amazon workers had contracted COVID-19.)
Carney also has a tendency to take to social media in the exceedingly rare cases when elected officials criticize his employer. He did so when Senator Bernie Sanders criticized Amazon’s treatment of workers in Bessemer, Alabama, a facility that sought — and still seeks — to unionize. And when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized Amazon while it was seeking to locate its second headquarters in New York City, Carney accused her of “making stuff up.”
The HQ2 sweepstakes, a startling flex of corporate power and governmental abjection, was Carney’s project. Despite that, he never even bothered visiting New York City, one of the two locations the company ultimately chose for its headquarters, only to rescind the New York deal when the city’s residents didn’t show as much gratitude as the company wanted. Carney’s quickness to tweet may explain why, during his tenure, Amazon has created comically bot-like networks to tweet defensively about Amazon, as well as bizarrely denied the well-documented difficulty its workers have finding time to use the bathroom in a series of tweets so odd that Amazon’s own employees thought the company’s PR account had been hacked.
Despite arguing with Sanders and AOC, one politician Carney hasn’t publicly responded to is his former boss, the current president. As the mail-in voting period on unionization dwindled down for workers at Amazon’s Bessemer facility, Biden released a video backing their efforts against Amazon’s relentless union-busting campaign. The video notably did not mention Amazon by name, but its target was nonetheless obvious.
Carney’s silence in response to the video may stem from his fondness for the president — his pinned tweet is a photo of him holding a “Biden-Harris” sign, and his header image is of Biden with his arm around him — but more likely, it’s just wise PR.
As Brad Stone details in his new book on Amazon, when Donald Trump started a Twitter tirade against the Washington Post and its owner, Bezos, in 2015, Bezos was eager to respond. He emailed Carney with the subject line “Trump trash talk,” asking his flack to come up with a response. Carney told Bezos to stay out of it. “Much as I’d love to have you slap him down, I personally think you’d be helping him by trash talking him back. Every fight he gets into gives the campaign more energy,” he told his boss. While in that case he failed to convince Bezos, who couldn’t stop himself from posting a carefully-workshopped-by-Carney tweet, it’s easy to see that Carney would counsel similar passivity in the face of a video critical of Amazon’s tactics by a sitting president.
The CNBC report on Carney details an Amazon all-hands meeting in which an employee asked Bezos about criticism of the company. Bezos “said the company has to continue to tell ‘our story’ about the benefits of its products and services.”
“Jay Carney and his team are tasked with telling that story,” Bezos added.
If it were up to Amazon, Carney’s narrative would be the only one we hear. Fortunately, the other stories — of what Amazon does to people, to communities, and to the planet — are only getting louder.