In 1937, the famed writer and activist Upton Sinclair published a novel bearing the subtitle A Story of Ford-America. He blasted the callousness of a company worth “a billion dollars” that underpaid its workers while forcing them to engage in repetitive and sometimes dangerous assembly line labor. Eighty-three years later, the market capitalization of Amazon.com has exceeded one trillion dollars, while the value of the Ford Motor Company hovers around thirty billion. We have, it seems, entered the age of one-click America—and as the coronavirus makes Americans more dependent on online shopping, its sway will only intensify.
Alec MacGillis’s Fulfillment is not another inside account or exposé of our most conspicuously dominant company. Rather, it is a literary investigation of the America that falls within that company’s growing shadow. As MacGillis shows, Amazon’s sprawling network of delivery hubs, data centers, and corporate campuses epitomizes a land where winner and loser cities and regions are drifting steadily apart, the civic fabric is unraveling, and work has become increasingly rudimentary and isolated.
Ranging across the country, MacGillis tells the stories of those who’ve thrived and struggled to thrive in this rapidly changing environment. In Seattle, high-paid workers in new office towers displace a historic black neighborhood. In suburban Virginia, homeowners try to protect their neighborhood from the environmental impact of a new data center. Meanwhile, in El Paso, small office supply firms seek to weather Amazon’s takeover of government procurement, and in Baltimore a warehouse supplants a fabled steel plant. Fulfillment also shows how Amazon has become a force in Washington, D.C., ushering readers through a revolving door for lobbyists and government contractors and into CEO Jeff Bezos’s lavish Kalorama mansion.
With empathy and breadth, MacGillis demonstrates the hidden human costs of the other inequality—not the growing gap between rich and poor, but the gap between the country’s winning and losing regions. The result is an intimate account of contemporary capitalism: its drive to innovate, its dark, pitiless magic, its remaking of America with every click.
"MacGillis has set out to do something different. The Amazon depicted in Fulfillment is both a cause and a metaphor. It’s an actual engine behind the regional inequality that has made parts of the United States 'incomprehensible to one another,' he writes, stymieing a sense of national solidarity . . . The result is galloping prosperity for some Americans and unrelenting precarity for others . . . MacGillis suggests that one-click satisfactions distract us from taking in the bigger picture, whose contours can only be discerned with a patient and immersive approach."—Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times
"A grounded and expansive examination of the American economic divide . . . This is much more than a story of retail. It’s about real estate. It’s about lobbying, data centers and the CIA. It’s about revolving doors in Washington, D.C., and cardboard folders in Ohio . . . [Fulfillment] is neither a hagiography nor a targeted attack. Instead, like the HBO series The Wire, it reveals the way economic, political and social systems affect individual stories . . . It takes a skillful journalist to weave data and anecdotes together so effectively . . . Reading these people’s stories will break your heart. But you should read them."—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
"Alec MacGillis takes the ubiquity of [Amazon] and blows it up into something on the scale of Homer’s Odyssey in his new book . . . MacGillis’s story is as emotional as it is analytical—he visits characters and industries affected by Amazon, demonstrating over and over again that the empire is irreparably changing every aspect of American life as we know it . . . Sometimes the things we see every day become invisible. MacGillis asks us to look closer."—Amy Pedulla, The Boston Globe
“A wide-ranging, impressionistic tour of a nation whose citizens’ existence has become intertwined with a single corporation . . . MacGillis was one of the first journalists to begin documenting the socioeconomic upheaval that helped shift the rural Rust Belt from blue to red . . . [He] describes how, while rich corporations and their top employees have settled in a small number of wealthy coastal cities, the rest of the American landscape has been leached of opportunities."—Vauhini Vara, The Atlantic
"Alec MacGillis ably catalogs the many ways in which Amazon’s breakneck expansion has left social wreckage in its wake . . . MacGillis’s lens is wide, capturing images of a country in which many people’s living standards are falling and entire regions are left behind."—Marc Levinson, The Wall Street Journal
"MacGillis’ skills as a journalist . . . are on full display in Fulfillment, which gracefully interweaves the personal histories of people trying to get by in what the writer aptly calls 'the landscape of inequality across the country' with an account of the big-picture events and political/market manipulations that sculpted that terrain . . . [full of] sober, clear-eyed analysis and emotionally involving stories."—Ashley Naftule, AV Club
“Fulfillment is journalism at its very best: a powerful panoramic account of America’s skyrocketing inequality across people and places. Drawing on both big-picture economics and his own brilliant reporting, Alec MacGillis tells the gripping story of Amazon’s meteoric rise, the economic and political elites who’ve profited from it, and the ordinary citizens who’ve too often borne its costs.”—Jacob Hacker, professor at Yale University and coauthor of Let Them Eat Tweets
“Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that all work has dignity if it pays an adequate wage. Alec MacGillis explains why some of America’s richest people and largest corporations don’t seem to care. He has an uncanny ability to weave together the stories of those whose fortunes are soaring with the stories of those whose lives are falling into hopelessness.”—Sherrod Brown, U.S. Senator from Ohio and author of Desk 88
“Alec MacGillis is one of the very best reporters in America. By always going his own way, he finds stories and truths that others avoid. Fulfillment paints a devastating picture of Amazon, but it also gives human voices to the larger story of our unequal economy and society. Fulfillment is an essential book in the literature of America’s self-destruction.”—George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of Our Man and the National Book Award–winning The Unwinding
“Fulfillment vividly details the devastating costs of Amazon’s dominance and brutal business practices, showcasing an economy that has concentrated in private hands staggering wealth and power while impoverishing workers, crushing independent business, and supplanting public governance with private might. A critical read.”—Lina Khan, associate professor at Columbia Law School and author of Amazon's Antitrust Paradox
“Anyone who orders from Amazon needs to read these moving and enraging stories of how one person’s life savings, one life’s work, one multigenerational tradition, one small business, one town after another, are demolished by one company’s seemingly unstoppable machine. They are all the more enraging because Alec MacGillis shows so clearly how things could have been different.”—Larissa MacFarquhar, staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
“Alec MacGillis practices journalism with ambition, tenacity, and empathy that will command your awe. Like one of the great nineteenth-century novels, Fulfillment studies a social ill with compelling intimacy and panoramic thoroughness. In the process, Jeff Bezos’s dominance and its costs are made real—and it becomes impossible to one-click again the same.”—Franklin Foer, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of World Without Mind
“For a generation, inequality has been rising relentlessly in the United States—not just inequality of income and wealth, but also inequality of power and geography. In Fulfillment, Alec MacGillis brings this crisis vividly alive by creating a broad tableau of the way one giant company, Amazon, affects the lives of people and places across the country. This book should be read as a call to action against the new economy’s continuing assault on working people, small businesses, and left-behind places.”—Nicholas Lemann, author of Transaction Man
“Fulfillment addresses the human impact of current technologies and economic inequality with rare power. People in tech don’t often think about the ramifications of their work; Alec MacGillis reminds us that it has consequences, and that even if there are no clear solutions, we have a moral imperative to consider its effects.”—Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist
"A probing, character-driven report on Amazon’s impact on the American economy and labor practices . . . This cogent and wide-ranging study sounds the alarm bells."—Publishers Weekly
Reviews from Goodreads
Afterword to the Paperback Edition
In May 2021, two months after this book’s publication, I held a discussion about it with the Rotary Club of Dayton, Ohio, during their monthly lunch meeting—on Zoom, alas. Several of the local boosters...