The overwhelming size of Amazon’s distribution sphere is known for its ability to suppress the prices of the media it sells and to crush a diversity of sellers, but the advantage for small publishers is that it sells just about everything.
As a central purchasing hub, it is relatively easy to get books sold on Amazon, allowing tiny publishing operations to have essentially the same distribution platform as Random House, not to mention self-publishing options like CreateSpace. This has also given Amazon enormous power to determine what is available: If a book isn’t sold at Amazon, does it really even exist?
Greg Johnson, editor-in-chief of the white nationalist publishing house Counter-Currents, was forced to ponder this on February 24, when Amazon removed his publishing house’s most-sold book, The White Nationalist Manifesto. Counter-Currents had been founded by Johnson to give legitimacy to Johnson’s white nationalist movement, as well as to give him a job when he quit as web editor for the white nationalist journal The Occidental Observer. Counter-Currents would try to mimic the success that Verso Books had on the left, and he aspired to be the fascist equivalent by publishing extreme books on philosophic, spiritual and literary subjects.
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While the removal of The White Nationalist Manifesto came with little fanfare other than Amazon saying that it violated the company’s policies (though it was unclear what policies those were), Johnson could see the writing on the wall. Two days later, Amazon banned 15 more Counter-Currents titles, including Western Civilization Bites Back by British Nationalist Party leader Jonathan Bowden and books by Nazi mystic Savitri Devi. Amazon had also banned four books by white nationalist leader Jared Taylor.
Other white nationalist authors targeted include American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell, Harold Covington from the Northwest Imperative, Ben Klassen of the “Creativity Movement,” and National Alliance founder William Pierce, author of The Turner Diaries. All in all, dozens of titles were pulled from Amazon’s listings, leaving them essentially unavailable for most people in the U.S. It is an ongoing purge, so the number is increasing quickly, with no end in sight.
Johnson and others, including the New Century Foundation and other white nationalist organizations, reacted by trying to stop all further business with Amazon and initiate a boycott of the company, but as they will soon find out, subcultural boycotts like his usually have no effect on massive conglomerates. Counter-Currents will continue selling books through its website and other third-party sellers like Barnes & Noble, but this cuts the publishing house’s reach even further.
On March 11, Kevin MacDonald, the editor of the white nationalist journal The Occidental Quarterly, went to Twitter to complain that his book, Culture of Critique, had disappeared from Amazon. MacDonald is a former professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who promotes the false idea that Judaism is a “group evolutionary strategy” where Jews use their “high verbal IQ” to out compete non-Jews for resources and to infiltrate “host societies” to turn them against their ethnic interests. His early anti-Semitic screeds were published in the academic press, but the final book in his series was Culture of Critique, a much more blatantly racist tract filled with conspiracy theories.
This is not a new situation for U.S. white nationalists. Media platforms and vendors were usually friendly to the movement through the “alt-right’s” public growth in 2015 and 2016, but following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, this began to change. Podcasts, websites, social media accounts and YouTube channels associated with white nationalists began to be shut down, and financial systems like PayPal, Stripe and Patreon began to ban such users as well. While many of these platforms had hate speech policies, they were often rarely enforced, and after the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, it became apparent how online hate publications could radicalize people toward targeted acts of violence. Amazon was one of the last major holdouts, and the company quietly began removing these titles in a wave that seems likely to continue.
“I think Amazon is getting pressured by customers to maintain a minimum of basic ethical and moral standards in the texts that they carry,” Alexander Reid Ross, an anti-fascist researcher and author of Against the Fascist Creep, told Truthout. “White nationalists who encourage attacks against marginalized people clearly violate those kinds of terms.”
While Amazon may want to be credited for taking a moral stance against these publishers, the “de-platforming” that has happened over the last two years across the internet is the result of anti-fascist community organizing that demanded these changes through public pressure. This has created a climate of disapproval of companies that provide platforms for, or do business with, white nationalists. While Amazon was heavily pressured to stop selling other racially charged material, such as Confederate flag memorabilia, there had not been a recent major campaign to halt sale of white nationalist books.
Amazon’s purge highlights the way that user behavior leads to suggested content. The algorithms of these large media platforms give suggestions as to what the user might also be interested in based on their behavior. With Amazon, interest in some far-right topics might lead you to Counter-Currents or other openly white nationalist literature, and so the sale of their books leads to a process of potential radicalization.
“Although it is true that we can continue to sell our books through our own sites, their absence from the world’s largest bookseller obviously greatly limits not only their accessibility but the possibility that readers previously unfamiliar with our work might discover them,” said John Morgan, editor with Counter-Currents, in a statement.
One concern that this raises is the monolithic and unaccountable way that Amazon can choose which titles to allow into the culture, and whether or not the company then has the ability to target books by anti-racist activists, leftists and other people deemed “extreme” by parts of the liberal center.
“I think there is some concern [that Amazon could remove left-wing books], but it’s based on the notion that this is a form of abstract censorship of ideas rather than the prevention of the growth and spread of an extremely harmful movement,” pointed out Reid Ross. “It’s like Spotify removing R. Kelly’s music. It’s not that they’re censoring his content; it’s that they don’t want to be associated with what he represents.”
The issue this raises is less about whether or not Amazon should tolerate white nationalist literature and instead about whether or not a company should have monolithic control over the market. When removing white nationalist content is the result of community organizing, it can represent a situation where that community actually exercises more influence on Amazon behavior than they normally have.
“I think, at the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt anyone … bookstores and online sites to decide not to carry fascist materials,” Reid Ross said. “Fascists rely on ostensible credibility offered by the open market, and it sets them back when they’re not given public space to air their toxic ideology.”
The bans seem to be happening in a wave that will continue as Amazon locates and removes more books, but since there are literally thousands of titles, this will take time. For example, the recent book from the far-right publisher Arktos Media, A Fair Hearing: The Alt-Right in the Words of Its Members and Leaders, is still available on Amazon at the time of publication. At the same time, the recent book QAnon: An Invitation to The Great Awakening, which uses anonymous authors to tell a far-right conspiracy theory about Donald Trump, is not only still up, but is also topping the Amazon charts. The question for the coming months is how far Amazon will take this, how the far right will regroup, and whether or not this marks a turning point for how Amazon deals with content creators.
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Originally published at truthout.org, March 22, 2019.