[19 July 2009]
Looking back it seems inevitable that one big-box discount retailer would have emerged from the post-World War II economic climate to dominate the economic landscape. Technology and globalization opened up the possibility for a revolution in retailing logistics that, by the logic of capitalism, could not be long ignored: Supply chains would be tightened, manufacturing would be offshored, small chains would be swallowed by the large ones, and independent retailers would survive only through the mercy and nostalgia of those who could resist the call of convenience and low, low prices.
But there was nothing foreordained about Wal-Mart’s becoming that hegemonic retailer. Why would the dominant force in late 20th-century consumerism arise, of all places, in Arkansas’s Ozark Mountains, far from the US’s industrial base, traditional transportation hubs and financial centers? Before Wal-Mart, the region was an agricultural backwater much more likely to spawn a populist uprising against East Coast fat cats than a juggernaut multinational corporation. So what advantages did Wal-Mart’s particular context in the rural South offer for its management to shrewdly exploit?
That is the question that women’s studies professor Bethany Moreton attempts to answer in To Serve God and Wal-Mart, her deeply researched account of the ideological underpinnings of the company’s rise. The primary force, in her account, is the timeless city-country divide, which Wal-Mart was able to leverage to its advantage, ultimately establishing the notion that shopping in one of its stores was a way for its resentful rural patrons to reject godless, urban secularism and the banks and corporations that had long lorded over them. Wal-Mart’s success in rallying red state America to its aisles would then provide a model for the Republican Party in its efforts to perfect its revanchist coalition of Christian social conservatives, racists, fat cats, and free marketeers. Together they would represent “real America” against the latte-sipping liberal atheists whose tolerance had become an intolerable affront to what Moreton refers to acidly as “our father’s America”.
Wal-Mart thus managed to combine backward-looking cultural politics with its forward-looking pursuit of logistical advantages. Moreton argues that underemployed Christian women of the Bible Belt proved an advantageous resource for the Wal-Mart, which managed to co-opt their concern for family values as it hired them to stock its shelves and work its registers. These rural woman purportedly brought with them an ethic of friendliness and “people skills” to their shifts, which helped the company’s infiltration into communities seem fundamentally benign. Hence, the women performed uncompensated emotional work that Wal-Mart was able to capitalize on, in large part because the women treated the opportunities for human interaction the job afforded as reward enough. This, perhaps more than allegations of bare-knuckle backroom tactics, helps explain Wal-Mart’s successful crusade against union efforts to organize the retailer’s workers.
Wal-Mart, in Moreton’s view, needed to secure the loyalty of such women by mirroring in its organization structure the organization of the South’s small family farms and thereby redolent of family values: “Wal-Mart wanted the yeoman’s wife as both a customer and an employee. To get her, it had to model itself on her family relationships.” So the company evolved a strata of subservient, self-sacrificing women who worked hard for a predominantly male management class out of an ingrained, near-hereditary sense of duty. Extrapolating from a well-publicized class action suit against the company for failing to promote women to management positions, Moreton argues that the retailer instituted a patriarchal system (with Sam Walton as the angelic patriarch) that recast retailing as a proving ground for traditional manhood. As conservative Christianity focused more intently on reaffirming that a woman’s real work was domestic and reproductive, Wal-Mart became an ideological ally, marginalizing women professionally while heaping them with praise for their uncompensated service—or “servant leadership” as its proponents liked to call it.
This symbiosis with movement Christians (along with, as Moreton details, a well-publicized effort to secure capital locally and, later, a concerted effort to support local secondary education) helped Wal-Mart overcome residual regional resistance to chain stores and consumerism generally, fusing it instead to the preservation of a disappearing America and the ideals of selfless Christian domesticity. As Moreton notes, “unlike the earlier department stores, Wal-Mart did not promote self-indulgent luxury ... As long as mass buying could mean procuring humble products ‘for the family’, as long as men could perform women’s work without losing their authority, as long as front-line service workers could derive dignity and meaning from their labors, the service economy could survive its internal contradictions. Consumer capitalism could be born again”. The title sums up the company’s achievement of convincing workers that their labor was laudable as a kind of piety, which earned them a reward that superseded mere filthy lucre.
Moreton’s account is fairly convincing, but is not without its idiosyncrasies. For example, it seems peculiar that she repeatedly refers to Arkansas as being part of the “Sun Belt”, a stretch which seems an effort to connect Wal-Mart’s rise to demographic trends, and the explosion of growth in what become known during the recent real estate bubble as the “sand states”. Evidence is always well-chosen and illustrative but can’t help but seem suspiciously apt sometimes, considering the a mass of corporate events, executive interviews, and incidents among the company’s many stores Moreton had available to work with. There’s no clear way to tell whether some of her anecdotes are typical or cherry-picked. And more generally, to focus strictly on ideological factors without acknowledging the hard numerical economies of scale that Wal-Mart could bring to bear against its competitors presents a picture of its rise that eventually starts to feel a bit myopic.
At the same time, when the focus departs from Wal-Mart and shifts to education, the book begins to meander—the chapters detailing small regional colleges’ complicity in promoting a pro-business agenda seem to water down the main thesis rather than enrich it. At best, they seem to belong in a different book, about the transformation of colleges into vocational schools for future cubicle dwellers. While Moreton’s thorough research into the matter is admirable, Wal-Mart’s involvement in promoting a free-enterprise ideology in colleges isn’t particularly surprising, and to emphasize the significance of these efforts undermines her far more cohesive ideas about the company’s integration of gender and religion into its corporate mission. Despite all the detail, it never quite ceases to seem far-fetched that Wal-Mart had to co-opt universities and fund scholarships in order to thrive. Unlike the company’s efforts to Christianize shopping and retail employment, these educational ploys seem more like peripheral image-building, the sort of public-relations gestures all corporations make, albeit with a southern, Christian slant.
Nonetheless, the book’s first half makes for compelling and provocative reading, complicating any simplistic view about why many Americans are enthusiastic about Wal-Mart, even as it seems to grind down wages, stamp out unions, advance a desolate model of exurban life, and eviscerate the small towns in its path.