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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Can a Populist Shop at Wal-Mart?

I've been meaning to write a post with this title for a pretty long time. We lived in Arkansas for three years, from 2002 to 2005, and during that time we did probably 80% of our grocery shopping at Wal-Mart. There was a Kroger in town, but we rarely went there, as we couldn't feed ourselves and three kids on our budget at their prices. (Things have improved a little since then.) The city of Jonesboro was surrounded by farms, but they were almost without exception huge cotton, rice, and soybean operations; homegrown vegetables or fruits were hard to come by on the eastern, Mississippi Delta-side of the state. As for locally produced fresh meat, there was little of it. And so, we shopped at Wal-Mart--it had low prices, and it had what we needed. And, of course, they were everywhere: it was Arkansas, after all. (Melissa used to joke that shopping at Wal-Mart was justified because we actually lived in the state where the Sam Walton's corporation is based, and so we were supporting the tax base...though actually Wal-Mart doesn't exactly shower a lot of money around anywhere besides their little corner of the state around Bentonville.)

So anyway, why am I writing this piece now? Because Rod "Crunchy Con" Dreher put together for the Dallas Morning News a package of Wal-Mart editorials a couple of weeks back, and they touched all the bases. First there was Stephen Bainbridge's take, which directs the whole debate over Wal-Mart, wages, market centralization, community impact, and so forth, towards what he thinks is most important: the question over what Wal-Mart's real relationship to the free market is. His conclusion is that "Wal-Mart [is] not...a rugged free-market capitalist [operation], but [is] a leading recipient of corporate welfare." Which isn't exactly a new point, but one that warrants emphasis nonetheless: if you don't like some of the broader consequences of the arrival of a Wal-Mart in your vacinity, then it's good to know that those consequences are mostly made possible by economic development subsidies--subsidies that, one hopes at least, can be debated and even voted down democratically, thus giving communities some collective power to counter the Wal-Mart hegemon.

But Bainbridge's argument reflects his perspective on most things economic: he thinks deviations from the free operation of the market, while sometimes justifiable, are items of concern simply on their own. And that automatically grants a kind of normative authority to the operations of the marketplace that I don't agree with. I see another question here: not how or to what degree Wal-Mart benefits or abuses the marketplace, but how we are to think about what happens in the marketplace in the first place. Obviously, lots of people shop at Wal-Mart; we did, for three years straight. Is the fact that they (and we still today, sometimes) shop there itself an argument that Wal-Mart, whatever its other sins from either a Republican or Democratic take on what a market-based economy ought to look like (with folks like Bainbridge calling it "a creature of big government" and others like Barbara Ehrenreich attacking it for its low wages and union-busting), is providing the people with a genuine good? Or can something be popular and still not, well, populist?

George F. Will, in his contribution, clearly takes the first option. After detailing at length the low prices, economic productivity, and job creation which Wal-Mart's business strategy has made possible, he concludes by claiming that the criticism of Wal-Mart by liberal pundits and politicians is all about elitism:

Liberals think their campaign against Wal-Mart is a way of introducing the subject of class into America's political argument, and they are more correct than they understand. Their campaign is liberalism as condescension. It is a philosophic repugnance toward markets because consumer sovereignty results in the masses making messes. Liberals, aghast, see the choices Americans make with their dollars and their ballots, and they announce--yes, announce--that Americans are sorely in need of more supervision by...liberals. Before they went on their bender of indignation about Wal-Mart (customers per week: 127 million), liberals had drummed McDonald's (customers per week: 175 million) out of civilized society because it is making us fat, or something. So, what next? Which preferences of ordinary Americans will liberals, in their role as national scolds, next disapprove? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?

Will used to be capable of writing thoughtful meditations on conservatism and what it means to "conserve" arguably elite values in an atmosphere of liberal freedom (including, you guessed it, consumer freedom); now, he's mostly a hack, though admittedly one who can still write well. But even this isn't a particularly good effort. There's a couple of snarks packed into that conclusion of his that are just begging to be smacked down. Liberals (foolishly?) drive McDonald's "out of civilized society" (I had no idea we'd been so successful...) because it makes Americans fat, "or something"? With Fast Food Nation a bestseller (and a pretty good, if somewhat confused, book too), Supersize Me a hit film, and everyone and their dog (including Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas) realizing that obesity is a major health problem in the U.S. and that fast food is a major contributor to the problem, Will here is relying on an attack that even Rush Limbaugh would consider a Golden Oldie. But even cutting Will that much slack won't do; in actuality, making the above argument also pretty much undermines his conservative bona fides entirely, as Caleb Stegall makes clear:

Arguments from preference for, say, complete sexual freedom, unlimited abortion license and illicit drug use have never been very convincing to conservatives. Instead of asking what conditions most Americans prefer, postwar conservatives have traditionally asked the more important question: What conditions will make common Americans free--free not just to pursue their baser appetites, but to fashion an independent and virtuous life?

Now, I suppose Will could argue that base eating habits aren't an obstacle to developing civic virtue, and maybe he'd even have a point (G.K. Chesterton was fat, after all!). But of course, this is an argument about Wal-Mart, and Will has just defended it on the basis of base popular preference; hardly a conservative perspective. So much for him. But, unfortunately, not so much for his argument. Because if you're a populist and a communitarian--as I am, for the most part--then taking seriously the preferences of a community is not incompatible with my claimed worldview; it is, on the contrary, close to the heart of it. So, the question is (finally) asked: should populists like Wal-Mart? Should they shop there?

I am forever having to deal with people who are convinced that populism is majoritarianism, pure and simple. Any and every demogogue who promises to attack an elite (any elite) and deliver some good (any good) to the majority of the people (which people? it rarely matters) is called a "populist," which of course just drags the label through the mud. Hugo Chavez, Ross Perot, Huey Long: all these power-hungry types get thrown into the same pot, the contents of which then get stirred around and splashed all over those of us trying to articulate a populist political revival. And to a degree we have to take it, because an authentic populism probably always will have a touch (or maybe more than a touch) of "do what the plain people tell you to do" rhetoric about it. Christopher Lasch, who came around to calling himself a populist in the end, argued that one had to accept (not uncritically, but not without some sympathy either) that a kind of "working-class authoritarianism"--as Seymour Martin Lipset defined it--is bound to be associated with any attempt to develop a responsibly and morally majoritarian society. (I tried to argue this point in a long post on Ralph Nader and John Paul II--yes, I put them together--way back here.) But the emphasis there is on a politics that is "reponsibly" and "morally" majoritarian: that is, a politics that is trying to deliver moral reponsibility into the hands of as many people as possible. Obviously, this does not mean always doing whatever the polls say; it's not even necessarily always anti-elitist (assuming those elites emerge out of communities whose residents can genuinely see themselves in their representatives and leaders, and address them as members and equals within the community). Its only real measurement is in the democratic empowerment of the people; their ability as citizens to socially and culturally and economically define and manage their polity. And, not to put too fine a point on it, the presence of an economic behometh like Wal-Mart removes much productive responsibility from peoples' lives. It streamlines and minimizes economic life within a community to such a degree that locals can no longer exercise as much collective control over what kind of life they want to live. Giving the people back greater and greater choices in terms of consumables is admittedly valuable, especially when you're dealing with a situation (like in America today) where the rich get richer and set a pace (a social and cultural as well as economic pace) that the poor and the midle-class can barely keep up with. Wal-Mart wouldn't have taken off in the first place if it hadn't put in place production and delivery chains that could get a lot of previously unavailable consumer goods to poor and isolated Southern and Midwestern towns. Still, the trade off--from local authority to consumer freedom--isn't worth it. Caleb explains:

One of the primary conditions of freedom is a widespread distribution of capital, both economic and cultural. This accounts for conservatives' long-standing skepticism and mistrust of centralized and concentrated enclaves of money and power with their tendencies toward societal management at every level. The oppressive effect of the management elites is essentially the same whether those elites sit in the board room, the judicial chamber, the legislative halls or the Oval Office. [Hence,] the sheer size and power of Wal-Mart ought to make any conservative wince. A private entity the size of the U.S. military with the economic clout of the Federal Reserve is no friend to liberty.

What is this "liberty" Caleb is talking about? Liberals of a certain stripe might consider it "positive liberty," in the sense praised by T.H. Green and attacked by Isaiah Berlin; the freedom to do something, the liberty that comes through empowerment and a communitarian, organic vision of society. Clearly the parallels between Caleb's argument and those theoretical constructs are there, and worth pursuing. But a better parallel might be the "ordered liberty" that was accepted as an ideal by thinkers as different as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (and arguably Hannah Arendt): a citizen achieves freedom by situating him or herself within, and working to maintain, ordered arenas of free action wherein he or she can take productive responsibility for themselves and their situation. Freedom means shaping your own choices, not merely being able to make choices, however many options there may be out there.

Caleb follows up his above comment by writing:

In contemporary America, this presumption toward freedom may no longer be valid, as Mr. Will makes clear. The lower middle classes and nearly everyone else, for that matter, really do love Wal-Mart and are quite happy to sell their American birthright of independence and self-sufficiency for a bowl of processed--but cheap!--soup. This is the challenge facing the new populists of the right: how to advocate and promote the free and sturdy democratic qualities of the common man--qualities that made America great--when the common man has apparently turned his back on those virtues?

My answer to the question in the title of this post arises from my instinctual response to Caleb here: that the "populists on the right" he mentions have the best kind of conservative notions, but perhaps not the best grasp of what it means to conserve something. I'll be the first to agree that civic virtue ain't what it needs to be in America today. But I would also suggest that--even allowing for all I said above about the trade-off from self-sufficient liberty to consumer sovereignty--the sources of order and authority that make virtuous choices possible don't always have to be the same. Simply put, there really are some good reasons we are more mobile and less rooted today, and there really are some good things that have come from it; and not just liberal goods, but truly communitarian ones as well. Not all populists can see this--and, of course, one doesn't want to settle for a facile and Pollyannish reading of our situation today...but nonethless perhaps the left conservative approach might make some headway towards drawing out virtue at the present moment in a way some other populisms cannot.

In a world where comparative advantage and global trade and urbanization and specialization have done their work, a world where the ability to live a wholly self-sufficient life has been rendered often incompatible with the demands of information-based economies, a world where farms are shrinking and unions are on the run and guilds are almost wholly a thing of the past, something like a Wal-Mart is probably necessary if we are not to condemn a good portion of any given population (such as those outside of metropolitan centers or who lack sufficient incomes, or both) to deprivation. So sure, you can shop at Wal-Mart (in truth, it's not like Kroger operates on manifestly different principles either). But our responsibility at the present moment--besides our obvious and primary one to doing what's best for our families and communities--is to figure out ways to limit the Wal-Marts of the world, discipline them and fit them into a new "order" wherein citizens can find themselves to be more than consumers. This might sound like simply an appeal to the sort of liberal egalitarian regulations which Bainbridge's column suggested as legitimate. The populist response to Wal-Mart (and the WTO, and Clear Channel, and...) which I'm imagining will involve some of that, surely. But it'll also have to involve something more, something that will have to involve a rethinking (though not necessarily a complete change) of our estimation of the nation-state and of progressive movements within them.

But now I'm hearkening towards those long promised posts of mine on populism and progressivism again. I'm sure I'll get to them eventually. Hopefully they'll be shorter than this one.


Russell Arben Fox said...


"How accurate is this claim? It might be right, but it does not strike me as self-evidently so. And if the claim is true, how much of WalMart's alleged necessity is self-generated?"

Good questions, Caleb; thanks for commenting. Note that I qualified my claim in a few ways: I said "something like  a Wal-Mart is probably necessary." To take your second question first, I think it is in fact quite likely that the big-box retailer, "pull-economy" phenomenon (in which producers--including, ideally, ourselves--are placed in a dependent position to consumers as organized by behomeths like Wal-Mart) has been perpetuated and exacerbated by the fact that Wal-Mart and others stepped into an apathetic public square and regulatory vaccuum and thus were able to expand mercilessly, thus conditioning more and more what options were available to most citizens. So yes, Wal-Mart-type responses to our current situation seem as unavoidable as they often do probably to a great degree simply because we've allowed Wal-Mart-type responses to define the economic landscape to such a degree for so long. And that's a serious problem.

That said, for a lot of reasons I allude to but don't go into detail about in this post, I do think that various "centralizations" (both political and economic) have been basically inevitable to much of modern life, and that we shouldn't ignore the ways in which some real social goods and freedoms have been advanced by modernity. That's why I end my post talking about trying to bring Wal-Mart (or things like it) into some sort of citizen-grounded order. Obviously it won't be the same order which existed and was a benefit to human freedom a century or two ago, but I'm suspicious of the idea that all centralization is equally incompatible any kind of ordered freedom. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Frank Partisan said...

Populism is class consciousness, combined with often racism and nationalism. I think if you can put Perot, Wellstone, Ventura, and Chavez in one camp, you have a tendency that certainly is unpredictable. You can never fully predict, where a populist will stand.

Actually George Will will call any movement, that speaks to workers, as elitist. Talk about projection. Will is out of the loop, of most conservatives.

I would buy at Walmart without guilt. At the same time, I support unionism. I'm against boycott on a tactical basis.

The lower prices hurt everyone on the chain. How about unloading a truck, at a Walmart warehouse?

Good blog. 

Posted by Renegade Eye

Anonymous said...

"Fast Food Nation" sold about 1.4 million copies. "Supersize Me" ranked #138 in the box office in 2004 (with about 60% of its take in foreign markets). The vast majority of Americans haven't read, seen, or probably even heard of that book or movie. Your examples tend to reinforce--not undercut--Will's claim that anti-McDonald's (and anti-Walmart) sentiment is essentially a concern of a segment of cultural elites, rather than the population generally.


Posted by Scott

Russell Arben Fox said...


"Your examples tend to reinforce--not undercut--Will's claim that anti-McDonald's (and anti-Walmart) sentiment is essentially a concern of a segment of cultural elites, rather than the population generally."

Fair enough. While I suspect that when you get major political figures like the governor of a conservative state urging that the public schools wean themselves from alliances with fast food outlets you're probably talking about a fairly extensive awareness of the issue, I'll grant your contention: an informed anti-McDonald's sentiment is by no means entirely mainstream amongst the American public, and the same goes for anti-Wal-Mart sentiment as well. Of course, part of the dispute between Caleb and Will is what sort of authority one ought to grant the "mainstream," especially when that mainstream is being measured through consumption patterns. 

Posted by Russell Arben Fox

Anonymous said...

"Of course, part of the dispute between Caleb and Will is what sort of authority one ought to grant the 'mainstream,' especially when that mainstream is being measured through consumption patterns."

Which shows there's nothing new under the sun: (i) conservatives wish to dictate moral behavior, but leave economic behavior alone; (ii) liberals wish to dictate economic behavior, but leave moral behavior alone; (iii) libertarians wish to leave economic and moral behavior largely unregulated; and (iv) once in a blue moon you'll find someone who wants to regulate morality and economic behavior.


Posted by Scott

Anonymous said...

"something like a Wal-Mart is probably necessary if we are not to condemn a good portion of any given population (such as those outside of metropolitan centers or who lack sufficient incomes, or both) to deprivation.

(Here via Laura at 11d.) I agree with this statement. A lot of progressives laud the supposed Good Old Days when everyone had access to these wonderful Mom-and-Pop stores with great goods and even greater service. Alas, this is often more a misty-eyed nostalgic daydream than a reality. The well-off usually did enjoy decent access to necessary (and luxury) goods and services via independents. The poor and working class, not so much. In West Oakland (a poor, historically African-American neighborhood) there are NO grocery stores. NONE. Luckily, a neighborhood cooperative sprung up and formed the Mandela Farmer's Market to bring fresh veggies to the neighborhood and it's been a roaring success. The lack of decent grocery stores in poor neighborhoods is well-publicized. Corner liquor stores certainly are not enough to fill the gap.

Wal-Mart rushed in to fill a genuine need in many small towns and poor areas. Too bad the cure just about killed the patient in many cases!

Another reason for the proliferation of big-box stores - and this goes for affluent areas as well - is our national "time famine." Who has the time to spend a leisurely Saturday strolling from small shop to small shop anymore? How much easier to just go to Target and get everything done at once. Especially if you have little kids and no-one else to watch them, so you must needs take them with you - little Timmy is eventually going to act up and throw an embarrassing tantrum if he has to spend four or five hours being dragged along by Mommy while she runs errands. Big-box stores are often a boon to the harried and time-starved who just don't have the hours in the day for errand-running. 

Posted by Ailurophile