By now, most of us have heard of the wrongs perpetrated by Wal-Mart. The retail chain pays its employees absurdly low wages. So low, many employees receive government assistance for health care and housing and in tax credits—as much as $420,000 in de facto tax-funded subsidies for a typical 200-employee store, according to a congressional report. Working conditions are poor; PBS reports that 70 percent of employees leave the company within the first year. Sex discrimination is common, with 2 million current and former female Wal-Mart workers presently trying to sue the company for sexual discrimination as a group. And the corporation's anti-union activity is legendary.
Its stores are a blight on the landscape, making it a leading contributor to suburban sprawl. Its size—a workforce "larger than that of GM, Ford, GE and IBM combined," according to The New York Review of Book's Simon Head, and with "annual revenues...2 percent of U.S. GDP, and eight times the size of Microsoft's"—pressures competing local retailers to push down wages and benefits, and ultimately drives many small businesses into bankruptcy, especially those independent retail stores that comprise small town main streets. Wal-Mart's size also allows the superstore chain to dictate prices to manufacturers, driving down wages in the manufacturing sector—when it's not bypassing U.S. manufacturers altogether for products from China and contributing to the death of the American blue-collar worker.
Wal-Mart is evil.
Yet the very people and communities Wal-Mart injures—middle- and working-class families in rural areas and small towns—continue to flock as customers and employees to the stores. Sales continue to rise during the recession and Wal-Mart job openings are often extremely popular, with multiple applicants competing over a single position. In essence, this paradox poses a question for American politics, writ large: Why are the people who are harmed the most by big business conservatism often the same people who are its most vociferous supporters?
Bethany Moreton, a University of Georgia history and women's studies professor, seeks to answer that question in her fascinating book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Not just some mainstream, shallow outsider's screed against rural American culture and politics, Moreton's book instead is an academic exploration of the social, political and religious upheaval in the post-WWII South that transformed blue-collar Democratic-voting white farmers into the religiously conservative suburban base behind Reagan-era corporate expansion. It's the perfect companion to Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, but delves deeper than Perlstein into the sociological roots of the political transformation that Nixon-led Republicans exploited to divide the country into red and blue states. To do so, Moreton examines how the people of the Ozark mountain region of the upland South came to produce Wal-Mart, the biggest corporation in the world.
The short explanation is that the loss of jobs from the region coupled with the policies of desegregation, which ended exclusive government subsidies and political hegemony for whites, caused a vacuum in community structures that was replaced by "a store and a church," as Moreton put it.
The region's hardscrabble farmers were some of the most outspoken opponents of corporate power during the Great Depression and earlier, and especially passionate in their antipathy for chain retail stores, which they saw as another threat by Northerners to dominate their communities. Seen purely in the prism of class warfare or economic terms, those same farmers' descendants' enthusiastic support of Wal-Mart makes little sense. But it wasn't capitalism or even corporations the farmers disliked—it was the outsiders behind the stores. When a chain of retail stores sprung up literally in their back yards in an era of vanishing jobs, initially capitalized by local investment money and reflecting their own particular rural aesthetic, locals not only flocked to the superstores, but subsumed it. They transformed Wal-Mart into their own image, and used their religious beliefs to help ease their transition into the new service economy. Wal-Mart provides these communities a place to gather—a new kind of town square—and is an outlet for workers' and shoppers' modern consumerist Christianity: Workers are engaged in selfless service (underscored by the low pay and poor conditions) to shoppers who are providing for their families in a frugal and unpretentious setting. Wal-Mart was only too glad to exploit these social needs for profit.
In fact, Wal-Mart and its corporate peers are all too eager to link their brand of unfettered consumerist capitalism to religion and patriotism. By underwriting the business programs of local Christian colleges, these corporations not only create a pliable class of middle managers for their businesses, they essentially pay for the free-market rhetoric that paints their brand of destructive commerce as a sort of bold and moral enterprise.
To Serve God and Wal-Mart is no quick summer read. It's dense and often bogs down in overly precise academic language. Conservative readers will probably balk, say, at Moreton's use of feminist theories to analyze the gender roles in Wal-Mart stores. But it'd be a mistake to discount Moreton's book because of political prejudice. Her work isn't a denunciation of rural rubes, but is instead a story of an energetic and creative people adapting to economic crises. The impulse to community that drives the success of Wal-Mart is no sin, but the exploitation of this impulse by corporations like Wal-Mart is damnable.
Bethany Moreton reads from To Serve God and Wal-Mart at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, July 28, at 7 PM. Free.