“To Serve God and Wal-Mart – the Making of Christian Free-Enterprise,” by Bethany Moreton, 2009
Bethany Moreton, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, avoids the typical narrative about Wal-Mart, as depicted in the excellent documentary “The High Cost of Low Prices” or the damning “The Wal-Mart Effect – How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works.” She focuses instead on how Wal-Mart used regionalism, working-class feminism and Christianity to become the Bensonville Beast it is today. There is not a word about cheap Chinese labor, excessively cheap prices or cheaply-made products in the whole book.
In the process, Moreton reveals what was going on during the Reagan ‘80s in the Ozark triangle of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma – and how it shaped wider corporate America and the “new” Right. Essentially, the dynamics of local money and a rural culture produced an ideology that won over some working class people to ally with corporate America. It tries to answer Thomas Frank’s question, “What is the Matter with Kansas?” … by saying something other than - ‘they’re stupid.’
Homeland of Populism?
Moreton oddly compares Wal-Mart’s rise in the Tri-State Ozark area to the inspiration from the populist traditions in the late 1880s. Indeed, Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma, and the socialist “Appeal to Reason” newspaper was published in Girard, Kansas. However, a casual look at WikiPedia shows the populists were strong among “hard-pressed wheat farmers in the plains states, especially Kansas and Nebraska” and “among poor white cotton farmers in the South (especially North Carolina, Alabama and Texas.” The Populist Party was formed in an alliance of small farmers and the Knights of Labor, and was not exclusively a farmer’s party. The Populists carried Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas and pieces of North Dakota and Oregon in the 1892 election. The Ozark area was carried by the Democrats in 1892. In 1896, a partial fusion with the Democrats in the South under William Jennings Bryan for all intents and purposes destroyed the Populist Party. (The Populists had success blocking with some Republicans in the South and some Democrats in the North prior to this.) Bryan’s big issue in 1896 was “free silver” – which would make it easier for debtors to pay their debts to the north-east bankers. Bryan did directly center his attacks on the big banks and Trusts in the 1908 election, long after the Populists were in their grave, jibing with Teddy Roosevelt and ‘progressivism.’ In that election, however, Bryan lost Missouri. Moreton focuses on the ‘anti-chain-store’ movement during the 1920s and 1930s, especially in the Ozarks, which represented a strand of progressivism. This movement supported local businesses, and opposed the large retail chains, mostly from the east, that were shuttering stores in the area. However, the anti-chain store movement was geographically wide - not limited to the Ozarks.
So Moreton’s evidence of the special strength of ‘populism’ as a political movement in the Tri-Ozarks is weak. Most of the South and parts of the West also voted for Bryan. Kansas always had special progressive history, given its role in the fight against slavery. But this is not Ozark territory. “Progressivism,” which became strong in the teens and 20s in the upper-Midwest, is a far more recent phenomenon and should naturally have influenced the alleged populism of the Ozark area. It lead to the rise of the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, William LaFollette in Wisconsin, the Progressive Party of Vermont, the Non-Partisan League in the Dakotas, etc. However, there is very little evidence that ‘progressivism’ was actually strong on the ground in the Ozarks, except in a few areas like mining. Even the leading populist of the 30s in the South, Huey Long, hailed from Louisiana. Nor did the union strike wave of the 30s and 40s affect this mostly rural area, full of small farms and small businesses. Nor was this area a center of activism in the 50s-60s – except among the black population, especially in … Little Rock. And for entirely different reasons - civil rights.
Most small businessmen have a built-in hostility to big banking and big corporations and their government IF they have felt the latter’s financial power. This is not unique to the Ozarks. I think Moreton confuses political ‘populism’ with a natural cultural form of small-town inclusiveness and solidarity, common among farmers and small towners, and a hostility to ‘outsiders’ – like black people and foreigners. This culture is also built upon rural frugality and hard work, both necessary to survive farm or small town life. From the beginning in 1962, Wal-Mart cultivated a regional, “localist” approach, which won them customers in a cultural sense, as customers viewed the store as growing from people like them. This is no different than the ‘buy local’ movement now. It also connects to the anti-chain store movement. In the 1970s it intentionally got funding to expand, not from Wall Street, but from investment bank Stephens Inc., centered in Little Rock, Arkansas. Wal-Mart was not hostile to ‘government’ at the time. Walton took advantage of many government projects and programs, even planning his stores in county seats because government employment brought in steady customers.
Various other Ozark-connected corporations make their appearance in this book – Tyson Foods, Wendys, Sun, Humble and Getty Oil, J.B. Hunt Transport, Halliburton, Am-Way and Holiday Inn, based in Memphis. People like Ross Perot, Sig Sigler, Milton Friedman, Fredrick Hayek, Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton (Wal-Mart board member) and of course, Sam Walton himself put in an appearance.
A Bit of Working-class Feminism / Reproductive Labor
In the process of developing his chain, Walton learned lessons from the legions of working-class white women employed by the firm to check items, stock shelves and sell. The stores were clean, spartan, stocked with useful, inexpensive goods, and the staff was polite. However, to this basic mix, the women hired by Walton, according to Moreton, taught the managers a thing or two about loyalty and sales. These were mostly either farm wives looking for part-time income, or small town women with families, also looking for part-time income. The key here is that the most important thing to them were hours, not wages or benefits – not that the latter were irrelevant, of course. And hours were most important because the category of ‘reproductive labor’ – i.e. having and raising children – was the key issue to these women. Wal-Mart gradually understood this, and made sure schedules were tailored to the family issues that arose.
People who have yet to have children, or who have never had or taken care of children, might not understand this, but reproductive labor is uncompensated. Yet it is key to the survival of the class. The government does little for the reproductive labor issue until children enter the full-time school system in first grade. 6 years go by without any support except tax breaks for children. This small bit of compensation is not sufficient, of course, so families have to create schedules that will make sure someone is always with their kids. And since most families have more than one child, that 6 years can stretch into 15 or more. Daycare in the 60s and on was probably almost non-existent in the Ozarks, so Wal-Mart aided these women with more flexible hours. And of course, they were flexible for profit-reasons, but that is not what the workers saw.
“We don’t get paid much but we sure have a lot of fun.” One older guy I worked with told me this while I worked at Mail-Ex in Chicago (and it was very true – we had a freaking blast!). But this is a window into how a business can get by without paying on the bottom line. At first, Walton treated his workers like cogs, as most businessmen did at that time. But then the managers started to learn from their staff, as Morton puts it, in this new area of ‘retail white collar’ work. The women workers at Wal-Mart began to be recognized by management. Their personal issues, like family graduations or accomplishments, family sickness or deaths, were made important within the stores. The women were allowed a lot of leeway in how they did things – displays, ideas, etc. Some even contributed products. The stores were all in rural communities, and because of this, the women and customers knew each other well – unlike the big city. Because the stores became larger than most local stores, they gradually became the largest group of working people in some towns, and this social comraderie made for more pleasant working conditions. Absent local manufacturing or offices, or retail, “Wal-Mart” became the town’s ‘company store.’ Walmart’s practice - “the customer is always right’ - could be seen as an outgrowth of the attitude of the women working there, not just as a clever profit strategy.
The “Servant Leader” and Masculinity
Moreton links this method of staffing with a concept from evangelical Christianity and later business manuals, called the ‘servant leader.’ This concept, developed in the late 1970s, linked being a male Christian with being both the ‘boss’ and also the ‘servant’ to those who work for you, or who are in your family. Moreton explains that the retail ‘nation of clerks’ which was developing upon the industrial economy ‘emasculated’ men, forcing them into ugly ties, black pants and white shirts, and stuffing them behind desks at low-skilled jobs. And all the while their male contemporaries might be doing physical, assembly or skilled trades work. To counter the loss felt by the overwhelmingly male managers at these new retail establishments, the ‘servant leader’ role saw to it that they served their families, children and wife – while still being the ‘titular’ head of the family. This was later applied to retail management theory, with the staff as the ‘family.’ And this theory was adopted by Wal-Mart, through individuals like Jack Shewmaker, their second-in-command. Male Wal-Mart store managers worked extremely long hours, had to pay supportive attention to their female staff, and were moved from store to store, almost like members of the Socialist Workers Party! This particular Christian faith made serving as a Wal-Mart manager (or cashier) part of your religious life, ‘serving’ customers. “Soft” female relationship skills became valuable in this context, even to men.
Moreton ends the book with a paen to ‘servant leaders’ who fight for progressive causes, like fighting for a living wage in Athens, Georgia. Of course, I wonder how many white Pentecostal ministers have signed on to that campaign.
Christian Colleges / The “Entrepreneur”
As Wal-Mart grew, it realized it needed to recruit staff for its management teams. It looked around the Ozark area and found 3 small Christian/conservative schools that would create business departments concentrating on free enterprise, and partner with Wal-Mart in the process. At this time in the 1970s, conservatives and Christians began promoting or starting business schools in schools all over the country to counter the anti-corporate sentiment on most university campuses. Business became the number one major for many students in the early 80s, though these were not always the best students. Wal-Mart partnered with the College/University of the Ozarks; John E Brown College/University; and Harding College/University. Later they expanded into business ties with the University of Arkansas, Texas A&M, Brigham Young, James Madison, the University of South Carolina, Florida State and Purdue. This aggressive pursuit of academic ties was a precursor to many other corporations increasing their links with higher education, to the point where corporations have more influence than ever before in academic affairs and the pursuit of ‘truth.’
In the process, student organizations like the “Students in Free Enterprise” (SIFE) developed out of the anti-socialist, pro-free enterprise business schools. Wal-Mart adopted SIFE in the Reagan 1980s, and many other corporations followed. It is now in 40 countries. It disguised itself as an ‘educational’ program for elementary, junior and senior high school students, for college students, even for adults. It promoted education that was actually indoctrination, starting with a “Mr. Pencil” that visited children’s class-rooms, who proved that a free market was the best (and only) way to produce products.
SIFE lionized the entrepreneur – even the entrepreneur that was now a billionaire. SIFE ignored the difference between small business and corporations – instead uniting all under the flag of free enterprise and the market. Never noting that ‘free’ enterprise leads to the rule of large enterprises, or that the ‘market’ is controlled by those same enterprises after awhile. Like Wal-Mart, which dictates price and quality to its suppliers, and regularly runs little Sam Walton’s out of business every day. The entrepreneur ends up a monopolist.
After the orgy of patriotism that was the First Gulf War, the regionalist Wal-Mart started to look outside the United States regarding educational programs. Their first international penetration into Latin America was to be through Mexico. Initially, they started an international student program in Panama, bringing ‘all classes’ of students to the campuses in the Ozarks for international exchange programs in business education. This program was meant to give them the same education that conservative and Christian American students were getting, providing an educated elite to combat the Marxists on many public Latin American campuses. Later they used these students to work as managers at Wal-Marts to be opened in Mexico and Central America.
The first large Wal-Mart Supercenter to open outside the United States was in Mexico City, in the suburb of Xtapalapa. This was exactly during the 1993 fight for ratification of the NAFTA treaty. At the time, most Americans and most congressman were against NAFTA, even in spite of Clinton and the Republican leadership’s support. The opening of this Wal-Mart was a propaganda gold mine because it showed Mexicans buying American products. Congressman and the press fell over themselves in praise. According to Moreton, this event turned the tide in the debate over NAFTA. Al Gore went on Larry King and debated Ross Perot, and used the Wal-Mart opening to hammer Perot, who was against NAFTA. And, as they say, the rest is history.
The 'folksie' Sam Walton is dead. The Walton family are now some of the richest individuals in the world. Wal-Mart is no longer a regional corporation. The homey, country-music store is now ensconsed in big cities, northern cities and areas, and now all across the globe, where 'homey' and 'country' means something quite different. Barbara Ehrenreich has reported that the Minnesota Wal-Mart she worked at was anything but friendly. Wal-Mart has been the target of the largest lawsuit over job discrimination against women in history. Wal-Mart is a big board stock quoted on the NASDAQ. The fundamentalist Christian movement, of which Wal-Mart is part, has become an influential pillar of the Republican Party. Today, Target donates to Republicans like Tom Emmer too.
Hopefully, reading Moreton’s book will illustrate just how smart that Arkansas ‘entrepreneur’ was. Because Wal-Mart conquered America.
And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 11/1/2010