Utopia-Dystopia - Walmart Socialism

At the end of my June 2012 post on Expropriate Goldman-Sachs, I quoted Lenin (via Frederic Jameson) about the use of monopolies and big banks for socialism. For Lenin, all that was needed was to “merely lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger”! And of course a century later, the obvious answer is: Walmart Socialism.

That post led me–in an ongoing dialogue with my economist colleague Karl Seeley’s blog, The Dance of the Hippo–to write a simple Local Economy Manifesto. I was attempting to make the big contribute to the little. In 2012, the U.S. needed a massive jobs stimulus directed at reducing resource use and enacting a radically more sustainable future. The point was to combine the Keynesian stimulus Paul Krugman was arguing for with the kind of infrastructure projects which would reduce resource use. That is to say although it is great that The Transition to a Sustainable Economy May Happen Without the U.S. Federal Government, it would really be much better to see the full force of government planning put into the effort.

In 2017, there are differences and parallels. The U.S. economy does not need a massive jobs stimulus, although we do need to make employment more stable and reduce income inequalities. We still need to invest in sustainable infrastructure–but not through the proposed privatization of infrastructure profits. And while it is wonderful to see Mayors of 7,400 cities vow to meet climate commitments, it would be better to leverage federal government planning and international accords for the effort.

Personal Purity and Walmart

In my attempt to write about supporting a sustainable local economy, I spoke against an insistence on personal purity. This was one part Seeley liked:

I particularly wanted to highlight this: “Personal choices can be an example, but the primary goal is policy and institutional change. Promote systemic change and don’t worry about personal purity.” Yes. Can we finally get past, “You drive a car, so you must not actually think global warming is real, you enviro-hypocrite”?

Our shared affinity for this statement is probably based on a criticism Karl and I hear in our part of the woods. The criticism is something to the effect that we are hypocrites for using computers and driving cars while opposing the drill-and-frack industry. What we don’t so often get is the kind of pushback I’ve received in the comments of my Local Economy Manifesto–that our personal efforts are not pure enough within the movement.

With one significant exception–shopping at Walmart. In our set, Walmart is seen as the evil to be avoided, that local-economy-destroying force. “I never shop at Walmart”; “Is there a place to buy that stuff that’s not Walmart?”

Jameson on Walmart Socialism

It is therefore interesting that just after Lenin on big banks is where Jameson develops his thoughts on Walmart Socialism. Jameson elaborates on a previous and extremely intriguing footnote:

The Walmart celebrated by [Thomas] Friedman becomes the very anticipatory prototype of some new form of socialism for which the reproach of centralization now proves historically misplaced and irrelevant. (Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, 2005:153)

In this follow-up piece, Utopia as Method, or the Uses of the Future, Jameson immediately declares “that this proposal will be even more shocking than Lenin’s celebration of monopoly” (29), and he proceeds to detail the negative criticisms that Walmart–among other crimes–“destroys whole ecologies abroad and whole communities in the United States” (30). Jameson acknowledges this largest company in the world seems “dystopian in the extreme” (30), hardly amenable to the task of Walmart Socialism.

But at the same time, Walmart is a new and unexpected phenomenon. It is a company entirely created by free-market capitalism, yet for many critics it is what kills free-market capitalism. And here Jameson posits that the dialectic can comprehend what traditional thought cannot: “Wal-Mart is not an aberration or an exception, but rather the purest expression of that dynamic of capitalism which devours itself, which abolishes the market by means of the market itself” (30).

Walmart is therefore precisely equivalent to the apparent paean to the bourgeoisie at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto (see Anthropology, Moral Optimism and Capitalism). Here again, Jameson urges us to think through these pages dialectically. “The dialectic is an injunction to think the negative and the positive together at one and the same time, in the unity of a single thought, where moralizing wants to have the luxury of condemning this evil without particularly imagining anything else in its place” (31).

Jameson proceeds to sketch some of the technological innovations creating the conditions of possibility of a Walmart. The UPC or bar code, far from being an anachronistic relic of the 1970s, has been re-converted through computers and the internet into an information-laden tracking system. This goes hand-in-hand with “containerization as a revolution in transport” (31). Walmart’s success would have been impossible without computers (33). This is a formidable and truly amazing feat of coordination and planning. It is what inspired this post, when my daughter asked how Walmart, as opposed to our local shoe store, was able to communicate among all its various branches:

Anyone who does not appreciate this historic originality of Wal-Mart and its strengths and accomplishments is really not up to the discussion; meanwhile–and I say this for the Left as well–there is an aesthetic appreciation to be demanded for this achievement . . . But such admiration and positive judgment must be accompanied by this absolute condemnation that completes the dialectical ambivalence we bring to this historical phenomenon. Nor is Wal-Mart wholly oblivious to its own ambivalence; after avoiding journalists altogether for fear of letting damaging facts slip out, its publicity people have come to expect mixed feelings in which the harshest criticism is inevitably accompanied by celebratory concessions. (32)

And so a Walmart Socialism is exactly a place to think new kinds of utopian thoughts, imagine new kinds of planning, mapping, and coordination that economists like Friedrich Hayek deemed impossible apart from the miracle of the market (see Seeley’s When is an economy not an ecosystem for more on Hayek).

As Jameson suggests, thinking Walmart Socialism is not the same as Lenin’s “crude but practical” idea of lopping off capitalistic mutilation “but rather as what Raymond Williams called the emergent, as opposed to the residual–the shape of a utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia” (32).

I would even push Jameson a bit on this, for Walmart has itself emerged not as the destroyer of small business and local economy, but parallel with microbusiness and new forms of local economy. What Walmart destroyed, or at least seriously crippled, were the K-Marts, the Sears, the Toys-R-Us, all those 1970s incarnations of mall stores which were the ones originally destroying the Main Streets and downtowns of the 1950s. Many places with a Walmart have simultaneously seen the florescence of a multitude of boutiques and micro-enterprise, to the extent that these microbusinesses may exist in a paradoxical (dialectical?) inter-dependence. Or, could it be that farmers’ markets are actually made possible by the spaces Walmart has created and left abandoned? I’ve spotted my community supported agriculture farmers at Walmart, and others have considered enlisting Walmart for fair trade campaigns.

It is certainly true that the concentration of resources in the financial sector, the intense disparities of income and wealth, and the triumph of corporations like Walmart are taking humanity and the entire planet to the brink of a scarcely imaginable dystopia. Unlike Lenin, we cannot fix things by simply “lopping off” and going even bigger. But we can re-think this apparatus, using the leverage of financial instruments and the informational-distributional capacities of Walmart to enact a sensible and sustainable future: Walmart Socialism. We are entering a “new world of the multitude, which we are to train ourselves to welcome as the first fresh stirrings of the very storm of utopia” (40).

Updates on Walmart Socialism