Utopia-Dystopia - Walmart Socialism

Walmart Socialism: The Storm of Utopia & New Worlds


At the end of the 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, an attempt to make the big contribute to the little, to provide a massive jobs stimulus directed at reducing resource use and enacting a radically more sustainable future. The point is to combine the Keynesian stimulus Paul Krugman fights for with the kind of infrastructure projects which will enable reductions in resource use and sustainability. It 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 that attempt, 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 we hear in our part of the woods, 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?”

It is therefore intriguing that just after Lenin on big banks is where Jameson develops his thoughts on Walmart Socialism, elaborating on that intriguing footnote I’ve been using, and the very reason I began writing the post on expropriating big banks:

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, a now apparently anachronistic relic of the 1970s, is re-converted through computers and the internet into an information-laden tracking system; “containerization as a revolution in transport” (31); and how 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).


Please share!Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone
  • Pingback: The Great Abdication - adding green jobs to Krugman()

  • Jeremy Trombley

    Fantastic post, Jason! On the issue of personal purity:
    It’s not that those methods – stop driving cars, use CFL bulbs, buy local and sustainable, etc. – are not effective. If everyone were to do them, then we’d have a much more sustainable (though not perfect) world, no doubt about it. The problem, and I’ve argued something similar in the past, is that when I do those things, it’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference. I can go and buy CFL bulbs and use them in every light in my house (and I do), but that act doesn’t significantly alter the relationships that make people use energy in an unsustainable way. As you say, we ought to work for systemic change – not really the words I would use, but the point is the same. Instead of simply buying and using CFLs for ourselves, we need to work to encourage others to do the same and to make it easier and desirable to do so, and often we need to work together to do this.

    • Hi Jeremy,
      Thank you for the comment and glad you liked the post! It seemed to resonate with some of the themes of your Struggle Forever, especially when Jameson discusses utopia more as a method than an arrival. It is

      a prodigious effort to change the valences on phenomena that so far exist only in our own present and experimentally to declare positive things that are clearly negative in our own world, to affirm that dystopia is in reality utopia if examined more closely, to isolate specific features in our empirical present so as to read them as components of a different system. (2012:42)

      And just as a note on purity, you haven’t gone to LEDs? 🙂

  • I agree with Jeremy, this is a great post. What you’re pointing out though is that Walmart, in some sense, works at a higher level of economies of scale than competing large-scale retailers. That is, Walmart crushes other retailers who use economies of scale, but with less efficiency or reach (the other big-box stores that go out of business).
    However, as you so rightly point out, NOT every business or sector of economic activity is susceptible to this same dynamic. Some products are not Walmart-able. Ironically, some of these same products may have been susceptible to the ‘economies’ of slightly smaller (or not so slightly) big-box retailers. For example, the wide range of tools at a Home Depot or (here in Australia) Bunnings is not going to get carried at Walmart, so if Walmart wipes out the big box home hardware stores, the lower-level niche re-opens.
    It’s a great point, and you’re so right — in ways I’ve never thought about — it’s the technology of Walmart that could make possible a more open market (I’m thinking of the way eBay uses technology to make P2P transactions possible). Of course, Walmart’s very much an old-school capitalism when it comes to treatment of workers, substitution of technology for human capital, etc.
    Great post though, Jason. Wish I was still teaching economic anthropology so that I could assign it to students!

    • Thanks Greg for the great comment! Didn’t realize you had some economic anthropology teaching up your sleeve. Jameson of course does “hasten to assure the reader that I do not mean to celebrate Wal-Mart, let alone to forecast the emergence of anything good and progressive from this astonishing new postmonopoly institution” (2012:41). However, it is interesting to think through other conditions of possibility and alternative futures.

  • Very nice post!. You offer a compelling image. I am eager to read the pieces by Jameson that you cite. Mentioning an article that one has written always feels a bit like self promotion to me, but while reading this, I couldn’t help think about the way it gives me a new perspective on work that I did a few years back in Walmart stores in China. I observed that the corporate culture of the stores expressed a kind of “utopian capitalism” that relied on many strategies that evoked past Communist/Maoist styles. In fact, there was a rumor circulating at Walmart stores in China during my fieldwork period that Sam Walton had studied the thought of Chairman Mao for five years before he opened his first Walmart store! http://museumfatigue.org/2011/12/29/walmart-in-china/
    I’m looking forward to checking out this book. Thanks!

    • Hi David,
      Thank you for a fascinating comment! The rumor about Walton and Mao is just too good. And thank you for the alert on your blog-post and book contribution. I’ve put that into my anthropology book update and look forward to reading more!

    • Nick Copeland

      David, you shouldn’t worry about self-promotion–your Wal-Mao work should be more widely read. It’s really fascinating.

  • Pingback: Anthropology Book Update - July 2012 | Anthropology Report()

  • Pingback: The Headline We Should be Reading: Anthropology Changed Everything()

  • Pingback: Amazon Anthropology - Promoting Anthropology Blogs | Anthropology Report()

  • Nick Copeland

    Great post! I especially like your conclusion “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.” We all need to be thinking creatively about how to make a new world out of the wreckage of the old.
    Interestingly, perhaps disturbingly, Wal-Mart makes a similar argument for itself as part of their new sustainability initiatives, not to transition to socialism, however, but to make capitalism sustainable into the future. They also use green, not surprisingly, to rebrand and respond to critique. This is the topic of “Force of Nature: Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution” by Edward Humes, who sees this as a “plan to save the world”. Since their post-Katrina heroics, they have presented themselves as a free market solution to social problems created by the free market. The problem with Wal-Mart’s efficiency and ability to scale up, however, is that it is based primarily on squeezing labor costs, and leveraging their monopsony (single buyer) power to get the lowest price from their vendors, causing their suppliers to squeeze labor more, and cut more environmental corners, on and on through the supply chain.

    • Hi Nick,
      Thank you for stopping by and very important points here. As I’ve often found from reading Jameson, I’m invigorated by the analysis but then left somewhat puzzled on practical matters. How to imagine, or if a sustainable Wal-Mart, coming from corporate headquarters, is possible or simply delaying-disrupting what might be better possibilities–difficult to say. My latest thoughts, over at my other blog and a Local Economy Manifesto is that in the short term we have to push as much as possible for work that would reduce long-term resource use. This idea that we may be approaching a “planetary tipping point” is quite disturbing.

  • Pingback: The Meaning of Oyaron: Reanimating College as Strategic Animism()

  • Pingback: Farmers and Foodies of the Future (FFF)()

  • Pingback: Expropriate Goldman-Sachs: Jumpstart a Green Economy()