Arts & Entertainment : Book Review
By Bell Clement • March 10, 2006
Even in a nation of shoppers whose most pressing metaphysical question is “Where’s my stuff?” the dominance of big-box retailer Wal-Mart is a jaw-dropper. The Arkansas-born-and-bred enterprise is now the 30th-largest economy in the world, China’s sixth-largest export market, Bangladesh’s most important customer, and Mexico’s largest private employer. On a single recent day, Wal-Mart had sales larger than the yearly gross domestic products of 36 sovereign nations combined. Contributors to Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, a collection of essays from historians and sociologists, hope to show that this five-and-dime Leviathan has plunged us into a new hyper-retail dystopia in which big-box colossi stalk the globe, muscling aside anti-sprawl ordinances and fair-labor standards. And indeed, evidence suggests that an enterprise of Wal-Mart’s scale does create its own economic force field, dampening wages and distorting manufacturers’ prices and market access wherever it goes. But as an essay by Susan Strasser explains, Sam Walton’s homespun empire is really just the latest in a fine old American tradition of consolidation and squeeze. Wal-Mart genealogy traces back to the late 19th century, to Frank Woolworth’s cost-control innovations and Richard Sears’ popularizing of mail order, and to the 20th-century explosion of discount houses and chain stores. Even before our own age of retailer giantism, centrally coordinated businesses pushed aside independent merchants and replaced locally based enterprises with national corporations. Market-watchers have been keening over the corpse of the small-town independent entrepreneur for generations. The truth of the matter, argues contributor Bethany E. Moreton, is that Wal-Mart is a success exactly because its managers have latched on to—and are sucking the life out of—traditional red-state values. The corporation’s HR practices succeed...
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