Market Populism at Wal Mart
I'm in the midst of working on a project about the relationship between "the people" in the American political imaginary and how they've come to be selfsame with the product of collective choice i.e. the judgments of the market. My last blog post here looked at the specter of consumerism in a famous Ronald Reagan campaign ad, “Morning in America.” Some of the dynamics I identified there can actually be viewed today, albeit in a slightly different way in the practices of the Walmart corporation. Indeed, between their decision to purchase the cheapest good available regardless or labor conditions and their well-documented mistreatment of their own labor, Walmart is something of an easy target for progressive activists and political pundits alike, Thomas Frank repeatedly mentions Walmart repeatedly in his 2005 essay “What’s the Matter With Liberals?” when he complains that centrist Democrats refuse to challenge large corporations like the Arkansas-based retail giant, choosing instead to benefit from the resulting corporate fundraising. More recently, Walmart came under fire for a few different issues in the spring of 2013. A CNBC report from April detailed that customers were frustrated with their shopping experience at Walmart, as cuts made to staffing created extensive stocking and customer service issues.[i] The report also noted that in order to avoid running afoul of labor laws Walmart was forcing employees to work off the clock in order to increase efficiency. Forbes’ Rick Ungar linked these practice to decline’s in Walmart’s profits, suggesting that there was a correlation between companies like CostCo that pay their employees a living wage and a positive shopping and consumer experience.[ii] The Washington Post’s Harold Myerson picked up on these observations, noting this uptick in criticism came even as Walmart opened more stores while cutting down on the overall number of people employed in its businesses. It also uses this business model throughout its supply chain, resulting in a situation where:
Problem is, the Wal-Mart model of employment and service not only reflects but also reinforces the declining economic prospects of the majority of Americans. The nation’s largest private-sector employer has used its market power to impose its low-wage model all along its supply chain, leaving millions of Americans with no shopping option other than the kind of discount, and frustrating, experience that Wal-Mart provides.[iii]
At the same time that people like Myerson were issuing high profile critiques of the company, a disaster at a Bangladeshi factory tied to the corporation made visible the high costs of its labor practices on the population abroad, threatening to link American consumption practices to unacceptable violence elsewhere. Time magazine reported that the cost of Walmart’s cheap products was at least 386 deaths in addition to another 122 at a separate facility just a year before.[iv]
Critics were taking aim at the negative consequence’s of Walmart’s policies that aimed to cut costs and increase profits. Offshoring production, playing shell games with employee hours, and imposing conditions throughout their supply chain—remember, Walmart is the biggest corporate employer in America—create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy wherein Walmart’s low-cost, “no frills” model emerges as a necessary evil for scores of American consumers. In response Walmart turned to market populism as a strategy for managing the criticism.
Walmart launched an ad campaign called “The Real Walmart.” The campaign featured three videos corresponding to three different aspects of the company, including the benefits it provides for consumers, its employees, and its hyper-efficient supply chain. Each ad seeks to humanize a different element of the Walmart business model. The first advertisement called “Real Walmart Shoppers” focuses on the benefits for consumers. It emphasizes the size of Walmart’s customer base—60% of the shopping American public—and figures these consumers as particular representatives of the American whole. Not for nothing does the advertisement open with a black man who calls himself an “American success story” before a multiracial and dual-gender parade of bodies get a few seconds each in front of the camera to run through their occupations: firefighters, accountant, engineer, teacher. These occupations correspond neatly with those on display in the old Reagan campaign video, which shows firefighters and teachers, and of course various generic white-collar workers on their way to the office. The advertisement emphasizes the consumer savvy of those who shop at Walmart, locating in the gap between the Walmart price and the (assumed) higher price from another vendor the economic acumen of the average American citizen. The decision to shop at Walmart becomes an expression of the market savvy of the American population, wherein less spending on one thing creates opportunities for thoughtful purchasing in others. What Myerson’s article suggests is the effect of coercion—a reduction in the available options for purchasing—is instead figured as an expression of the popular will. Of course for many Americans they “choose” to shop at Walmart inasmuch as it’s the only option available for them, and in many cases this is because they work at some other company who is a subsidiary of Walmart or works on a similar business model so to call it a choice stretches credulity.
While the first ad establishes the democratic bonafides of the decision to shop at Walmart, the second ad opens with a young black man who works at Walmart and who proudly proclaims “I’m the next American success story.” The advertisement then lays out a host of possible opportunities within the infrastructure of Walmart: management, engineering, and several other related areas where Walmart gives its employees college credits. Rather than appearing as exploited labor, the protagonist says of those who observe him on the job that, “When they see me, I hope they see someone working their way up.” The present is not a matter of actually existing injustice but instead is figured as a temporary stopping point before a future of possibility and professional growth, not to mention financial enrichment. Not for nothing he notes that he receives a bonus when sales are good, suggesting that critiquing Walmart and its labor practices is to actually take issue with and threaten the livelihood of "the next American success story."
The third advertisement focuses on Walmart’s highly efficient supply chain, regulary drawing on language of eliminating inefficiency. Again using the language of an “American success story” the ad features lots of images of trucks, tractors, and their drivers, emphasizing the human and machinic elements at the heart of Walmart. Employing imagery that belies an odd fetish for the mechanical, the short ad closes with the following statement, that “When you see our low prices, remember the wheels turning behind the scenes delivering for millions of Americans everyday.” By encouraging consumers to be semioticians, this third ad completes the equation of market populism set up by the first two: behind each price lay a in separate elements the fingers on the invisible hand, where consumer choice, employee labor, and an efficient supply chain meet in a coincident point. Because there is no temporal element to the narrative, each of these factors plays into the production of the commodity equally in terms of their form: at the same moment that the consumer makes the right choice, they are providing a benefit for the young black employee in the form of increased sales, at the same time that they themselves are demonstrating their economic sophisticated by producing savings that they can move to other areas even as the efficient supply chain in part makes it possible. At each level the economy is humanized: truck and tractor drivers, the cosmopolitan and multiracial makeup of the Walmart consumer base, and the potential-laden black youth demonstrate that Walmart is "people" not some space of exploitation. Not for nothing are we reminded of Mitt Romney's easy proclamation that "corporations are people."
“The people” are a rhetorical resource available not only for their use as a spearhead in an attack of the regulatory structure of the welfare state. Indeed, “the people” authorize attacks upon those who would seek to criticize the existing arrangements of power as they exist within the economy itself. This market populism makes each part of a commercial transaction—production, sales, and purchase—into human moments that express the competence and value of the American public. To take issue with the product of these judgments which in this case is the central position in the market held by Walmart is thus to disagree with the marvelous product of the American “people.” As a Forbes article that reported on the campaign said in its headline, “Its About Time Walmart Waged an Ad Campaign Like This One” people need “to understand the tremendous net positive that Walmart remains for the American economy.”[v] In a way this move seems unnecessary: shouldn’t the very public who “decides” to shop at Walmart already know the facts that the advertisement wants to disseminate? The need for the campaign itself demonstrates that the trappings of populism are cynical indeed.
Moreover, the Walmart campaign suggests an update to Patton’s thesis discussed previously about the threat posed to the silent majority by the racial and sexual Other and the State. It is not just the figure of the queer person or the black male who threatens to “penetrate” the silent majority, but in fact it is the generalized threat of the possibility of there being some judgment external to “the people” and, seemingly, external to the economy. In the same way that the state threatens to distort the truth of the market, so too does external criticism of the market threaten "the people's" integrity by indicting their choices as complicit in injustice. Where we are generally led to believe that what the market is good because it is a reflection of a complicated aggregation of choices that, on balance, tend towards the better, what does it means for this tacit economic populism if its results are actually net negative? While the advertising series does not engage in a proper rehearsal of objections and their refutation, certainly its routine insistence on pointing to an abstracted but positive existence enabled by Walmart—whether the future career of the young black worker or the other savvy consumer choices of its customers—suggests that these complaints with Walmart are temporary while the future of both customers and employees lies elsewhere, with a future in engineering or the adjustment of resources into more vital areas as told by a sovereign American vox populi.
The individuated collective is made manifest in this campaign. Elsewhere I have attempted to show that the individuated collective is a modern rhetoric of conservative populism wherein the collective element of appeals to "the people" is maintained while in practice the only shared element common to the population is the fact of their individual differentiation from one another. While there are a variety of human inputs into Walmart, each of them arrives at one shared point which is the moment of consumer choice. Whether teacher, firefighter, trucker, or Walmart employee, what holds “the people” together is that they can each express themselves equally through their choice to either consume or work at Walmart. Their right to do is established through defenses of efficiency, choice, and ultimately competence: shopping or working at Walmart maximizes utility and efficiency. In this way a typical paradox of political populism—namely that “the people” by being multivariate and many do not possess any kind of unity that would come along with a collective name—is displaced if not resolved through the suggestion that the shared element is participation in the choice that is reflected in where the market settles. Hence to attack actually existing arrangements of economics is to attack “the people” in their one moment of supposed appearance within the realm of the public, insofar as “the people” can be found not as an entity in the world but instead in these moments of judgment that reflect their will. Hence market populism’s hostility to claims made on the basis of labor and social justice is a move to insulate the naturalized economy from criticism on the basis of that criticism's emergence from a site outside the place of populism. Given our tendency to emphasize the democratic rather than republican elements of our politics in our political discourse, this explains in part the staying power of these version of market populism despite the "contradictions" pointed out by Thomas Frank and other critics who wonder loudly why Americans continue to "vote against their interests." They are not, it seems voting against their interests: they and the economy are inseparable in the rhetoric of modern market populism.