Walmart: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism

I came across a blog a while back that argued that Walmart’s size and distribution has put them in a state-like position vis-a-vis their workers, the communities in which their stores are based, and the regulation of their distributors. When you think about it, there’s a strong congruity between communist architecture and Sam’s Club chic. Can’t find the blog now, but I’m interested in the parallels.

1. Many of the objections that people have to Walmart are actually objections that we would levy at states. For instance, when Walmart won’t sell a book or cd for ideological reasons, we call it censorship. No one calls it censorship when a mom-and-pop bookstore won’t sell politically or sexually-charged media.

2. Walmart is really quite big: 1.4 million employees in the US alone. So they’re hell-bent on restricting worker unionization, of course. (In much the same way that the Soviet Union dissolved all independent worker’s councils….) Much like the classically totalitarian models of socialism, Walmart imposes burdensome restrictions from their workers, or even extorts labor from them.

3. Like all powerful institutions, Walmart seems to be more agnostic than evil. Without any guiding principles but profit and growth, its power is used both to enslave and to free. The size of its labor base and its distribution across the country means that their treatment of laborers almost automatically becomes the national standard. Why join the army, for instance, if you can make the same money working for Walmart? That’s also why the minimum wage arguments are mostly fluff: Walmart already pays almost twice the national minimum. In addition, Walmart takes significant losses when even their poor health coverage is taxed by rising health care costs. Because of this, they seem to be advocating nationalized health care, at least for the nation’s poor (i.e. their workers.) They’ll fight tirelessly to externalize their costs… but that means sharing the burden of poverty with the rest of the country… not such a bad thing.

4. Because of their marketshare, Walmart can regulate industries singlehandedly, by setting contractual standards for its distributors. Take Chilean salmon:

“Wal-Mart buys so much salmon that if it imposed and enforced a set of standards on how salmon was to be raised, and how salmon workers were to be treated, salmon farming and processing companies would need to comply, either to keep Wal-Mart’s business or to stay competitive. And because the volume of purchasing is so high, and because Chile is driving to further expand the supply of farmed salmon, the improved conditions for both the salmon and the people would not cause much of an increase in the price of a pound of salmon in the seafood case.”

They did just that. In February 2006. they made a small change to their supply chain. Now, they won’t buy any salmon uncertified by the Marine Stewardship Council. (MSC site)

5. Walmart can jumpstart an industry, if it chooses. Take solar panels and wind power. By making a substantial purchase of solar panels for all its facilities, Walmart could break through the economy of scale problem and finally bring sustainable power into the reach of the average consumer. As Joel Makower puts it,

“If they follow through, it will be profound and will have a long-lasting impact on the global solar industry.”

On the other hand, they’re not going to stick with technologies that aren’t ready for the marketplace. So with wind turbines, there might not be much feasability at this level:

Now it’s testing wind power in the Colorado store. So far, it’s been a failure. “It might be our familiarity with the equipment,” admits Mosley. “When they break, they break pretty good before we realize it.” The company hasn’t abandoned wind power yet but isn’t blown away by it, either.

The bottom line is that they see themselves “as an aggregator of carbon.” Where there’s profit to be made in going green, they’ll do it.

6. By the way, in researching this entry, I came across a number of proposals from the American National Socialist Worker’s Party, who advocate:

“the nationalization of Walmart…[and] all companies who have betrayed the United States and its white working class.”

Yikes. You’ll get no linkage from me, but I thought it was a bit disappointing to discover these results already out there, discrediting the meme with racist hate.

My point is just the opposite: there’s no reason to nationalize a greedy corporation like this, because they’re actually nationalizing themselves, willingly. Sure, eventually they’re going to need to unionize, and more oversight and regulation at the government level is always better when it comes to safety, labor, consumer protection, and environmental practices. But as Walmart get its hooks further into the American economy, its success becomes inextricable from the success of the country. If Walmart devalues the dollar, its own profits become less valuable. If it drives us into a recession by slowing the growth of wages, it’ll sell less and make less profits. As goes the American Dream, so goes Walmart… and as tough and mean and cunning as these bastards are, they’re not bad allies. I’d rather have them with us than against us.





4 responses to “Walmart: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism”

  1. Toni Avatar

    Prof. V. was making a similar point in the research I was doing for him…big companies like this are taking on a role through private contracting regarding environmental matters that states are unwilling or unable to take on:

  2. LostInDaJungle Avatar

    Because Person A does something that Socialist B does does not make Person A a socialist.

    There are no examples of pure socialism and/or pure capitalism, and you have used terrible examples to try and make some facetious link.

    The USA, a capitalist country pays out farm subsidies and has public education. China pays out farm subsidies and has public education, is China therefore capitalist?

    You teach philosophy and aren't aware of the logical fallacy you present here? This is called "Affirming the consequent".

    1. Joshua Avatar

      It is, in many ways, a facetious or playful argument, starting with the title's reference to the claim that "a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's not a serious claim, because the most serious distinction is in accountability, which I think I make clear in my post.

      That said, there are similarities worth considering, and Marx himself sometimes suggested that capitalism must first accumulate ownership in the hands of a monopoly before the workers appropriate the means of production, so I don't think I'm that far off in proposing that's there's something quasi-socialist in Wal-mart's growth. Socialist states have struggled with transportation and distributional problems precisely because of their emphasis on production and consumption, so I don't think I'm off in suggesting that supply-chain mastery and superior logistics in a necessary step in the development of our hoped-for utopia.

  3. […] course, I’ve long been a [cautious, caveated] Walmart booster, just check out “Walmart: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism.” I’d change a few things I wrote back then, but the point basically stands. Most […]

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