Why Karl Marx Would Have Loved Walmart
When Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, died in 1992, he bequeathed to a world that had just recently vanquished communism a retailing behemoth the likes of which had never before been seen. His stores, connected to an outsourced, globalized supply chain and linked via the nascent information superhighway to corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., promised to “always” give down-market U.S. consumers low prices – and, by the millions, those consumers flocked to his stores, revolutionizing American retailing, and with it, the world.
Looking back, it’s now clear that this triad of revolutions in the 1990s – the political death of state socialism, the rise of a new breed of low-price retailers like Sam Walton’s Walmart and the birth of information technology have all been key developments in the slow, though by-now obvious reinvigoration of the global left since its nadir at the end of the previous century. Far from reigning triumphant, no-holds-barred capitalism has in fact done little but sow the seeds of its own destruction since rendering its primary ideological competitor to the dust heap of history.
How this occurred is a bit complex, but briefly the story is this. During the Cold War the process that Marx described would be at work in capitalist societies to slowly bring them down was masked by the Cold War. We didn’t see it at the time as most assumed the worker’s paradise Marx prophesied was represented by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China – both immensely poor, technologically backwards dictatorships ruled by a small clique of party bureaucrats. Their failure and subsequent transition to “capitalism” meant, many thought, that Marx had gotten everything completely wrong.
The rule of more
What commentators at the time forgot, however, was that Marxism was ultimately not about the actual implementation of socialism in practice – which Lenin, Stalin and Mao all tried to do – as opposed to the historical process by which one system evolved into another. The end state – what Marx vaguely referred to as ‘socialism’ – wasn’t actually all that important; what mattered was the dynamism of change itself and the social conflict it caused as it shifted wealth and power between classes via the unleashing of technological progress.
Marxism was therefore ultimately a theory about how society evolved over time, what caused it, and what to expect in terms of generalized results. While Marxist theorists used a lot of jargon to describe all this, it can pretty much be distilled down to something you might call ‘the rule of more.’ This rule states that, all things being equal, those technologies and social systems that allow individuals, political actors and organized societies to produce and consume “more” will become dominant to those that don’t.
To see how this works, consider two societies living beside one another. Both are exactly the same except at some point in time one develops an innovation – perhaps it is a technology or a new way of organizing and directing people – that for some reason gives society A an edge over society B. Competition between the two societies – which may or may not be violent – will eventually lead to society B adopting the innovation, else it lose out in wealth, power and prestige to society A.
Where Marx and Marxists got bogged down was in the details of how a productivity-enhancing innovation was adopted – assuming it in all cases required violence. Most believed that since innovation disturbs the status quo, it will be violently opposed by those in power, thus necessitating revolution by the backers of the new, more productive and therefore “progressive” order to oust the vested interests keeping back reform. Once ensconced in power the progressives then become the new vested interests and the cycle repeats itself until, Marx thought, some end state would be achieved where the source of conflict between classes would be ameliorated.
Since capitalism was both a system that was more progressive in terms of producing more for everyone as well as making change come even quicker through the logic of the marketplace – where innovation was quickly adopted by entrepreneurs looking to make a fortune and consumers looking to save a buck – Marx actually saw it as a great thing. The more capitalist the world became, the quicker change would come and, so Marx believed, the faster his prophesied end state would materialize.
The limits of an ideology
So what does this have to do with Walmart? In hindsight, the post-war era that lasted from 1945 to the late 1970s – roughly the golden era many working-class Americans look back upon with longing – was a temporary stasis period in the process of capitalism-induced change that was enforced by geopolitical competition between Washington and Moscow. As the U.S. and the Soviet Union eyed each other warily during this period, the absence of direct conflict between the two allowed both societies – East and West – to run up against the limits of their organizing principles all while the world stood still between them.
In Russia and China, Stalinist socialism was eventually recognized as producing nothing but misery and technological backwardness, while American-led Western capitalism had reached a point where the power of domestic labor was such that it was becoming a burden on the prerogatives of business. The solution for both was to embrace the other, allowing the force of market capitalism to be freed and so once again unleash change on a global scale. The wall came down, modern capitalism quickly expanded into Russia, China and the rest of the developing world, and soon the Brave New World we exist in today was created.
This is where Walmart comes in. Walmart’s promise of “always” offering low prices was premised on using its market position to force suppliers to price their goods competitively. As soon as one manufacturer resorted to using low-wage labor in the developing world to remain competitive, all others were forced to do so or else go out of business. Suddenly, labor-intensive manufacturing flooded out of the United States and the rest of the Western world and into places like China, India and East Asia. Sam Walton’s company didn’t do this alone, of course, but as the biggest, most efficient retailer on the planet Walmart was an integral part of this process and its practices became the industry norm.
With labor cowed in the West, big business, high finance, and the wealthy increased their share of the total economy – particularly in the United States where the share of wealth held by the top one-percent of the population increased to levels not seen since the 1920s. America and the West in general thus became more unequal as global capitalism shifted the balance of social power from labor – which reigned supreme in the postwar era – to capital. In America – which as a country was the vanguard protector of market capitalism – the working class collapsed into penury and debt, the middle-class stagnated, and the rich, as always, got richer.
In the rest of the world the vast increase in wealth and productivity that capitalism unleashed brought forth new challengers to the Western-led global political order. Like imperial Germany before the First World War, a capitalist China enriched by trade with the U.S. and Europe is now penetrating markets and territories traditionally dominated by the West and challenging U.S. pretension to global leadership.
An unsustainable model
This has not only made the West more vulnerable to change, but it has itself set off a scramble for resources in places like Africa and the Middle East that is transforming those societies as well. In Africa, for instance, trade with and investment from China is waking up a continent long written off by Westerners, while in the Middle East, an increase in global commodity prices, particularly for foodstuffs, has led to political chaos, revolution and civil war throughout the region.
What’s more, with globalized capitalism and the corresponding increase in wealth and consumption that go along with it eating into our planet’s ecological systems ever more deeply, it would seem that our insatiable demand for more is threatening the viability of the biosphere itself. From global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels to the destruction of oceans from overfishing, mankind’s impact on the Earth is becoming ever more unsustainable – meaning the current model of capitalism cannot, and will not, go on forever.
All this is occurring, moreover, just as the information technology revolution that first linked up Sam Walton’s stores in the 1990s is truly coming to fruition. What Walmart did to its competition, Amazon is now doing to Walmart — and Walmart and other retailers are responding in kind by eliminating workers and training their customers to use automatic, self-checkout kiosks – thus reducing labor costs even further. Where these companies go, others will follow, especially as automation, robots and computer artificial intelligence gets better and better – something that will no doubt occur precisely due to the aforementioned ‘rule of more.’ It is, quite frankly, inevitable, already occurring and deepening the chasm between society’s winners and losers.
Something, somewhere, will eventually have to give, and the 2007-08 financial collapse and the political unrest sweeping the Middle East is just a hint of what might be around the corner as societies across the world come to terms with the reality of increasing economic inequality, ecological catastrophe, and the steady elimination of labor as a meaningful component of production. Chaos and turmoil is what this will create, all caused by too much change happening much too quickly. It’s revolutionary future-shock, as it were, brought to you by market capitalism – just as Marx predicted.
So take heart, leftists. The change being wrought around the world and here at home is just getting started and offering up opportunities for leftist politics the likes of which have not been seen for a generation. If they were alive today, Marx, Mao and all the other radical opponents of capitalism might now be shopping at Walmart due to the devastating impact this company – and the mode of production behind it – has had on the existing social order. To hell with general strikes and guerrilla revolutions, they might say; true change, it would seem, stems from the barrel of a pricing gun.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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