Walmart: The New American Company Town

In 21st century America, meet the new town center.

In 21st century America, meet the new “neighborhood”  town center.

Few institutions represent the bloated, socially stratified, natural-environment-degrading, corporation-worshipping, beached on a mile-wide parking-lot corpse that is 21st-century America better than Walmart. The voracious Aspidochelone from Arkansas is not only the current twentieth most valuable brand on Earth, it’s also the largest employer in America, providing dynamic, food-stamp-assisted careers to some 1.3 million people. Unless you’ve been living under a boulder shamelessly draped with the American flag, you know that Walmart has for years been the subject of controversy. For some, it represents the essence of American freedom, to others, it’s the ultimate symbol of the ethically challenged, cheapness-obsessed, soul-degrading state of modern capitalism.

In a fascinating piece for TPM, however, Rachel Monroe argues that for much of rural America, Walmart is something much more: it’s become the new American town square. In much of small-town America, Walmart isn’t an unpleasant shopping reality that locals have the luxury to avoid; rather, it’s the only place where folks can get basic necessities like food, medicine, home supplies, etc. This reality, Monroe notes, is part of the larger Walmart plan, in which the retail giant moves into a town and strangles competing businesses with its cut-to-the-bone prices, notoriously underpayed and disempowered labor force, and final-destination style one-stop shopping. As a result, many small-towners buy everything at Walmart “because there’s nowhere else to buy it.”

But Monroe argues that Walmart is now more than a necessary place to shop. Reporting from the small town of Fort Stockton, Texas, Monroe describes Walmart as the new American “Main Street:” the public center where small-town residents of decades-passed used to congregate, socialize, shop, and host town meetings. In Fort Stockton, life truly revolves around the Walmart. A local school teacher began visiting the store after-hours “just for the novelty of it,” but soon realized that the behemoth warehouse functioned as a sort of town “social hub.” Girl Scouts sell their famously habit-forming cookies at the Walmart, giggling, pint-sized rapscallions amble through its always low-priced-lined corridors, and town residents meet and mingle there every day. The Walmart parking lot is also a social world unto itself. In this pavement-plowed-paradise, truckers find a quiet place to catch some winks, while RV enthusiasts camp out in the most non-wilderness environment possible.

And, of course, the Walmart is still where folks near and far go to stock up on everything from baby clothes to Mother’s Day cupcakes. Indeed, for small-town America, Walmart really is the new “Main Street.”  

In our post-2008 economic crash era, “Main Street” has been touted as the more authentic symbol of communitarian American wholesomeness in comparison to the puppy-eating, orphan-flogging style of hyper-individualistic capitalism practiced on “Wall Street.” But the fact that Walmart is increasingly becoming the new “Main Street” isn’t just a massive, decidedly uncomfortable irony enema, it’s also a development that’s redefining the company town for the 21st century.

The ideal of

The ideal of “Main Street U.S.A.” is so popular that Disneyworld re-created it for all to enjoy in the brain-melting Florida heat.

The idea (and ideal) of Main Street has a long history in American culture. In his book The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community, Miles Orvell argues that Main Street doesn’t just represent a town’s main commercial strip — “the heart of the small town” — it also functions as a symbol of the small town itself. “Main Street encompasses the idea of community,” Orvell writes, “and the term community is another of those words, like Main Street, that compromises both a physical space and an idea of association among people who live there.” For Orvell, “community is most obviously the conjunction of place and people, of the land and human beings.” In American myth and reality, “Main Street,” aka the town square, has functioned as this “conjunction of place and people” — the place where a distinctively individualistic American public, who are nonetheless members of a social species, fulfill their biologically innate need to forge the human bonds that constitute “community.”*

If Walmart really is the new Main Street, however, then it invokes another aspect of America’s past — the company town — and this prospect raises some serious questions about just how much “freedom” Americans actually have.

Company towns reached their zenith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and they were exactly what they sound like. They consisted of usually nameless towns built by, and maintained by, a single company for the purpose of housing and controlling the lives of its workers. In these paternalistic situations that masqueraded as the idealized American small-town existence, the company controlled the stores, the churches, the schools, the houses, the sanitation, and all other forms of infrastructure. In company towns, the company paid its workers in company script (currency), and forced workers to shop at the company store. Thanks to zero outside competition, prices at these company stores were jacked up to the point where workers relied an ever-bloating amounts of debt to purchase goods, thereby becoming utterly enslaved peons to the company that literally dictated every aspect of their lives.

Company towns could be found throughout America. The Carnegie Steel Company built one called McDonald to “serve” workers in Youngstown, Ohio. Other companies such as the Amoskeag textile company of New England, the CF&I coal company of Colorado, and the Pullman Palace Car Company of Illinois built company towns to enslave their workforce and “protect” them from the nefarious influence of labor unions. The southern textile industry was particularly dominated by this practice, as 92 percent of Dixie textile workers’ families lived in company towns by the turn of the century.

It should go without saying that company towns were equivalent to drowning the Bill of Rights in a septic tank, burying its corpse, and then exhuming the corpse for the purpose of unsanctioned medical experiments. Company towns circumscribed freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, hell, freedom of EVERYTHING. But as historian Hardy Green writes in The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy, company towns are both American and anti-American at the same time. “With its vast expanse of virgin land and a government that has generally taken a laissez-faire attitude toward business,” he writes, “the United States has provided a greater opportunity for developing such settlements than other countries.”* Moreover, Green notes that company towns are still around, and cites examples such as the Googleplex in Mountain View, California as the next evolution of a far more benevolent company town.

The Pullman Car company town in Illinois, where workers had the freedom to do anything that the Pullman company told them to do.

The Pullman Car company town in Illinois, where workers had the freedom to do anything that the Pullman company told them to do.

But 21st-century, Walmartized company towns are even more insidious than their blatantly Social Darwinist predecessors. In modern America, the company town poses as a welcoming retreat, where small-town citizens can partake of the wonders of consumer capitalism whilst also fulfilling the historical American need to socialize on Main Street’s town square. Whereas the company towns of the past forced citizens to serve the company, modern company towns entice Americans with the idea that corporations serve the citizenry in a mutually beneficial relationship. This precedent has existed in America before. As the more starry-eyed of antebellum southern slaveholders understood, the most ideal slaves were those who weren’t even aware of their servitude — who believed their servile state to be equally beneficial to themselves and to their “benevolent” masters.

In places like Fort Stockton, Texas, Walmart is helping to reinvent and re-envision the American company town by posing as the low-priced answer to cash-strapped and community-starved America’s problems.

Even if everyone in a modern small town isn’t employed by Walmart, more and more of them are dependent on Walmart. Thus, the notion of choice that is so often touted as fundamental to the symbiotic relationship between capitalism and freedom is, in the case of the Walmart company town, a massive fraud. Dependency on Walmart offers only the illusion of choice. Sure, Sam Walton’s retail Cthulhu offers small-town residents an increasingly vast array of choices when it comes to purchasable goods, but only if those choices come from Walmart. If the emphasis on choice is essential to capitalism’s supposed freedom-flowerinq qualities, then having NO CHOICE but to shop at Walmart is contrary to the very idea of freedom-of-choice.

The Walmart company town presents a false notion of freedom in which human agency is controlled by the dictates of a powerful conglomerate that sets the rules of the market, provides the grounds for (limited) communal association, and limits the options of supposedly sovereign, individual American citizens. If Walmart does represent the new “Main Street;” the new town square; the new company town, then more and more Americans had better get used to always shopping and congregating at the same place, for the same low prices, with the same constrained freedoms. Always.

* See Miles Orvell, The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 4-5.

* See Hardy Green, The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills that Shaped the American Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 3.

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21 Comments

  1. Thanks. A very interesting and thorough examination of an important issue. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox.

  2. I lived in a small Pennsylvania town. When Wal-Mart came, it was “the place” to go; soon, it was the only place – most of Main Street shut down within two years.

    Now, even though I live in a mid-sized North Carolina city, I’m seeing the same thing. We actually rate 2 Wal-Marts with a proposed third.

    We don’t always see eye-to-eye on things (ah, the beauty of discourse!) but on this you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    • Thanks again for reading. Would you mind mentioning what county that PA town was in? I grew up on the OH-PA border, where Walmarts multiply like rabbits, so I’m just curious as to where it is that you’re referencing.

      • Honesdale on the PA-NY border; just about as far north and east as you can get and not be in New York (or the Delaware River).

        • Whelp, that’s totally not where I was thinking about (I had the extreme west of PA in mind, Mercer and the surrounding counties area), but it seems the results are the same.

  3. Very interesting. I must say I agree. I feel that the popular deception is that corporations operate using a predictable model and thus can be curtailed if that is the public desire. This is not the case however, even in communities filled with activists. I think of the town i went to college in, Arcata CA, where most fast food was banned from the city and all of it was kept out of the plaza. The major metropolitan area near Arcata (Eureka) had even begun to adopt some of the policies which Arcata believed to help their local businesses. Students from HSU protested the addition of a Walmart to the Bayside mall for 3 months; then when school was out of session for summer Walmart hopped right in and established itself as an anchor store. This destroyed what few businesses still struggled to survive in the mall leaving little more than a food-court and a Sears to compete.

    I really only hold one contention regarding your article. My opinion is that Walmart is the free market solution. People inevidably choose Walmart over other businesses because they have a brand and massive corporate staff to make their stores more appealing. Walmart doesn’t limit the market, it is the market solution to the inefficiency of small business. It just so happens that this particular type of inefficiency holds the keys to more diverse employment opportunities, higher wages, a sense of community and the American aesthetic.

    • Well put. I guess I would say that we, as a society composed of these smaller communities, like Arcata, reserve the right to regulate the marketplace in order to preserve these “inefficiencies.” But we need to come up with a different jargon. The instant a community’s uniqueness get quantified as “inefficient,” we’re just screwed.

    • Thanks for reading and the very inciteful comment. I would, however, caution against the notion of Walmart being a “market solution,” because it depends on what exactly you mean by “market solution.” It certainly is not a “free-market” solution, since Walmart uses — and has always used — deep political lobbying and connections to shape markets in accordance with the company’s own desires: pressuring for tax incentives, redesigning zoning laws in its favor, re-structuring labor laws in its favor, restructuring trade laws in its favor, etc. Many people “choose” to shop at Walmart because it seems to provide a solution to supposed small business inefficiencies (which do exists, of course, but not always), when in reality the company successfully frames its low prices as a solution to the growing problems of income inequality, the crushing of labor rights, a massive trade imbalance, and a disregard for environmental planning — all of which are problems that Walmart has helped to create. Basically, Walmart makes impoverishment a selling point: people often think it’s the best deal, but that’s only because it’s the only deal, so they make the best of it. Walmart may be a lot of things, but a “free market solution” is iffy.

  4. I live in Arkansas, and when I travel to the southern part of the state, I’ll sometimes see a Wal-mart that is obviously the only option for people to get what they need. There’s nothing for miles around in such places. Just fields of soybeans or whatever. In such places, Wal-Mart makes sense and is even necessary. But in the suburbs, not so much….

    • I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone from going to Walmart. Hell, one of the defining elements of modern capitalism is that you’re always purchasing things from companies/corporations that you know are the very incarnation of evil. No wonder I’m so stressed…

      • “Hell, one of the defining elements of modern capitalism is that you’re always purchasing things from companies/corporations that you know are the very incarnation of evil.”

        It’s been that way since Standard Oil, or maybe the East India Company. You’d think we’d be used to it by now.

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