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 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.
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.