Is Walmart Utopia? Restated, might Walmart serve as a contemporary model for a post-capitalist future society? Both formulations of the question sounds equally absurd. Few people actively champion Walmart, and almost no one would depict it as their ideal place. Indeed, according to a recent survey it is “the most-hated retailer in America.”[i] This is not exactly a new sentiment, but nevertheless in Valences of the Dialectic, Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson looked to Walmart for “the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist.”[ii] Pressing into the power of the dialectic to reconcile with inherent contradiction, Jameson argued that it was possible to look past Walmart’s failings for the seeds of its utopian potential. If you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll discuss Jameson’s utopian recuperation of Walmart and look at its potential inversions. Taking Jameson’s Valences and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspirations, I’ll attempt to trace the crystalized phantasmagoria of post-Fordist capitalism. I’ll ask–what is our contemporary analogue to the Parisian shopping malls of the nineteenth century? Put differently, I’ll try and liberate the dreams of an escape from capitalism that can be found paradoxically imbedded in the heart of certain capitalist structures. But first we’ll look into the dystopian “mist” that clings to Walmart.
Many people shopping at Walmart on any given day do so with deeply conflicted feelings about the store. [iii] This ambivalence – or more precisely this knotted mess of classism, social conscience, self-loathing, and reverse halo effect – can also be seen in the popular genre of photos taken by Walmart shoppers that mock those that shop at Walmart (I’ve chosen one of the less inflammatory images check out peopleofwalmart.com for more). Plus, we’ve probably all heard more serious criticisms, such as:
“a new Wal-Mart drives local businesses under and reduces available jobs; Wal-Mart’s own jobs scarcely pay a living wage, offer no benefits or health insurance; the company is anti-union (except in China); it hires illegal immigrants and increasingly emphasizes part-time work; it drives American business abroad and also itself promotes sweat shops and child labor outside the country; it is ruthless in its practices (mostly secret), exercises a reign of terror over its own suppliers, destroys whole ecologies abroad and whole communities here in the US, it locks its own employees in at night, etc.”[iv]
In summary, Walmart has been seen as the paradigmatic example of unfair labor practices, the excesses of corporate environmental devastation, exploitative globalization, exacerbating political corruption, and the general tendency for capitalism to amplify wealth inequality.[v] Walmart has also been condemned for driving down average wages for Americans as a whole in order to vault a single-family to extremes of affluence.[vi] Walmart easily sounds downright dystopian. Given that it is the single biggest private employer in the world, it might be enough to demonstrate what is wrong with capitalism by pointing to Walmart and stopping there. But this would be too easy. It might lead the reader to think that reforming (or boycotting) one company would be enough to escape the negative cost of the system.
So at risk of giving the reader whiplash, I want to skim through the possible utopian seeds of Walmart before reversing the operation on Apple (Walmart’s mirror-image). One of the utopian seeds that Jameson wants to extract is Walmart’s “capacity to reduce inflation and to hold down or even lower prices and to make life affordable for the poorest Americans.”[vii] Jameson is also interested in imagining a structural inversion of Walmart’s power over the global system and how something like it could be harnessed for positive global change. But one could also make the case for Walmart’s utopian potential with reference to the television comedy My Name is Earl. In an episode late in season one (EP19 “Y2K”), Earl and his friends mistakenly think that they are living through an apocalypse and they move into an unnamed Walmart stand-in. Once the protagonists have ironed out their imagined political system, the result is utopian because of their shared access to the sheer plentitude of consumer goods. This is as though to say Walmart would be paradise (for at least some) if one could have all the products without their attendant costs to the individual or the system. This is less farfetched because if anything Walmart has skillfully figured out how to maximally drive down costs.
But instead of exploring this particular version of utopia, I want to do another about-face. If Walmart is the poster child for the despised face of global capitalism (a position that used to be reserved for McDonalds), it might seem that the Apple Store is its inverse. If the coming of a new Walmart is often picketed for its effect on the community, the arrival of an Apple store is often celebrated. If it is an embarrassment to be identified as a Walmart shopper, celebrities and fans willingly celebrate their connection to Apple and its products. The class valences of all this are also clear. I could go on lining up examples. But the main point is that Apple Store is the adored face of global capitalism. But these two companies are less different than they might at first appear. To be clear, I’m not arguing that Walmart and Apple identical. Before I get flamed in the comments, I should say I’m an “Apple fanboy” and I’m typing this on a MacBook. I think Apple generally makes wonderful products. And the company has much to commend it—Tim Cook is one of the first openly gay CEOs on the Fortune 500. Al Gore serves on Apple’s board of directors. Apple treats its (at least American) employees reasonably well. It has a better environmental record than many. When it lobbies it generally does so for progressive causes, and so on. By some measures Apple seems to be a model company. But we can still invert Jameson’s Walmart operation and pierce Apple’s symbolic resonance or brand halo. If the horrors of global capitalism are the “mist” that obscures Walmart’s utopian potential, it is precisely its utopian mist (I know that sounds like an air-freshener) that prevents us from seeing Apple’s position in the system of global capitalism. We’ll get to this mist in a moment, but first it is worth noting that we could lineup analogues between criticisms of Walmart and Apple. Apple too has been accused of exploitative labor.
In particular, the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China that manufacture many of Apple’s signature products have been portrayed as quasi-slave labor in which underpaid employees live in factory dormitories, spending their waking hours assembling products in massive shifts under the vigilant eyes of guards.[viii] As Ross Perlin describes it:
“As China’s largest private employer, Foxconn is more careful than most, but the company has a long rap sheet. Reports have uncovered repeated instances of required, excessive, and unpaid overtime. Management style and training are “military style,” says Chan, with talking forbidden on some factory floors and certain forms of corporal punishment, common in China, considered acceptable. Production targets are raised regularly without corresponding wage increases. It is not unusual for workers to be on the production line all but two or three days of a month, ten or eleven days in a row. Many workers live eight to a room in the dorms… Unsafe conditions are pervasive in Chinese factories, and Apple’s supply chain has been no exception.”[ix]
For a while suicides were rampant at Foxconn and there were complaints of child labor and even beatings of employees.[x] Moreover, environmental groups have charged Apple’s Chinese suppliers of dumping toxic chemicals and contributing to the heavy metal contamination in surrounding communities.[xi] International scrutiny has led to some improvement in working conditions at Foxconn and increasing environmental regulation, but there is evidence that Foxconn working conditions are still pretty terrible . Moreover, even leaving Foxconn aside there is little doubt that Apple amplifies wealth inequality. So while the average Foxconn employee cannot afford a single MacBook, Apple is currently worth more than $760 billion, a staggering amount that makes it more valuable than the entire GDP of Sweden. So again we have the core corporate capitalist trifecta of environmental damage, exploitative labor, and increasing wealth inequality. Plus, if you were wondering, Apple could almost purchase Walmart with cash on hand alone.[xii] Again, I’m not saying that Apple as bad as Walmart (much less as bad as its competitors, see “Supplier for Samsung and Lenovo accused of Using Child labor“). But Apple’s sense of responsibility stops at its immediate supply chain and for reasons of scale alone it can’t help but be enmeshed in the larger system. So a dystopian reading of Apple is always possible.
The larger point is not about a particular company. What this shows is that part of the way that capitalism holds on is by way of the “brand aura” or utopian mist by which it enshrouds itself. This is not a new realization. Writing about the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century, Walter Benjamin observed:
“Corresponding to the form of the new means of production, which in the beginning is still ruled by the form of the old (Marx), are images in the collective consciousness in which the new is permeated with the old. These images are wish images; in them the collective seeks both to overcome and to transfigure the immaturity of the social product and the inadequacies in the social organization of production. At the same time, what emerges in these wish images is the resolute effort to distance oneself from all that is antiquated—which includes, however, the recent past. These tendencies deflect the imagination (which is given impetus by the new) back upon the primal past. In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history—that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society-as stored in the unconscious of the collective- engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.”[xiii]
Although I could spend all day riffing on this paragraph, what is important for current purposes is Benjamin’s intuition that commercial spaces simultaneously contain phantasmagoria or incarnate dreams of both the idealized future and lost pre-capitalist past. Without necessarily reading Benjamin, theorists of advertising too have discovered that “that utopian appeals are used just as frequently as sex appeals” in contemporary advertising.[xiv] Advertisers know the power of utopia and they exploit it. Part of the way that we are seduced into making a purchase is often by means of a narrative transportation to an idealized world whose aura rubs off on the product. So it would seem that Benjamin was right in this respect and it is often remarked that his arcades were proto-shopping malls.[xv] But our era’s analogue to the Parisian arcade is not the Mall of America, but the Apple Store. As I’ll be exploring over this series of posts, Apple embodies the contradictions of our period’s new order of Post-Fordist labor. Accordingly it is to Apple Stores that we must look for our collective dreams of utopian future.
What would an Arcades project of the Apple Store look like? What dreams does it capture? What utopia does it parasite upon? What dialectical contradictions does it apprehend? I don’t have time to fully elaborate here. But it has often been observed that Apple has drawn design inspiration from Science Fiction (like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Apple’s famous 1984 advertisement). Looked at with this in view a few features jump out:
- Apple Stores are typically designed in minimalist shapes. They reflect product design sensibilities amplified in macro (brushed metallic surfaces) as though one is entering into internals of a MacBook.
- Apple Stores often repurpose the semi-derelict structures of the older economy, drawing on and reimagining nostalgia for a cleaned up industrial past of bare steel, brick, and concrete. Even when placed in an American shopping mall, they are demarked off from other spaces of consumption, like cloaked science fiction spaceships.
- There are no traditional cash registers, as though denying that a capitalist transaction is in process.
- By hiding the extra stock and most of the product packaging from sight, Apple Stores produce a sense of endless supply.
- The employees and “Geniuses” are positioned as brand emissaries, selling the lifestyle of luxury consumption, while simultaneously appearing like the bridge crew of a starship.
In sum, the Apple Store projects itself as a futurist utopian bubble paradoxically removed from the ordinary space-time of contemporary capitalism. It might as well be a TARDIS.[xvi] In some posts down the road we’ll try and narrow down the utopian dreams it resonates with. In the next blog-post, I’ll aim to go further to pierce the surface of contemporary capitalism’s utopian surface and to explore the depths of the dystopian heart of global capitalism. But by way of foreshadowing, it is worth noting that the Apple Store resembles a delicatessen insofar as it works to completely obscure the origins of the product it provides—it is as though you want to buy meat but you don’t want to know is where it came from….
References (incomplete). [i] Catey Hill, “4 Reasons Walmart is the most-hated retailer in America” Market Watch, Feb 21, 2015. [ii] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p.423. [iii] “The conflicted shoppers—15 percent in Oklahoma City—actively dislike Wal-Mart because of its impact on communities, wages, and jobs. But by a wide margin, they are the second most frequent shoppers at the store—they go more than once a week (5.6 visits in a month), and they spend nearly as much at Wal-Mart as the champions—$289 a month. Conflicted Wal-Mart shoppers spend three times as much money at Wal-Mart as those the study called enthusiasts, and they go to Wal-Mart nearly six times as often. The conflicted folks, who were “very Wal-Mart negative,” are actually more enthusiastic shoppers than the enthusiasts.” Fishman, The Wal-Mart Effect, p. 220 [iv] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p.420. [v] Mitchell “Walmart’s greenwash: Why the retail giant is still unsustainable,” Grist. [vi] “The Low‐Wage Drag on Our Economy: Wal‐Mart’s low wages and their effect on taxpayers and economic growth” PDF. Clearly a partisan study intended to make the case for increasingly the national minimum wage, but useful nevertheless and at least partially backed up by other research (see Dube et al, “A Downward Push: The Impact of Wal-Mart Stores on Retail Wages and Benefits.” PDF). According to some estimates the Walton family has about $175 billion so that is 6 people worth about 41.5% of all American families depending on your definition of wealth (see Inequality, exhibit A: Walmart and the wealth of American families.) [vii] Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p.421. [viii] Perlin, Ross (2013). “Chinese Workers Foxconned.” Dissent 60 (2): 49–52. [ix] Perlin 2013, 48-9. [x] See http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/12/19/life-inside-foxconns-facility-in-shenzhen/ , http://www.businessinsider.com/what-its-like-to-work-if-chinas-gadget-sweatshops-where-your-iphones-and-ipads-are-made-2010-4 , http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704026204575267603576594936 , [xi] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jan/20/apple-pollution-supply-chain [xii] Apple cash on hand about $200 billion according to some estimates, and Walmart is currently worth about $261 billion. [xiii] Walter Benjamin, Exposé of 1935, in Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.4-5. [xiv] Manca, Luigi, Alessandra Manca, and Gail W. Pieper. 2012. Utopian images and narratives in advertising: dreams for sale. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, p.1. [xv] E.g. Gerhard Richter, “A Matter of Distance: Benjamin’s One-Way Street through The Arcades” p.136 (in Hanssen edt, Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project). On a related note—for how Victor Gruen’s nostalgia for Viennese community produced the modern shopping mall, see Roman Mars. “99% Invisible-163- The Gruen Effect”. [xvi] I’m surprised that there isn’t more discussion of the back and forth resonances between Doctor Who (pre-and post-rebout) and Jony Ive’s design efforts.