Review by Steven Miller
As Wal-Mart rose from regional giant to global behemoth, it came to symbolize a "service economy" powered by the checkout counter rather than the assembly line. Bethany Moreton's fascinating study of the Bentonville, Ark., chain probes the deeper meanings of service in this emerging economy.
In "To Serve God and Wal-Mart," Moreton, a historian at the University of Georgia, argues that a culture of serving others helps to explain Wal-Mart's financial success and its larger political significance during the final quarter of the 20th century.
Moreton begins with Wal-Mart's Ozarks roots and ends with its contribution to "neoliberalism" (an oft-used, but confusing term for free trade and deregulation).
Ironically, "Wal-Mart Country" sprouted in a region known for resisting chain stores and their corporate ways. Wal-Mart, though, succeeded in fostering a kind of "corporate populism," casting itself as the friend of cost-conscious consumers.
Along the way, Bentonville joined the booming Sun Belt, a region in the South and Southwest often contrasted with the Rust Belt of the North and Midwest.
Moreton writes of "Wal-Mart Moms," those harried managers of dual-income households, but her real heroines are the women who sold them affordable goods. Many were mothers entering the workforce for the first time. They were poorly paid and subject to harassment from their overwhelmingly male managers. Still, Moreton's interviews with early employees reveal a striking loyalty to the Wal-Mart family.
Wal-Mart's service ethos was partly the creation of those employees, whom their bosses famously rebranded as "associates," while casting themselves as "servant leaders."
It is difficult not to view these moves as cynical efforts to put a smiley face (the familiar company logo) on union-busting. How could Wal-Mart uphold family values by not paying family wages? Weren't its low-cost goods perversely pitched to those same low-wage earners?
While Moreton clearly is sympathetic to such concerns, they are not her main subjects. With great empathy, she explains how Wal-Mart's "constituency" adjusted to the demands of a new economy that rendered the homemaker ideal impractical and the family unit all the more in need of protection.
The family became a slogan for the strident evangelical Protestantism that boomed in the Ozarks and elsewhere by the 1970s. Moreton offers a version of Max Weber's famous "Protestant ethic," updated for the era of two-for-one specials. For Moreton, "Family values are an indispensable element of the global service economy, not a distraction from it." Likewise, for Wal-Mart associates and managers alike, "helping others consume - especially helping them consume necessities 'for their families' … could be a sacred calling."
Elsewhere, Moreton describes "how globalization got its twang," as Wal-Mart poured resources into local universities friendly to free-market causes. To a skeptical public, Wal-Mart cast "free trade as service to humble Third World consumers" eager for everyday low prices.
This book is not a comprehensive history, a paean to Sam Walton or a Michael Moore-style exposé; all of those can be found elsewhere. With verve and clarity, Moreton offers something more distinctive: a compelling explanation of how Wal-Mart captured the hearts and pocketbooks, of so many Americans.