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Wal-Mart Wars

Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century

Rebekah Peeples Massengill
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Wal-Mart Wars
    Book Description:

    Wal-Mart is America's largest retailer. The national chain of stores is a powerful stand-in of both the promise and perils of free market capitalism. Yet it is also often the target of public outcry for its labor practices, to say nothing of class-action lawsuits, and a central symbol in America's increasingly polarized political discourse over consumption, capitalism and government regulations. In many ways the battle over Wal-Mart is the battle between Main Street and Wall Street as the fate of workers under globalization and the ability of the private market to effectively distribute precious goods like health care take center stage. In Wal-Mart Wars, Rebekah Massengill shows that the economic debates are not about dollars and cents, but instead represent a conflict over the deployment of deeper symbolic ideas about freedom, community, family, and citizenship. Wal-Mart Wars argues that the family is not just a culture wars issue to be debated with regard to same-sex marriage or the limits of abortion rights; rather, the family is also an idea that shapes the ways in which both conservative and progressive activists talk about economic issues, and in the process, construct different moral frameworks for evaluating capitalism and its most troubling inequalities. With particular attention to political activism and the role of big business to the overall economy, Massengill shows that the fight over the practices of this multi-billion dollar corporation can provide us with important insight into the dreams and realities of American capitalism.Rebekah Peeples Massengillis a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6335-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    • 1 Constructing Moral Markets
      (pp. 3-18)

      Despite what its title might suggest, this is not really a book about Wal-Mart. Curiosity about the world’s largest retailer has prompted a spate of recent books about the company’s business model, history, and influence on the world’s economy—all worthy topics, to be sure. But as a sociologist, I am less concerned with what Wal-Martdoesand more with what Wal-Martrepresents. As a beacon of capitalism in a global marketplace, Wal-Mart invites both praise and condemnation from entrepreneurs, shoppers, and cultural critics alike—judgments that tell us more about what we value as a society than what we...

    • 2 Contextualizing the Wal-Mart Wars
      (pp. 19-42)

      December 22, 1992, turned out to be an important day for both the history and the future of the Wal-Mart corporation. As Robert Slater tells the story, shortly before Sam Walton died, he had reluctantly agreed to give a pre-Christmas interview toDatelineNBC’s Jane Pauley, whose producers pitched the story as a positive exploration of Wal-Mart’s winning retail strategies. Keeping the company’s commitment after Walton’s death, the company’s new CEO David Glass gave the interview, only to be surprised midway through by footage from a Bangladesh factory in which children were making garments that would later be found under...


    • 3 Individuals and Communities
      (pp. 45-76)

      When Sarah Palin addressed a crowd of Americans who had assembled in Boston on April 14, 2010, she was preaching to the faithful. Marking the last stop of the Tea Party Express—a bus convoy that had traveled throughout the country to rally groups of Americans advocating smaller government, individual freedoms, and fiscal restraint— Palin’s keynote speech concluded this vigil in the symbolic Boston Harbor venue on the day before Americans would be required to file their taxes. The audience itself was surely something to behold, but beyond the sound bites and images, Palin’s language tells a deeper story about...

    • 4 Thrift and Benevolence
      (pp. 77-114)

      Americans’ debates over health care reform raise a host of issues inviting moral reflection from the American people. Is health care a right or a privilege? Who should make decisions about costly end-of-life procedures? And perhaps most important, how much will health care reform ultimately cost? Aside from the ethical issues involved in health care decisions (the crazed panic about “death panels” notwithstanding), the debate over what would eventually become the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was unavoidably one about how much of a public entitlement program the United States could actuallyafford. At the same time, this politically...

    • 5 Freedom and Fairness
      (pp. 115-150)

      As Americans welcomed in the new year in 2009, most were still reeling from the previous year’s financial meltdown. Americans had lost substantial portions of their retirement savings in the fall’s perilous stock market decline, and watched the equity in their homes evaporate seemingly overnight. Economists forecast double-digit rates of unemployment, and cable news was abuzz with talk about bailouts—both for distant Wall Street bankers, and for Main Street citizens facing foreclosure closer to home. As the year progressed, more Americans prepared to lose their homes, and the country watched helplessly as American car manufacturers filed for bankruptcy. The...


    • 6 How Wal-Mart Wins the War of Words
      (pp. 153-174)

      Wal-Mart’s critics, like most social movement activists, have a common goal: to be noticed in the press. For groups like Wal-Mart Watch, earning recognition in larger spheres of discourse is a prerequisite for success because these groups have no real constituency, such as a local chapter that meets regularly to discuss goals, tactics, and future endeavors. At best, their core “constituency” is individuals who have given the organization an email address at which they receive periodic updates and urgings to contact an elected representative, sign a petition, or send an email to Wal-Mart’s CEO. At the same time, they have...

    • 7 Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century
      (pp. 175-188)

      The joke goes something like this: A union member, a member of the Tea Party, and a corporate CEO are sitting around a table looking at a plate that holds a dozen cookies. The CEO reaches across and takes eleven cookies, looks at the Tea Partier, and says,

      “Look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.” Circulated on political blogs and social networking sites in early 2011, this wry story betrays a core assumption of much progressive politics: at best, that poor and middle-class conservatives simply misunderstand reality, or at worst, that they are duped...

  8. APPENDIX: Methodology
    (pp. 189-194)
  9. NOTES
    (pp. 195-204)
    (pp. 205-214)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 215-224)
    (pp. 225-225)