Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism

Article excerpt

Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism. Edited by Nelson Lichtenstein. (New York: New Press, 2006. Pp. xv, 349. Acknowledgments, preface, illustrations, tables, maps, notes, contributors, index. $21.95, paper.)

The well-written, accessible, and highly informative essays collected by Nelson Lichtenstein in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism ask two interrelated questions: What is new about this entity called Wal-Mart? And where did the beast come from?

These are not easy questions. Could it be that Wal-Mart is simply the latest company to figure out how best to make a profit off America's consumer culture? Is it just an enlarged version of early twentieth-century predecessors such as Woolworth, Sears, and A & P? Is Wal-Mart's impact on workers, communities, and businesses fundamentally different from past corporate giants such as GM and IBM? How did the world's largest corporation get its start in (of all places) Arkansas?

The book provides no easy or simplistic answers. In this respect, it is a refreshing and much-needed corrective to the hyperbole surrounding the company. Wal-Mart is often seen either as the source of all evil or as the poster child for a globalized economy. To its credit, this collection, although critical of many of Wal-Mart's practices, policies, and impacts, is not ready to reduce the ills or virtues of modern capitalism to one corporation.

Nelson Lichtenstein starts with a fabulous introductory chapter that highlights all that is old and new about Wal-Mart. As he writes, "Wal-Mart is now the template for world capitalism because it takes the most potent technological and logistic innovations . . . and puts them at the service of an organization whose competitive success depends upon the destruction of all that remains of New Deal social regulation and replaces it, in the U.S. and abroad, with a global system that relentlessly squeezes labor." It has made "the retailer king and the manufacturer his vassal" (pp. 4-5).

The second chapter, by Susan Strasser, historicizes Wal-Mart by situating its rise within the context of the dominant retailing firms that came before it. It is a fascinating story that takes us through the first department stores, mail-order houses, and supermarkets. Strasser concludes that WalMart learned well from its forerunners by serving the neglected rural market once targeted by mail-order houses while putting the department store and supermarket under a single roof. …

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