Not Earning Enough Money to Put Food on the Table: Walmart’s Savage Capitalism

Home economics

I am not an economist, though economist and economics derive from the Greek words for household (οικονομικόςοικονόμοςοίκοςοικία). The activities of the household were taking place in a home / house. This was extremely important, taking care of the needs of the family living in a house. Home economics (primarily cooking, baking bread, craftsmanship, architecture, and farming) sparked the economics of communities and poleis (city-states). Cosmology, democracy and law and justice emerged to give rise to civilization.

I grew up in such a household culture in a tiny Greek village. Despite World War II and Italian and German occupiers, my father managed to keep us self-reliant in food. Eventually I realized we had very little: a few acres of land dotted with olive trees and a few vines for grapes and sweet wine, as well as raising our own wheat, barley, lentils. We also had very small flocks of goats and sheep, a mule and donkey, a couple of dogs, cats, and chicken.

This agrarian economy shaped my mind. I always love the small and the self-reliant. I am not against trade, but such an exchange of goods must be beneficial to all.

Megalomania

Stepping into the United States with these ideas sparked a clash of civilizations that almost ate me alive. Anywhere I worked, especially on Capitol Hill and the US Environmental Protection Agency, small was neither beautiful nor desirable nor productive nor fashionable. Large was the desire of economists, managers, politicians, scientists: the larger the better, they used to say. After World War II, the government was telling the small family farmers to get larger or abandon farming.

The result of this megalomania is the remaking of the planet. Very large cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Beijing, Shanghai, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, Rome, Milan, Paris, London (and hundreds like them all over the world). These metropolises are magnets for too many people and too much pollution, sucking the planet dry of biological diversity, food, oxygen, while adding gigantic quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere warming the Earth. A consequence of that perpetual “economic growth” is another planetary cancer: colossal companies like Walmart and fantastically rich people we call billionaires.

Savage human animals

The great Greek polymath of the fourth century BCE, Aristotle, had an explanation and a cause for this human decline into darkness. In his Politics (1253a), he says man growing up with laws and justice is a political animal, the best of them. But a man who misuses law and justice, that is, a man without virtue is the most savage of animals.

Translate this to understand modern capitalism, especially the capitalism practiced in America, and what do you see? Men without virtue inventing and personifying mega corporations like Walmart. These businesses / corporations employ inhuman behavior / management resembling savagery.

I came face to face with that savage behavior while working for the US Environmental Protection Agency. Republican and Democratic political appointees at EPA approving carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides because chemical companies making them had the ear of the President. The idea of virtue (protecting humans and the natural world) barely existed in such abominable acts of savagery.

My friend Janette Sherman, expert on breast cancer, was outraged. In her 2000 book, Life’s Delicate Balance (4)said, “It is becoming impossible to ignore the carnage of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, nuclear radiation, and chemical carcinogens, alone and in combination, invading nearly every family with cancer.”

As I said, I love small household efforts / activities for self-sufficiency and the prosperity of communities and countries. But I become concerned when individuals and companies abuse laws and justice for their own enrichment. In those circumstances, Aristotle is right. Men without virtue become the most unscrupulous and savage of animals. These are the managers and scientists concocting the terrible poisons Janette Sherman denounced 22 years ago. They give families diseases and harm democracy. They become the enemy of the state and civilization.

Rise of the Walmart dragon

Walmart emerged from that chronic and widespread corruption. Rick Wartzman, a business professor at Claremont Graduate University, studied the evolution of Walmart from a very small store started by Sam Walton in 1962 in Arkansas to the country’s largest business empire. His timely and insightful book is slightly ambivalent about Walmart and the capitalism it practices: Still Broke: Walmart’s Remarkable Transformation and the Limits of Socially Conscious Capitalism (Public Affairs, 2022).

Wartzman, however, asks fundamental questions about paying armies of temporary workers 12 or 15 dollars an hour, when such salaries make it almost impossible to make ends meet, putting bread on the dinner table for a family. He even suggests 20 dollars per hour, though he suspects such hourly wage would raise eyebrows in corporate America. He cites Martin Luther King Jr., saying:

“Twenty dollars is bound to come across as too radical to many, but we are without other options. As with climate change, we have put ourselves in a hole so deep, we will never get out of it if we think small… It is well past the time for those we elect to public office to force the matter.”

Exactly, force the matter! But what if we do nothing? Wartzman says the outcome will be more of the same: “tens of millions” of workers will go on struggling while Walmart and other corporations cloak themselves “in the mantle of social responsibility.”

A black woman’s complaint against Walmart 

Another personal and perceptible picture emerges from a Walmart parttime worker, Melissa Love. She was caught in the straitjacket of Walmart, the giant store at the beginnings of the pandemic in 2020. Her complaint is timely and timeless of millions of workers trying to put food on the table, daily, for years and without any support or understanding from the rest of America. Love had the courage to put her grievance in writing and get it published in the New York Times (March 26, 2020). She said:

Walmart treated her and other “retail associates” pretty badly. She risked her health and safety in the midst of frenzied customers stocking up in endless Black Fridays. Her $ 13 per hour salary was not sufficient for food. “I barely have enough to put food on the table for me and my father, whom I care for,” she admitted.

She was angry that Walmart had a “punitive paid leave policy,” which did not protect her or her family. “Walmart… has used its wealth and power to wriggle out of doing the bare minimum for its employees’ well-being,” Love said.

Love complained of the gross inequality between her, her coworkers, and the Walton family reaping the lion share of the billions of Walmart profits. “The [Walton] family is worth an estimated $190 billion. I want to ask our chief executive, Doug McMillon, why we can afford to hand over so much money to the wealthiest family in America, but we can’t provide our associates with adequate paid sick leave and health care. These basics are vital year-round, but during this pandemic, business as usual isn’t cutting it. We make corporations like Walmart profitable — it’s time for them to ensure we have enough to live on.”

Yes, indeed. Love asked excellent questions, but demanded very little. She grasped her own vulnerability and political weakness and her own suffering. She brought to the surface the injustice Walmart represents. She even blamed the US government for allowing Walmart and other corporations to act like feudal lords. Their injustice and the blows they inflict on democracy have serious effects on American society.

The fate of Walmart capitalism

But this exploitation has a long history. Is America ready and willing to abolish billionaires, distributing their excess wealth to the needy and to funding our deadly fight against climate chaos?

Wartzman is right we are in a very deep hole. Walmart represents another climate hole. Yes, he is right that our politicians should “force the matter.” By which he probably means to stop burning fossil fuels and, in the case of Walmart, start paying its workers $ 20 per hour.

Certainly these steps would be virtuous. But virtue can save us and the planet if we have the courage to face the truth. Melissa Love did. She said Walmart is a very bad company that does a great harm to millions of workers, while encouraging other companies to do the same thing. The fact that a family in America – the Walton family — can have such immense wealth — and expect even more – is a symptom that the rulers of the country (most corporate executives, college and university presidents, directors of foundations, heads of religious denominations, politicians, and billionaires) behave like savage animals.

Rick Wartzman and Melissa Love have shed light on this enormous class struggle, which is more than a class struggle. This is a struggle over democracy and survival. Walmart and other oligarchic institutions are exacerbating the giant climate chaos, the highway to extinction. Force the matter!

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.