Bethany Moreton, 39
Assistant Professor of History and Women's Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
My first act of research for To Serve God and Wal-Mart was shoveling fossilized chicken droppings out of a defunct coop on a goat farm in Northwest Arkansas. The farm's owners, friends of my favorite agrarian Jim Scott, evidently took my willingness to pick up a shovel as a character reference, and lost no time making me feel at home in Wal-Mart's backyard. Since we have no Freedom of Information Act for the state-supported institutions we somewhat inaccurately call private corporations, the research could only go so far by relying on formal archives. It was only through the generosity of my hosts in the Ozarks-the original Wal-Mart Country--that I was able to learn to explore how"Wal-Martism" might fill the conceptual hole in the middle of"post-Fordism." If the Detroit auto industry had set the pattern for the first half of the twentieth century-in spatial organization, labor arrangements, finance, family formation, ideology, immigration, art-then surely its successor was a likely site for understanding major developments of the post-war years.
When Wal-Mart beat out Exxon-Mobil to become the world's largest company in 2002, what we knew that the first service company to make it to the top of the Fortune 400 was what astute business journalists like Bob Ortega had been telling us since the early 1990s: Wal-Mart had remade retail by achieving such market dominance that it could dictate its terms to the suppliers rather than the other way around. At the fringes of this narrative were the voices of historic preservationists and organized labor, finally roused by the Arkansas company's disruptive penetration of Vermont, Chicago, and Southern California. The reigning questions about the new top multinational were often variations on"Wow--how did Wal-Mart do it?" or"Is Wal-Mart good for America?"
While my 2002 dissertation prospectus referenced this literature, though, it also included chapter proposals that ultimately allowed me to explore a question I found much more interesting, the one that Thomas Frank revived from the original Populist mobilization:"What's the matter with Kansas?" -understood now as"Why have Americans on the losing end of the deregulated, off-shored service economy enabled it politically for more than a generation?" To Serve God and Wal-Mart is therefore not so much a book about Wal-Mart as an account of the anointing of free enterprise, the unlikely legitimation of neoliberal economics through evangelical religion. It tells this story through the twinned biographies of the world's largest company and the ideological apparatus it nurtured. It argues that this specific experience of mass service work transformed economic common sense and infused it with evangelical values at precisely the moment that federal redistribution catapulted the Sun Belt to its position of decisive influence within the nation. That moment of waxing power for the old agricultural periphery coincided with American-led economic integration, so that the ethos of Christian free enterprise-the odd pairing of Jerry Falwell and Milton Friedman, so to speak-gave late twentieth-century globalization some of its most distinctive characteristics. Ultimately I join writers like Janet Jakobsen, Ann Pellegrini, Lisa Duggan, Tanya Erzen, and Linda Kintz in arguing that the Left's frustration with the" culture wars" misreads the necessary connection between conservative sexual mores and the post-1973 economy that Wal-Mart ultimately dominated.
That I got to learn about this complex relationship while living in the Ozarks, knee-deep in chicken droppings, was my good fortune.
By Bethany Moreton
About Bethany Moreton
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