In a discussion thread that wandered to the subject of Walmart and its enemies, I said “Scratch a Walmart-basher and you’ll find a snotty elitist, a person who hates capitalism and consumption and deep down thinks the Wrong People have Too Much Stuff.”
The commenter replied: “You know, I don’t think you need to be an anti-capitalist in order to disdain over-consumption and its enablers.”
No, certainly not. My own preference is to live simply, getting and spending little and putting my energy into creative work. Much of what we think of as “normal” behavior in a consumer society strikes me as wasteful and vulgar. But it’s a disdain I tend to keep quiet about, for at least two reasons:
I find that, as little as I like excess and overconsumption, voicing that dislike gives power to people and political tendencies that I consider far more dangerous than overconsumption. I’d rather be surrounded by fat people who buy too much stuff than concede any ground at all to busybodies and would-be social engineers.
But there’s more than that going on here…
Rich people going on about the crassness of materialism, or spouting ecological pieties, often seem to me to me to be retailing a subtle form of competitive sabotage. “There, there, little peasant…” runs the not-so-hidden message “…it is more virtuous to have little than much, so be content with the scraps you have.” After which the speaker delivers a patronizing pat on the head and jets off to Aruba to hang with the other aristos at a conference on Sustainable Eco-Multiculturalism or something.
I do not – ever – want to be one of those people. And just by being a white, college-educated American from an upper-middle-class SES, I’m in a place where honking about overconsumption sounds even to myself altogether too much like crapping on the aspirations of poorer and browner people who have bupkis and quite reasonably want more than they have.
I was less reticent when I was younger, until I noticed what I sounded like. I’ll still snark freely about vulgar ostentation and overconsumption in people who are richer than me, but I don’t do the other direction any more. It’s…unseemly.
Which is a reason I tend to mute any criticisms I have of Walmart. I basically don’t ever shop there – I think I bought a specific $13 tacklebox once because I knew by seeing an example that it was right for a use I had in mind. I do not love the ambience of Walmarts; by my standards they’re loud, cheerless, and tacky – and that describes a lot of their merchandise and their shoppers, too.
But my esthetic and aspirational standards are those of a comparatively wealthy person even in U.S. terms, let alone world terms. To the people who use Walmart and belong there, Walmart is a tremendous boon that stretches their purchasing power, enabling them to have things that don’t suck.
That’s why I love the idea of Walmart, and will defend it against its enemies.