Heart, Desire, and Walmart

It’s the double vision of a people whose hearts don’t like what their desires have created.

-Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone

I used to shop at Walmart, and I don’t judge those who still do. At the same time, it appears as if as a country we’d all be better off if Walmart was not around. Why?

Because the net effect of Walmart is to undercut small socially-responsible local businesses, to treat employees like replaceable cogs undeserving of reasonable benefits or of living wages, and to generally do anything (e.g. abuse the environment, use ingredients of questionable quality) to make products cheaper.

Now, I know bashing Walmart has become fashionable, and there are plenty of other badly-behaved companies. Still, Walmart is a particularly relatable example of how a company whose ideals are almost universally despised can yet flourish by skillfully feeding off of human desires.

I like to use the word feeding to describe Walmart’s success, because it puts us in the mind-frame to think of companies like Walmart as living organisms. We feed corporate organisms with our money; those that can profit from our investments tend to grow and thrive. Those that cannot profit tend to go bankrupt and die. Corporations are subject to evolution; only those that make money will survive. In particular, Walmart thrives because people cannot resist buying cheaper goods even when they disagree with how such low prices are achieved.

In other words, Walmart, like a drug addiction, is a product of human weakness. But we are not all to blame: Walmart carefully exploits our inherent weakness. The company does its best to insulate us from its practices. If we had to talk to workers who suffered because of lack of benefits and subhuman wages, saw the dirty kill-room floors and feces-caked animals, encountered warning labels about low-quality ingredients, or personally knew the long-time owners of family businesses forced extinct, we might not readily shop at Walmart.

Of course, for obvious reasons these undesirable images are hidden by the corporation, and when we shop there we are greeted simply by aisles of very affordable and nicely-packaged products. We can shop and comfortably buy without considering how those products came to be: The cloaked costs are not displayed on the shiny labels.

In the end however, when we honestly reflect on the rise of corporate organisms like Walmart, that we as humans feed, we can’t help but experience the double vision Franzen talks about in the opening quote. At our core, we don’t much care for the beast even as we continually sustain it.

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