Last week, extreme right-wing, hyper-patriot blogger and “Christian Reconstructionist” Gary North published a piece that bounced around the Web titled “James Howard Kunstler: Foul-Mouthed Apologist for the Good Old Boys.” Gary North was inflamed because I had put out a recent blog inveighing against the chain-store rape of local economies from sea to shining sea. North wrote:
Consider his [JHK’s] most recent screed. It begins with an attack on the most successful free market retailing operation on earth, Walmart. He uses Walmart as a representative company for all of the low-price, high-volume box stores. He hates them all.
In the United States, millions of customers return day after day to buy at stores like these. But Kunstler, who is an arrogant Leftie elitist, dismisses them as helpless rubes who need protection from price competitive retailers. And who will supply this protection? The Good Old Boys.
My point, of course was that the chain store business model, and WalMart in particular, has destroyed local Main Street economies all over America, as well as the networks of social relations that went with these economies, in which local business owners employed local people and had to take responsibility for how they treated them. The damage to American civic life ought to be self-evident in the desolation of thousands of crumbling traditional downtowns, the extermination of a whole class of local business owners (and the local institutions they cared for), the funneling of business profits out of every local community to a few corporate bank accounts in distant places, as well as the desecration of the once-rural landscape outside our towns, now a uniformly profaned wilderness of parking lots and the tilt-up warehouses of chain-store commerce.
My further point was that the WalMart model of business now faces its own demise as America contends with the realities of a what will prove to be a permanent energy and capital formation crisis, requiring us to downscale our activities and rebuild fine-grained local networks of economic interdependency.
Gary North’s intemperate response to these ideas illustrates everything that has become malignant and dishonorable in conservative politics lately. It also displays a brand of shocking stupidity that bodes darkly for America’s political future. There are many towns across America where WalMart is not just the only place to buy all goods, but the chief employer, too. How is it a good thing for anyone’s home town to be dominated by such a single despotic entity? How does it square with the rhetoric about “liberty” spouted by conservatives? How is it so different in kind from the tyrannical one-party rule of the old soviet system that is the pole star of conservative animus?
WalMart is the largest corporate employer in the USA and most of its rank-and-file store workers barely get paid enough to live on (those with children fall statistically below the official poverty line). They have no control over their working lives, are cruelly deprived of full-time status in order to avoid giving them health insurance, have been subject to lock-ins during late-shifts, and are forced to attend off-hour browbeating (“coaching”) sessions with no pay. WalMart trumpets “made-in-America” propaganda around its stores but buys the majority of its merchandise from foreign countries — over $20 billion in merchandise from China every year, and more from other overseas vendors.
For Gary North, the supposed benefits of “bargain shopping” trump the fantastic damage that this mode of commerce wreaks on the nation. It was some bargain to sacrifice all the local business enterprises in this land, and the careers that went with them, and the incomes they produced, and the choices they represented so that underpaid chain store serfs could save five bucks on a toaster-oven. Gary North writes:
Kunstler is merely one more hapless defender of local business oligopolies. He stands in front of the freight train of price competition, yelling: “Stop!” He will be run over, just as they all have been run over.