Fighting Walmart in Midtown: The Need to Go Beyond Glorifying “Smallness” and Ethical Consumerism

by P. Barbanegra- Recently in Miami, a showdown has been brewing between a group of activist, artist, business owners, and some residents of Midtown over the building of a new Walmart. They’ve started a campaign called Save Midtown, and have embarked on a mission to stop Walmart from setting up shop in the trendy Miami neighborhood. So far, they’ve succeeded in beating back the retail giant, whose application for securing a right to change current city planning and zoning laws to allow them to build loading docks along North Miami Avenue, a busy pedestrian and vehicular street, was rejected by the City of Miami’s Planning & Zoning Appeals Board. While this ruling can be categorized as a temporary victory against one of the most powerful emblems of the neoliberal age, the way this campaign is being framed is very problematic to say the least. Even though some of those involved with the Save Midtown campaign rightly take Walmart to task for its deplorable environmental and labor practices at home and abroad, there’s very little discussion about what makes Walmart so popular amongst the working class and low-income patrons of the store, and a real blind spot about what can be done to change that outside of ethical consumerism.

The Save Midtown website gives numerous reasons for why Walmart would be harmful to the Midtown community, but perhaps the most ironic one would have to be that Walmart would change the character of the neighborhood; an example of the proverbial teapot calling the kettle black if I’ve ever heard one. The Midtown project has been challenged by housing rights and anti-gentrification groups for some time, arguing that creations like Midtown-whose developers unabashedly admit to trying to recreate the “New York’s SoHo district with a Miami twist,” SoHo being a model for gentrification- are part of a social phenomenon by wealthy and more affluent people to reclaim urban areas while pushing out the long-term working class or low income residents of such neighborhoods, many of which are Black or Latino. Yet, aside from this rather laughable at best, cynical at worst, accusation that Walmart would change the “character” of the neighborhood-which I can only take to mean that it would attract the unhip, poor people that used to populate the area before the trendy lofts and chic restaurants came around-the majority of the reasons for opposing Walmart by Save Midtown tend to fall along such lines.

At a micro-level, the concerns are mostly about how the trendy image of the neighborhood will be negatively impacted by the presence of the big box retailer, coupled with arguments about how Wal-Mart will adversely impact “small businesses” (some of which are international and local chains), and fair critiques about how pedestrian and cyclist might be unfavorably affected- though I can’t help but find this claim annoying coming from, wittingly or unwittingly, gentrifiers more concerned with creating their New Urbanist oasis in a historically low-income Puerto Rican neighborhood with little regard for how such endeavors contribute to the displacement of poor and working class people living in the impoverished area.  With the campaign being framed in largely these terms, it should come as no surprise that many of the long term residents that still live in and within the surrounding neighborhoods of the site where the proposed Walmart would be built are not flocking to join or support Save Midtown’s efforts.

As someone who is quite aware of the horrendous labor and environmental practices of Walmart, you won’t hear me disputing or debating the claims made by numerous studies and sources about how Wal-mart in general is not good for workers, tax payers, local economies, women, peripheral countries or the environment. I won’t list all of them, because there are too many, but just googling anti-Walmart or going to this Wikipedia article that will provide you with many resources. You will not see me adopting the cynical, apologist positions of some economist that sweatshops are a good thing for the desperate people of peripheral nations. Though, I must say that under capitalism, those are essentially the alternatives for people in the so-called Third world; it really is a Hobsonian choice between sweatshops or digging through mountains of garbage, and this is why it’s so important to oppose the disease causing much of this misery and injustice, capitalism, and not just its symptoms. So, while I strongly believe there are plenty of good reasons to oppose Walmart and its business model, I also think that how we fight such targets can have a tremendous impact for what we’re trying to build.

So far, this fight is taking place in a manner that is divisive and short-sighted. It’s a fight being waged completely within the confines of capitalism’s logic. It’s pitting many working class people living in relative poverty against progressive activist, many of which tend to be professionals, students and/or more affluent. Sadly, as the New Times article reports, the split seems to be happening not only along class, but racial lines as well, with many of the Black residents in favor of Walmart opening up shop, and many of those opposed being White or of lighter skin. While the New Times can often be quite unfair when it comes to covering social movements in South Florida, especially Occupy related activities, this account doesn’t seem farfetched or surprising to me.

The reality is that most working-class people in this country are on a restricted budget, and in many ways, they face their own Hobson’s choice not dissimilar to the one confronting their global counterparts. When one lives in a world where a missed paycheck can be the difference between sleeping in a home, sleeping in a shelter, or the streets, making every dollar stretch is not a matter of choice but of survival. I know this reality all too well because for most of my life this has been my reality. Even today, when I’m employed as a public employee, I have an unemployed dependent with school debt, and several family members I’m helping out financially (part of being working class in my experience means that my parents have no real savings or a retirement fund because whatever little extra money they had was always spent on the family first, so their kids are their retirement plan). Once you factor in all the other necessities one requires living in suburban sprawled Miami, there’s not much left there if one is trying to save money for a potential emergency. Even so, I consider myself relatively privilege financially compared to many people in this city, and yet, I’ve found that boycotting Wal-Mart is not really an option even for me.

It’s also not an option for the majority of the working class because ethical consumerism, the politics of voting with your dollars, doesn’t address the hard-nose reality that for most working class people, voting with your dollars means going to where it’s most affordable and time efficient, and that’s still for the most part Walmart. Even if you think that Walmart’s affordability is only true in the short-term, living paycheck to paycheck often means that short term concerns take priority, and that’ll probably continue to be the case until people begin organizing and acting collectively, debating and discussing their problems, and coming up with their own collective solutions. These types of alternatives to the individualistic politics of ethical consumerism does not appear to be an overtly stated goal of the Save Midtown campaign or of the activist involved.

Unfortunately though, an ethical consumerist strategy of an individually initiated personal boycott of Walmart , and a general plea to support small businesses, is what I’ve understood to be a legitimate and practical way of resisting, if not the end all be all, from many anti-Walmart  activists involved in this campaign. Their solutions are solutions completely in line with the same “free” market system that gives rise to the monster they oppose. Wal-Mart is not an anomaly of capitalism; it’s the embodiment of the basic principle that drives capitalism: the need to accumulate. Capitalism has one slogan: “Accumulate or Die Trying” Walmart doesn’t destroy small businesses, capitalism does. The illusory notion that if we just got rid of all these “evil” corporations, we could return to some mythical golden era of Mom-and-Pop shops is merely wishful thinking. What we need is imaginative thinking! Small businesses are treated as some homogenous entity always preferable to large, big-box retailers like Walmart.

Yet, I see very little proof of local small businesses which also happen to be supporters of workers and environmental rights. How many of them pay a living wage, offer their employees healthcare, paid sick days, paid vacation, or even the right to have a union? How many of the supposed businesses are actually small businesses, as opposed to less successful chains, offering their employees or customers a better deal than Walmart? Even if you’re able to name some entities which are indeed small businesses and environmentally and socially responsible, how does this is any way address the economic reality of many working class people, who short on time and money, can find everything they need within their budget at a place like Walmart? I’m not sure how many large companies and corporations stack up to the local, small businesses here in Miami on these criteria, but there’s at least one large big-box retailer that appears to be offering an alternative to the Walmart model when it comes to employee benefits, and that Costco. Now, maybe they’re the exception to the rule, and honestly, my point isn’t to find stores worthy of the ethical consumers approval, but to raise some questions about this individualistic, market-based strategy, as well as the “smaller is better” mantra advocates of ethical consumerism and the Save Midtown campaign seem to be promoting.

Ethical consumerism is an incredibly limited, individualistic strategy to address a very large, multi-faceted and collective problem. Ethical consumers assume that by informing people about the unethical practices of a business and encouraging other to stage indefinite personal consumer boycott too, that the grand majority of people will make the more “ethical” choice, regardless of whether that choice makes the most sense for them economically. It assumes a level of solidarity that honestly doesn’t exist at the moment, and which they’ve done nothing to really build, spread, or sustain. How then is this not a strategy best suited to the more affluent, who can literally afford to make consumer choices based primarily on how ethical the company is, and secondarily on price, is beyond me.

Again, this is why I take issue with a lot of the rhetoric and framing of the Save Midtown campaign. Much of it has this air of moral superiority, of “feel good-ism”, without thinking or considering what might genuinely prevent many working class people from adopting such an approach. Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that participating in a consumer boycott is always an inappropriate strategy. I certainly try to honor consumer boycotts that are within a specific time frame, of a specific firm, and initiated by or in coordination with the workers, usually engaged in an industrial dispute with an employer. The difference here is that such consumer boycotts are part of a collective response that seeks to unite workers and consumers as the workers try to organize themselves and their communities to confront a common enemy on multiple fronts.

I believe it is this type of collective approach, based around organizing with those most affected by the injustices of capitalism, that activists in such campaigns should be promoting. They need to reach out to the low-income residents still holding out in places like Wynwood, Little Haiti, and the other surrounding neighborhoods. It’s important for activists to engage with them in a dialogue about how capitalism takes advantage of them, how it exploits workers domestically and internationally, pitting people who have every interest in fighting together against each other. Perhaps, if they did that, they would see that preventing a Walmart from setting up shop in Midtown is not necessarily the most strategic fight. At the very least, I would hope that they would move beyond strategies, tactics and language which not only reflects their far more economically comfortable place in life, but also does little to challenge the system that gives rise to things like Wal-Mart, as well as the consumers and workers that come to rely on it for the cheap products and jobs.

It seems like at least some involved in the campaign may be thinking more along the route of doing some organizing that might address the question of Walmart ‘s atrocious record on workers’ rights more directly. It appears at least one Walmart “associate” has made connection with some community organizers. This Walmart employee recently wrote a piece condemning the working conditions at Wal-Mart, and suggesting that part of the solution may involve raising the Federal minimum wage to $10 an hour. While raising the minimum wage is a better place to start resisting and challenging Walmart  than the ethical consumer approach, this is not likely to be won without massive organizing efforts by most workers, whether unionized or otherwise. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space to discuss raising the minimum wage, or the campaigns being launched to address this issue. It’s important that activist begin to think more like organizers. They need to think more about what it would take for the people suffering the most from capitalism to take control of their communities and their lives so that ecocidal, human-rights violating, misery-producing corporations like Walmart have no reason to exist, since the people themselves will take care of each other, and won’t depend on this dog-eat-dog system for their livelihoods, well being, or happiness. If we want to someday live in a world like this, then we have to get involved in fights where we are at, and with those that suffer the most under this system. We need to be asking ourselves why do people need Walmart in the first place, and how could we create a world where we don’t need to sell our minds and our bodies for the benefit of a tiniest minority of humanity. How can we make sure that our fights aren’t dividing people, and putting progressive minded folks at odds with working and lower class folks? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I agree with the saying that sometimes” asking the right question is half the answer.” So, let’s start asking ourselves those difficult questions, let’s move and think outside of our comfort zones.

Now, let me reemphasis, I’m not opposed to a campaign to stop Walmart from opening up more stores, and I know and respect several individuals working on this campaign. Yet, despite my efforts to engage and convince them to rethink their approach and how they frame this campaign, I haven’t seen or heard of any plans to do so in the near future. So, my hope is that this piece will help move forward a discussion around what types of fights we decide to take on and how we fight them. The question of class and the system that recreates these social relations, in which the few benefit at the expense of the many, need to be front and center if we want to destroy the cancer that is capitalism.

One response to “Fighting Walmart in Midtown: The Need to Go Beyond Glorifying “Smallness” and Ethical Consumerism

  1. Stephen Malagodi

    you were expecting Che Guevara?

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