Nicolas asks, “What about Wal-Mart….?”

Nicolas asks:

How do you see business enterprises that have historically done much harm to people and the environment as fitting into your claims about enterprises? For example, sugar and cotton production on the backs of African slaves in the New World, or the fossil fuel industry and its accompanying environmental degradation and military interventions in the Mid-East, or Wal-Mart-style corporations and the extinction of small businesses, or sweatshop commodity production? Are these enterprises just incredibly misguided?

Thank you for the great question(s)! Let’s explore:

  1. All of the examples fit. Each of the institutions you mention was constituted as a collection of historical communities to take care of particular concerns, constituted itself in networks of commitments, and accumulated capital (power is a good synonym) of various sorts – financial, pragmatic, symbolic or political.
  2. The most of the institutions/enterprises that you cite focus themselves around taking care of the concerns of oppressive minorities, cartels and monopolies, and despots. I think it is a mistake to lump slavery, military intervention in the Middle-East, and Wal-Mart as a collection of equivalent cases. On the other hand, it is true that some entries on the list are happening in styles that are characteristic of our country, the West, and modern life, and these similarities are important.
  3. In the end, I say that Wal-Mart does not belong in the same list. They are taking care of the concerns of “middle Americans” who benefit from the prices the company is able to offer, the concerns of their stockholders, and some concerns of their communities. As in any social institution, they have participated in social changes (for better and for worse), and are precipitating other social changes (also for better and for worse).
  4. Your question reminds Greg of Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man: “The circumstances of the world are continually changing, and the opinions of men change also; and as government is for the living, and not for the dead, it is the living only that has any right in it. That which may be thought right and found convenient in one age may be thought wrong and found inconvenient in another. In such cases, who is to decide, the living or the dead?”
  5. Regarding your “are they misguided” question, I suspect your question really is how to understand them and what to do about them: how to invervene in a world in which bad things are happening. If the question was really about the guidance they were following, we would need to have a conversation about what guidance each follows. Instead, I recommend starting with a good body of theory to understand how the phenomena of emerging and abiding social institutions happen.
  6. The standard arguments for understanding and excusing the kinds of behaviors that you point to (and I agree that many are “bad” or at least damage many people’s opportunities in life) include particularly (a) the organizations are evil because they are interested in profit and greed, and are designed to enact profit and greed at the expense of people and the environment, and (b) that mistakes happen and fortunately the free market will correct them over time. I don’t like either of these arguments; both, in my opinion, suffer from lousy theoretical underpinnings.
  7. Some of your examples are what I understand as extreme situations. For those, we have governments, laws, and criminal justice systems. Sometimes serious historical aberrations are held in place for very long periods by the way that we interpret human beings. For example, for millenia many countries’ economies, welfare, and national products have been underwritten by various kinds of slavery. Examples that we keep in front of us, of course, include the Israelites in Egypt, and various cases in Europe and the Americas through the last millenia.
  8. Also there are necessary preconditions for civil society. The US Founders spoke of the critical role of an informed and educated public. Universal education is a critical underpinning of civil society.
  9. I have said: Organizations are not wise. People are. The paradox is that we need organizations to produce wise people. In business and government, habit and complacency happens no matter what. Some kinds of regular revolutions are essential.
  10. Finally, I am sure that we learn not from good plans and wonderful ideas, but from falling flat on our faces: with breakdowns and mistakes which give us the opportunity to innovate.

I will comment on your other questions later.

© Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

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