Posts Tagged ‘Wal-Mart

08
Jan
11

Corporations To Boycott (Part II)

As in my last post, this is by no means a complete list, and any and all suggestions (or criticisms) are welcome.

GAP:

GAP (called “The Gap” by people who just don’t know better) is perhaps one of the most successful clothing stores in the US. GAP is also notorious for its use of sweatshops and child-labor (resulting in a tragic-yet-hilarious video by satirical publication “The Onion”, which I’ve linked for you here). Some of GAP’s more prominent crimes include:

  • Operating sweatshops and abusing workers in Saipan (a pacific island administrated over by the United States).
  • Operating sweatshops and using child labor in Jordan.
  • Operating sweatshops and using child labor in India.

GAP also owns and operates other clothing outlets, including Banana Republic and Old Navy. Despite it’s size, boycotting GAP (and it’s subsidiaries) is fairly easy due to the prevalence of thrift stores.

Nike:

As with GAP, Nike is infamous for it’s use of child labor, sweatshop labor, assorted violations of worker’s rights, and general exploitative practices, such as:

  • Repeated and widespread use of sweatshops across the third-world, including such countries as Vietnam, Indonesia, Pakistan, China, Cambodia, and other countries.
  • Exposure of workers in Thai factories to toxic chemicals.
  • Repeated use of various music pieces (such as the Beatle’s “Revolution”) without permission from the artists.
  • Capitalization of Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred”. Perhaps some explanation is needed here. Hughes was a major black writer during the 1930s, and his classic poem “A Dream Deferred” describes Hughes’ frustration and anger at the oppression of African-Americans. Nike used “A Dream Deferred” In a 2008 commercial advertising their shoes, (commercial linked here). The images and message of the advertisement have nothing in common with the meaning of the poem, and yet the poem is used for promotion of Nike’s product. There’s something very, very wrong about usurping a powerful work about racial segregation and degradation and using it to hawk footwear.

As with GAP, while Nike is a large company with a wide variety of brands and products, boycotting is fairly easy with the wide number of alternatives to buying $300 shoes made in sweatshops.

Wal-Mart:

While you’re probably already familiar with the ocean of criticisms of Wal-Mart, it’s still worth listing a few of the more heinous acts and policies for the few who might not be aware:

  • Wal-Mart is known for underpaying and overworking it’s employees. Allegations of sexism and racism have also been made.
  • Wal-Mart is viciously anti-union, attempting to “inform” workers as to the dangers of unionization, firing workers for both joining/starting unions and discussion joining/starting unions. Wal-Mart has (based on the statements of a former executive, Tom Coughlin) even gone so far as to bribe union employees in order to single-out Wal-Mart employees who had signed union cards.
  • Wal-Mart operates a number of sweatshops in China and Bangladesh.
  • Wal-Mart’s use of sweatshop labor allow it to sell products cheaply in the US, undermining small and locally-owned competitors who are forced out of business.
  • Wal-Mart, during the mid 90s, made a practice of taking out life-insurance policies on it’s employees, allowing the corporation to benefit from their deaths. Wal-Mart had named this practice “Dead Peasant” insurance.
  • Wal-Mart sells furniture made from trees grown in protected habitats in Russia (the trees were illegally cut down). The corporation has stated it will not stop selling the furniture until 2013.

Now boycotting Wal-Mart is substantially more difficult than boycotting other corporations because of the relatively low prices of most Wal-Mart products. More often than not, Wal-Mart is the more economic choice, instead of the ethical. Nevertheless, buying from local stores (dollar stores make a decent alternative) is well worth it.

Caterpillar Inc.:

While I’m guessing most of you don’t buy heavy-duty construction and demolition equipment, it’s still worth adding Caterpillar on to the list- if nothing else it might help shake their public image a bit. The primary criticism of Caterpillar is:

  • Caterpillar bulldozers (and other demolition machines) are bought and used by Israeli army to destroy Palestinian buildings.
  • In 2003, activist Rachel Corrie was killed in Palestine when a Caterpillar bulldozer was driven into her.

As before, chances are you won’t be buying Caterpillar equipment in the future, but it’s still worth pointing out.

Advertisements
30
Oct
10

An Employee’s Take on Wal-Mart

Linked here is an interesting article on Wal-Mart written by an employee of that company.

07
Jul
10

Norman Rockwell’s America (is Dead)

If you’re familiar at all with contemporary art, then you’ll no doubt have heard of Norman Rockwell. Indeed, chances are if you’ve lived anywhere in the West you’ll have come across one of his iconic paintings (as an original or as a recreation). For the few of you who might not be aware of his work, Norman Rockwell created paintings depicting (most often) bourgeoisie life in idyllic Middle-America*. There’s the family farms and small, private businesses that politicians love to talk about (see Sarah Palin’s “Real America” speech) and Capitalism tries to market to you (see ‘Aunt Jemimah’, ‘Uncle Ben’, ‘Quaker Oats’, ‘State Farm‘, ‘Pepperidge Farm‘ etc.). For many it’s the very face of Capitalism- just look at this 1948 “instructional” video of (exclusively white) high-school teens discussing Capitalism.

Coronet Instructional Films “What Is Capitalism?”, 1948

This is a prime example of the twisted understanding of Capitalism many have, but even in this video we can see the roots of the disparity between the Rockwellian portrayal of Capitalism and the harsh reality. Throughout the film, one word stands out: Competition. The young woman to Jimmy’s right describes how the shop-owner, Mr. Brown, agrees to lend out his truck to ensure she and Jimmy buy from him, rather than the competition. She asserts that Mr. Brown’s interests aren’t in providing service but in making a profit, and it is here we have the crux of the matter. Mr. Brown wants to make profit- the sole existence of his business is to make profit, and so Mr. Brown does whatever he can to ensure his merchandise is sold, rather than the merchandise of his competitors. In short, Mr. Brown is trying to run the other shops in the community out of business to maximize his profits. I’m not arguing that Mr. Brown is morally corrupt (though let’s not rule out of the possibility), we have to understand that in a Capitalist system, the rules of competition apply to everyone. Mr. Brown has to run his competition out or his competition will run him out. Eat or be eaten. At the same time, if Mr. Brown is indeed concerned not with his own livelihood but with his profits, if he does succeed in running his competition out of business he will have a monopoly and Jimmy and his friends will be forced to buy “weenies” at whatever price Mr. Brown sets.

Melodramatic? Consider this:

Starbucks was a small, privately owned coffee shop that has burst into a world-wide empire that has obliterated competition. Walmart also started as a small shopping center before expanding to the point where it has replaced nearly all beloved mom-and-pop stores you see in Rockwell’s art. McDonalds didn’t start out was a global food-chain but just as a privately owned restaurant. Coca-Cola started out as a tonic.

Now of course, there’s the temptation to side with corporations on this issue. One might argue ‘Hey, the fact is that Starbucks, Walmart, and other stores became economic empires by being better than the competition- they deserve the power they have!’. This argument forgets, however, that most corporations don’t get to where they are by simply having better products. The Mr. Brown of the video might run his competition out of business by offering lower prices by (1) temporarily lowering his prices so that his competition will be destroyed and he will make more money in the long run, (2) lowering the quality of his goods, (3) smearing competitors (and if you don’t think this happens, look up a Mac vs PC commercial), (4) lowering the wages of his workers, (5) sabotaging his competitors (corporate espionage), (6) convincing the public that his products are better (actually making them better would decrease profit), or even (7) collaborating with other businesses to harm competition (just look up the tactics of J.D. Rockefeller). Now out of these seven options, do you think that Mr. Brown is going to go with the one that lowers his immediate income? And what happens when Mr. Brown gets a monopoly? Is he going to lose his customers to cheaper options in other towns? Of course not- the astute Mr. Brown is going to open a shop there, and use his profits to undersell his competitors into working for him.

It’s a sad but simple fact. No matter how much we swear by the good, ol’ family farm or shop, small businesses inevitably become big businesses, which become global corporations with a reputation for low prices and even lower wages, product safety standards, and environmental consciousness. To answer the question of the video, what is Capitalism? This is Capitalism: pointless competition, exploitation, monopolization, and the general degradation of all the values we see in Norman Rockwell’s paintings.

*Admittedly, he did do a few pictures of working class Americans and even school children in Soviet Russia- but overwhelmingly his paintings were of the bourgeoisie.

22
Sep
09

Communism, Capitalism, and Culture

In film and literature, Communist (or at least, Communistic) societies are often portrayed as dark, Spartan places where variety is almost non-existent. Indeed, Communism is sometimes portrayed as espousing complete and utter uniformity- and perhaps this is understandable. After all, Communism does demand a single class where all citizens are equal without exception, and Soviet city-planning and architecture tended to be more than slightly lacking as far as aesthetics go.

However, as has been repeatedly stated throughout this blog, Soviet Russia was not a true Communist country and as far as equality goes, “equality” doesn’t mean “identical”. For the average foundry worker to live in an equal society, the rest of society doesn’t have to be average foundry workers- they must simply have the same rights, responsibilities, and opportunities. Within equality lies endless variety- more so than can ever be achieved in the Capitalist society.

Now this statement may seem to be based on faulty reasoning, after all, if Capitalism presents opportunity for anyone and everyone to sell their own product or service, then there will be an unending fountain of culture, technology, art, music, and so on. Now if Capitalism were only the opportunity of every individual to sell his own product or service, this might be true. In reality, Capitalism doesn’t quite work that way. You see Capitalism based heavily on competition- the struggle for dominance over others. In order to attain Capitalism’s end goal- capital (money)- the individuals selling their products and/or services forced to compete with each other for the customers. In short, if there are two tailors in one town, they are going to be at war with each other for customers. “But surely this would cause their quality to increase, their prices to drop, and the variety of products to expand!” You might retort. Now this is partly true- and only temporarily so at that. As much as the competitors will try to undercut each other’s prices, there is a point they will not drop below to ensure a profit is still made. Eventually, one of the competitors, either through poor planning or just bad luck, is going to lose and the moment that happens, the winning competitor no longer has any reason to keep prices low or variety wide. In a free, Capitalist society, this is what inevitably happens- the weak are killed off and devoured by the strong until eventually, one company reigns supreme and becomes a monopoly. We can see this battle of giants all around us- Pepsi versus Coke, Apple versus Microsoft, Nintendo versus Xbox versus Play Station 3, and so on. Do we actually imagine this to be some sort of dualistic system- that these companies will forever be locked in a fight for dominance? No- eventually, Pepsi is going to fall to Coke or Coke will fall to Pepsi or both of them will be conquered (somehow) by Jones Soda. “But this will never happen- there’s always going to be some fresh competition to challenge the old dinosaurs. Monopolies are impossible.” Really? Just take a look at history- read about Standard Oil and the British East India Company. “Granted,” one might reply “but the consumer still has a basic level of control over the monopolies- if there’s a Pepsi monopoly and Pepsi raises its prices too high, the people can’t be forced to buy Pepsi. In fact, Pepsi is limited to selling its products at the price the public will pay for them.” Very well then, but what about a different kind of monopoly. What about a lumber monopoly, or an oil monopoly? Society is dependent on these resources to function without regressing to the stone age. Even if a single monopoly were to arise that controlled the mining of Coltan (a rare mineral used in cell phones and communication), the world could be brought its knees.

But perhaps I’m getting a little off-track. The point is, after enough expansion, Capitalism can trade variety for cut production-cost profit. “So what if that is true? We don’t have monopolies at this point in time- Capitalism still offers us variety now.” For the sake of space, we’ll skip addressing the issue with concentrating only on the here-and-now and focus on how Capitalism, which, even at a pre-monopoly stage, reduces variety rather than promoting it.

As I was traveling through the US this summer, I was presented with an interesting thought. No matter how many towns and cities I drove through, there were always (to varying degrees) the same stores, restaurants, and hotels. Every hamlet in America now has a Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. Granted, it’s not dramatic, but let us keep in mind that this is only in a single country. Lets take a look at the world. Now with distances of over a thousand miles between some of these countries, one would imagine the cultures would be diverse- alas, this is no longer true. Due to the imperialistic march of McDonalds, Starbucks, and other companies, the cultures already present within are suddenly forced to compete with the Western culture these companies represent. Take the cases of Syria and Jordan, for example. Syria has, on the whole, resisted foreign interference in its affairs, and, after pretty much closing its borders to would-be investors such as McDonalds, has managed to retain much of its cultural heritage and traditions. The same cannot be said for its neighbor to the south, Jordan. Jordan has embraced the West and Western companies, such as McDonalds, Papa John’s, and various clothing outlets, have thrived there. If you were to walk down the fashionable area of Amman, it would be hard for you to tell if you were in the Middle East or Southern California. While Jordan does still have a unique culture, that culture has been drowned out by the commercialism of the West. Is this the West’s fault? No- not entirely, anyways. The companies that attempt to exploit foreign markets are spreading Western culture, but doing so only because they themselves are part of Western culture. Quite simply, if you are told it is fashionable to dress in Western clothes (and Western clothes outlets are more than happy to let you have that illusion), then chances are your traditional dress will be forgotten. If local restaurants are forced out of business by fast-food, then chances are the aspect of eating (a form of socializing in almost every culture) will change dramatically. In short, along with expansion of companies is the expansion of the cultures of those companies. As we can see by looking at the world today, rather than promoting diversity, Capitalism destroys it.

But what about Communism? Doesn’t it, like Capitalism, attempt to spread across the globe? Yes, Communism does attempt to encompass the world, but Communism has nothing to gain from a monocultural society. Quite the opposite, Communism can only flourish if variety and diversity are accepted- we can’t expect a society to exist if everyone acts the same way and holds the same values. Indeed, the very lack of corporations telling you what is and is not fashionable or desirable can lead nothing other than a diverse society. In conclusion, don’t be sold on the Capitalist illusion of culture.

30
Jun
09

Communism, Capitalism, and Competition

Capitalism is a lot like a game of monopoly. Brutal competition, endless buying and selling and trading, a massive luck factor, and above all, the only way you can “win” the game is if everyone else loses. It’s survival of the fittest where only the most lucky and savage win- anyone else is crushed like the grass between two charging elephants.

So it is with our Capitalist system- though to get a capitalist to admit it is far from easy. Take Henry Ford, for example. Henry Ford is popularly credited with stating “There is but one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.”.

This statement, of course, is vile propaganda- pure and simple. Unless a monopoly controls the product in question, the profit that can be made off selling said good is reduced dramatically. In simpler terms “Since the purpose of Capitalism is to get the most money possible, increasing the quality of a certain good (which would cost more to make), lowering the cost of that good (reducing the immediate profit), and paying the highest possible wages to those making the good (increasing the cost of production even more) all lower the profit, then the application of Henry Ford’s quote would defeat the purpose of going into business in the first place.

And Henry Ford knew this. Ford’s genius was by no means limited to his inventive or economic prowess. Ford was also a brilliant wordsmith who could appear to say one thing, when in reality he was affirming the opposite. “People can have the Model-T in any color, so long as it’s black” is one of his better known quotes. Technically the “Do what you want (provided that it’s what I want)” statement isn’t a logical fallacy. There isn’t any contradiction- just a clause. The equivalent would be a TV advertisement promising to “cover all medical expenses”. While some healthy, attractive (and well-paid) actor is making these promises, for a brief moment at the bottom of the screen, some fine print letters appear to inform you that the service or product will “cover all medical expenses” except a long list of expenses. When Henry Ford made his statement about the goal of industrialists, one must remember to keep the emphasis on the repeated word “possible”. Possible can mean any number of things or situations. “Possible without violating moral standards”, “possible without charging over one US dollar”, “possible without actually hurting the profit you make”, and so on, though the last “possible” is the most probable. Ford made both a fortune off of his industry and appeared to the public of his time to be a generous, witty, and fair-playing man (and that reputation lasts to this day, the vast majority of Americans being uninformed of Henry Ford’s virulent anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant views).

And that’s the way it is with Capitalism. Every corporation or company or individual with a product to sell or a service to hire out follows the Capitalist doctrine of profit (by any means possible). Like a player in the game of monopoly, the capitalist attempts to make the best quality of good possible (possible meaning “just superior to everyone else’s product to be more marketable) at the lowest cost possible (possible meaning “just enough lower than the competitor’s product to be more marketable), paying the highest wages possible (possible meaning “just high enough to tempt employees away from the competition”).

Now one might be fooled into thinking that this is somehow good- that competition will inevitably raise quality and wages, and lower the price of the product. A nice illusion- but it simply isn’t true. Corporations will raise and lower their prices and raise the quality of their product or service but rarely at the same time! If one corporation lowers the price of it’s product by ten cents, the competing company has the option of trying to undercut the new price or attempt to raise the quality of their product. “Quality”, however, is a tricky word. “Quality” might mean anything from a new toothpaste formula to a brighter toothpaste tube cover. The company might boast “new, brighter, better!” but since all of these words are totally relative, the don’t really mean much of anything. Sure one company could sell toothpaste for less and another could maintain the same price but promise “whitening power” but in the end, the goal of both companies is to make a profit. They’ll only undercut and outdo each other to a certain extent. As for paying higher wages- that part of Ford’s statement no longer applies. In this time of globalization, corporations can sell products in the West and manufacture them in the third world, where the workers are so destitute that they’ll take whatever job they can get- even working sixteen hours for a dollar a day. Corporations have a stranglehold on these people and since there’s more than enough cheap labor to go around, no reason to raise the wage (or provide healthcare or pensions, for that matter). Additionally, corporations- already locked in a barbaric struggle with each other- have no desire for new competition to enter into the market. Small businesses can be bought out by larger ones. Unless working on a very local level, small (and often family-owned) industries have no way of competing with larger ones (take, for example, the extermination of so-called “mom-and-pop” stores by massive chains such as Wal-Mart and Target). “So some small, private stores went out of business- that’s part of the free market system!” one might argue, “If these companies can give me lower priced goods, why should I complain?”. The answer is simple- the price isn’t lower. If you work for a company that makes a product (shoes, let’s say) you might be led to believe that the shoes you make are being sold to corporations like Target. Actually, Target is getting shoes from a sweat-shop in Taiwan for a fraction of the price your company’s selling them at. Your company, unable to compete with virtual slave-labor, is forced to lay-off thousands of employees (including you) because it can’t sell shoes for the same price. “But I don’t make shoes! It’s not my problem!” you might retort. But keep in mind that stores like Target, Wal-Mart, and so on are selling virtually everything now, from toothbrushes to garden fertilizer to suites to frozen turkeys to optometrist appointments. Whatever you’re manufacturing- whatever product or service you sell- you can bet that a massive corporation is selling it for less.

How’s competition sound now?

And that’s only how competition affects you. Imagine that you own a business and you’ve successfully run the competition into the ground. That’s great for you but what about everyone who’s just been put out of business? They’ve been forced to compete with each other for whatever jobs are available, no matter how low paying or exhausting those might be. And what about their families? If the daughter of one of the recently laid-off workers comes down with some disease, her family won’t have the medical insurance to pay for her treatment. Are we really part of such an egocentric society that the suffering we cause to others is justified as “part of the system”? Are we so obsessed with this “survival-of-the-fittest” economy that every moment of life is a vicious struggle to stay at the top of the food chain?

I propose an alternative: Communism.

As legendary economist John Maynard Keynes once put it “Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men, will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone.”. Since we have seen that the good of the individual is not equivalent to the good of society (in most cases, it’s detrimental) I submit that we try the reverse. By cooperating, rather than competing, we can ensure that everyone is provided for, that the wages are fair, and that quality is controlled by the consumer, rather than the corporation. Sure some people won’t rise to the top, but at the same time, we can prevent anyone from being trampled below.