Running Unalienated

Here in “The Lost Secret of Running” is 1) a brilliant little story of how capitalism (in the form of Nike) distorts our species being (We are a long-distance running species.) and hurts us; and 2) how to run as if you had a human body. Hint: It’s not how you’ve learned to run, which is to maximize Nike’s profits. Includes a video and stills of human running technique.

It turns out, that if we run like humans, we can run far, and faster, and without pain.

Human running (with some degree of desperation)

Showing more stills of proper running technique, this blog calls 100-up running technique “Chi running”. The technique’s about the same.

In a related story of what happens to food and health when financial capital steps in, here is an article about the blog confessions of a retired General Mills exec.
Need to know how to eat as if you were a human? Check out Michael Pollan.

“Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Feminism & Neoliberalism: Dovetail Development

Nancy Fraser on the co-development of the latter-20th century feminist movement and neoliberalism as a form of capitalism.

Neoliberalism wants cheap women workers.

Pillars of 2nd wave feminism (against state-organized capitalism) that melded with neoliberalism, post-1970s, to create the degraded form of feminism characteristic of the conservative age:

1) Critique of economism/focus on distributive justice –> cultural determinism, glorifying political-economic ignorance.
2) Critique of androcentrism, male family wage–> uncritical embrace of wage labour.
3) Critique of managerialism/technocracy/nation-state as arena of political contestation

–>market over state, deregulation, welfare state retrenchment.

It’s not just that feminism has been hijacked by capital.

There is an affinity between feminism & neoliberalism that enables their coalition: They both oppose traditional authority. Ideally, feminists oppose the traditional authority of elders, fathers, husbands; capitalists oppose traditional authority that slows or broadly redistributes profit accumulation. But capital has the resources and some feminists have the motivation to efface those specificities, or to cohere when the specifics overlap; and it’s capital’s terrain.

Current trends in feminist neoliberalism:

1) Today, feminism is less a critique of capitalism, and more of a contribution to neoliberalism, eg. microcredit finance as “answer” to poverty.

2) Gender and sexuality departments in universities are used to pioneer academic proletarianization, privatization and other neoliberal policies.

3) With the explosion of surveillance states, especially the US, feminist anti-male violence politics and policies are used as a tool to enforce US-centric state monopoly on violence and conservative policy orthodoxy within the capitalist World-system.

4) Feminist obeausity entrepreneurs oppose pro-working class food, health, and transit movements.

5) Neoliberal feminists continue to insist that we have to valorize popular political-economic illiteracy, which, they hold, is within a properly female domain, whereas they hold that political-economic literacy is “male.” This conceptualization translates in practice into the Victorian Progressivist/feminist assumption that a competent, educated woman’s work is properly low-paid/unpaid caregiving and hegemony transmission, wherefrom eventually elect women are promoted into caregiving and cultural management.

6) “Polyvocality” busywork keeps the young women fussing, fretting and preening about in the house, forever perfecting cocktail party guest lists and chiding each other about their manners, even as the house is being systematically dismantled by bulldozers, and plundered by Christian patriarchs, bankers, and oil men. It’s a prefigurative technique; it’s not political engagement. It’s a partial gesture, thats game-changing effectiveness requires social preconditions.

I agree strongly with Nancy Fraser’s dead-on observation that feminists (maybe because we come from different political and material vantage points) have not in this conservative era figured out how to oppose traditional authority in a way that makes feminism distinct from neoliberalism (that is, US-centric global monopoly capitalism).

While feminists who acknowledge this prefer to claim that feminism is just weaker than conservatism, and there is truth to that, it is also true that mainstream, liberal feminist politics and policies cohere feminists to neoliberal initiatives as well.

Eisenstein, Hester. 2009. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Boulder: Paradigm.

Eisenstein essentially takes up Viriginia Woolf’s enlightened charge in “Three Guineas” (1938).

and cites Johanna Brenner: “(M)ainstream feminist goals are entirely compatible with the economic doctrines of corporate globalization” (ix).

Judith Orr (2010) reviews the feminist terrain from England.

But for one anti-neoliberal feminist example, Naomi Wolf is always in there, drawing the line in the sand between capitalist class political projects and feminist commitments. You may prefer the (co-optable, acontextual) brand of female “purity” offered by liberal or radical feminism, but I really appreciate the dirty public role Wolf takes on in these controversies.

Prominent, reliable anti-neoliberal feminists include:

Nancy Fraser
Ellen Meiksins-Wood
Selma James
Judith Orr
Johanna Brenner
Hester Eisenstein
Naomi Wolf
Angela Davis
Barbara Ehrenreich
Julie Matthaei
Amy Goodman
Marilyn Waring
Jacqui M. Alexander
Chandra Talpade Mohanty
Pnina Werbner
Frances Fox Piven
Arlie Hochschild
Juliet Schor
Holly Sklar
Diane Elson
Mariane Ferber
Julie Nelson
Mimi Abromowitz
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Kim Phillips-Fein
Stephanie Coontz
Lani Guinier
Brooksley Born (?)
Naomi Klein
Sasha Lilley
Kate Drabinski
Emily Drabinski
Karen Orren (?)

Historical left-feminists:

Alexandra Kollontai
Alice Field
Jenny Marx Longuet
Eleanor Marx
Annie Besant
Silvia Pankhurst
Virginia Woolf
Raya Dunayevskaya
Dora Monefiore
Clara Zetkin
Dolores Ibarruri
Lena Morrow Lewis
Harriet Taylor
Evelyn Reed
Kate Millett
Bernice Shoul
Teresa Ebert
Marlene Dixon


What will feminists replace traditional patriarchal authority with, besides the orthodox, male-dominated US-centric market daddy wagon we’ve way too often been hitched to and steered by since the 1970s?

 Neoliberal feminism is not so much an abeyance institution as it is a technique for advancing conservative initiatives that feast on the blood, sweat and tears of women– while letting feminists feel those familiar feminine feelings: righteous and altruistic and busy…and exhausted and frustrated. This is a central problem to feminism that should no longer be pussy-footed around in the interest of maintaining a vagina- and queer sexual identity-centered coalition.

It does not increase women’s freedoms to answer “We shall replace the capitalist capitan of our hearts with polyvocality,” the idealist, romantic, pluralist “substitute” for sometimes-coalitional, sometimes-contentious political democracy, and a diluted, denatured and anxiously-respectable form of resistance. Which is not to say polyvocality isn’t difficult. Indeed, under present might-makes-right social relations, polyvocality can never be substantively accomplished to challenge the order. That difficulty doesn’t mean it is the prime lever to order change.

We don’t exit hierarchical, exclusionary, patriarchal “gang” relations by urging an interdependent pluralistic voluntarism (AKA  polyvocality). There’s an alluring micro-macro homology to that theory–and it’s too easy, and the US has shown that the valorization of pluralism cannot counter social human organization and power within a hierarchy building, surplus accumulating framework.

Instead Enlightenment’s champions fight together, over centuries, to found institutions that systematically, broadly redistribute  resources, surplus, status, and power (This is the Frodo Baggins theory: Concentrated power is a burden that corrupts. Control tyranny by distributing power to those least capable of (ab)using it, and keep it moving around. I’m sorry, it’s very nerdly; but essentially, in this view, Lord of the Rings is an Enlightenment story about how you get to communism. It should be rewritten by a socialist-feminist.), and we fight to beat back organized, capital-backed coalitions of conservatives–people who specifically want to restrict power, status and surplus to a small group most able to abuse it.

This is a long haul. Sometimes it requires disruption; sometimes it requires coalition-building and alternative institution building. Because there is an outside context of motivated power that systematically rapes and pillages, you cannot (figuratively) expand the acequias outside the remote interstices (figuratively, Northern NM) unless you repeatedly fight the long fight, as well as build alternative institutions and culture. Here is where historical-materialist feminists do not buy the capitalist portrayal of communism. Yes, communists fight, and that is needed. Pacified alterity cannot induce change by itself, because surplus-accumulating power is complex enough and flexible enough to absorb it; and it is not enough to celebrate the marginalized existence of pacified alterity within a dehumanizing, environmentally-destructive system. We need to re-engage strategic, contentious politics, to disrupt, as historical political sociologists Frances-Fox Piven and Domhoff will agree.

As Lichterman says, it is strategic not to reify specific individuals and groups as opponents, so that we can recognize the moment’s coalition opportunities; but we always have to be able to recognize the conservative difference and oppose it. We understand that egalitarian liberation requires a role for creative, contentious collective strategy when we recognize, as Zizek notes, that an order, including patriarchy, mobilizes its defenders.  The twentieth century’s basic passion, “the belief that politics was the key to our truths as well as our myths,” (Hobsbawm 2012) has not been superceded, only suppressed for class warfare purposes.

Polyvocality is necessary, but so extremely insufficient, that by itself, it does more harm (contributes to tyranny) than good (moves us toward broad egalitarian, developmental relations). Within the context of organized conservatism, the process and goal of polyvocality, and the prefigurative politics of polyvocality tend to deliver not polyvocality but conservatism, in the form of neoliberalism (conservatism-cum-liberalism). This is because the capitalist market grotesquely amplifies the voice of the powerful, the accumulators. In a putatively-polyvocal (pluralist) regime, the automatically-amplified voice will drown out all others. Like voting, polyvocality is an utter and complete mirage under capitalism. It prettily promises that immediately we can model and deliver equal and sufficient liberation for all, and with herculean effort it may provide a freedom here or there, at a scale sufficient to keep the ladies busy with manners and guest list projects while egalitarian freedoms are crushed en masse. Not unlike white women’s traditional role in the US South. So far, polyvocality’s chief accomplishment is to support capitalist class cohesion, and insofar as feminists subscribe to it, to subsume non-elite women under the project of multicultural capitalist class cohesion. Polyvocality alone cannot reduce women-exploiting, women-crippling business as usual.

You cannot move toward either political or cultural democracy if you are studiously neglecting and forever deferring to disrupt the egregious, overbuilt, institutionalized, hierarchically-structured relationships of tyranny and domination–our relationships within the oikos, our relationships to the surpluses extracted and amassed, and to those who control them–that structure our everyday lives. That neglect is the result of making the wrong (respectable, proper) coalitions.

Polyvocality has to be a preservation practice of monastery communities, and a second-tier goal, after feminists have stopped forming “coalitions” with (being co-opted by) capital’s primitive accumulation and exploitation initiatives, and have instead embraced the long hard road of forming capitalist order-disruptive, organization-building coalitions with the working class, which is not male (even if conservatives have had some of it wishing it were). It’s obvious that US working class institutions are heavily to blame for this coalition failure–but they’re nearly obliterated now. 

The point I am making in this post:
Feminists need a socialist backbone not because socialism is a more transhistorically-essential political program; not at all. Feminists need a socialist backbone because without a critique of capital, in a capitalist context, feminism will be emphatically subsumed by and subordinated to conservative surplus and power accumulation projects that eviscerate feminist achievements and obstruct feminist goals.

The conservatives are showing us that in the US, time and time again, they can invoke and wield Little King politics that promise, no matter what else might be going on, that every dispossessed American can join together with the political-economic elite in ruling with an iron fist over women as a group. That political strategy cannot be beat back and held down unless feminists can join together with socialists to advance, both with some prefigurative politics and with plenty of non-innocent, political conflict, both the egalitarian distribution of the wealth society collectively creates and post-feudal freedoms for all.

Women who have emerged from abuse know–You cannot overcome systematic abuse with a culture of “egalitarian” respect and listening, practiced by only one side, the abused. Now consider this difference in this analogy: We cannot exit our abusive relationship (based in surplus and power accumulation)–We cannot exit our planet, and find a more supportive “women’s shelter” planet. Ours is the long, hard battle not just to maintain a distinct, better vision of human relations, but to engage in conflict, to subdue, and to conquer the oppressor–as the political-economic opportunity strikes (as he loses coherence, confidence, hegemonic monopoly), and put him on a new track, within which he is motivated and compelled to share in the reproductive provisioning and to share resources, status, and power.

At that point the idealists–the anarchists and postmodernists have an important role to play in fostering reinforcing polyvocal culture and art. The monks and nuns of prefigurative politics will take care of themselves today. We need to be fostering, valorizing, and protecting organizers, strategists, communist horizon theorists (including socialist-feminists), monkeywrenchers, and fighters.

Nutrition & physical degeneration

Here is interesting early 20th century research into nutrition and physical degeneration, particularly dental decay. The researcher was inspired by the superior nutrition and good dental health of people not excessively exposed to the modern industrialized food system (In the parlance of the times, “primitives”). His research showed that replacing a modern diet with good nutrition (high vitamin / lower calorie foods) creates healthy saliva that reinforces tooth enamel and gum strength in the mouth, and can even repair tooth decay.
He found it very important for human physical and mental health maintenance to eat such high-nutrition foods as are only available locally (not bred for distance shipping), from plants and animals that are well-nourished themselves.
This research write up is published at Journeytoforver.

The High Price of the WalMart Economy

“Wall-Mart’s Shocking Impact on the Lives of Hundreds of Millions of People”
April 28, 2011

By David Moberg
Reprinted from The American Prospect

Wal-Mart casts a global shadow across the lives of hundreds of millions of people, whether or not they ever enter a Supercenter. With $405 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, Wal-Mart is so big, and so obsessively focused on cost-cutting, that its actions shape our landscape, work, income distribution, consumption patterns, transport and communication, politics and culture, and the organization of industries from retail to manufacturing, from California to China.

Yet other paths are possible, and the company would not be so influential had the world not changed to enable its metastasized growth. Had unions been stronger, especially in the South, and more devoted to organizing the growing service sector, Wal-Mart might not have become such an obstacle to labor renewal. If antitrust enforcement had not been narrowed, Wal-Mart could never have grown as big as it did. There would be no such mega-stores if state governments had not repealed Depression-era fair-trade laws. And Wal-Mart’s push of American consumer — product manufacturing to China depended on a previously established political and technological foundation of pro-corporate globalization.

But it would be a mistake to say that Wal-Mart is merely following the new logic of retail competition, for Wal-Mart reinforces all dimensions of this emerging business climate. As Jennifer Stapleton, assistant director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ project Making Change at Walmart, puts it, “They set the rules.”

Consider Ana Sanchez, a 45-year-old immigrant to Southern California from Mexico. Wal-Mart does not employ her but is in some sense her boss. Sanchez worked two years at a temp agency that staffed a large California warehouse. She was trying to put her three children through college in Oaxaca, Mexico, on pay that started at $6.75 an hour, then rose to $8, with no benefits. She retrieved cartons, put labels on products, then shrink-wrapped plastic around pallets to ship. Mainly, she shipped children’s clothing made in China to Wal-Mart.

The work was hard, fast, and stressful, with “constant pressure,” she says. “If I killed myself to make 2,000 labels one day, the next day, they’d give me 200 more. They kept raising the quota. It was very dangerous. And with every order from Wal-Mart, the supervisors would say there’s an urgency for us to do it. Managers would complain that the company was putting a lot of pressure on them.”

Rushing to wrap a pallet in April 2009, Sanchez fell and injured herself. Despite an unblemished work record, the agency fired her, supposedly for a paperwork error, but more likely — she believes — because she was hurt. Unable to find another job, she lives in a tiny room in a cousin’s house, making tamales to sell and looking for work. “I don’t want to go back to Mexico destroyed and a failure,” she says.

Zahir Chowdury (he asked not to use his real name) manages factories in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for an Asian multinational apparel manufacturer whose clients prominently include Wal-Mart. He admires Wal-Mart for setting “very structured, systematic” guidelines for everything from energy efficiency to treatment of workers. But now he worries that his prices are rising for inputs, such as cotton. His selling price has changed little over five years, but he hopes Wal-Mart will agree to pay more for finished garments, which is usually about 5 percent less than anyone else pays but for longer production runs.
It’s hard, however, to meet Wal-Mart’s standards at Wal-Mart’s price. That’s why the U.S.–based Worker Rights Consortium frequently uncovers major workers’ rights violations in the Bangladeshi (or Indian or Cambodian) factories of suppliers to Wal-Mart and other big retailers, despite their codes of conduct and monitors, says WRC Executive Director Scott Nova.

“Expectations on quality are up, also on managing logistics,” Chowdury says. “The lead time is squeezed. Getting fabric is difficult. Everything is getting squeezed,” including his workers. Though the new minimum wage is about $42 a month, he claims his company pays $90 a month because at anything much lower, workers “can’t survive.” He hopes someone will build power lines and roads into the countryside, so he can move the factory to an area where “every worker can survive at $70 to $80 a month,” and he could pay less. Would Wal-Mart one day just move some place cheaper? “Where will they move?” he asks.

In July 2007, Wal-Mart expanded its discount store into a new Supercenter, with full grocery service, in Galesburg, Illinois, a middling industrial and market town hard-hit by globalization. Todd Frakes, a life-long grocer, managed one of two Econofoods grocery stores in town when the Supercenter opened. “The first week, our sales were down about 40 percent,” he recalls. “Then in about six to eight weeks it evened out, to about 18 percent off.” They tried everything: deep discount sales (Wal-Mart beat them), special events (Nascar Day), better ads, playing up their hometown knowledge of their customers. They cut back hours to avoid layoffs. Just over a year later, the chain’s corporate managers closed the two stores. “The thing with Wal-Mart is they’re just huge,” Frakes says. “It’s hard to compete when they get stuff so cheap. It’s been really tough on Galesburg. We’ve lost a lot of mom-and-pop businesses.” One independent grocery, Hi-Lo, survives, and Frakes works there now.

“There’s been two of three factors that helped us,” Hi-Lo assistant manager Jeff Jefferson says. “The number of years we’ve been here in town and customer loyalty. We have fair prices and quality meat and produce. We’re never going to be the biggest, newest store, but we can be the friendliest, and we offer service. We still cut our own meat, and we still carry your groceries to the car.”

Such stories illustrate a few dimensions of “The Wal-Mart Effect,” as journalist Charles Fishman titled his book on the far-flung influence of Wal-Mart. Boosters of the company contend that every new store has just two relevant effects: First, it energizes the local economy; and, second, lower prices for local shoppers compensate for other negative effects.

The preponderance of research tells a different story. The net effect of Wal-Mart entering a local market is to reduce local employment, reduce area wage rates and total payroll (especially in retail), eliminate other businesses (especially small shops and small chain stores that directly compete with Wal-Mart), and raise poverty rates. University of California, Irvine, economist David Neumark and colleagues reported in a 2007 study that “on average, Wal-Mart store openings reduce retail employment by about 2.7 percent, implying that each Wal-Mart employee replaces about 1.4 employees in the rest of the retail sector.”

Wal-Mart knocks out many local businesses, economist Kenneth Stone discovered when he surveyed Iowa during the company’s first decade there starting in the 1980s. Between 1983 and 1993, Wal-Mart opened around 45 stores in Iowa. During that period, the state lost 555 grocery stores, 88 department stores, 298 hardware stores, 444 apparel shops, 293 building supply stores, and 511 other retail outlets — as much as 43 percent of some categories of retail stores. More recently, a team from Loyola University found that 82 out of 306 businesses within a four-mile radius of Chicago’s first Wal-Mart failed since the giant retailer opened in 2006, eliminating an estimated 300 jobs, roughly equaling the number of workers in the new Wal-Mart.

When Wal-Mart displaces local small businesses, it also typically reduces income and employment for local business — service providers, such as lawyers, bankers, accountants, printers, and newspaper publishers, since those services are centralized in Wal-Mart headquarters. Weakening small-business and professional networks further diminishes the community’s social capital, according to economists Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha.

Wal-Mart’s dramatic transformation of warehousing and logistics has also increased efficiency significantly in both its own extensive operations and in third-party logistics companies with which it contracts. Wal-Mart often adopts early innovations like bar codes, then accelerates their use because its size influences industry standards. Productivity increases in the context of economic growth are generally good if the fruits of enhanced productivity are shared with workers — largely not true with Wal-Mart. Workers gain little because Wal-Mart zealously fights unionization of its own employees and its global system (including unionized dock workers), and its squeeze on suppliers and competitors increases incentives to resist unions.

Wal-Mart has also quite likely reduced U.S. employment throughout its extensive supply chain, despite suppliers’ expectation that they would hire more people as Wal-Mart sold more of their product. But there are stories, well documented by Fishman and others, of Wal-Mart’s virtual dismantling of iconic supplier firms such as Huffy (bicycles), Master Lock (padlocks), Lakewood Engineering & Manufacturing (fans), and L.R. Nelson (lawn sprinklers).

In each case, Wal-Mart kept demanding a lower price, at times challenging suppliers to match the price of cheap imports. The companies improved productivity, cut corners on quality, and pressured their own employees and suppliers (who in turn tightened the screws on down the line). But eventually, Wal-Mart pushed these suppliers out of the country to China, Mexico, and any other place that could match “the China price.”

From 1997 to 2004, Fishman reports, retail jobs grew more than half as fast as the population, and more than 70 percent of those new jobs were at Wal-Mart. During that period, 3.1 million manufacturing jobs disappeared, so that by 2003, more Americans were working in retail than in manufacturing. Simultaneously, Wal-Mart tripled its imports from China, importing in 2004 about 10 percent of all Chinese exports to the U.S. It seems likely that most of those imports were still nominally from hollowed-out American businesses. So Wal-Mart sped up both American deindustrialization and consolidation of a low-wage, bargain — driven consumer culture where quality and price were both cheapened.

It’s not even clear that the surviving, compliant suppliers have prospered. Two independent studies found that suppliers to Wal-Mart, especially smaller businesses, are likely to end up with lower profits than suppliers who service other big retailers. Beyond squeezing prices, Wal-Mart often “takes a bite” out of suppliers, delaying payments to them. But some suppliers, mainly large ones, may gain enough from Wal-Mart’s big orders to make increased profits despite the squeeze.

The Wal-Mart effect on wages is more clearly harmful to workers, whether they work for the company, its suppliers, or its competitors. A group of University of California, Berkeley, researchers led by Arindrajit Dube, found in 2007 “strong evidence that Wal-Mart entry reduced average and total retail earnings, retail wages, and health benefits for retail workers over [the 1990s] — primarily in urban areas.” The loss of 1.5 percent of earnings for all retailers in a county, plus lost health benefits, with the opening of each Wal-Mart came from substituting poorly paid workers for better paid workers and from Wal-Mart “driving down wages of competitors.”

On average, Dube reports, workers at large retailers make about 15 percent more than employees at Wal-Mart, which pays an average sales associate $8.81 an hour, according to market researcher IBISWorld.

The Berkeley researchers calculated that in 2000, the downward pressure on wages from Wal-Mart was costing retail workers nationally about $4.5 billion a year. Simply the threat that Wal-Mart Supercenters were coming to Southern California led unionized grocery chain managers in 2003 to unite in a lockout — imposed in response to a strike against one chain — against the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The conflict ended with concessions from workers, such as a two-tier wage schedule and provisions reducing insurance coverage. Three years later, only 54 percent of union grocery workers, down from 94 percent, had health insurance.

“Long term, anybody that continues to gain market share is going to be dominant,” says UFCW organizing director Patrick O’Neill. “It’s like the U.S. and the Third World. Either we take them up to our standard, or they’ll bring us down to theirs.”

But what about all the money consumers save shopping at Wal-Mart? Experts estimate that Wal-Mart’s prices run from about 5 percent to 25 percent below most competitors. Commissioned by Wal-Mart, IHS Global Insight calculated that the company’s lower prices saved U.S. consumers $365 billion in 2007 — about $1,200 per person or $3,100 per household. Such analysis led even some Democrats like Jason Furman, now economic adviser to President Barack Obama, to praise Wal-Mart as a boon to the poor. Although Furman advocates a higher minimum wage (as Wal-Mart does), he argues that even modestly higher Wal-Mart worker wages would eliminate the company’s profits or push up prices, thus implicitly hurting them.

But an Economic Policy Institute team of economists authoritatively criticized Global Insight’s methodology and judged its projected savings from shopping at Wal-Mart “implausible.” For example, EPI critics say, the Global Insight report credited Wal-Mart with reducing prices it does not affect, like other services that make up 60 percent of the consumer price index. In any case, the EPI economists argued, if the savings are as big as claimed, Wal-Mart could raise wages and keep prices low. The Berkeley group also concluded that a higher minimum wage for big-box retailers would help retail workers and result in only a tiny increase in retail prices.

Government at all levels also loses when Wal-Mart moves in, lowers pay, eliminates jobs, and pushes families into poverty: As a result, government ends up paying for their Medicaid, S-CHIP (children’s health insurance), food stamps, and other aid. Indeed, in many states, Wal-Mart employees lead the list of Medicaid beneficiaries and their children lead the S-CHIP rolls, because they cannot afford the company’s health plan. In 2004, the Democratic staff of the House Education and Workforce Committee calculated that a 200-employee Wal-Mart store could cost federal taxpayers $420,750 a year (more than $2,000 per employee).

But Wal-Mart’s spillover impact goes further. According to Good Jobs First, an economic-development research group, Wal-Mart has collected more than $1.2 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies from state and local governments (about $70 million annually). It uses gimmicks to avoid another $300 million a year in taxes (and created as a supposedly independent corporation to avoid collecting state sales taxes). The company systematically challenges all property-tax bills.

Beyond its economic impact, Wal-Mart is notorious for censoring the books and recordings it stocks, excluding some presumably for their progressive political leanings and demanding bowdlerized versions of others. As historian Bethany Moreton recounts in To Serve God and Wal-Mart, the company has promoted an amalgam of evangelical Christianity and free — market ideology in colleges and elsewhere and draws much of its management from this cultural milieu. More recently, it has ventured into electoral politics with large political donations, mobilization against politicians supporting the Employee Free Choice Act (including heavy-handed pressure on its own employees), and the promotion of its own version of “Wal-Mart Moms” as a key swing constituency (an implicit buffer against attacks of its treatment of employees).

Wal-Mart’s greatest clout comes simply from its size, which in another era would have provoked anti-trust action — as happened with A&P from 1915 to 1979, even though A&P, like Wal-Mart, grew big organically rather than by acquiring other firms. “Wal-Mart is a symptom of a true revolution in the regulation of the political economy,” says Barry Lynn, a fellow of the New America Foundation. Bigness itself can be a problem, and competition as much as efficiency should be our goal, he argues, especially since Wal-Mart’s efficient bigness creates a dangerous deflationary downward spiral of wages and prices. Wal-Mart is not, despite its size and influence on prices, a monopoly, but Lynn says it may often act as a monopsony — a company with anticompetitive influence as a buyer — meaning that Wal-Mart is able to exert substantial control over supplier companies and their prices by accounting for a quarter or more of their sales.

“Wal-Mart’s Slump Persists,” read a February Wall Street Journal headline, as same-store sales dropped for the seventh quarter in a row. But hold the tears: Overall sales and profits were up. Yet Wal-Mart must grow to make its model work — breaking into urban markets, new countries, new demographics (more upscale), new formats (more conversions to Supercenters and small, neighborhood stores), new products (more electronics), and new image (going beyond green). But as industry analyst Bill Dempsey of the UFCW puts it, “They don’t have an image problem. They have a reality problem.”

Even so, there are alternatives. After leaving a trail of bankruptcies and corporate consolidations in its wake, the undisputed shark of retail is being seriously nibbled by agile minnows — or maybe some halibuts. In groceries, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s aim at higher price, quality, and service niches. Even though they are nonunion, they attempt to offer attractive work and competitive pay. Kroger — the most unionized of the three big merged grocery corporations — competes effectively with Wal-Mart in many markets by adapting to communities, creating a pleasant shopping experience, and holding prices fairly close to Wal-Mart’s levels.

Nobody literally goes head-to-head with Wal-Mart, but two companies with much better pay and benefits and less hostility to unions come close to such a face-off and are faring well. Costco, which originated on the West Coast and then went national, is a members-only warehouse club, like Wal-Mart’s struggling Sam’s Club. But according to IBISWorld, the average Sam’s Club cashier makes $9.48 an hour, and the average Costco cashier makes $15.50 an hour. A Costco worker also gets a substantial annual bonus, a 401(k) retirement plan, and health insurance, 90 percent of which is paid by the employer. The Sam’s Club cashier can buy insurance at work.

How does Costco do it? Low turnover of its trained, fairly satisfied, partly unionized, highly productive workers is one key element, says R.J. Hottovy, director of consumer research for Morningstar. The store draws a more affluent clientele than Wal-Mart, and there’s a limited stock (about 4,000 items compared to about 60,000 at a Supercenter) of often high-quality, heavily discounted products, including a successful house brand. Costco practices “creative merchandising” of products for which it drives a hard bargain, then takes no more than a 14 percent markup, leading to higher turnover of goods and double the value of sales per store of its competitors, according to IBISWorld.

Operating 189 stores in Michigan and some nearby states, Meijer is a widely respected, generous corporate citizen in many communities. Entirely unionized in Michigan, Meijer originated the one-stop shopping supercenter roughly 50 years ago. Now facing a challenge from Wal-Mart and other retailers, Meijer is experimenting with different sizes of stores, both bigger and smaller, and has promoted itself as eco-friendly, using some wind power and offering local “home grown” meat and produce. Meijer does not pay as well as Costco, but it beats Wal-Mart on vacations, holidays, pensions, insurance, and a voice at work.

Ultimately, it is possible to compete with Wal-Mart, offer good deals to customers, deal fairly with suppliers, pay workers decently, and even respect their right to organize. Better public policies and stronger unions would help. Maybe Wal-Martization is not the end of history after all.