Like all historians who love their craft, Bethany Moreton is a gifted storyteller, and this book offers readers an engaging account of how a discount five-and-dime store conceived in the rural American Ozarks became the template for service work in the global economy.
The story begins with the agrarian Populist movement, in particular the white farmers from the South and Midwest who mobilised against the expansion of chain merchandisers at the dawn of the 20th century. The reasons why these displaced agrarian workers became the faithful soldiers of the Wal-Mart empire is only one of several paradoxes in Moreton's impeccably documented and eloquently argued narrative, which will interest historians, sociologists and general readers.
The early stores of the firm's founder, Sam Walton, succeeded precisely because he was a native son of the region, whose early attention to rural markets capitalised on its emerging consumer class, created by post-Second World War federal spending that would revitalise the Sun Belt. The story of how Walton achieved the "rehabilitation of big business with a Southern twang" examines how Wal-Mart fashioned a model of service work rooted in the ideals of family, faith and free enterprise that characterised the region's one-time agrarian culture.
While the chain stores that sought expansion decades before had threatened the masculinity of the male breadwinners employed in service positions as clerks, Walton's stores invoked the metaphor of family to make the shop floor safe for the men and women who would labour there for decades to come.
By equating authority with adult masculinity, the foundations of the Wal-Mart empire protected men from the emasculating risks of service work, even as they provided an avenue for women to enter the workforce as their subordinates - in effect, challenging the ideal of female domesticity.
Even more importantly, Wal-Mart espoused the new concept of "servant leadership", which borrowed from an evangelical lexicon gaining national prominence in the latter decades of the 20th century. By prioritising the relationship of service between the worker and the customer, as well as the interpersonal dynamics between supervisor and subordinate, the firm crafted a work ethic quite different from the confrontational models of labour organisation that had characterised the industrialised shop floor of an earlier era.
This new ethos solved a host of pressing problems posed by the growing service industry, among them, "where would real men develop if work came to look too much like home?" Christian servant leadership reframed the rewards of the workplace in non-economic terms, an ideological move that resonated brilliantly with other key shifts in the landscape of consumption in Wal-Mart country - particularly an emphasis on the family, not the individual, as the unit of economic survival.
Moreton takes care to situate these developments within the larger institutional context of political and religious change that characterised American politics in the 1970s and 1980s - such as the rise of the religious Right, neoliberalism and perpetually seething culture wars over sex, reproduction and women's liberation.
In this way, her account of Wal-Mart's ascendancy parallels the most significant institutional changes to the US political landscape over the past 50 years, even as she highlights other less prominent developments, such as the Christian free enterprise programmes that emerged in the region's small colleges.
Yet her most significant contribution is to offer an explanation of the paradox that political pundits have pondered in recent years: why many middle Americans prioritise conservative social issues ahead of government policies that would presumably be in their economic self-interest. Moreton's careful, sometimes wry historical analysis demonstrates that when "values voters" - with many Wal-Mart workers surely among them - eschew economic benefits such as unionisation, they do so out of allegiance to a radically new set of moral market priorities. The subjugation of the self to the global corporation, ironically, embraces a deeper set of ideals about the supremacy of family, the morality of self-reliance and the evangelical justification of free enterprise.
To Serve God and Wal-Mart shows just how deeply entrenched these ideals are in the world's largest retailer, offering an intimate portrait of both the contradictions and conquests of the new service economy.
To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise
By Bethany Moreton
Harvard University Press 392pp, £20.95
Published 28 May 2009