In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord I recall
My little town
(Simon and Garfunkel, 1975)

My little town is about to be eaten by a new Wal-Mart.

This isn’t big news anywhere other than in Chardon (population around 5,600), nestled in the snowbound heights east of Cleveland.

To the people of the town I grew up in, it’s been a long time coming. My mother, who still lives there, and her neighbours, fought Wal-Mart, playing David to the corporate Goliath for several years, winning several skirmishes, but losing in the end.

I thought about this as I watched the new documentary Wal-Mart, The High Cost of Low Price which is making the rounds of the U.S. and Canada.

I knew I was in for a rough time when the first vignette in the film told the tale of when Wal-Mart came to Middlefield, Ohio.

Middlefield, a quaint Amish community where time sometimes seems to have stopped, is 10 miles from Chardon. The segment, highlighting the desperate struggle of a longtime mom and pop hardware store to keep afloat, broke my heart.

The family store didn’t make it. And now the beast moves to the other side of Geauga County to spread its particular brand of ruthless consumerism to the town that will always be home to me.

I was there a few months ago, and saw the behemoth rising from an open field on the edge of town, by a road that will soon be overwhelmed with traffic needing major improvements the taxpayers will no doubt be stuck paying for.

I knew what was about to happen. But the tableau that will play out is, of course, more than an American phenomenon.

I wish the filmmakers had included in the main film their segment about Jonquière, Quebec, where Wal-Mart closed down a successful store for the unpardonable sin of unionizing, instead of in the bonus DVD segment.

A recent Radio Canada exposé on the French language program Zone Libre recounted that Wal-Mart security spied on union organizers and followed their movements with video cameras, a harassment tactic covered in the American documentary as well.

As reported by the CCN/Matthews Service, the Zone Libre program also revealed that 10-14 year-old children were working in two garment factories in Bangladesh making clothes for Wal-Mart of Canada.

According to Catherine Vaillancourt-Laflamme of the Quebec Coalition Against Sweatshops, Wal-Mart has reacted to the exposé by announcing it is running from the situation rather than helping to eliminate the future use of child labour at the factories and ensuring that children currently working there have other alternatives.

“Cutting and running is the absolute worst possible response to reports of child labour or other workers’ rights abuses,” Vaillancourt-Laflamme said.

It’s just a taste of what it’s like to work for Wal-Mart at home and abroad, an experience also covered by author Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America a few years ago. The degradation of the world’s natural resources by the Wal-Mart system is also covered in some detail, in the documentary.

Exploitation of cheap overseas labour makes the cheap goods sold at Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. and Canada possible. But, of course, the damage continuum travels from Bangladesh through Main Street.

In the U.S. documentary, former Wal-Mart managers tell how they used to go to the Main Street business district of the towns in which they were opening a new store and make bets on how long it would take for this or that family-owned business to go down.

So I decided to take a nostalgic trip down Chardon’s very own Main Street to take a long last look before it dies. You can too — right here.

Some of these quaint New England style stores and storefronts have been there since I was a six-year-old buying a Mad Magazine at Lehman’s Pharmacy. I wonder how some of these may look vacant and boarded up. They cannot hope to compete with the behemoth on the edge of town.

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom in the documentary: Wal-Mart has been turned away in towns scattered across the United States. In Germany, Wal-Mart, opposed by strong national laws that don’t exist in the United States, had to make their peace with the unions. In Quebec, the news is not altogether bleak either — the store in St-Hyacinthe stands unionized, an affront to the Wal-Mart way.

But for most communities, the damage has been done, or in the case of my little town, about to be done.

There are two additional things that need to be mentioned here.

First, is that any demonizing of Wal-Mart shoppers misses the mark and is unfair. My mum, who fought the Wal-Mart, must now regretfully look forward to shopping there. On a pension and with medical bills piling up, she’s no different from many people struggling to make ends meet in the neo-con “new economy.”

For them, the $20-40 difference in a week’s groceries for a family of four can be the make-or-break for their family budgets. They have no choice but to go where they can stretch their dollar the farthest.

So, second point, let’s understand the real enemy here. And no, it’s not even Wal-Mart, per se. After all, what did they do? Within American style capitalism, they merely took that system to its logical extension. The company simply went all the way — cheapest labour, cheapest costs, cheapest merchandise, all marketed ruthlessly without the slightest consideration of the people or communities that would be adversely affected.

In short, Wal-Mart is the logical conclusion of American style capitalism triumphant.

And in all discussions concerning Wal-Mart, that’s where the arguments stop short. We won’t go there. But we must. If we’re going to even consider building a new humane world for ourselves and our children, we have to examine the way our system does business — not just Wal-Mart, the poster child for the “at-all-costs” movement, but the entire bloated, powerful corporate system that makes citizens serfs and even Prime Ministers’ knees bend.

Our common humanity is not served by allowing this rapacious system that demeans honest labour and the public commons to such a degree that even our sustainability on this small spinning planet becomes an open question.

Many of our élite thinkers view questioning of capitalism/worldwide free markets as a closed issue. But around the world and up our street we see that this discussion cannot be closed. Simply because we are told that our free-trade world economy is the triumph of human ingenuity doesn’t mean, in the long run, it won’t ruin us. We can do even better than a system that holds the world’s population and its resources hostage as “human capital” for the benefit of a shrinking pool of the mega-rich.

In Bangladesh, Jonquière or little Chardon, Ohio, the endgame is the same.

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...