The end of Sears, the end of industry, and the end of the former American Dream
A recent article about the imminent collapse of Sears (see below) brings out the mythic resonances of America’s current economic and sociocultural crises with gripping clarity, and also with more than a dose of poignancy. Read it and, if not weep, then at least feel properly braced and saddened, and not only at the colossal mess the whole situation currently embodies but at the future-less dream that Sears represented for several generations of people. Although the overt thrust of the article is to point out that the company’s troubles are self-inflicted, since the company failed to change with the times and meet the demands of the new business model that arose with Wal-Mart etc., the underlying point is clear: that the so-called American Dream, as conceived in terms of open access to middle-class material prosperity and upward mobility, is not just on the rocks but is, perhaps, exhaling its last breath.
After the second-worst year in the company’s history, and with its annual shareholders meeting two weeks away, there is open discussion of a once-unthinkable proposition: Will this 126-year-old company, which helped define modern America, continue to exist?
…From its origins peddling watches to Minnesota farmers, Sears Roebuck & Co. morphed into one of America’s corporate juggernauts. Along with a handful of other corporations — General Motors Co., IBM Corp., General Electric Co. — Sears created the cultural and economic context of the American Century. But even more than those other companies, Sears reflected everyday Americans’ way of life. In its early years, the Sears catalog offered a previously unimaginable cornucopia of merchandise to a rural nation lacking many creature comforts. Those pages of baby buggies and dresses, shoes and sewing machines — even violins and ready-to-build homes — helped conjure dreams of a better life… “The catalog was pure brilliance at a time when (America) was a far-flung nation without a lot of stores,” says [James Schrager, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business]. The catalog was “really the Internet of the day — a place where anyone, at any time, in any place could take a look, say, ‘Oh my gosh, I need that’ — and get it.”
…Today the mood in Hoffman Estates [where the company headquarters is located] is described by some former employees as toxic and defeated, as even high-level executives lack the chairman’s trust and approval to implement strategic transformations. In February, in the face of a monstrous $2.4 billion fourth-quarter loss and mounting concerns about the company’s liquidity, Sears announced it would sell 11 stores to General Growth Properties Inc. for $270 million and raise $400 million to $500 million more by spinning off its Hometown franchise plus its outlets and some hardware stores.
…[The whole situation is] a scary thought for Sears’ 293,000 employees, including 6,000 at its Hoffman Estates headquarters. But the thought of a nation without Sears also is one more sign that the economic archetype of 20th-century America, built on manufacturing and distributing hard goods to an expanding middle class, is winding down.
— “Sears — where America shopped,” Crain’s Chicago Business, April 23, 2012
Along these same lines, and broadening the picture, see James Howard Kunstler’s latest blog post, which elicits the very same mood of melancholy at the ugliness and heedlessness of our arrival at this dead end:
A few weeks ago I flew to Chicago, hopped into a rent-a-car, and navigated my way on the tangle of interstate highways to the now mostly former industrial region in the northwest corner of Indiana just off lowest Lake Michigan between the towns of Whiting and Gary. The desolation of human endeavor lay across the land like nausea made visible, but more impressive was how rapid the rise and fall of it all had been.
…Between the ghostly remnants of factories stood a score of small cities and neighborhoods where the immigrants settled five generations ago. A lot of it was foreclosed and shuttered. They were places of such stunning, relentless dreariness that you felt depressed just imagining how depressed the remaning denizens of these endless blocks of run-down shoebox houses must feel.
…I was never so glad to get out of a place than those hundred-odd square miles of soured American dreamland. I was driving too, along with everybody else, on the Dan Ryan Expressway (US I-94), and for about 20 miles or so, from Pullman to the West Loop, the traffic barely pulsed along, like the contents in the terminal portion of the human gastrointestinal tract. This is what remains out in the Heartland of our country: a place so dire that you want to race shrieking from it and forget what you saw there. I have a feeling that its agonizing return to nature – or what’s left of nature — will not be mitigated by anything Barack Obama or Mitt Romney might propose to do. I wouldn’t want to be around when the driving stops.
— James Howard Kunstler, “Elegy,” Clusterfuck Nation, April 30, 2012
For sheer psychic protection, we should all bear in mind that there’s a cosmic boatload of this type of unwinding, both material and psychological, still left to go. And personally, I feel that although in the broad view of human and planetary health, happiness, and sanity, there’s a definite element of “good riddance” attending these developments, this recognition in no way dispels the situation’s mournful, elegiac feeling, especially for those of us who grew up cocooned inside the dream. Let yourself be sad. I know I am.