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Big Mac Politics

The post-Fordist analysis was only partly right, argues Pete Smith in considering the implications of golden arches stretching into the future.

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union Marxism was in crisis. By the mid to late 1980s a range of intellectuals and writers, many of them associated with the Communist Party's journal, Marxism Today, and the so-called 'New Times Project', had been arguing that the assumptions of most classic socialist theories had been overtaken by events.

Marx had argued that the process of production was the key to understanding the evolution of society. Changes in that process would lead through into other social and political institutions. The clearest expression of Marx's view comes in The Poverty of Philosophy where he says, "social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist."

The thread in Marx's thought all the way from The Communist Manifesto to Capital is that the economic relationships involved in capitalist society would lead to a social polarisation which, in turn, leads to deep seated social change.

By the 1980s this expectation no longer seemed plausible to many Marxists. The traditional working class, described by earlier generations of Marxists, was in decline in both numerical and organisational terms. The rise of individualism was a cause, as well as a consequence, of the triumph of Thatcherism, Reaganism and neo- liberalism in general.

What Robin Murray (and others) argued was that a system of Fordist mass production, and standardisation was being replaced by one of Post-Fordism . This is one where consumption is more important than production. Where the big players in the economy are retailers rather than manufacturers. What Murray once called "Benetton Britain". The giant factories with their hierarchical structures and ridged divisions of labour, which had underpinned clear notions of class membership were, anyway, in terminal decline. The new forces of information processing, retailing, services, flexible production and the niche market were creating a new type of society very different from the period that had gone before. Eric Hobsbawm had argued on several occasions that what we might call the History is on our side view on the left was mistaken. The forward march of Labour had indeed been halted.

The problem with this analysis was that it was only partly right. It was true that economy and society were changing but the change was not all in one direction.

George Ritzer, writing from within the tradition of Max Weber, has pointed in a very different direction. The fast food restaurant in general, and McDonald's in particular, becomes the paradigm for the way society is moving. Standardisation, rationalisation, cost cutting, the triumph of quantity over quality, predictability, mass production and scripts dominate systems and institutions. Make the customer do the work by getting them to put the detritus of their meal in the bin themselves, or better still have a drive-in where people take it all away.

This process permeates not just retailing but areas of society, particularly the professions and public services, which were immune to Fordism in the past, but have now been sucked in. Schools, colleges, universities and hospitals are being judged according to the criteria which Ritzer lays down. More students or patients and getting greater and cheaper throughput. You might get three days in a hospital bed or four days a week in the classroom, compared to the twenty minutes at your table allowed for in McDonald's, but the idea is the same. What has quality got to do with it. As we do our banking by telephone or the internet we are participating in systems labelled, by Ritzer, as the "new means of consumption". These also include credit cards, home shopping through the TV, shopping malls, theme parks, loyalty cards and, now, consuming entertainment and buying products through interactive cable TV.

The distinction between shopping and entertainment has all but disappeared. IKEA put the kids in the ballroom so we can buy their furniture and meatballs. Theme parks relentlessly promote and sell products and souvenirs as well as fast food. American and Canadian travel agents arrange package vacations so people can be near malls and factory outlet stores. Some of the larger malls are already ringed by hotels and motels. Shopping has become a holiday and leisure pursuit in its own right and twenty four hour shopping is already a growing reality. Malls have become privately owned and managed public spaces. Kids go to hang out with friends, at least until, the security guards move them on. Of course this dream of consumer heaven cannot be true for everyone. The people at the bottom are excluded by their lack of resources and I suspect the people at the top would never be seen anywhere as vulgar as Burger King. Some malls even exclude people without the right credit cards. If you do not have that Gold Card you're not coming in.

Ritzer has termed the shopping malls "cathedrals of consumption", not just monuments to the new consumerism but arenas which offer the same products and services across a wide number of different societies. It is hard to escape McDonald's, Gap, Body Shop, KFC and Nike wherever you go. It can be argued that McDonalization is part of a wider phenomenon of Americanization and Globalization; to some extent this is the case.

American popular culture, fast food, trainers, films, music and fashion are embraced in many countries but also widely resented. David Ellwood has recently pointed out that hostility to American mass culture and cuisine has a long tradition in France. José Bové, the farmer who in 1999, broke up the site of a proposed McDonald's, became a national hero as a consequence. Bové has since led a delegation to the World Trade Organisation in Seattle (smuggling in an illicit Roquefort cheese as an additional snub to American food). The fast food eateries do sometimes make concessions to local taste by putting national and regional foods on the menu but these are often bland compared to the real thing and have to be modified so they can be produced and served in the fast food style. This comes down to throughput and virtual automation using low-skill staff. However Euro Disney had to lift its ban on alcohol sales on site because French and German tourists just did not get it. In continental Europe some fast food joints already sell alcohol and it is beginning to happen in Britain (Wimpy for example) because that is what customers want.

As we can see the processes of McDonaldization and Globalization are not uncontested. Naomi Klien, in her recent book No Logo, has shown that there is active opposition to global brands such as Nike and McDonald's. The domination exercised by the global logos and corporations is not a force of nature.

The American sociologist Richard Sennett, who now works in London at the LSE, produced in 1972 (with Jonathan Cobb) a book The Hidden Injuries of Class. In that work he visited a Greek run American bakery and spoke to the bakers about their work. The firm is now largely automated and owned by a faceless corporation and for his recent book The Corrosion of Character he returned and spoke again. One of the bakers (actually an Italian) said to him, "I go home, I really bake bread, I'm a baker. Here, I punch buttons." In other words his experience at work was inauthentic, he could only become himself, the best of himself, at home.

Is this inevitable? We find our lives at work emptied out of meaning and only our true selves at home, at the bowling alley, at the football stadium or shopping 'till we drop at the mall. Can we, to use a phrase borrowed from Ritzer, enchant a disenchanted world? Maybe we cannot. If the future is the golden arches, we need to fight the future.

David Ellwood, French Anti-Americanism and McDonald's, History Today, February 2001
Naomi Klein, No Logo, Flamingo, 2000
Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (Eds), New Times, Lawrence & Wishart 1989
Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left, Verso 1989
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence & Wishart 1968
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, International Publishers 1969
George Ritzer, The McDonaldization Thesis, Sage Publications 1998
George Ritzer, Enchanting a Disenchanted World, Pine Forge Press 1999
George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society, Pine Forge Press 2000
Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class Cambridge University Press 1977
Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character, W. W. Norton & Company 1998


March/April 2001