ven 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
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
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
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
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence
& Wishart 1968
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, International
George Ritzer, The McDonaldization Thesis, Sage Publications
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