originally published April 5, 2014
As we clamber into another springtime, the romantics fluttering their tootsies at the prospect of potential prospects while we loathers of the eternal snow pray for sanctuary from the dreary grey, it’s time to get away from talking about the weather and back to what matters: bitching about society. It doesn’t take a Father Knows Best marathon or a visit to one’s local seniors’ home to realize that things aren’t as they used to be. Our inherent institutional respect has deteriorated, our unflinching trust of “the system” has fallen like a Jenga tower of probing questions, and people appear to be less affluent and less happy about it.
On the flip-side, we have an unending cavalcade of bulldog puppy pictures on the internet, so perhaps we aren’t entirely doomed. But no – that’s the wrong attitude. You can’t get a good kvetch on if you’re looking at puppy pics. If we want to stack our plate at the local gripe-ateria, we must excrete the cutesiness and optimism we might possess and make room for the complaining.
I make no apologies for that metaphor. As anyone who read the book Fast Food Nation knows, we are living in a fast-food nation (I haven’t read the book, but the front cover was very informative). I’m not talking about our collective addiction to Whoppers and Double-Downs and Blizzards and Sonic’s delectable tater-tots. Fast-food is representative of everything we’ve been sinking into, culturally-speaking, over the last few decades. Rev up your grumble-motors – it’s time to whine about ourselves.
Sociologist George “Puttin’ On The” Ritzer observed our gradual slip into societal doom back in 1993 when he wrote his best-selling (or at least good-selling – I don’t have the numbers) book, The McDonaldization of Society. Max Weber – that’s the German political economist from the early 1900’s, not the Canadian rock band from the 80’s – used the bureaucracy as a representation of society. George Ritzer felt we’d evolved into a new cultural organism, and that the multi-national fast food empire was a better way of seeing us today. Or, ‘today’ in his 21-year-old book, but I think you’ll agree we’re still there.
We have been shifting from the traditional mode of thought into a more rational process for years. We are less guided by ancient morality and outright conservatism and more driven by the marketplace and the outright scientific means by which we can hold as much of it as possible in our pockets. This shift may have begun within the embers of American capitalism, but thanks to globalization we’re seeing this inferno spread all around the globe.
Ritzer has pinpointed four pillars of McDonaldization. There’s efficiency: everything present in a McDonald’s restaurant is specifically geared toward minimal time and maximum turnaround, from the pre-cooked patty-warming drawers to the mostly uncomfortable plastic seating. It’s the fastest route from A to B – in this case from a hungry customer to a full one, and evidence of this mandated efficiency pops up in virtually every corporate culture out there. This leads into the second important concept – calculability. McDonald’s wants to quantify their success through sales rather than qualify it through making food that actually tastes good. Okay, that’s basic economics. But they also know that they can tap into our sense of quantification by offering us a substantial amount of food for a low cost. You can still fill your face at McDonald’s for $6 – that’s enough of a selling point to make a lot of people forget that a McChicken tastes like a sofa cushion.
Now imagine that philosophy expanded to our entire culture. Sacrificing quality for quantity is happening everywhere, from cheapo $5 t-shirts that wear out before lunch to the people who actually buy dollar-DVDs from the discount bin.
The other two tenets of Ritzer’s observations are fairly self-evident mainstays of the McWorld: predictability – every McDonald’s is expected to provide a fairly identical experience, same as you’d expect from every Gap, every Costco, every Old Navy – and control – employees must conform to a strict and rigid corporate philosophy. The other option for control is, of course, mechanizing the process, something that has become significantly easier to attain in the online market that has popped up in the years since Ritzer’s book.
Fortunately, the McDonaldization process isn’t going to bring about a 1984-esque degradation of our world. We don’t have to worry about becoming corporate slave automatons dressed in sci-fi jumpsuits and confessing our indiscretions to an automated salvation-system that will dispense mind-numbing medication to ensure our continued sheep-like behavior (which is as many future-dystopia-film tropes as I can fit into a single sentence). The corporate system’s weaknesses are already poking through the seams. George Ritzer calls this the ‘irrationality of rationalization’.
This essentially means that the dehumanization will become evident before we all devolve into expressionless flesh-robots. Bureaucratic red tape has snarled the quest for efficiency, the focus on calculability has led to low quality products, employees have become frustrated and confused about their lowly position and few prospects for elevation within the corporate culture (which kills off predictability), and the concept of control is, as a result, getting shakier. Is this good news? Can we all be saved?
Is salvation even in our best interests?
According to journalist Thomas L. Friedman, no two countries with a McDonald’s inside their borders has ever fought a war against one another, at least after the restaurant chain had opened up shop. This is known as the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, and it no doubt has more to do with McDonald’s-hosting countries being relatively stable and financially secure than the ability for each society to procure a Filet-O-Fish. Okay, the US did invade Panama in 1989, but that wasn’t technically a ‘war’. Oh, and India and Pakistan duked it out in 1999, but that was just a regional Kashmir thing, not an all-out military deathmatch.
Shortly after Friedman’s book dropped in 1999, NATO bombed Yugoslavia, and Belgrade protestors demolished the city’s McDonald’s. Friedman revised his book in 2000, citing the swift end of that conflict as evidence that Serbia did not want to lose its place in the global system that remains very much symbolized by McDonald’s. There have been other exceptions since (Crimea and Russia, for example), but it’s still an interesting lens through which to squint at the world.
So we may be addicted to bite-size junk journalism, and maybe our post-secondary aspirations have been shaped by pseudo-universities that offer bullshit online degrees. Maybe we’re eager to embrace mediocrity because dammit, when it’s placed in a shiny ad next to a sexy model and a thousand twinkly lights it just looks so good. But I don’t buy it – we’ll sink into this muck pretty far but for most of us, there’s a way out.
As McDonald’s continues to spread its tendrils around the planet, a number of corporations are discovering the massive niche market of people who actually want quality over quantity, who actually want skilled, free-thinking workers and a subtle unpredictability in their experience. Even look at one of the myriad of Buzzfeed articles – Buzzfeed itself being a McDonaldization of online information – about the weird regional McDonald’s dishes that seem to show up in every country in order to cater to local tastes. Is that not traditionalism and/or individuality triumphing in a small way over the corporate machine? Is the proliferation of craft beer not indicative of our collective will to resist the vacuum of corporate homogeneity?
So there’s hope. At least until my next rant – the Kardashianization of popular culture. Until then, I highly recommend an overdose on optimism-feeding bulldog puppy pics.