Capitalist society presents itself to consumers as a collection of commodities. The commodity spectacle promotes corporate commodity goods and services through a multiplicity of media and sites. McDonald’s, for instance, is ubiquitous through its distinctive architecture, its products, its imagery, and its role in individual fantasy lives. McDonald’s signs and images circulate through its “golden arches,” billboards, movies, TV and print ads and, more recently, the Internet. The McDonald’s spectacle plays outwhen a Midwestern father announces to his family that “we’re going to McDonald’s tonight” and the kids break out with joy. The spectacle unfolds in Beijing when a couple’s only child announces to the family that they will eat out at McDonald’s and proceeds to consume a bagful of Big Macs. In Korea, a family celebrates its child’s birthday by taking his friends out for a Big Mac party, while a homeless boy in Mexico City spends the money he has begged to buy a McDonald’s burger and fries. The spectacle is reproduced any time that someone in the world follows the McDonald’s script, thinking that they will get some fast food, good times, and fair value – and then proceeds to McDonald’s golden arches to consume its food.
McDonald’s success was largely a result of articulation of its product and services with changing social and cultural conditions in the United States and then a global economy that enabled the fast-food industry to thrive and made McDonald’s triumph possible. An accelerating car culture following the post-World War II development of a national highway system, the exodus to the suburbs, and the rise of a youth culture all contributed to McDonald’s success. Increased mobility, social fragmentation, and a situation in which young people had discretionary income helped generate an inviting environment for fast-food joints in the United States. Young people sought their own spaces and could hang out in hamburger havens.
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In turn, mothers were freed from the necessity of cooking meals at home every night, as more and more women worked and as the ethos of the service economy spread from class to class and region to region. McDonald’s packaged itself both as a fun place for kids and as a site for family togetherness. Families who might feel guilt in not cooking healthy food for their kids had it assuaged through the pleasure gained by their kids wanting to go to McDonald’s to eat and enjoying the experience. And parents could rationalize the activity on the grounds that they were saving money and getting a good deal.
The McDonald’s era was sociologically the time of the rise of service industries and mass society and culture. McDonald’s came to represent the major trends and values of mass society in the United States in the 1950s, including conformity, uniformity, standardization, efficiency, instrumental rationality, and technology. It was part of a process of social transformation that substituted commodified products and pleasures for traditional goods and practices. Whereas previously people raised and cooked their own food, as advanced industrial societies evolved activities such as food production and consumption were themselves mechanized and rationalized. And whereas food was once a largely regional phenomenon, in a massified society, millions consumed the same modes of fast foods, just as they consumed the same TV programs and read the same magazines.
McDonald emerged, as well, during a time of processed food, in which science, technology, and industry entered into the food production process. Artificial foods appeared with chemicals to promote flavorsome tastes, substances to make the food last longer before spoilage, and additives to accelerate the production process and substitute cheaper processed material for more natural foodstuffs. McDonald’s helped acclimatize the consumer nation to an artificial culture and environment, involving individuals in novel culinary practices and products, whereby processed and artificial food replaced traditional fare.
McDonald’s thus accompanied the rise of a service economy, the growth of women in the labor market, the modern propensity to let machines or service industries do domesticated labor, and a standardized mass society and culture. These processes allowed families to renounce food production and to go and consume dinners in fast-food emporia. It was a period of transformation of the traditional family in which mothers were not expected to cook dinners from fresh produce every night and members of the family could go out dining alone or in combinations. It was an era of an increased pace of life in which pressures from work and multiple leisure activities cut into long-established activities such as dining, which could be speeded up to correspond with a quickened pace of life and the multiplication of the activities of everyday life.
The rise and expansion of McDonald’s also marked an era in which techniques of mass factory production were applied to service industries such as restaurants and food production. McDonald’s paved the way for the industrialization and rationalization of a wide number of traditional industries that had been on a smaller scale, traditional, and family owned and run. McDonald’s exhibited a wholly rationalized method of food production, with its division of labor and functions, assembly-line organization, and highly disciplined, fragmented, and alienating work environment, exemplifying developments in the capitalist system of labor and its effects on the workers described by Harry Braverman (1974).
In his book Labor and Monopoly Capitalism, Braverman describes the fragmentation of the labor process produced by an ever-expanding division of labor, the deskilling and standardization of labor, and the decline of workers’ wages and union protection. During the twentieth century, in Braverman’s interpretation, work became more homogenized, labor was replaced by machines, and corporations moved their factories to regions in which they could pay lower wages while facing less government regulation, taxation, and union control.
Providing a look at conditions of contemporary labor by examining the various forms of work that go into manufacturing McDonald’s products, Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation (2001), undertakes a muckraking exposé of McDonald’s labor practices and mode of production. His studies range from examination of the growing of crops to feed cattle and other animals slaughtered to make burgers and other foodstuffs, to the alienating, dangerous and unsanitary conditions in animal slaughterhouses, to the production of the artificial substances that go into McDonald’s products, to reporting on the deadening working conditions in McDonald’s restaurants today. The result is similar to Upton Sinclair’s 1906 classic novel The Jungle, which explored the horrifying conditions of meat production. McDonald’s young restaurant workers are overworked, underpaid, and subjected to incredible stress and discipline. The factory farms that produce potatoes and meat are industrial units that utilize pesticides and other chemicals that are highly polluting. The slaughterhouses and meat production plants are extremely unhygienic, with bones, feces, chemicals, additives, and dangerous pathogens entering into the food, just as in Sinclair’s The Jungle, while animals face inhumane living conditions and butchering.
In The McDonaldization of Society, George Ritzer (1996) interprets theMcDonald’s phenomenon as a process of societal rationalization that serves as a model for what the author calls the “McDonaldization of society.” McDonaldization is defined by increased efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through substitution of technology for human labor power, all of which constitute a quantitative, and to some alarming, growth of instrumental rationalization. Ritzer privileges Max Weber’s conception of rationalization to theorize the phenomenon of McDonaldization, which he sees as “coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as of the rest of the world” (1996:1). Ritzer extends Weber’s analysis to a wealth of phenomena, demonstrating that the principles of McDonaldization are restructuring a vast array of fields, ranging from the food, media, education, and healthcare industries, encompassing fundamental life processes from birth to death (ibid.: 161ff.). The strength of the analysis is the light that such focused perspectives shed on general social dynamics and the mapping of the macrostructures of contemporary social organization. The limitation is that the Weberian-inspired analyses often generate a one-sided and limited optic that needs to be supplemented, corrected, and expanded by further critical perspectives.
One might, for instance, deploy a Marx-Weber synthesis to theorize McDonaldization as a combination of instrumental rationalization of production and consumption with a sustained corporate attempt to increase profit through exploiting labor and consumers. Indeed, McDonaldization seems equally to involve commodification and rationalization, to commodify food production and to rationalize its production and consumption to increase profitability. While Ritzer applies the McDonaldization model to production and consumption, he largely emphasizes consumption and thus downplays the ways in which McDonaldization has revolutionized production – despite some references to Taylorism and Fordism (Ritzer 1996:24-7, passim). Likewise, although Ritzer stresses the role of profit in driving McDonaldization (1996:44, 62f., 87f., passim), one could contextualize the phenomenon within the framework of globalization and a restructuring of capitalism, noting how McDonald’s at once aims to increase both productivity and profit through rationalization of production and consumption. For, in addition to being a model for societal rationalization processes, McDonaldization is a key component of an expanding global technocapitalism in which world markets are being rationalized and reorganized to maximize capital accumulation.
As a global phenomenon, McDonald’s often articulates with local cultures and traditions. Combining mass production and consumption with hybridized cultural forms and processes, it produces a new kind of niche food production and specialization. Moreover, McDonald’s embodies a form of cultural pedagogy and promotes a certain form of cultural hegemony that has been strongly contested in recent years, opening up the McDonald’s spectacle as a contested terrain. Illuminating this terrain should help us to understand the accelerating role of the commodity spectacle in globalization and the ways in which certain forms of commodification and culture are being resisted.