McDonaldization and Opposition to Rationalized Irrationality
Our focus here is on the utilitarian organization, that which people go to for some type of reward, whether they're employees working for a paycheck or customers looking for products with the best value, quality, and consistency - or even students like us at universities. The idea behind “free markets”, chock full of this type of organization, is that we should have freedom to choose within and between them. Still, our degree of freedom in this choice is severely limited by the nature of the organizations dominating the market. We have seen the rise, fall, and rise again of huge corporations from the robber barons at the turn of the century to McDonalds and Wal-Mart today. The question remains: How can we simultaneously promote citizens' freedom to choose while optimizing production efficiency?
• There are a growing number of groups opposing the expansion of fast food restaurants and big box retailers
• However, these are by no means the only organizations to be looking at, they are just the most visible today
• The ideas behind these organizations is so widespread and popular because it is so effective - their tactics are drawn from highly rationalized economic decisions combined with marketing images playing on different individuals' conceptions of themselves and their needs – diverse, highly targeted, and well orchestrated
• Some examples from popular media as well as from citizen groups fighting to keep them out of their cities:
- Fast Food Nation , How Wal-Mart is Ruining America , Super Size Me , Store Wars against Wal-Mart
- Voters across CA derailed Wal-Mart's planned 40 new superstores, notably in Inglewood April 2004
- Gainesville's city commission took similar action this year by refusing to grant Wal-Mart a supercenter
- In response to these threats, public relations within these companies has begun to try to favorably reshape their images
- McDonalds has added healthier foods to their menu and reportedly is phasing out their supersize option
- Wal-Mart's new customized propaganda brochures advertise their economic/environmental benefits
• Still, it seems that these companies are underestimating the diversity of ideological angles the opposition may take - in fact, I submit to the reader that the opposition to these big, flashy, cultural icon companies are but easy initial targets, that is, early casualties of a quickly consolidating cultural/political aesthetic whose main characteristic is its anti-corporate ethics.
• Let's listen to what the opposition is saying about the pitfalls of these large, highly efficient corporations, that is, the beast in general, because it will teach us lots about the nature of the organizational structure itself that you might not otherwise hear or think too much about…
- environmentally unsound = MDs large scale cattle ranching operations in the West is extremely destructive to topsoil; what's worse is that they are now exporting cattle operations to Brazil, particularly in cheap, recently deforested parts of the Amazon Basin; they also lots of genetically modified agricultural products (wheat/potatoes); both MDs and WM are major component implicated in suburban sprawl (destruction of farmland and countryside); WM sells lots of “cheap plastic crap”, generating more consumer purchases and quicker throw-away product turnover
- poor labor practices = most of MDs and WM employees are young, unskilled, economically/ethnically disadvantaged women. In fact, WM has recently been cited and fined several times for using undocumented illegal alien cleaning crews; they are also facing a class action lawsuit for sex discrimination in wage, benefits, and promotions. All these things help make their workforce cheaper and easier to control. These jobs are largely alienating and dehumanizing, more like industrial revolution style service jobs than the information age occupations the future is supposed to be offering. Unions are upset because MDs and WM blatantly violate state/federal labor laws and do everything in their power to keep their workers unorganized; employees have incredibly high turnover and most try to keep their employees at just below full time hours so they don't have to provide benefits; fast food is dangerous work due to high accident and violent crime rates (stickups); working conditions are even worse for MDs immigrant meatpackers and farmworkers in the Midwest who hold the most dangerous jobs in America. Even worse off are the people supplying WM with cheap goods - sweatshop workers in 19th century style factories throughout poor nations overseas.
- local/national concerns = big chains like MDs and WM are a huge threat to local businesses who often can't compete with companies that own their suppliers and thus can offer much cheaper prices at much higher profit margins; WM often breaks anti-trust laws by selling its products at priced illegally under wholesale value; most profits from WM and MDs franchises don't get recycled back into the local community as the case with small business owners, instead, they are put into the hands of far away executives/administrators and into chain expansion plans, something most small businesses never consider. The chains dominance erodes local sense of community and ownership. Also, it would seem that national interests aren't served by these companies who move operations and profits transnationally at will with little loyalty
- anti-corporate globalization = critics of these institutions are diverse including farmers, leftists, anarchists, local businesses, nationalists, consumer advocates, educators, health officials, labor rights activists, and animal rights activists are converging on this issue. MDs are the favorite target for destruction overseas when American policy turns unfavorable; people dislike the homogenization of their national culture and find America best to blame – WM will be next on the list as it is even bigger threat.
• But still, these companies are highly efficient and convenient – fast, cheap, wide selection, consistent service... This is why we utilize them so much, because they seem very effective to us in the short run. However, when we make our basic purchasing decisions, we certainly aren't taking all the social costs (what economists call externalities) into account…
• How can smaller operations without the “Fordist” method of production and distribution be able to compete? Do we want the smaller forms of business to simply fade away? Do we have any use for them anymore?
Consumers continue to demonstrate a passion for localized, decentralized niche products – this growing “anti-corporate” preference. This is not to say that the idea is so important or widespread that most consumers (even highly educated ones) even take such an idea into account in their purchasing decisions. However, when we look at other manifestations of consumer ethics that many of us are aware of, it becomes clear that these ideas hold at least a bit of the unified anti-corporate ethic within their rhetoric as well. Take for instance some most famous instances of consumer ethics distinctions…
Vegetarian/vegan vs. meat and other animal related products
Factory Farmed vs. Small-Scale animal agriculture (local farmers and free range animals)
Organic foods vs. non-organic foods (Silk soymilk vs. Publix soymilk)
Healthy vs. Non-Healthy foods (high levels of fat, sugar, preservatives associated with big name brands)
Large Food Companies vs. local agricultural produce (Dole fruit vs. farmers' market fruit)
Fast food vs. Slow food (dinner on the go vs. cooking and eating homemade meals)
Farmworker/Employee Strikes (Taco Bell tomato pickers/CA supermarkets Safeway and Ralph's strike)
Sweatshop vs. Non-Sweatshop Labor (Nike vs. Doc Marten)
Fair vs. Free Trade (coffee)
Foreign vs. Domestic (Japanese vs. American automobiles)
Animal testing vs. non-animal testing (alternative standards of ethics)
Fur vs. Synthetic
SUVs vs. compact vehicles (Explorer vs. Geo)
Local vs. Chain/Franchised Businesses (Mom & Pop vs. Wal-Mart)
Corporate vs. Alternative Media (Network News vs. Indymedia or The Onion)
• Will this anti-corporate movement be discredited and co-opted like the environmental and labor movements?
• Maybe, but this is a different kind of movement, one that depends almost solely on people's decision to buy or not to buy…
• There isn't anything particularly inevitable about the forms of utilitarian organizations today dominating the marketplace – sure, those who have the most resources already have the greatest advantage – but that doesn't give them the eternal scepter of power - creativity and worldly awareness has the power to change everything
• In fact, one of the only ways these organizations have been sustained over the past few decades or so is through different government subsidies to these types of industries, starting with the construction of the interstate highway system that facilitated mass transit by auto and suburban sprawl and extending to generous tax cuts/exemptions given out to these companies by officials at different levels of government.
• The point is that the free market doesn't really reflect the true, unadulterated nature of customer demand… it never has and it probably never will – so the inevitability argument falls flat on its face – there are more dimensions to consumer choice besides supply/demand and more people are taking them into account
• The primary question that liberal democracies like our own have been charged with answering for the last two centuries is how to balance the efficiency and amorality of market tendencies – but they will only see fit to do it if there is pressure placed on them by citizen consumers who are serious about change
• This question has historically been left up to the appropriate governmental authorities (congress more or less) but don't expect them to come to the rescue to set things right anytime soon – their constituencies are fairly well distracted at the moment with other (mostly irrational) fears they see on TV. As long as this keeps us entertained, the biggest special interest lobbies in world history will still hold unopposed sway.
• Ask yourself: what is your viable alternative to the McDonaldization and “Wal-Mart-ization” of our world?
• Keep in mind that these organizations, just like the ones you are planning, sell lifestyles these days… that's how image is crafted and sold – all you need to know is how you and a significant number of people around you want to live… and of course, how you all want to be perceived by others… craft your representations wisely...