The McDonaldization of Society
reprinted from the Scorpion
Book-review Die McDonaldisierung der Gesselschaft by George Ritzer S. Fischer Verlag DM35 332 pp English original: The McDonaldisation of Society, Pine Forge Press.
THE APPEARANCE of this book in English in 1993 and now in German in 1995 published in paperback by the mainstream Fischer Verlag is an indication of a growing awareness of the problematical nature of McDonald’s. At least since the seventies, when the McDonald’s franchise system really took off, Big Mac has had its critics. There has been the culturally conservative critique, spearheaded by the French New Right in the seventies, of the burger chain as a symbol of the Western or more specifically American Way of Life which was undermining and would ultimately destroy all organic cultures, replacing them with a modernist pseudo-culture. There was the leftist critique of McDonald’s exploitation of its workforce-Roland McDonald is no union supporter; and finally there is the ecological critique. McDonald’s are said to play a major role in the destruction of the rainforests of South America, encourage the consumption of meat produced under the gruesome conditions of the battery farm and mass slaughterhouse. The long running “McLibel” trial is about a leaflet produced by green activists in London which makes precisely these claims.
George Ritzer’s critique however concentrates on the sociological implications of the McDonald’s system. McDonald’s is here not considered important in itself but rather as a symbol for a certain means of production and a certain approach to business. McDonald’s is a system and its success constitutes what the writer calls the “McDonaldisation of society”.
What George Ritzer understands exactly by the term “McDonaldisation” is the subject of his book. Put in a nutshell it means the worship of rationalisation in business to the exclusion of all other considerations to the point that the process is, paradoxically,
irrational in many aspects, particularly as regards human happiness and freedom.. Ritzer explains how this is so in his book. By sacrificing quality, humanity, good taste, in the drive towards rationalisation, rationalisation in the full sense of the word being
the key to a maximisation of profits, the McDonald’s system, the capitalist system in full bloom, leads human society to the point
from which it once departed. It reduces man to the condition of a merely consumptive machine unable to escape from a fully
rationalised society, whose ultimate meaning however, is impossible to discern but whose manifestation consists of increasing
enslavement to a depersonalised system. Increasingly the human factor is being removed from all business transactions. With the advent of computers the tendency to replace human beings with machines has accelerated. In the name of time saving, bank
customers, the users of public transport and the like are expected to deal with not people but machines. The Post Office system expects its users to do its own work by writing post- codes. We are expected to memorize a growing number of codes and numbers. The paradox is, while drudgery is reduced on one side (that of the service producer) it is increased on the other (that of the service user). Meanwhile, leisure, which has increased as working time has decreased, is itself increasingly “McDonalised”, in other words, has become a drudgery.
Harking back to the oft cited Max Weber, Ritzer argues that merit in modern society is increasingly assessed in terms not of innate quality but of performance. in the distinction between quality and performance lies the whole deception of MacDonald’s type efficiency drives. In order to achieve greater efficiency a society seeks to eliminate the unpredictable, iron out differences. The aim is to dehumanise society in so far as a human society is to be understood as a society in which the unpredictability of the individual is respected. The tolerance of any society towards individual unpredictability clearly must be limited, but if total
unpredictability would mean chaos, total predictability would mean total mechanisation. By McDonaldisation of Society Ritzer refers to exactly that process of turning human functions into mechanical processes subject to the laws which apply to the rationalisation of any industrial procedure. For a fast-food chain to maximise turnover, a maximalisation of uniformity in customer behaviour is as important as the regularity of the production process itself, indeed it is part of it. The dependability of turnover is increased in relation to the dependability of all the factors in the industrial process. The customer is but a unit in the production process, no less than the chicken, the cow, the worker, the chip, the bun. When this becomes the coda for an entire society, as Ritzer argues that it is doing, then society’s “reason” is to become more efficient for the sake of becoming more efficient.
Efficiency for efficiency’s sake/ change for change’s sake: time is at a premium, yet time itself is taken up increasingly with
indulging in organized activities. In other words, we strive for leisure time but our leisure time is often as regulated as the working time from which we have sought to escape. If men are like machines, why not replace men with machines? Ritzer cites Weber-we are living in “an iron cage of efficiency”.
McDonald’s can indeed be considered an appropriate symbol of modern society. Superficially a service it is in reality a ruthless profit- making machine which causes untold suffering and destruction in its grubby business of selling third-rate and malodourous snacks.
Everything about it is bogus: a fast-food chain, it calls itself a restaurant, a notorious waster of resources, it prides itself on its
efficiency. McDonald’s is the epitome of contemporary capitalism, the motto of which is written on advertising hoardings all over the world: “Consume and Die!” It is a disease which quite naturally infects every sick society whose natural resistance, in the form of social solidarity and responsibility, not to mention democracy in the true sense of the word, is too weak to defend its members.
What can we do to try and destroy McDonald’s? Ritzer is pessimistic. He is convinced that the McDonaldisation process will continue and sees little chance of any reversal of fortune. His suggested remedies are inadequate if not pitiful. When driving on a freeway, concerned parents are invited to put their hands over their children’s eyes when passing Big Mac hoardings! Otherwise we should cook more often at home or when we do visit a fast-food “restaurant” we should make a point of being friendly to members of staff.
Nothing to make the New World Order tremble here. The sad fact is that Ritzer is unable or unwilling (or both) to draw radical
conclusions to his own analysis, one of which might have been that the United States as a political union should be destroyed. Ray Kroc, the Jew who took over an efficient hamburger firm run by two Scots and turned it into the multi-billion McDonald’s franchise chain, was able to thrive in a society which was already full set on the course for standardisation and depersonalisation. It is a tragic irony that the United States, founded on the principles of freedom
of the individual from personal tyranny, have become the breeding ground of the depersonalised hyper-rational tyranny of production associated with the conveyor-belt, the fast-food chain and the supermarket; from Fordism to McDonaldisation, the “land of the free” has produced more than its share of wage slaves.
Ritzer’s pessimism is no surprise in view of his lack of radicalism. If we accept the principles of international liberal capitalism
there is little that we can meaningfully say in opposition to Mcdonald’s, which is so far a fulfilment of that system as to have
become a symbol of it. If the end of society is to maximise turnover in all aspects of business, then the drive towards rationalisation will inevitably be to whittle away all aspects of irrationality, and that includes all the social values which separate man from beast or man from machine.
The ultimate McDonaldisation of society is the reduction of all human society to one unit of consumption, but there is nothing
within the logic of the current order which can put a stop to this. The only value which the current system acknowledges is the
principle of efficiency. A radical critique of McDonald’s, singularly lacking in this work, involves the rejection of the belief that efficiency for its own sake must be the foundation stone of society. Such a view in its turn involves a rejection of capitalism, where by “capitalism” is meant a society whose dynamo is money and whose driving motivation is material betterment of the individual by profit. I hope that those who read this book will think of more drastic ways to challenge Big Muck than shielding their children’s eyes. That sounds too like the ostrich to me.