Big Macs, small horizons

Gregory Palast , Guardian, UK

Saturday January 1, 2000

America isn't beautiful - and that's thanks largely to an avaricious clown who is the spirit of the new millennium

My mother was a hypnotist for McDonald's. In 1970 one of the chain's biggest franchisees, moving millions of burgers in Hollywood, feared for their managers, who worked 15-hour shifts scattered over nights and days for little more than £2 an hour.

Some of these 'crew leaders' took on that look of insomniac spookiness that one imagines could end with one of them 'going postal', the colloquialism for what happens when the Californian penchant for self-expression meets the American fascination with automatic weapons. So my mother taught them self-hypnosis. 'Twenty minutes' trance is worth four hours' sleep!' Maybe that's why I don't eat burgers any more. I wonder about those grinning, unblinking faces, asking: 'Do you want fries with that?'

Ronald McDonald's first UK outlet opened in Woolwich, South East London, on 2 October 1974 - a quarter-century milestone that passed without commemoration recently.

But we shouldn't enter the new millennium without acknowledging that McDonald's significance consists of far more than caterers to the Dome.

To residents of Montparnasse and Hampstead, McDonald's heralds the Bozo-headed déclassé Americanisation of Europe. But to me, it represents something far more sinister: the Americanisation of America. This is my last Inside America column for a while, so I have to get this off my chest: America is ugly.

A conspiracy of British travel writers has sold the image of America the Beautiful: Georgia O'Keefe sunsets over New Mexico's plateau, the wide-open vistas of the Grand Canyon. But to get there, you must drive through a numbing, repetitive vortex of Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, The Gap, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks and McDonald's. All the separate tastes - New Orleans jambalaya, Harlem ham hocks, New England crab boil - the uniqueness of region and town have been hunted and herded into a few tourist preserves. The oppressive ubiquity of contrived American monoculture has ingested and eliminated any threat of character. The words of McDonald's late chief executive Ray Kroc - 'We cannot trust some people who are nonconformists' - have become our national anthem.

Almost. One hundred miles dead east of New York City, a hamlet of farmers called Southold held out. Southold was the last place in New York State where you could look from a rolling road across an open cornfield uninterrupted by Golden Arches. The town board refused McDonald's request to build. 'Just not part of our rural character,' it said. A group of visiting English land-use experts had planted the un-American idea of 'stewardship' trumping property rights. In Britain, these battles are common stuff - last month 40 mothers and children in Harrow, north London, marched against conversion of the Hungry Horse pub into yet another Avaricious Clown, but in the States 'Tiny town resists' was national news.

Southold's rebellion lasted six years. Then McDonald's threatened law suits, and Southold - my town - bowed down. Today, Southold schools take students on 'educational' outings to McDonald's.

This McDonald's story is my contribution to the Big Bubble debate. A whole gaggle of pressroom Chicken Lickens has issued apocalyptic warnings about the huge speculative rise in share prices that must soon burst and spew financial fire, brimstone and bankruptcies.

But stay calm. The sky is not falling. The Bubble Theorem is the creation of good-hearted souls of the Left, made ill by the orgy of monstrous increases in wealth for a few and begging bowls for the many. The world's 300 richest men are worth more than the world's poorest 3 billion. They believe the stock market cannot rise indefinitely on the promises of dot.coms that sell nothing, yet lay claim to a large share of the planet's wealth. The Guardian's Larry Elliot sermonises about the 'day of reckoning'.

But this belief that a price must be paid is religion, not economics - Calvinism in Marxist clothing. What the Left fails to accept is that the class war, as Messrs Blair and Clinton tell us, is over - not because we have reached a happy social entente, but because the working class has been defeated soundly, convincingly, absolutely.

Dr Edward Wolff, director of the Income Studies Project at the Jerome Levy Institute in New York, will soon report that between 1983 and 1997, 85.5 per cent of the vaunted increase in America's wealth was captured by the richest 1 per cent of the population. In that time, the country's income rocketed - yet 80 per cent of American families received 0 per cent of that increase. The market's up, but who is the market? The gilded 1 per cent owns $2.9 trillion of US stocks and bonds out of a total $3.5 billion, says Wolff. By no coincidence at all, the rise in the riches of the rich matches quite well the wealth lost by production workers through their falling share of the productivity captured by wages. US workers produced more per hour (up 17 per cent since 1983) while keeping less of it (down 3.1 per cent). The market is not rising on a bubble of fictions but on the rock-hard foundation of the spoils of the class war.

What's going on? Forget Robert Reich's sweet notion that computers can make work more meaningful. The purpose of every industrial revolution, from the steam-powered loom to the assembly line, is to make skills obsolete, and people interchangeable and cheap. And now, computerisation is speeding the industrialisation of service work.

That brings us back to McDonald's. While Kroc gets the kudos for building the company, it was the genius of the brothers McDonald - Richard and Maurice - in 1948 to divide the production of restaurant food into discrete, skill-less tasks and methodically, ruthlessly apply to the corner greasy spoon the time and motion paradigm that rules factory assembly lines. No more cooks. Any clown can make a hamburger for McDonald's. Their machines are designed so that unskilled workers can reach full speed on any job in minutes. Your Prime Minister believes computers will spawn a Knowledge Economy. Oh, yeah. At McD's, you can spend all day punching machine-portioned glops of ketchup on to burger buns.

The Observer has learnt that McDonald's has retained the notorious union-busting law firm, Jackson Lewis of New York (which is now seeking work in the UK). But why should McDonald's bother? Fast food operators' employee turnover averages 300 per cent a year - and, whatever it says, the industry must love it. Workers out of the door in four months don't demand pensions, promotions, training or unions.

In 1996, the McLibel court in London found that the company depressed the pay of young workers in the catering trade in Britain. But that is temporary. It won't be long before workers of all ages in all industries will need no more experience than any 17-year-old slacker - and be paid like one.

It is estimated that one in eight American adults has worked at a McDonald's. It acts as a kind of moral instruction for the working class, like jail time in the ghetto. It is one reason behind America's low unemployment rate. As my old professor, Milton Friedman, taught me, unemployment falls when workers give up hope of higher pay.

How fitting that the Battle of Seattle began when crazies threw a rubbish bin through the window of a McDonald's. The question is, will it break the trance?

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