This book will doubtlessly go down in history as the favorite palm book of the elitist, petty-bourgeois American social democrats and liberals. If you are looking for a manual on how to look down on the working class for not having enough money or education to “know” to shop exclusively at farmers’ markets and Whole Foods, this is your book. If you wish to imagine yourself as part of a “new generation” of liberals with upturned noses pointed towards cheap food and the foolish people who buy it, and not bother to make a worthwhile analysis of why they buy it, this is your book. Finally, if you wish to remain blissfully unaware that farmers’ markets and organic stores are not particularly less exploitive then Burger King, this is most definitely your book.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. After all, not all is lost here-Schlosser does a good job of portraying the exploitation of immigrant labor and the horrible working conditions inherent in the fast food industry. He also does a great job cataloguing how greed is inherent also in capitalism and thus in its red-headed stepchild, the fast food industry.
He does not, however, examine how Whole Foods is several times as expensive as your average fast food restaurant (since it, too, operates on a profit-motivated capitalist system), and how that might be a factor in fast food’s popularity among the lower classes. Instead, he seems to thumb his nose at those who dare not spend extra money on organic beef instead of using the check from their below-minimum-wage job to pay their rent. There are some families (immigrants especially) that are simply too poor to afford good food, not to mention fast food is available and addictive. Fast food restaurants, like gun stores and liquor stores, infest poor neighborhoods. Might there be a reason behind this? Not in Schlosser’s world.
The over-intellectualization should be a given when reading a book written by a journalist, but there’s enough here to make even your most dyed-in-the-wool urban liberal queasy. When an author tries to draw parallels between the specific rise of fast food and the life-long alienation of American workers, between fast food and High School dropouts, one begins to scratch his head.
Schlosser is frequently quite reactionary. For example, in one chapter he notes that robberies at fast food joints occur because those they employ members of the youth, poor people and minorities-groups responsible for much of the nation’s crime, he says. I found this quite disturbing. Is he suggesting these “high-risk individuals” should not be given jobs? He concentrates much on the question of brand fetishism, but also on the Freudian analysis of the fast food chain as a “papa” figure, rather than a chemical addiction and irreplaceable “choice” given by schedule and financial situation.
Fundamentally Wrong Theses
It pains me to blast this book so savagely, since Schlosser’s heart is obviously in the right place. However, his elitist approach and complete lack of working class analysis must be criticized, as well as his blaming the fast food industry instead of the system that produced it. This book was not a truly critical look at the system. His pleading to the reader to “do the right thing and look beyond what is profitable” is moralist and does not realize that the kind of “morals” he speaks of protect private property and the eternal interests of empire. He suggests stopping ads targeted at children, but then goes on to suggest that this will only happen when we, as individuals, decide to not buy anything from fast food places.
Yeah, sure. Good luck with that.
Even if it were possible to return to the “small free enterprise” capitalism that everyone from the liberals to neo-fascists dream about, it is only natural that the more successful small business owners would grow into big businessmen and put others out of business. One would think Schlosser would have noticed that the fast food pioneers he profiled started from very humble roots—small restaurants to multinational corporations. Why would anyone believe that taking the process back a few steps, assuming that were even possible, wouldn’t lead to the same outcome again?
Staying Within “American” Politics
The Republican/Democrat argument is irrelevant and breathtakingly naive. Both bourgeois parties protect and defend the wealthy interests these operations he seems to despise, as well as the small stores he seems to think are the solution. In another section, he suggests that the lure of employment at McDonalds is causing teenagers to drop out of High School (seriously, what?) If kids are having to support families, that highlights a social and economic problem, not the “foolishness” of working at McDonalds. He then goes on to link employment at fast food joints to dying because of on-the-job injuries, not realizing such things happen in every industry. Shock, petty-bourgeois and bourgeois store owners do not care about their workers!
More deeply, Eric Schlosser falls for the capitalist trap of bourgeois culture-beauty instead of truth, or in his case ugliness instead of truth. He provides no meaningful analysis of a system which allows such commercial capitalist relations to exist, and provides much history of the food chains themselves while magically giving no historical analysis as to the societal conditions which gave rise to the business in the first place. Yes, McDonalds flourished in 1961. Why?
The Myth of the Small “Mom & Pop” Capitalist
Schlosser offers no solutions to the people for stopping the horrors of capitalism except “buy less” and “do things that are not profitable for big corporations.” By urging people to buy from small businesses, he is basically advertising for another industry, and creating demand for their product so they can be profitable.
Somehow returning to a blissful state (as if there ever was one) of capitalism is idealistic and defies the laws of capitalism itself, which naturally moves toward monopoly. This is why the small bourgeoisie are an unstable class with 95% of their businesses failing within a year of being started. This idea of going back to small-time capitalism defies the laws of capital accumulation—a big capitalist can outbid any small capitalist.
A Class Analysis
In the final analysis, Schlosser’s work is objectively pro-imperialist. He does not speak out against capitalism and exploitation-rather against big capitalism and visible exploitation. Most of his complaints themselves are capitalist and reactionary to the core. “Can’t we go back to the small business owner?” and “globalization homogenizes others!” Not realizing, or more than likely ignoring, the fact that it can equally foster and exaggerate differences for political needs. Another problem with this liberal analysis is that for Schlosser, the biggest problems are aesthetic ones, for example the old and tired “McDonalds and big box stores are so uniform and boring, no to mention they’re everywhere” complaint. Ah yes, Mr. Schlosser, how awful it is that your perfect suburban paradise has to be ruined by an “everything-you-need-in-one-place” shopping center. Schlosser would apparently prefer if the masses of people were forced to do their food shopping at many different stores to fulfill their nostalgic fantasies.
If nothing else, this book, as well as the movie “Super-Size Me” represent a growing tendency of the neo-liberal and social democratic movements to privilege reformism instead of actual solution to social conflict and “Golden Age”-favoring nostalgia of the “good ole days” to the actual, eternal realities of imperialism.
A Marxist’s problem with Wal-Mart is that it is a corporation, a capitalist enterprise, and it treats its workers like shit. I could care less that it is a big box store, and the fact that it sells every product for low prices is something positive for the working class. What does it matter if peoples’ days are longer or more inconvenient for the sake of aesthetics? It does matter to us. It’s the liberals who think that people should be forced to stop at half a dozen small shops on the way home for the sake of preserving a quaint past. The fact is, Wal-Mart’s prices appeal to the lowest common denominator because of poverty and availability. These are social problems which must be solved via revolutionary means, not through liberal whining.
His text, in the end, reduces itself to a mere gelatinous pile of complaints, utterly worthless, fattening and with no nutritional value, much like the food he so rails against. The irony of all this is supreme if one realizes that the small capitalist world they want back is absolutely impossible in an imperialist world. Liberal writers’ nostalgia and future hope for some unsullied traditional early capitalist culture where the small business owner rules and production relations are kept at the capitalist level cannot be seen as anything but reactionary. The base may have moved on, but the superstructure drags behind, wishing for better days.