Politics & Policy

The Specter of McDonald’s

An object of bottomless hatred.

EDITOR’S NOTE: McDonald’s turns 50 today. Jonah Goldberg wrote on the hated company–and their great Big Macs–in the June 5, 2000, issue of National Review. It’s reprinted here.

If you’re bored–I mean really bored–you might fish out an old copy of The Communist Manifesto and try replacing the word “Communism” with “McDonald’s.” “A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of McDonald’s. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter.” This McDonald’s Manifesto would at least be more readable than most of the dreck composed by the vast and powerful forces arrayed against the fast-food chain.

In fact, if you’re anti-WTO, anti-America, anti-capitalism, anti-globalism, anti-biotech–pretty much anti- anything–it’s likely that you view Ronald McDonald as your sworn enemy and that your most persuasive public arguments involve taking a bad word and putting a “Mc” in front of it. Signs denouncing “McGreed,” “McPollution,” and corporate “McDomination” are staples of left-wing protests everywhere. And, of course, here at home we’re all accustomed to the complaints of welfare-state warriors who denounce so-called “McJobs,” presumably because they think “job” is a bad word too.

It’s more than name-calling. In the last year, franchises in Switzerland, England, Belgium, China, the United States, and–surprise!–France have faced protests, boycotts, ransackings, and even bombings. In the last five years, more than 50 countries have hosted such assaults on the Golden Arches.

An international coalition of Greek Communists, animal rightsers, farmers, unions, affluent anarchists, left-wing intellectuals, right-wing nationalists, Luddites, Chinese Communists, radical Pakistani Muslims, parochial separatists, and malcontents of a thousand other varieties have all declared one restaurant chain to be the locus of evil in the modern world. And yet that same chain is so popular it manages to open a new store somewhere in the world every 17 hours. Clearly, there is a conflict of visions here.

To be sure, a big part of it is that “anti-McDonald’s” equals “anti-American” in many places, and America’s unquestioned dominance puts a bee under some people’s berets. This is especially the case in France, where McDonald’s is the only thing short of pedophilia or boxed wine that is safe for everyone to hate. Indeed, if this weren’t France, the extent of anti-Americanism there would be very disturbing. An anti-U.S. activist and author named José Bové is a French folk hero because he led a goon squad of angry farmers in dismantling a local McDonald’s with crowbars. An angry judge gave Bové a whopping 20 days in jail. Politicians bravely denounce the company. Jacques Chirac, the French president, recently declared, “I am in complete solidarity with France’s farm-workers, and I detest McDonald’s food.”

But anti-Americanism only partly accounts for the phenomenon. For example, protesters will often attack a Mickey D’s even if the U.S. embassy is more convenient. When Breton separatists wanted to send a signal to Paris last month, they blew up a McDonald’s, killing a 28-year-old breakfast-shift leader. (It was a mixed signal, to be sure, because McDonald’s is even less popular in Paris than in Brittany.)

McDonald’s-ism represents more than Americanism: The company long ago surpassed Coca-Cola and Nike as the true force of globalization. Political scientists constantly use McDonald’s as a metaphor; The Economist, the worldwide tip sheet on global prosperity, uses a “Big Mac Index” to measure disparities in purchasing power around the globe; environmentalists spin conspiracy theories about the company’s plot to create a “McWorld”; and anarchists just want to open a fresh can of whupass on the Hamburglar. Tom Friedman of the New York Times formulated his “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”: No two nations with a McDonald’s ever went to war with each other. (This was true for millennia, until the U.S.-led air war with Yugoslavia. Another first for Bill Clinton.)

But what does McDonald’s-ism stand for, really? Well–to borrow a phrase from Burger King–it stands for “having it your way.” McDonald’s is perceived by its enemies as a plague-carrier, imposing the pestilence of Western consumer culture and low standards on every hamlet. The reality is exactly the opposite: McDonald’s sprouts up naturally wherever there is enough economic oxygen to sustain it. As historian David Halberstam points out in The Fifties, McDonald’s was a natural product of postwar American prosperity. Young families flocking to the suburbs–often with both parents working–wanted a fast, clean place where they could feed the kids affordable, high-quality meals, on the parents’ own schedule. Anyone who has needed a quick coffee and one-handed meal, on the way to a 9 a.m. business meeting or parent-teacher conference, understands the vital role McDonald’s plays for the typical worker. Indeed, for all the silliness about the company’s exploiting women, the chain was an unsung hero in women’s liberation–allowing overworked women an opportunity for a convenient meal. One of the company’s first slogans was “Give mom a night off.” This eventually became “You deserve a break today.” That model hasn’t changed. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Harvard China scholar James L. Watson makes a persuasive case that the success of McDonald’s in China is dependent on similar economic changes: “As in other parts of East Asia, the startup date for McDonald’s corresponds to the emergence of a new class of consumers with money to spend on family entertainment.”

When Golden Arches go up, it’s not the hoisting of an American flag, but rather a sign that a country is raising its own standards. McDonald’s is the canary in the coal mine of economic success. Despite the fact that French farmers are the company’s chief antagonists, France’s 800 McDonald’s buy 80 percent of their ingredients in France, sustaining 45,000 French beef producers. The same pattern obtains throughout most of the world.

In his essay, Watson argues that McDonald’s is a barometer and accelerator of bourgeoisification in China. He points out that for all the complaints against the company’s “cheap” standards, it maintains more reliably sanitary conditions than most indigenous Chinese eateries. Indeed, this points to the educational value of McDonald’s. Watson reports that the fetish McDonald’s makes of cleaning bathrooms has only had a salutary effect in the rest of China. Another social benefit was evident at the opening of the McDonald’s in Hong Kong: Customers, in traditional style, swarmed the counter, screaming and thrusting their money toward the cashier. McDonald’s appointed a young female “queue monitor” to coax the mob into a line. Watson credits McDonald’s for the fact that middle- and upper-class customers in Hong Kong, and increasingly throughout China, have come to accept a wait-your-turn system instead of mobs. This may sadden traditionalists, but nostalgia for mobs is not a strong argument.

The most relentless criticism against McDonald’s is that it is a profit-hungry multinational offering nothing but minimum-wage, dead-end jobs. Don’t believe the hype. First, the “greedy” charge is an entertaining one, considering that the company’s success is famously tied to its low profit margins. If profit equals greed, McDonald’s is not an offender. Besides, low prices are surely a good thing for the world’s poor.

Second, while there’s nothing wrong with paying the minimum wage, the truth is that McDonald’s is paying considerably higher than the minimum wage in most regions, and many franchises are now offering health and dental benefits. The average manager in a company-owned McDonald’s starts in the mid 30s. As for dead-end jobs, with one-eighth of the American work force having worked for a McDonald’s at some point, the company has rightly been called America’s best job-training program. Young people are taught cleanliness, punctuality, and basic business skills. Over half of the company’s middle and senior management started as hourly workers.

Yes, McDonald’s does things to anger environmentalists, but who doesn’t? Their real problem is with development of any kind, and by beating up on Mickey D’s they blame one kind of flower instead of the fertile garden that produces it.

At its core, anti-McDonald’s fervor is less an instance of anti-Americanism or anti-globalism than a form of elitist nostalgia. Bové, the French activist, understands this. He says, “McDonald’s is a symbol of industrial food production. Whether such products are American or French, the effect is the same: the destruction of traditional farming, different cultures and ways of life.” He’s confused, but he’s honest. As Watson points out, if you wanted to try real industrial and unsafe food, you should have visited China before it got McDonald’s. Today, Watson says, China offers vastly better high- and low-end eating than it did even ten years ago. When people want to get rid of McDonald’s, they want to turn back the clock.

When I lived briefly in Prague, I saw this phenomenon first hand. The expats there were livid that a McDonald’s was coming to town. They very much wanted Prague to maintain its sealed-in-amber charm, complete with authentic lousy food. But I remember a Czech friend’s outrage at the idea that McDonald’s should be kept out. “You try living without hot, cheap, safe food when you want it, for forty years. It’s easy for them to say. We don’t want to be Prague-Land for young Americans. We want to be a real country.” A real country, like America–where there is one McDonald’s franchise for every 30,000 people (the exact ratio the Founders intended for congressional representation). Around the world, the company has more than 25,000 outlets in 119 countries. Clearly McDonald’s is giving people something they want. And, one last thing in their defense: Big Macs taste really good.

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