Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Monday, May 22, 2006

McDonald’s Around the World

I’ve often wondered why Bill Clinton got such a strange reaction back in 1992. You might remember, during the campaign, Bill was out jogging and stopped by a McDonald’s for breakfast. Yes, at the time I got the contradiction (exercising, then eating greasy food), but I remember that the reactions of the pundits went farther than that--they seemed horrified by the fact that he was eating at McDonald’s.

In 2003 I was driving through New Haven, Conn. I followed the freeway signs and found the Yale Univ. campus easily enough. I had never been on an Ivy League campus, and I wanted to see one. I had to mark the event somehow. I would have done the deed myself, but I didn’t want the negative attention, so I got my dachshund, Leo, to pee on the immaculate green lawn. Then I felt hungry. I started looking around for a McDonald’s. I drove around for around 15 minutes before I figured out that I had to "cross the tracks" before I could find one. It was about a mile from campus, in one of the "popular quarters" of town. And I was the only white person in the restaurant.

In certain geographical regions around the United States, entire brands or businesses (Wal-Mart, for example) are marked according to class and race. Along the coasts and in large cities, for the upper middle classes, McDonald’s is only a place to drive through in the morning when they’re late for work. Anyone who goes in to sit down and eat there could be seen as "slumming it." It’s likely that in Little Rock, like in all the places I’ve ever lived, this isn’t the case. But we can be confident that Clinton knew what he was doing, because his jogging break provided a timely counterpoint to George H.W. Bush’s surprise and delight at the UPC scanners in the supermarket. George unwittingly revealed that, just like any good aristocrat, he hadn’t seen the inside of a grocery store in the past decade, while Bill--good politician that he is--showed himself to be a man of the people. Not only did he know that "they" think we’re slobs for eating fast food, but he also knew that we know that they think it, and we feel looked down on and made to feel little as a result. In one act, he overcame his Yale education and his hobnobbing with Hollywood bigwigs.

By now, this concept is axiomatic for the anthropology of globalization: The Nike swoop in Ankara might look like the “same” symbol as the one in Anchorage, but in this new context it might refer to something completely different.

In 1998 I walked into a McDonald’s in Amman, Jordan, and I was surprised to see a very high concentration of women completely veiled and dressed in black. This shouldn’t have surprised me: Outside of the wealthy countries of the West, McDonald’s is one of the priciest tickets in town. For example, a meal at the McDonald’s in Tangier costs 39 dirhams, around $4.25. Since most Moroccans make around $5,000/year and most Americans $40,000/year, multiply $4.50 by 8 and you get $36 per person, roughly. A McDonald’s lunch for a family of five could cost $180. That’s a steak dinner in the US--a good steak dinner. Since the only people who can afford to eat at McDonald’s are the wealthy, and these families are also the ones in which the mothers can afford not to work outside the home but can be veiled head to foot in public, these are the kinds of people who eat at McDonald’s: the very wealthy, the very well (read: impractically) dressed, and the very conservative.

It’s a long way from the shabby slums of New Haven to the chic boutiques of Amman, but that’s how capitalism works. You’ve been waiting for Karatani, so here he is (Transcritique, pp. 239-240):

A neoclassical economist Karatani’s fighting with "praise[d] the extra surplus value earned by technological innovation as "entrepreneurship'" and considered "the surplus value that merchant capital gains as a fair share for its acumen in discovering the regional differences of value and [for] its adventurous spirit of going to ever more remote areas." This economist, and others who think like him,

"thought that the decline of entrepreneurship would terminate capitalism. This only indicates that capital would end when it can no longer exploit difference. It is only inevitable that the entrepreneurship declines when difference is no longer produced. But capital cannot help discovering and/or creating difference, no matter what is at stake.

"Thus, while merchant capital is engendered spatially by the difference between two value systems (that is invisible to those who exclusively belong to either of the two systems), industrial capital sustains itself by continuing to produce different value systems temporally. The improvement of the productivity of labor enables industrial capital to produce different systems within a system. Therefore, the look of equivalent exchange notwithstanding, it can achieve difference. Then immediately thereafter, the difference is dissolved and a new value system at the new level is required and produced. Capital has to produce this difference incessantly and endlessly.”

OK, so my McDonald’s example doesn’t completely reflect what Karatani is saying here. First, he's noting that merchants make a profit by paying a decent price for goods in China, then taking them to Europe and charging a decent price there, and the only difference is that the decent price in China is different from (lower than) the decent price in Europe--"China" and "Europe" are the "two different systems" above, and the sellers in China don’t ever see the buyers in Europe. In a similar manner, industrial capitalists buy labor from their workers at a decent price, put it incrementally into a commodity, and then sell the commodity back to the workers later. The workers selling their labor power as the commodity is being produced are different from (later than, in terms of temporality) the workers buying the commodity. The value added comes through increased productivity due to technology (capital investment). I think my point still holds, though: Capitalism doesn't just capitalize on difference, it actually demands difference.

It sometimes seems like anthropologists of the globalization persuasion (pop culture, transnational studies, et al.) think they invented the idea that commodities are consumed differently in global capitalist consumption. But it appears that this fact is engineered into capitalism itself.


At 5:35 PM, Blogger Jamie Brandon said...

Good analysis...I'm reviewing a book for a University press right now along the same lines...It's a cultural history of the Doughnut & its examines not only the history of the food, but also how it becomes "marked" as a sinful item and its connections to consumption...It's good stuff!

At 8:16 AM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

Jamie, thanks for replying to one of my Karatani postings!

The book sounds great.


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