Book Reviews: ‘Fast Food Nation’, & ‘Marx’s Revenge’
Chips with … nothing?
‘Fast Food Nation’, by Eric Schlosser. Penguin £6.99
You may well think that companies like McDonald’s are objectionable, serving nasty junk food and disfiguring high streets across the land. But, as Eric Schlosser shows in this thoroughly-researched book, the impact of the various fast-food corporations is far greater than this, reaching into almost every aspect of daily life, and producing massive profits.
In the United States, every day a staggering 75 million people eat fast food. Within a generation, there has been a massive shift from eating at home to eating in (mainly fast-food) restaurants, reflecting the fact that many more women are now employed outside the home. This itself is tied to the steady decline in average US hourly wages (adjusted for inflation) since the early 70s. And the restaurant industry is America’s largest private employer, with the greatest number of employees on the minimum wage. Workers at these companies – most of them in their teens – have few rights and benefits, learn no employable skills, are rarely able to join a union, and have little control over their job. No wonder there is such a massive turnover of staff.
The big fast-food companies spend massive amounts on advertising, and have special promotions aimed at children, from free toys with kids’ meals to sponsored teaching materials in cash-starved schools. Their capital expenditures are reduced by reliance on franchising, which desperate franchisees see as an easy way to business success, even though the failure rate among franchises is far higher than other businesses. They also spend masses of money inserting flavours into the food they sell, because all the processing and freezing applied to the food removes most of its original flavour. And the food isn’t even good for you, being full of fat. More than half of all American adults are obese or overweight, and this figure is increasing. One 19-stone man from New York is now suing McDonald’s, KFC and others for causing his obesity: “The fast-food industry has wrecked my life. They said 100 percent beef. I thought that meant it was good for you ” (Guardian, 27 August).
One of the most wide-ranging impacts of the fast-food industry is on American agriculture. The raising of chicken has already become the virtual monopoly of a small number of companies, and now beef production is going the same way. Cattle ranchers are quitting the land in droves as enormous meatpacking companies dictate prices, pushing them ever lower. The suicide rate among ranchers and farmers is three times the US average.
The American emphasis may make the book less interesting to those living elsewhere, even though fast food is now a more or less world-wide phenomenon. There is an interesting chapter on the globalisation of fast food, with an illuminating section on the former East Germany. The first McDonald’s to open there was in the town of Plauen, where the new franchisees were the couple who ran the previous state-controlled food service monopoly. As Schlosser says, “Throughout the former Eastern bloc, members of the old Communist elite have had the easiest time adjusting to Western consumerism. ”
One of the strengths of the book is the individual case studies it contains, in addition to all the facts and figures. One example relates to a man named Kenny, who worked for the Monfort company in a meatpacking factory. While working, he was hit by a box that fell from a height. The company doctor told him he was just suffering from a pulled muscle, but in fact he needed back surgery, and was only able to return to work after fourteen months. He was transferred to another company plant, where he now had to do heavy work rather than light duties. He was exposed to chlorine while cleaning a blood tank and spent a month in hospital, his lungs having been burned. Back at work again, he broke his leg when he stepped into a hole in the factory’s concrete floor, then he shattered an ankle, then had a heart attack at work. While he was recuperating from this, Monfort sacked him. To my shame, when I first read Kenny’s story, I thought it was an amalgam of the experiences of a number of workers. But no, Kenny is a real person: “His heart is permanently damaged. His immune system seems shot. His back hurts, his ankle hurts, and every so often he coughs up blood. He is unable to work at any job . . . Once strong and powerfully built, he now walks with difficulty, tires easily, and feels useless, as though his life were over. He is forty-six years old. ”
Schlosser’s own proposals are the reformist ones of tougher government standards on safety at work and the processing of food. But they are not the point of this impressive book, which tells you a great deal about the realities of life under capitalism, and of the real cost of burger with fries.
Capitalism and globalization
‘Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism’, by Meghnad Desai (Verso Books)
Ever since the collapse of the USSR and the so-called “communist” regimes in Eastern Europe, many column inches have been written and words spoken proclaiming the triumph of capitalism and the demise of socialism. Karl Marx, we are told, has been thoroughly discredited and his theories have been consigned to the dustbin of history. The “End of History” had arrived.
Meghnad Desai, Professor at the London School of Economics and a Labour Peer, however, argues in his latest book Marx’s Revenge – The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso, 358 pages) that, far from discrediting Marx, the events of the last twenty years would have vindicated him. Not only would Marx not have supported the Eastern European regimes, but he would have welcomed their downfall. According to Desai, Marx argued that socialism could only be successfully established when society’s productive capacity had been fully developed under capitalism. This was certainly not the case in Russia at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Desai, however, maintains that capitalism is still far from having reached its potential. Although, he entertains the possibility of genuine Marxian Socialism, he relegates it to a distant future.
Desai begins his investigation at the end of the eighteenth century when feudal society was giving way to industrial capitalism. Adam Smith was developing his theories on the historical or “stadial” progress of society, in which Smith considered the newly emerging free market capitalist society as the highest stage. Hegel was propounding his theory of dialectic: the idea that human society would develop greater awareness over time through a process of struggle. This sets the historical context in which Desai discusses Marx’s political and economic ideas. He examines Marx’s economic theories as set out in Capital and finds that they do not suggest that capitalism will inevitably collapse. On the contrary, capitalism could continue indefinitely. Even the ‘Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall’ as described in the third volume of Capital only suggests a long-term tendency, with countervailing tendencies against it.
The period from the end of the eighteenth century until the First World War is described as the “first episode of modern globalization”. Here the development of capitalism in Western Europe and America is characterised by free trade and minimal state intervention. Classical economic theory was the prevailing philosophy. The First World War changed all this. The use of central planning by the German state in directing the economy towards the war effort, known at the time as “war socialism”, impressed many including Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who used it as a model for the new regime established in Russia in 1917. This, along with the establishment of the Bolshevik regime, set the scene for the next seventy-five years where the state would take a larger, and in some cases predominant, role in directing the national economy. Desai calls this the period of ‘deglobulisation’ or “capitalism in one country”.
Desai remarks that Russia, at the time of the revolution, was mainly an agrarian country where the industrial working class constituted a small part of the population. In these conditions, the Bolsheviks were forced to embark on a course of rapid industrialisation. The Bolsheviks and their supporters look to the earlier works of Marx and Engels, which optimistically predict an immediate revolution as justification for the Russian Revolution being a genuine workers’ revolution. They overlook the later and more mature works of Marx that argue that capitalism must be fully developed before a socialist revolution can be successful. Thus Leninist ideas on capturing the state through the vanguard party and organising society on state capitalist lines became the orthodox interpretation of Marxism. Although Desai describes, at least in the early years, the Soviet Union as state capitalist, he also rather inconsistently refers to it as an example of “Socialism outside Capitalism”, the attempt to build a state controlled society, alongside the privately run capitalism of the Western countries.
Desai also discusses what he calls “Socialism beyond Capitalism”, what Marx argued in the Communist Manifesto would supersede capitalism after it outlived its usefulness. Desai describes this as “a self-conscious society, aware now that capitalism as a system of private property profiting from the social division of labour could not offer any further betterment, that would proceed to take control over the economy – society, mind you, not state.” In chapter 12, entitled “Can Socialism Work?”, Desai briefly discusses the theories of Otto Neurath on the feasibility of establishing a moneyless society. But these appear to apply to a centrally planned economy rather than a democratic socialist society. Desai also appears to not fully understand how a genuine socialist would be able to function, when he asks “how such a society would decide about saving and investment”.
Desai contends that the Great Depression in the 1930s undermined the general belief in the free operation of the markets, and Keynes’ arguments that markets failed to perform efficiently and that state intervention was required for the smooth running of the economy gained ground. In the years after the Second World War, Keynesian economic theory clearly emerged as the dominant influence in the Western universities and on Western government policies, particularly in Britain and to a lesser extent the US. It heavily influenced the reformist policies of many Western Labour and Social Democratic parties, to which Desai refers as “Socialism within Capitalism”.
At the same time state capitalism expanded its influence with the coming to power in China of the “communists” in 1949 and the inclusion of most East European countries in the Soviet bloc. Many of the new countries that achieved independence from the former European colonial powers in the post-war years looked to the Soviet system as a model for economic development.
The 1970s saw something of an upheaval: the onset of a long-term economic crisis in leading Western countries, involving “stagflation”, where both inflation and unemployment rose together. Conventional Keynesian demand management policies were found wanting. The advocates of free market economics, such as the monetarists, who began the fightback in the universities in the 1960s, gained more credibility and the Keynesians were in retreat. In the late 70s and early 80s, the tide turned in favour of free market economics, with the coming to power of conservative leaders such as Reagan in America, Thatcher in Britain and Kohl in Germany.
Back to 1914
The USSR and Eastern Europe went into terminal economic decline, culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. This marked the end of what Desai calls “the short twentieth century” and the beginning of the second period of globalisation, where restrictions in the movement of capital have been removed in the major industrial countries; free trade prevails; the former Soviet countries and many third world countries are integrated into the global capitalist order. The world has returned to where it left off in 1914.
The Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe have fallen. The reformism of the Western Labour and Social Democratic Parties is in retreat. However, Desai will not be joining us in working for world socialism. He declares that “there is no rival mode of production on the horizon as a viable alternative. Capitalism is the only game in town”. He claims that, far from collapsing, capitalism has been rejuvenated. He points to the latest developments in telecommunications and computer technology, and that many third world countries are modernising along capitalist lines. The world is not ready yet ready for real socialism (“Socialism beyond Capitalism”). Desai suggests that Marx would agree with him. He wonders if genuine socialism will ever be achieved.
The main problem with Desai’s analysis is that he treats the state capitalist regimes in the USSR, China, Eastern Europe (“Socialism outside Capitalism”) and even the reformist policies of the Social Democratic parties (“Socialism within Capitalism”) as separate modes of production. It is true that the state capitalist regimes attempted to insulate themselves from the world economy in their earlier years. However the economies of these regimes were based on wage labour and production for profit and so were capitalist. The Western Labour and Social Democratic parties introduced policies to regulate capitalism not to replace it. Both were failed attempts to control capitalism. But as Desai well knows, and argues in this book, capitalism is resistant to any attempts to transform it into anything other than a system based on profit.
Looking at capitalism from a global point of view, it has already created the productive capacity world-wide, which would allow a world socialist society to produce abundance for the world’s population. All further developments only aid the capacity of capitalist society to further enrich the capitalist minority, while their potential use in enhancing the well-being of the human race is restricted by the profit-seeking structures of capitalist society. What is now required is for the world working class to become class-consciousness and work to replace capitalism with socialism.
The Leninists may have appropriated Marx for the cause of state capitalism. But Desai wishes to appropriate him for free market capitalism. He seems to want to join with other academics and New Labour, in celebrating the triumph of free market capitalism, while at the same staying true to the left-wing idealism of his youth.