“It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.” – Max Weber
Let’s start with a version of the old drinking game “Have you ever?”:
- Have you ever pumped your own gas?
- Have you ever bussed your own table in a restaurant?
- Have you ever used the self-checkout in a store?
Almost all of us would answer “Yes” to all three of these questions. That makes almost all of us compliant victims of the irrationality that comes from rationality run amok. Sociologist George Ritzer’s classic The McDonaldization of Society argues that our culture has become increasingly acquiescent in accepting irrational demands as institution after institution has adopted tenets developed by fast food giant McDonald’s for the operation of its stores – tenets of what might be called “hyper-rationality” designed to reduce to as close to zero as possible human error – and input.
Ritzer’s book, now in its 8th edition and nearing it 25th anniversary, has a history behind its composition and a history of its own since its original publication. Understanding both those histories is important to recognizing the long history behind the rise of McDonaldization and how its effects have altered human culture – perhaps irreparably.
The Roots of McDonaldization
Ritzer bases his theory of McDonaldization on the work of sociologist and political economist, Max Weber. Weber’s most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, explores the conflicts caused by the attempt to reconcile Protestant religious belief with modern capitalism and what Weber called “disenchantment.” Weber’s chief thesis, developed in this and subsequent works such as his essay “Politics as a Vocation,” advances two critical ideas that influence the work of subsequent scholars such as Ritzer: 1) modern capitalism derives much of its force from its ability to subvert Protestant Christian belief, with its doubts and concerns about salvation, to the capitalist ideal of increasing wealth (Weber claims Catholicism, with its “salvation guarantees,” is less easily manipulable) – the idea of “being/doing good,” a key tenet of following the faith, is perverted into the idea of getting as much material wealth as possible (if an image of Joel Osteen just popped into your head, I’m sorry, but intellectually you’re on the right track); 2) governments increasingly operate via bureaucratic means based on their “rational-legal” ability to exert power and use violence in service to the state – decisions get made via highly rational processes in which the guidelines of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and especially, control – of force, of social and economic conditions, of access to power are applied. Weber argues that one deals with government in one of two ways, either by accepting life under the conditions it sets or making a living from government by entering politics (if the Citizens United decision just popped into your head, that’s because it has some relevance).
The idea of “being/doing good” became, over time in the U.S., defined by what has long been called the Protestant Work Ethic, an element of Puritanism that survived the disintegration of that religious movement. Along the way that idea of working hard, being thrifty, and amassing wealth divested itself of its religious ties (though some, like the aforementioned Osteen, have attempted to revivify those ties) and merged, in America particularly, with the ideas behind capitalism.
The American system of government, a democratic republic where freely elected representatives are supposed to represent the interests of their electors, is designed to provide citizens with access to power (in addition to all the services denominated in the Preamble to the Constitution). As every American knows, a vast bureaucracy has developed, designed, ostensibly at least, to address the provision of those services enumerated in the Preamble. Access to power has added another layer of bureaucracy, and many Americans who have dealt with the federal bureaucracy would readily admit to feeling a different sort of disenchantment than that described above.
America is not the only country which has struggled with these issues. As Part 2 will explain, Weber’s ideas about the dangers of hyper-rationalism run amok played out across the entire 20th century and, as Ritzer explains, continue to plague us in the 21st.