“Most specifically, irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them.” – George Ritzer
When we ended part 1 of this series, we were talking about government bureaucracy. The hyper-rationalism and focus on chain of command, efficiency, and control that government bureaucracy relies upon, sadly,is epitomized by the bureaucratic machinery the Nazis developed to implement The Final Solution.
The attempt to exterminate all of the Jewish population of Europe was a highly bureaucratic operation, and it was characterized by Nazi attempts to implement the characteristics of effective bureaucracy. The system operated in a rigidly controlled hierarchical manner, which likely explains the now cliched excuse offered by many in that bureaucracy of death that they were “following orders.” Tasks within the system were hyper-rationally reduced to their simplest elements and personnel were given specific, limited jobs within the system and made to understand that they should not look beyond their given duties. Careful accounts of “production” were kept and provide some of the most chilling reading in human history.
Perhaps most importantly, human beings were detached from their humanity by use of abstract language. References to “units” instead of persons is but one example of this sort of abstraction. This detachment of the human (and humane) from the process, one suspects, allowed its performers, to use that lovely French term of description and derision, fonctionnaires, to rationalize their behavior as they performed their ghastly evil.
It is important at this moment to return to the Max Weber quote that served as epigraph for part 1 of this series because capitalism’s role in this should not be ignored:
It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.
The role of capitalism in this enterprise of death should be mentioned for this simple reason: the German chemical giant Degesch provided the pesticide Zyklon B – a cyanide based poison – to the Nazi government who used it in their gas chambers. The company even removed the additives that gave the poison its warning odor. All officials of the company put on trial after WWII were acquitted of wrongdoing. Officials of the company that made the calculators that tallied up the deaths, IBM, were never indicted. It should also be noted that neither Degesch nor IBM manufactured their products with the idea of aiding the Nazis. Yet the fact that these products were used by the Nazis for their evil gives resonant proof that Weber’s assertion has merit: both bureaucracy and capitalism, developed with good intentions, can all too easily be turned to evil purpose.
It’s also important to note Ritzer’s quote above about the irrationality of rational systems. Both capitalism and bureaucracy, highly rational systems, can be perverted – and people who serve them and are served by them can become lost in a nightmare of irrationality.
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Post World War II, of course, is the era of the rise of the fast food industry. The first great fast food chains, A&W and White Castle, began just after WWI (1919 and 1921), but first the Great Depression and then WWII retarded the development of the system. The most significant entry into the fast food industry, McDonald’s, began in 1948 and rapidly became the dominant company in the business.
The way they accomplished that dominance was through their adaptation of the bureaucratic system to a capitalist enterprise. It’s a system that has been extraordinarily successful financially, and its central operating principles – efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control have become extraordinarily – it can be argued, irrationally – influential in the structure of American economic and social life. In part 3 we will explore the rise of McDonald’s and its operating system’s influence on both American and world business and culture.