Visitors to the United States are often struck by the ubiquity of fast food restaurants, an unending multitude of establishments where it is possible to eat quickly and cheaply. The strategists behind these highly profitable businesses applied rigorous Fordist principles to all stages of the production process, with transformative results in the areas of cost, efficiency and scale. In places like North Carolina, where a number of fast food chains originated, they are in effect communal kitchens providing food for large numbers who in turn clearly find the experience convenient and perhaps even liberating. So, leaving aside matters relating to nutrition and calorific overdose, on the face of it there is much to be said for these cheap, cheerful and hygienic emporiums.
Not everyone, however, is included among those who can make use of these latter day fulachtaí fia. Those towards the base of the income pyramid, which include fast food workers themselves, generally cannot afford the low-priced food they serve. This is an irony which does not particularly trouble the customers.
Many of those who use these food stations feel it doesn’t really matter that the workers are paid very little, believing it’s mostly college kids doing it for a year or two for pocket money: “ Hell, I did it myself!” is a common response. A stint in a fast food joint is almost seen as a rite of passage event, just as the unremunerative picking of grapes in France once was for Irish students. It’s not supposed to be a living wage! What’s the problem?
The problem is that many of those working in these jolly feeding silos are not students on their way somewhere better, nor are they those with access to another income simply looking for a little pin money. Large numbers of those involved are trying to live on the low wages paid and find that they cannot afford shelter, medicine or food for either their children or themselves. It has been reported that many fast food workers, especially those with children, rely on church food depots to feed themselves.
Last summer some of those workers protested. Judging from Thomas Frank’s eyewitness account, recently published in Le Monde Diplomatique, the very wealthy owners and senior management of these businesses need not have feared that they were witnessing the return of organised and radical labour unions. The protesters had a reasonable slogan, “We can’t survive on seven twenty five”, which is not bad. However, there was an innocence about them; they had no cultural memory of picketing practice or knowledge of the essential characteristics of their relationship with their employers. They made little attempt, it seems, to dissuade the public from entering the restaurants and as the day wore on some of them went in themselves for a refreshing cold drink. It’s a safe bet none of them had ever heard of Joe Hill and none of them seemed to think they’d face any kind of victimisation as a result of their actions. The abuse roared out the windows of passing pick-up trucks should perhaps have given them some indication of what fate might be in store for those who are accused of fomenting “class hatred”.
The protesters were supported by a radical Baptist preacher, the Reverend William Barber II. He argued that as the workers couldn’t afford to eat in these restaurants they were being denied “the fruits of their labour”. This Christian equivalent of the left’s labour theory of value argument doesn’t seem particularly convincing in the world of ultra-Fordism. All aspects of the fast food process have been broken down and virtually all have been mechanised. The relatively insignificant bits that remain involve no skill and are fully interchangeable. The quarter pounder with cheese cannot really be seen as the fruits of the restaurant workers’ labour which is a minor element and one that could quite easily be mechanised, thus saving the restaurant franchisees a good bit of that seven twenty five an hour.
The fast food system is an example of ultra-Fordism because it has gone beyond the principles applied in Henry Ford’s factories. Certainly the Ford worker did one repetitive job and had no engagement with the product as a whole but significantly he was paid enough to enable him to buy a Ford. It was an approach which gave rise to mass consumerism in the United States and was a relatively benign outcome which followed from the limits of mechanisation’s possibilities at the time. Building automobiles could not be fully mechanised until relatively recently, humans were necessary and it was wise to keep them happy. Because of the amazing capacities of today’s technology that is not the case in many industries, including the fast food sector.
So why do they still employ humans in Burger King and similar businesses? The answer seems to have something to do with a residual sentimentality among the customers, who like the bogus jollity, the harmonious team atmosphere and the pro-family mood, all of which are assiduously promoted in these feeding stations. The pick-up truck drivers and others apparently find this managed atmosphere both convincing and congenial and naturally become quite upset if those who deliver their food with a plastic smile step outside and morph into picket-carrying commies.
In these establishments worker behaviour has been subject to the same rigorous analysis as other parts of the process and is calculated to enhance the customer experience of the restaurant as a friendly and fun place. The workers are trained to be human machines. For those unaccustomed to the culture, the robotically jolly injunction to “have a nice day” can be unconvincing. Regulars, however, appear to be conditioned into accepting it as a normal form of human expression. But the human element in the production chain is not essential, is relatively expensive and will only be tolerated if it remains wholly on script. Presumably the ultra-Fordist dream is to condition the public into regarding a machine exhorting them to have a nice day as perfectly normal. The fast food “crew” obliged, on pain of losing their jobs, to stick to a 100-word vocabulary is an interim step. Walking up and down with placards outside is rogue behaviour which can only hasten full mechanisation.
The industry keeps a large force of PR people who tirelessly promote its interests. During the week of the protests in August 2013 Rick Berman, who has been described as the industry’s “attack dog” ran a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal which featured a large photograph of a kitchen robot. The advert claimed that the fast food protesters were not engaged in a battle with management but in a battle against technology.
The message was simple: if workers stop behaving like machines they will be replaced by machines. Indeed it seems likely that this will happen soon enough anyway.
Does it really matter if fast food workers are extirpated from feeding emporiums and forced into another low paid sector or onto welfare and food stamps? Perhaps not, but if it does happen soon it will be very far from a one-off and merely a particularly noticeable element in a process of increased mechanisation which is already under way in many places of employment.
Writing on this subject recently, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times referred to a study by an Oxford academic which concluded that 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at risk from automation. In the twentieth century, it argued, computers replaced middle income jobs, whereas over the coming decades “most workers in transport and logistics occupations together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers and labour in production occupations are likely to be substituted by computer capital”.
Without political intervention this will lead to a small number of winners and a vast population of losers. Wolf, echoing VI Lenin, asks “what should be done?” and echoing the final lines of the Communist manifesto concludes that we must change the world. That sounds like politics!
His solution is for society to redistribute wealth and income and to curtail the rights of property, especially intellectual property rights which he says are a social creation subject to change. He also speaks of a guaranteed minimum income for all adults and the state taking a cut in intellectual property revenues. He identifies “techno-feudalism” as the malign alternative.
It is more than a little interesting that ideas about a new politics of humanity and equality should be sketched out by a clear-headed and intelligent Financial Times columnist such as Martin Wolf. It is also curious that few if any major public figures or columnists writing in a social democratic idiom are addressing these questions. Wolf may echo Marx and Lenin in an oblique way but unlike many in the social democratic tradition he is not weighed down by traditional notions of the radical. We can be pretty sure he won’t be deluded into calling for the unionisation of fast food workers as the answer to anarchic capital.