Several years ago, while baby-sitting my nieces, I asked where they wanted to go for dinner. The four-year-old said she wanted to go to McDonald’s and have a “Happy Meal.” The way she stressed the word happy caught my attention; it seemed to imply that we couldn’t have a happy meal at home. Stunned that a child had come to equate fast food with happiness, I wondered: Is this mere advertising hyperbole, or is it really true that McDonald’s makes people happy? If so, what does that say about our culture?

Few would argue with the fact that McDonald’s has entered into our collective psyche. We all can recognize its trademarks and slogans. To the rest of the world, it’s come to represent all things American. But sociologist George Ritzer argues that the relationship between McDonald’s and our society runs even deeper. Beyond its commercial propaganda and symbolism, Ritzer says, McDonald’s is a potent manifestation of the rational processes that define modern society.

Whether the task at hand is making hamburgers or losing weight or caring for the sick, we strive to approach it rationally, breaking it down into repetitive steps that can be handled quickly and efficiently. Ritzer warns that the spread of such “rationalized systems” has had irrational consequences, not least of which is the “disenchantment of the world,” a situation in which rationality takes over, leaving no room for the mysterious, unpredictable qualities that make us human.

Born in New York City, Ritzer saw his first McDonald’s when he and his friends made a car trip through Massachusetts in 1958. He was struck by the sight of the golden arches and remembers thinking that they “represented something new and important.” After college, he worked for the highly rationalized Ford Motor Company, but it didn’t take him long to realize that the job wasn’t for him. A year later, he went on to graduate school to get his Ph.D. in sociology.

Ritzer’s scholarly work has been heavily influenced by German sociologist Max Weber, who feared that bureaucracy would spread until society became a seamless web of rationalized institutions from which there would be no escape. At the time when Weber wrote, in the early twentieth century, totalitarianism was the biggest threat to individual freedom. In the 1980s, Ritzer thought to apply Weber’s theories about rational systems to a very different threat: the proliferation of fast-food chains.

When Ritzer began writing and talking about the dangers of “McDonaldization,” he struck a nerve: some agreed with him, but many others rushed to defend the pop-culture institution. He went on to write a social critique on the subject, applying sociological theories to the culture in a way that lay readers would understand. The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge/Sage Publications) was successful enough that he wrote several follow-ups, including The McDonaldization Thesis and Enchanting a Disenchanted World (both Sage Publications).

Ritzer’s most recent book is Explorations in the Sociology of Consumption: Fast Food, Credit Cards, and Casinos (Sage Ltd.). In addition to writing about sociology for a general audience, he teaches at the University of Maryland, where he is a distinguished professor with numerous academic awards and volumes to his credit.

We met for this interview on a beautiful fall day at Ritzer’s home in Maryland. A breeze blew outside, picking up red and yellow leaves and twirling them across the grass while we sat inside discussing the disenchantment of the world.


318 - George Ritzer

Jensen: What is “McDonaldization”?

Ritzer: It’s the process by which the principles of the fast-food industry — efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control through technology — are being applied to more and more sectors of society in more and more parts of the world.

Let’s take those principles one at a time. Efficiency: The fast-food model offers — or, at least, appears to offer — an efficient way to get from being hungry to being full. You drive up, grab a meal, eat, and go. Workers, too, are supposed to be efficient, following prescribed steps in a process overseen by managers. Even the choice of menu items has to do with efficiency: McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc toyed with several alternatives before settling on hamburgers as his main product. Hot dogs, for example, come in too many varieties. It’s more efficient to limit choice.

Predictability: An Egg McMuffin in New York will be the same as an Egg McMuffin in Chicago. Customers can expect no surprises, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Workers, too, behave in predictable ways. Those who interact with customers have actual scripts to follow. Customers end up behaving predictably in return.

Calculability: The emphasis is on quantifiable aspects of the food and service — size of portions, cost, time of delivery — as opposed to quality. Workers are generally judged on how quickly they accomplish specific tasks, and not on the quality of their work.

Control through technology: Because the greatest source of uncertainty, unpredictability, and inefficiency in any rationalized system is the people who work in it or are served by it, technology is used to control both customers and employees. For example, customers are controlled through uncomfortable seats, which lead diners to do what management wants them to do: eat quickly and leave. And, of course, wherever possible, workers are restricted — or replaced — by technology: a worker might overcook the hamburger or put on too much special sauce. It’s much better to get a machine to do it.

These rationalizing principles have been employed widely for many decades, even centuries. Some of them can be traced to early capitalism. Certainly Henry Ford’s assembly line was an effort to produce automobiles in a highly rational way: efficiently, predictably, and using technology to replace human workers.

At the same time that Ford was implementing rationalization in the automobile industry, systems engineer Frederick W. Taylor was articulating his famous notion of “scientific management”: studying workers and then routinizing and systematizing what they do so that they will operate in an efficient, predictable, calculable way — and using technology to achieve these ends.

Those are just two examples of the existence of rationalization before McDonald’s even arrived on the scene in 1955. So McDonald’s didn’t really create anything new. It just applied these principles to the realm of food production and consumption. That’s the real McDonald’s revolution.

Jensen: Working within a rationalized system like McDonald’s seems degrading to me. It has to do with the machine-like quality of the work.

Ritzer: I think the key issue here is that work should involve creativity. Cooking should involve creativity. Even consumption should involve creativity. But what Ford and Taylor and Kroc did is limit — if not eliminate — creativity and force people to operate the way the system wants them to operate, using only a small fraction of their abilities. To the person who puts the hubcap on the car every thirty seconds, the owners of the assembly line are saying, in effect, “You are just an extension of the machine.” The same goes for the people who work behind the counters at fast-food restaurants. They’re not permitted to work using their full capabilities. In fact, people who try to be creative are likely to get fired because, from the point of view of the system, they are more likely to mess things up. One of the irrationalities of rational systems is that the system — a nonliving thing — takes priority over living beings such as workers and consumers.

The same constraints apply to the consumer. Picture this: you walk into a McDonald’s and say, “I’d like a hamburger, but I want it cooked rare, and I’d like the tomatoes in quarters instead of slices.” The system cannot accommodate even that level of creativity on the part of the consumer.

To the person who puts the hubcap on the car every thirty seconds, the owners of the assembly line are saying, in effect, “You are just an extension of the machine.” The same goes for the people who work behind the counters at fast-food restaurants.

Jensen: So consumers are in the same boat as the workers.

Ritzer: In fact, consumers have increasingly become workers. One of the ways fast-food restaurants succeed is by turning consumers into unpaid workers by making them bus their own tables or fill their own drinks. And, of course, you don’t have to pay consumers for their work. So you pay workers minimum wage, and you pay consumers nothing. The result is higher profits. Businesses might claim to pass these savings on to the customer, and there might be some initial cutting back of prices, but inevitably prices go back up to where they were before, or even higher.

Jensen: You say that McDonaldization involves limiting choice, but I’m not sure that our choices as consumers have been limited. I can go online and buy CDs, printers, books, and lots of other things without even leaving home.

Ritzer: We have seen a massive expansion in the availability of consumer goods, and in the capacity of the consumer to mix and match goods. In the main, however, the type of goods and the mechanisms through which they are sold to us are controlled by large companies. So we do have a range of choice, but it is constrained by organizational forms. And, of course, the more McDonaldized the setting, the more limited the choice.

Jensen: But anywhere I go in America, I’ve got a good portion of the world in the space of three blocks: I can go to Taco Bell for Mexican food, Pizza Hut for Italian, and Arthur Treacher’s for English.

Ritzer: It’s true that vast stretches of the country that never had access to, say, Italian or Mexican food now have at least simulations of these ethnic cuisines. But the foods themselves are McDonaldized. They’ve been put through the corporate wringer to produce a fake version of the original that is marketable to a large percentage of the population.

More importantly, though, you see an overall elimination of choice through the increasing dominance of a few fast-food giants. If you drive the highway between Maryland and New York, as I often do, you discover that all of the rest stops along the way are now dominated by these chains. Even if you leave the highway, it can be difficult to find an alternative. What has been driven out is the small, independent provider who produced a product that was subtly different from everyone else’s. In the past, the local diner may have been the only game in town, but it was different from town to town.

Jensen: A lot of people eat fast food because it’s cheap.

Ritzer: But look at what you actually get for your money: several ounces of sugared water called Coca-Cola, a few pieces of freeze-dried potato, meat that’s been frozen and shipped from Australia, and airy bread. The value is obviously minimal. To the restaurant owner, the food at McDonald’s doesn’t cost much more than its packaging. The soda costs less.

The major force in the expansion of McDonald’s is not the low prices but the way it has marketed itself to children. It surprises a lot of people to learn that McDonald’s is the world’s largest toy maker on a unit basis, commissioning about 750 million toys per year. This is all done, of course, to lure children into the restaurant (bringing their parents with them) and hook them on collections of toys — and also on the food, which is famous for being salty-sweet and which makes other foods seem bland by comparison. And this is the last kind of food children — or adults — need: nothing but fat, calories, salt, and sugar. Interestingly, one study found that the health of immigrant children deteriorates after they come to the United States, largely because their diet comes to resemble that of American children.

Jensen: Marketing to children is bad, most people would agree. But what’s wrong with getting something done faster and cheaper by rationalizing the process?

Ritzer: The short answer is that rational systems carry with them a series of irrational consequences, so that they often accomplish just the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Is fast food really fast? If you include driving time in your calculations, it’s often much quicker to cook a meal at home than it is to pile into the car, drive to McDonald’s, and wait in a long line at the drive-through window.

And fast food is irrational on a health level: a Big Mac, a shake, and a large order of French fries is more than a thousand calories. It’s certainly not rational to give yourself and your children heart disease, clogged arteries, and hypertension. The food is also energy-intensive to produce and consumes resources that would be better used elsewhere. And it creates all kinds of ecological problems.

But there’s a broader kind of irrationality that comes down to dehumanization. These rationalized settings are dehumanizing, both for the workers, who are not operating as full human beings, and for the consumers. In an old Saturday Night Live skit, John Belushi and Dan Akroyd walk into a restaurant, and someone puts bibs on them and leads them to a big pig trough filled with chili. They get down on all fours, stick their heads in the trough, and lap up the chili as they crawl along. Halfway down, they say, “What a great new fast-food restaurant.”

The preparing and eating of meals is one of the most basic of human expressions. In most cultures, meals are something to be savored, to be enjoyed communally, to be lingered over. Fast-food restaurants have made eating into something you want to be done with as quickly as possible so that you can get on to the next activity. The ultimate expression of this is the drive-through, where they toss your food to you through your window, and you drive away munching on your meal while going somewhere else.

Fast-food restaurants — and consumer culture at large — work to eliminate genuine human interaction, because interactions are unpredictable and waste time. We’re left with either no interaction at all, such as at ATMs, or a “false fraternization.” Rule number 17 for Burger King workers is to smile at all times.

The same thing happens with junk mail. By dropping into form letters your name or little bits of information about you gleaned from various databases, direct-mail marketers try to create the illusion of intimacy. In reality, though, they corrupt and degrade intimacy. When we substitute sales pitches for relationships long enough, Coca-Cola becomes “the real thing.”

Jensen: It seems one of the central trends of our culture is toward the desacralization of the world. Meals are turned into acts of consumption. Forests are converted into board feet.

Ritzer: German sociologist Max Weber called this the “disenchantment of the world.” In a progressively rationalized culture, the magic, the mystery, the religious qualities of the world are always being challenged. Over time, our sciences and our bureaucratic organizations have systematically stripped the natural world of its magical properties and its capacity for meaning — or, rather, they have stripped us of our capacity to perceive the magic and meaning that’s inherent in the world.

The preparing and eating of meals is one of the most basic of human expressions. In most cultures, meals are something to be savored, to be enjoyed communally, to be lingered over. Fast-food restaurants have made eating into something you want to be done with as quickly as possible.

Jensen: How does this happen?

Ritzer: The various elements of rationalization all play a part. Efficiency leaves no room for enchantment. Anything that is magical or mysterious is apt to also be meandering and inefficient. Furthermore, enchanted systems are often complex and highly convoluted, having no obvious means to an end. And how do you quantify the enchanted? Since it cannot be readily calculated, it is ignored and quite often eliminated.

Control and technology are absolutely inimical to any feeling of enchantment. Fantasy, dreams, and the like cannot be subjected to external controls; it’s their autonomy that gives them their enchanted quality. And no element of rationalization is more inimical to enchantment than predictability. Experiences of magic, fantasy, or dream are, by definition, unpredictable.

Contrast the old amusement parks, like Coney Island, with their milling crowds, disorder, and debris — their seediness, even — with the cleanliness, orderliness, predictability, and sterility of Disney World. The old parks were selling fabricated enchantment, too, but there was room for real enchantment, real human interaction amid the chaos. All the enchantment at Disney World is mass-produced, consciously fabricated, and routinely replicated. There’s little opportunity for spontaneous interactions among visitors, employees, and the park itself.

Jensen: So, having disenchanted the world, these McDonaldized systems offer us a sort of simulated enchantment in its place.

Ritzer: Yes, Las Vegas is a perfect example of this. Its casinos and hotels are not “real” enchanted settings. There’s a phony New Orleans, a phony Paris, a phony Venice. They get people in the doors by providing huge simulated extravaganzas in an ordered, clean, controlled environment.

Simulated enchantment is nothing new. I was just in Milan, Italy, where there’s a magnificent duomo — a cathedral, the ultimate in sacred enchantment. Directly across the square from it is a McDonald’s. I began to reflect on the similarities between these seemingly disparate buildings: both are cathedrals of consumption. It’s just what’s being consumed that varies. The duomo is a place to consume religious services.

Cathedrals were constructed along highly rationalized lines. Sites were chosen specifically to expand the domain of the Church into new areas. The buildings were the largest structures around at the time, and competed to have the tallest spires — to the point that some of them began to collapse in the middle beneath the weight. And one of the primary businesses of cathedrals was attracting pilgrims. The most important cathedrals all housed the bones of saints or other relics, and the pilgrims would come and leave offerings. The buildings themselves were laid out to allow long lines of pilgrims to move through without disturbing the services. And, of course, they were designed to be spectacular, to produce a type of simulated enchantment.

Jensen: I’m no fan of Christianity, but I still feel a sense of real awe in a big cathedral like Notre Dame. It’s not the same sense of awe I feel in the natural world, but I feel something.

Ritzer: That’s precisely the point. All of these human-made settings are designed to create that sense of awe. The strip in Las Vegas is, in its own way, awesome. That’s what draws people to it. That’s the trait all cathedrals of consumption share. The starting point for all of these undertakings is the question: How do you draw people in? You do it by creating a structure that overwhelms them, that causes them to say, “This is extraordinary.” It’s the spectacle that brings consumers back time and again.

Jensen: Years ago, I was driving with a friend in north Idaho — beautiful country. We saw a church that had been partially built and then abandoned. My friend said it was a good thing they’d stopped building: why would anyone want to hold a religious service indoors amid those extraordinary natural surroundings? My point is that there seems to be a relationship between excluding the natural world and controlling people, which has been one of the Church’s primary roles in history.

Ritzer: And one of the ways you control people is by rendering them awe-struck, speechless. No human-made spectacle matches the spectacle of nature, of course, but the vast majority of people have been acculturated to prefer the human-made. And these human-made spectacles can be built to achieve certain ends. A cathedral is built to make you feel puny, meek, and humble — to make you behave the way the designers want you to behave.

On my trip to Italy, I went to see the Shroud of Turin. Before going in to view the shroud, you pass through a tunnel of tentlike structures where you’re shown exhibits that get you in the right mood. Now, they could have let you enter the church directly and form your own opinion, but the tunnel heightens the mystery and suspense, and, more importantly, it creates an image in your mind of what you expect to see. The people who designed the Mall of America in Minneapolis, or the Las Vegas casinos, or any of the other cathedrals of consumption understand and utilize this same principle, only they do it to take your money.

The great advantage of artificial settings over natural ones is their controllability. If you want to use people’s surroundings to control them, your settings have to be unnatural. The sad thing is that, in our society, increasing numbers of people seem more attracted to these simulated settings than to natural settings.

Jensen: And even the natural settings are increasingly artificial.

Ritzer: When you toy with natural settings so that you can move large numbers of people through them in an efficient way, you turn them into simulations. The French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard gives the example of the caves at Lascaux, France, which contain prehistoric paintings and engravings. The real caves were closed because they were being destroyed by tourists, and a fake cave was constructed; now the tourists go through the fake.

One of the tragedies of modern existence is the ever-tightening encroachment of these artificial surroundings on our total environment. From birth to death, we are increasingly surrounded by sales pitches that aim to manipulate us. There are fewer and fewer places we can go to get away from this manipulation. Where can we go anymore to learn how to be real human beings?

In a way, we are turning into a new species of human. The incessant bombardment by these various forms of manipulation distorts us into McDonaldized pseudopeople who no longer even know what we want, but have to be told. And even if we manage to retain some idea of what we really want, McDonaldized society increasingly deprives us of the opportunity to get it.

A few years ago, my son and I were in Las Vegas, and we took a trip to Death Valley. On the way, we went through a small town and saw a McDonald’s on one side of the street and a Burger King on the other. My son is a vegan, and I won’t go to those places, so we headed to a casino, because casinos always have cafeterias. But we found that the cafeteria had been replaced with a food court occupied by Taco Bell and other chains. If you wanted to eat out in this town, your choice was limited to McDonaldized settings. It was a good example of what Weber called the “iron cage of rationality.”

Jensen: What’s that?

Ritzer: According to Weber, bureaucracies are cages in which we are trapped and our basic humanity denied. He died in 1920, and his greatest fear was that bureaucracies would grow more and more rational, and that rational principles would come to dominate more and more sectors of society. He saw this as leading to a society of people locked into a series of rational systems, able to move only from one system to another — from rationalized educational institutions, to rationalized workplaces, to rationalized recreational settings, to rationalized homes. Society would become a seamless web of rationalization from which there would be no escape.

Another irrationality of rational systems is homogenization. McDonaldization is about the elimination of differences. There is virtually no difference between regions of the United States anymore, because they’ve all been McDonaldized. What’s the point of going someplace new when we’ve got the same McDonald’s here as they’ve got there — and the same shopping malls, the same chain stores, the same everything? This is increasingly becoming true in Europe and other parts of the world, as well.

There’s nothing wrong with going to McDonald’s on occasion, but the ultimate result of McDonaldization and rationalization is the elimination of alternatives until the only options left are those specifically designed to control us.

Jensen: Why do you think so many people prefer the McDonaldized versions of things?

Ritzer: Much of it has to do with predictability. People visiting a new place may not want to figure out which of the local restaurants is good, so they go to McDonald’s. How much more so might that be the case for Americans traveling in Europe or Asia, where they probably don’t know the language or the culture?

We return to what we know, and if all we know is a world from which genuine human interactions have been banished as inefficient or nonrational, then we will choose it over the opportunity for genuine intimacy.

I recently drove from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Along the way, I had to go through a town called Pigeon Forge, which is basically one long, commercial strip resembling a mini Las Vegas. On one end are the music halls; at the other end is Dollywood: Dolly Parton’s amusement park. In between, you run the gauntlet of every franchise chain you could imagine. Of course, there was a traffic jam.

When I got to the Smoky Mountains National Park, I was caught in another traffic jam. I got angry, thinking that the park was just going to be an extension of Pigeon Forge. But it turned out traffic had stopped because there was a huge bear in a tree just by the side of the road. I was heartened that people were slowing down and stopping to see a bear. It was the first bear I’d ever seen outside a zoo, and the thrill I got made it even more incomprehensible to me that the vast majority of people in our society would rather go to Dollywood than to a national park.

Jensen: Having immersed ourselves so deeply in the inauthentic, can we even say that we ourselves are authentic anymore?

Ritzer: Certainly, the more time we spend engaging in meaningless interactions in simulated settings, the less we are able to engage in authentic, meaningful relationships. “You are what you eat” is true not only for the food we take into our bodies, but also for our other modes of consumption: the images and instructions we internalize.

Jensen: The capacity for real awe is still in us, though. I live in the redwoods, and whenever people come to visit me, they’re awe-struck. Ultimately, though, I don’t think being awe-struck by nature is good enough, because we’re so immersed in this culture of consuming. Even our interactions with the natural world are merely aesthetic; we consume natural beauty rather than being in relationship with nature.

Ritzer: Maybe it’s a function of our TV culture, in which we perceive almost everything as though it were on a screen. Things pass before our eyes, but we’re not really involved in them. Sometimes I feel that way as a teacher, when students treat me as if I were on TV. They think they can talk or read a newspaper in class, until I say to them, “Wait a minute. I’m talking to you.”

Jensen: You’ve said that schools, too, are “cathedrals of consumption.”

Ritzer: I’ve often described universities as a means of consumer education. You can’t separate schools from the culture that surrounds, creates, and informs them, and in our case, that culture is based on consuming. One of the primary problems facing universities today is that they are relatively destitute compared to the other cathedrals of consumption that our culture offers: they don’t have the capacity of a Las Vegas casino, or even of the duomo of Milan, to impress and inspire awe.

So, increasingly, schools are turning to businesses in order to learn how to attract consumers. They’re learning from McDonald’s the “lean and mean” attitudes that have led to staff cutbacks and an emphasis on the quantifiable. Student unions are coming to look like food courts. And universities are learning the art of the spectacle. I know that my university is spending more and more money on its grounds, so that visiting high-school students and their parents will be awe-struck by how the place looks.

The fact is, if kids are raised on fast-food restaurants and the Mall of America, how can a school compete? Logic suggests that we take what these places have done so well and apply it to the educational setting.

Jensen: You’ve written that our desires for things — say, chicken McNuggets — have been manufactured by “the code.” What is the code?

Ritzer: The code is a kind of hidden set of rules that teaches us how to understand and interpret things in our society. This code operates at a far deeper level than the type of control exercised in the design and functioning of a shopping mall or a fast-food restaurant — so deep, in fact, that we’re generally unaware of it.

The rules of language are one part of the code, but, more generally, the code governs rules of behavior. We may not always be conscious of these rules, but we know that certain things aren’t in accord with them. In some cultures, for example, it is acceptable to eat with your mouth open and to smack your lips. In other cultures, that is frowned upon. How do people know which is polite? They are acculturated into the code. You can extrapolate this to other behaviors — where we eat, what we wear, where we go on vacation. The result is that we end up controlling ourselves, which in many ways is the harshest, most dangerous form of control.

Jensen: And the most effective.

Ritzer: Yes. The most powerful system is that which leads people to police themselves, without any perception on their own part that they’re being controlled. The less powerful systems are those that have to marshal the police and the military to control people. The more visible the mechanisms of control, the less secure the system. Look at the old Soviet Union, with its very visible police and military presence; it turned out to be a very unstable society. In our society, on the other hand, there’s relatively little visible coercion, except in poor, high-crime areas. The more overt the control, the less stable the society.

Jensen: If we are being manipulated and controlled, who is doing the controlling?

Ritzer: I’m not talking about a conspiracy here. There’s no “they” controlling us. It’s simply a system of rewards. Our economic system rewards people for certain behaviors with profit and, more deeply, power. Now, having money and power as rewards — and as goals — leads to a system set up to maximize profitability and concentrate power and control. When we are trapped inside such a system, we consciously or unconsciously work to achieve profitability and power.

The point is that if you can define reality such that it at least appears to be in someone’s short-term best interest to behave in a certain way, you can control their behavior: is it not rational to want to get a job and make as much money as possible?

On a smaller, more direct level, you’ve got businesses trying to lure consumers into acting in ways that benefit the businesses, and might hurt the consumers. And it’s not a fair fight: many of our best and brightest minds work for these corporations, which spend huge sums on research to figure out how to manipulate people.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Old Navy bag. Old Navy is a clothing chain owned by the Gap. One gimmick they’ve used is the Old Navy bag. When you walk in, you are handed a big net bag that says Old Navy on it. You think, Gee, isn’t that nice of them? So you walk around putting items in the bag. Of course, Old Navy isn’t just being considerate. They know that people tend to buy more when they’ve got a bag than when they’ve just got their hands. But the kicker is that, when you check out, the cashier asks if you’d like to buy the bag: they’ve manipulated you into buying more than you would have bought in the first place, and then they want to sell you the damn bag, too.

Repeatedly, customers are lured into doing something that’s not in their best interest. Credit-card companies lure people into debt. Fast-food restaurants lure people to eat unhealthy food. Las Vegas lures you into playing games rigged so that the house always wins — at least, in the long run. The thing to remember is that, within our rationalized, bureaucratized society, the system always wins. And it always grows larger and more invasive not only of the outside world, but also of our internal worlds. Each of us is colonized.

Jensen: It seems to me that the problem isn’t the existence of a code, as such. All cultures must have codes. The question is: Who benefits?

Ritzer: It’s clear that our society is set up to favor the wealthy. We have, by some definitions, the most successful economic system in history, yet it is a system that disproportionately benefits a relatively small percentage of the people. How is this rational? How is this even human? Yet we accept it, because it’s part of our mythology — part of our code, if you will — that what is good for capitalism is good for the country. And perhaps it’s been good in the sense that we in the United States have never experienced coercive control along the lines of that exercised in the former Soviet Union.

Jensen: At least, we white, middle-class people have not.

Ritzer: True. But, on the other hand, we have very bright people constantly figuring out subtle ways to control us. That’s what advertising is all about.

Jensen: It’s what politics is about.

Ritzer: I fear we’re creating a population that won’t know what to do during a crisis, that won’t know how to think and act independently. How do people who’ve been taught to be subordinate — at home, at school, in the workplace — become active, creative agents in a changing society?

I just came back from a couple of weeks in Russia. The people there have lived for centuries under authoritarian rule: first the czar, then the Communist Party. All they’ve ever known is harsh external control. Now that this harsh external control has been lifted, they seem unable to figure out what to do. They don’t know how to act.

Contrast that with China, where, prior to the rise of communism, the people had long been entrepreneurial and individualistic and creative. When the communist yoke was lifted just a little, they were off and running. Of course, they happen to be running toward capitalist, consumer-oriented goals, but still, the Chinese are better able to handle the challenge of a changing society.

One of the great paradoxes of America is that, although huge systems exert control over us, we still have an enormously creative population. So how do creative individuals emerge from coercive educational and organizational systems? Undoubtedly, much of their creativity is a reaction against that control.

The presence of McDonald’s around the globe is less of a threat than the development of indigenous McDonald’s clones that mimic its principles.

Jensen: But despite the rebellion of a few creative types, we still live in a world of increasing rationalization.

Ritzer: In many ways, our method of rationalization is much more resilient than a centralized totalitarian system, because we have a multitude of separate systems of rationalization and McDonaldization. Consequently, it’s much harder — and getting harder all the time — to tell who the enemy is. And even when we do identify an enemy, it doesn’t necessarily do us much good.

Around the world, McDonald’s is seen as the enemy of local culture — albeit, a symbolic one. In Prague, during the protests against the World Trade Organization, people trashed McDonald’s. When French farmer José Bové wanted to protest American power, he drove his tractor into McDonald’s. When the Serbs wanted to protest American bombings, they trashed a McDonald’s. Now, even if these protestors succeeded in putting McDonald’s out of business, it would be of no major consequence, because there’s still Burger King and Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And even if you take away all the fast-food restaurants, many other rationalized systems will still exist. And you can’t attack them all, because they’re not part of one system in any but the broadest sense. It’s a multiheaded hydra, and much more difficult to deal with than government oppression.

Jensen: We’re not caught in one big “iron cage of rationality,” but in a multitude of tiny ones.

Ritzer: A series of cages, in which we move from one to another. And we do this now on a global scale.

There is a debate going on in the literature of globalization about whether McDonald’s is or isn’t a form of cultural imperialism, whether we are or aren’t imposing our ways on other societies. I would argue that we are, but that the presence of McDonald’s around the globe is less of a threat than the development of indigenous McDonald’s clones that mimic its principles but operate without any explicit association with McDonald’s. In Russia, for example, there’s a chain called Russkoye Bistro that’s clearly modeled after McDonald’s and organized around the same principles of efficiency.

The problem isn’t just the organization called McDonald’s, because the principles of rationalization burrow into every sector of our lives. Although all rationalized systems operate in much the same way, they may not look the same. This makes it much more difficult to attack the growth of rationalization and, in fact, leads me to be pretty pessimistic about our future.

Jensen: How can we begin to deal with this multiheaded hydra?

Ritzer: People often ask me why, if I’m so pessimistic about the possibility of a solution, do I bother writing about the problem. The answer is: to increase awareness. When we’re conscious of being controlled, it becomes much harder for those in power to maintain that control. If people begin to recognize how these systems overlap, we might discover where opposition to them can best be applied. It’s hard to be optimistic, though, when you’ve got the forces of McDonaldization grabbing every two-year-old with the promise of toys and turning her or him into a good little consumer.

That said, I need to remind myself that, as insignificant as we may sometimes feel, we’re all what sociologist Erving Goffman called “dangerous giants.” These systems that seem so powerful and so impervious to change have often proven quite vulnerable to the actions of individuals or relatively small groups. Throughout the twentieth century, we saw powerful regimes fall for what seemed relatively insignificant reasons. It’s sometimes remarkably easy to throw a monkey wrench into the system. That’s one reason why the system tries to eliminate creativity: because creative action can cause the system to fall apart. The game may be rigged, but by acting creatively, we stand a chance of beating it.