Friday, 23 November 2007

MacDonalds and Democracy

Things came to a head this week when Pakistan was kicked out of the Commonwealth for failing to call off an emergency rule. I found it amusing listening to BBC’s radio Four early Friday morning. The presenter, speaking with Pakistan’s ambassador to the States, asked: ‘Does he [Pervez Musharraf] want to convince the world he wants to move to a democratic path as soon as possible?’
Convince the world? What a sweeping statement I thought. That’s assuming every State and individual in the world has bought into democracy hook line and sinker.

Thinking about it, there are striking similarities between the ideology of democracy and McDonalds as a fast-food chain. Right from my high school days democracy was extolled as the ideal path every government should take.
An elected government by the people for the people – I heard it too many times from too many teachers. Likewise McDonalds fast-food conjured delectable images in my mind. Long before I tasted a big mac I was already ‘Loving it’.

In my opinion democracy and Macdonaldization could easily pass for siblings. Macdonalization was a term coined by George Ritzer, a Professor of Sociology. He used it to refer to the process by which the principles behind fast-food came to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world.
Mcdonald’s success in the States was so phenomenal that it quickly became the American way of eating. And everyone wanted a share of the cake. Soon countries were replicating the fast-food chain. Countries like China and Japan have reproduced their own version of American fast-food. The recipe for success is simply adopting the principles underpinning macdonaldization. Ritz identified them as efficiency, Calculability, Predictability and Control.

The same can be said of democracy. It is a model that has proved successful. It has worked in the West and is being adopted worldwide. And similar principles underpin democracy – it has to be predictable, calculable, efficient and controllable. Common principles such as Freedom of speech and equality before the law ensure predictability and control.

However Ritzer also believed so many countries imitating the American way of eating leads to standardization of cultural products. Which means the market standard is set by the most popular cultural products which reflect public taste. He links it to cultural imperialism, where a handful of countries influence and undermine the culture of the others.

And that’s probably the downside of democracy. Democracy is an exclusive club. It’s either you’re for ‘us’ or against ‘us’. Democracy assumes no other system of government is legitimate. Any government that is not a democratic is branded (even if not directly) a deviant.
Democracy has been macdonaldized. That’s why the Commonwealth booted out Pakistan. After all it states in its ethos it is ‘committed to a set of fundamental values…at the core of which is belief in and adherence to democratic principles.’ Therefore member States that do not conform face the boot.

Like Ritzer mentioned, mcdonaldization is two-sided. It has its merits, but also has its downsides. On the one hand it enhances efficiency, on other it leads to homogenization of cultures.
But is homogenization necessarily a bad thing? If the world is increasingly becoming similar and our ways of life converging it may not be such a bad idea. Maybe it simply means there will always be tension between the global homogenized culture and local heterogeneous cultures as countries struggle to figure out which way is best for them.


  1. How you compare democracy and Macdonaldization is really interesting Oluchi, I never thought about "it" that way. What I mean by it is the world's obsession with making every nation democratic, definitely an obsession of the United States. No nation is seen as fully developed or civilized it if does not take on everything it means to be a democracy, such as freedom of speech, expression or the press. Or the idea that you have access to the "truth," whatever that may mean. The US against THEM idea is everywhere. No one stops to think about whether democracy is the best for every culture. What I think about when I think of democracy are these freedoms and not to have the fear that if you criticize the government you will turn up dead. Then again, in democracies we don't know if we really have access to the truth and how free are we really? With the Patriotic Act (in the US) and government invasions on privacy and places like Abu Ghraib, I wonder if us democratic peoples can truthfully claim that it is all it's cracked up to be.

  2. For me, any government that is accetable to its people is a democracy; afterall, democracy is government for the people. Any imposed form of democracy is no less a dictatorship than military government. Let people fashion out their own form of democracy. Macdonaldization - sorry, that big word again - of governments is probably not the best approach to world peace.

  3. That was nice presentation on the subject matter.

  4. Thanks for an interesting analogy Oluchi, it contained some striking insights.
    Though having held the ideology of 'Macdonalization' for some time personally, your article has helped me put a word on it.
    Indeed, one reality of a having a world superpower is that it will influence other countries in certain points, thus the Greeks, Romans, Persians, and English cultures have greatly influenced and left tangible marks on many modern day cultures,both positive and negative. The challenge lies in finding a balance.
    Though the ego of imperialistic cultures always crys out 'I am best', its viewpoint is based on a specific error that sees difference as disabling, rather than enhancing. If differences were removed, culture would no longer be culture, but something else.
    Thatcher, Blair,Reagan, Clinton, each had their unique leadership style. Politically, a certain form of democracy, might not fit all states. Does the present structure of the UN adequately provide for that?

  5. Oluchi this is well written. I was very intrigued with the content. No offense but personally I love Macdonald's, the fries are delicious.

    Getting serious for a few seconds, like Oluchi said world powers have to do something to keep control of the world. I can't say that democracy is the best form of government, but I do know that we need government in some form.

    If you saw the pictures of post Katrina behavior in New Orleans you would understand what I mean.