'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Wednesday, December 7, 2016
George Monbiot - No country with a McDonald’s can remain a democracy
In 1938 President Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”
One of the answers to Trump, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to defend the crucial political unit that is under assault by banks, monopolies and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard to peace between nations than a corporate model that crushes democratic choice.
A wave of revulsion
rolls around the world. Approval ratings for incumbent leaders are everywhere collapsing. Symbols, slogans and sensation trump facts
and nuanced argument. One in six Americans now believe that military rule would be a good idea. From all this I draw the
following, peculiar conclusion: no country with a McDonald’s can remain a
Twenty years ago, the
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman proposed his “golden arches theory of
conflict prevention”. This
holds that “no two countries that both have McDonald’s have ever
fought a war against each other since they each got their McDonald’s”.
Friedman’s was one of
several end-of-history narratives suggesting that global capitalism would
lead to permanent peace. He claimed that it might create “a tip-over point at which a
country, by integrating with the global economy, opening itself up to foreign
investment and empowering its consumers, permanently restricts its capacity for
troublemaking and promotes gradual democratisation and widening peace”. He
didn’t mean that McDonald’s ends war, but that its arrival in a nation
symbolised the transition.
In using McDonald’s as
shorthand for the forces tearing democracy apart, I am, like him, writing
figuratively. I do not mean that the presence of the burger chain itself
is the cause of the decline of open, democratic societies (though it has played
its part in Britain, using our defamation laws against its
critics). Nor do I mean that countries hosting McDonald’s will necessarily
mutate into dictatorships.
What I mean is that,
under the onslaught of the placeless, transnational capital that McDonald’s
exemplifies, democracy as a living system
withers and dies. The old forms and forums still exist – parliaments and
congresses remain standing – but the power they once contained seeps away,
re-emerging where we can no longer reach it.
The political power
that should belong to us has flitted into confidential meetings with the
lobbyists and donors who establish the limits of debate and action. It has
slipped into the diktats of the IMF and the European Central Bank, which
respond not to the people but to the financial sector. It has been transported, under armed
guard, into the icy fastness of Davos, where Friedman finds so warm a welcome
(even when he’s talking cobblers).
Above all, the power
that should belong to the people is being crushed by international treaty.
Contracts such as Nafta, Ceta the proposed TransPacific Partnership and Trade
in Services Agreement and the failed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are
crafted behind closed doors in discussions dominated by corporate lobbyists. And those lobbyists are able to
slip in clauses no informed electorate would ever approve of, such as the
establishment of opaque offshore tribunals, through which corporations can bypass
national courts, challenge national laws and demand compensation for the
results of democratic decisions.
These treaties limit
the scope of politics, prevent states changing social outcomes and drive down
labour rights, consumer protection, financial regulation and the quality of
neighbourhoods. They make a mockery of sovereignty. Anyone who forgets that striking them
down was one of Donald Trump’s main promises will fail to understand why people
were prepared to risk so much in electing him. At the national level
too, the McDonald’s model destroys meaningful democracy. Democracy depends on
reciprocal belief, trust and belonging: the conviction that you belong to the
nation and the nation belongs to you. The McDonald’s model, by rooting out
attachment, could not have been better designed to erase that perception.
As Tom Wolfe observes
in his novel A
Man in Full, “the only way you could tell you were leaving one community
and entering another was when the franchise chains started repeating and you
spotted another 7-Eleven, another Wendy’s, another Costco, another Home Depot”.
The alienation and anomie this destruction of place promotes are enhanced by
the casualisation of labour and a spirit-crushing regime of monitoring,
quantification and assessment (at which McDonald’s excels). Public health disasters contribute to the
sense of rupture. After falling for decades, for instance, death rates among
middle-aged white Americans are now rising. Among the likely causes are obesity and diabetes,
opioid addiction and liver failure, diseases whose carriers are corporations.
from democratic constraints, drive us towards climate breakdown, an urgent
threat to global peace. McDonald’s has done more than its fair share: beef
production is among the most powerful causes of climate change. In his book The Globalisation Paradox, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik
describes a political trilemma. Democracy, national sovereignty and
hyperglobalisation, he argues, are incompatible. You cannot have all three at
once. McDonaldisation crowds out domestic politics. Incoherent and dangerous as
it often is, the global backlash against mainstream politicians is at heart an
attempt to reassert national sovereignty against the forces of undemocratic
An article about the history of the Democratic party by Matt Stoller in the
Atlantic reminds us that a similar choice was articulated by the great US
jurist Louis Brandeis. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth
concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both,” he said. In 1936
the congressman Wright Patman managed to pass a bill against the concentration
of corporate power. Among his targets was A&P, the giant chainstore of his day, which was hollowing out
towns, destroying local retailers and turning “independent tradesmen into
In 1938 President
Roosevelt warned that “the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people
tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than
their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.” The Democrats
saw concentrated corporate power as a form of dictatorship. They broke up giant
banks and businesses and chained the chainstores. What Roosevelt, Brandeis and
Patman knew has been forgotten by those in power, including powerful
journalists. But not by the victims of this system.
One of the answers to
Trump, Putin, Orbán, Erdoğan, Salvini, Duterte, Le Pen, Farage and the politics
they represent is to rescue democracy from transnational corporations. It is to
defend the crucial political unit that is under assault by banks, monopolies
and chainstores: community. It is to recognise that there is no greater hazard
to peace between nations than a corporate model that crushes democratic choice.