The Founder is a 2016 biopic of Ray Kroc, the man who created McDonald’s. Or did he? In this episode I examine this ambiguous film, one of the best examples of cultural capitalism to come out of Hollywood in recent years. I explore how it avoids the negative consequences of the creation of McDonald’s, leaving us with a simple human conflict over who deserves the credit and recognition.
This movie has nothing to do with intelligence, the military, war or foreign policy. ‘So why did I choose to do an episode about it?’ I hear you ask. Hopefully by the end, all will be clear. The film begins in the 1950s and tells the story of Ray Kroc, a milkshake mixer salesman. While he has been moderately successful, Ray yearns for more and while on the road he notices the inefficiencies and other problems of the drive-in restaurants popular at the time. A phonecall from a restaurant ordering 8 milkshake multi-mixers leads him to San Bernadino, the site of the first McDonald’s restaurant. Ray broaches a deal to set up a franchise corporation based on the original McDonald’s and their fast food system. This is successful and eventually becomes so big that he effectively buys out the two McDonald brothers who created the system and developed this new kind of restaurant.
I am not going to go through the film and highlight what is historically accurate and what is inaccurate, mainly because Andrew and Martin over at History by Hollywood have already done that, so if you want to know how real this story is then check out episode 25 of their podcast. The short answer is that this story is essentially true, with some compression and dramatisation.
In essence, it’s a story about setting up a business, with an inherent ambiguity over exactly who deserves the credit and the glory for the success. By the end of the film Ray Kroc has even bought the name McDonald’s, preventing the brothers, whose name it actually was, from using it on their own restaurant. It is clear that the brothers McDonald would not have grown their business into a worldwide franchise by themselves. It is equally clear that Ray Kroc would not have come up with the fast food system, because he isn’t especially innovative or creative. As such, it’s a lot like The Social Network, a script Aaron Sorkin said he deliberately wrote in this ambiguous way to allow the audience to pick whichever side they liked, or be left uncertain as to exactly who created Facebook.
Much like The Social Network, almost none of the film is devoted to the consequences and repercussions of this new thing that someone created. The closing shot of The Social Network shows Mark Zuckerberg clicking and refreshing on facebook to see if his ex-girlfriend has responded to his friend request. Apart from this, the rest of the movie portrays Facebook as a good thing, a positive creation. Likewise in The Founder the only dispute is over whether it is Ray or the brothers McDonald, or both, who should get the credit for creating McDonalds, the notion that these are horrible inventions that are now plaguing the world is simply not up for discussion.
Why not? In short, because of cultural capitalism, something that is rarely discussed outside of university seminars and books that hardly anyone reads. But only a fool would deny that capitalism is the foremost ideological influence on the world at the moment. Likewise, only a fool would ignore other ideological influences – political, economic, social, religious, scientific etc. – on the world. While the right wing obsession with ‘cultural Marxism’ has got so mainstream that even the Daily Express are advocating this moronic conspiracy theory, almost no one outside of strictly Marxist independent media talk about cultural capitalism.
Nonetheless, it is everywhere. You can barely go anywhere in a modern city without an animated screen trying to sell you a product by either making you feel bad, or selling you a very limited and commodified notion of happiness. You can barely watch a blockbuster movie without being subjected to continual product placement. Not that I have a huge issue with product placement, from where I’m sitting watching giant monsters destroy big corporate coffee and donut outlets in Rampage was quite fun.
If one were so inclined one could interpret this as the symbolic destruction of capitalism and therefore see Rampage as culturally Marxist, but I find this to be utterly stupid. For one thing, it’s a paid advert for a product, with the intention of maintaining or growing market share. For another, capitalism is extremely flexible as a system and is very good at subsuming and commodifying opposition to itself. While some very good films were made about the financial collapse of 2008 – Margin Call being the best of them – these films were produced and distributed with the aim of making money. That is to say, capitalism will profit from its own demise, disaster capitalism has become almost omnipresent both in the real world and in its cinematic reflections.
Let us take, for example, the moment when Ray Kroc first arrives at the McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernadino. He sees a long queue of people lining up to order their food, but a customer tells him not to worry because the line moves fast. Before we know it, Ray (played superbly by Michael Keaton) is up at the service window.
This is the one scene in this film that I find intensely creepy. The expression on the face of the server is that of a fully indoctrinated cult member, he has this sunny disposition, his eyes are basically dead, and he talks like he’s explaining the secret to life and the universe. I’m fairly convinced this is not what the film-makers were going for, I think they were going for what we might call a eureka moment in slow motion, as Ray realises over a matter of minutes that this is his future, this is his opportunity.
It’s also what the guy says. At this point in the story drive-ins are very popular, and the idea of walking up to a window, being given your food in moments, and you eat it without a plate or cutlery, is quite novel. The moment that especially grates with me is when the server explains that you eat the food out of the paper wrapping and then ‘throw it all out’. It sounds so simple, when you’re done you just ‘throw it all out’.
Bear with me, because this is both a deep-set personal gripe I have with American English and a very serious problem with how capitalism works. As some of you know, I am very much in the camp that thinks of American English as an in-bred, retarded bastard child of the English language. Almost everything that is different in American English is a childish euphemism that infantilises the people who talk like that. In English, shit is called shit. In American English, even adults refer to shit as ‘poop’. In English, kissing someone is called kissing someone. In American English, even adults refer to it as ‘making out’. In English, a handjob is a handjob. In American English it’s ‘third base’. In English, creating a huge mountain of rubbish because you live in a 60-second microwave popcorn with free retweets society is pollution. In American English it’s called ‘throwing it out’.
Out where? This is what I mean about childish euphemisms – the American approach to pollution is literally ‘out of sight, out of mind’. If you ‘just throw it all out’ then it’s no longer a problem, because it’s ‘out there’ rather than here, in front of us. It is this mentality that allows Americans to consume even more than Western Europeans without the slightest notion of guilt or consequences. Now that North America and Western Europe have largely outsourced industrial production, our media goes on about the pollution caused by Chinese industrialisation. But a lot of that is our pollution, it is pollution created in order to make cheap products for us. This is something the news media simply never admits.
Indeed, this is my fundamental problem with capitalism, in all its forms. I have no issue per se with people capitalising on their own talents and labour in order to create things for themselves or to sell them to others so they can buy stuff. That has been going on for thousands of years before ‘capitalism’ was even a word, and it happens in all economic systems regardless of ideology.
The problem I have with the capitalism of the last three hundred years or so, both in its industrial and post-industrial forms, is that it places almost no value on the natural world. This is particularly the case with anarcho-capitalists, who constantly reiterate how if someone finds a spot of land that isn’t enclosed that they should be able to build a fence around it and thereby turn it into their property. And once it is their property, they are free to do whatever they want with it. Blow up an atomic bomb, poison the water supply, whatever. Because human freedom is apparently more important than the natural world on which all human activity depends.
The same is true of state capitalists, who only see the natural world in terms of its ability to make profits for them. The notion that all this polluting crap originally came from finite natural resources, and maybe chopping down a forest to make little cardboard pockets so that McDonald’s can save money on not having to hire people to wash plates isn’t quite the utopia it is made out to be. Maybe those trees had all kinds of value – aesthetic, practical, as part of an ecosystem – and simply chopping them down because it’s cheaper to do that than to hire people to wash plates is an act of vandalism. But no, let’s not talk about that, let’s talk about how the Jews are using cultural Marxism to bring down Western society, even though that isn’t happening. Or let’s talk about how wonderful it would be if we lived in a free market system where there wouldn’t be any restrictions at all on people destroying nature, selling it off in chunks and polluting the air we need to breathe in order to stay alive.
As I’ve said many times, capitalism would not still be alive if it didn’t deliver on some of its promises. It is a great means of expanding material wealth. But the notion that we can just carry on converting more natural resources into more material wealth, without any cost to us now or to people in the future, is an insane and ludicrous delusion that few, if any, capitalists will even admit, let alone factor into their arguments and opinions.
The Exploitation of Labour
What made McDonalds different to other food outlets at the time was primarily the speed. Even in many modern eateries you go in, order, and have to wait for them to cook your meal. This requires a lot of space, lots of employees, lot of plates getting dropped and broken. It also requires that the customer has 10 or 20 minutes so they can wait for their food.
The system developed by the McDonald brothers – which they call the Speedy System in the film – gets rid of most of that. By restricting their menu to just burgers, fries and soft drinks and by designing a custom kitchen to maximise efficiency and minimise production time they removed the customer wait entirely. Before you’ve even ordered there’s a burger there waiting for you.
This is explained in the film when Ray takes the brothers out to dinner to hear their story, and they explain how they developed this new system of food production – essentially, how they created fast food as we now know it.
As with the pollution and environmental degradation, another major consequence of McDonalds is completely ignored – the impact on people’s health. By only serving burgers, fries and soft drinks they ensured that the customers went away with their taste buds happy, but they also ensured the customers went away with very little nutrition. But if you made a film about how the McDonald brothers created a system for maximising health problems and maximising resource depletion and maximising pollution while minimising nutrition, well, that would be ‘cultural Marxism’. Or just ‘honest’.
Along similar lines, the system is designed to minimise the number of employees they have to hire, in order to maximise profits. By having each person do the same simple task dozens or hundreds of times per day they effectively automated their workforce. They also made them miserable, though this is carefully avoided just like all the other negative consequences. We’re not supposed to think about that, we’re supposed to focus on the power struggle for control of the system, not whether the system itself is a virtuous one.
Throughout the film we’re given scenes that are designed to make us sympathise with the McDonald brothers, and see them as sincere, decent guys who are just trying to run a successful business. We’re also given scenes where we see how Ray is struggling on a meagre percentage of profits from all the franchises he’s setting up, thus excusing some of his questionable behaviour in his relationship with the brothers.
On balance, most people who I’ve talked to about this film come down on the side of the McDonald brothers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m the opposite. As far as I’m concerned they developed a system – consciously – to maximise their ability to exploit the labour of their employees. It isn’t good old Dick and Mac McDonald who are spending 8 hours a day flipping hundreds of burgers, day after day, week after week, year after year. They hire other people to do that repetitive, life-sucking work while they stand around pontificating about why powdered milkshakes are somehow a problem.
Meanwhile, Ray does to the brothers what they’re doing to their employees – exploits them for profit. But he’s essentially unabashed about what he’s doing, he wants to make money and make his mark and build a big business. In that, I found Ray a more honest capitalist than the brothers, and whatever I think of someone’s beliefs I have a lot more respect if they are honest about them.
Indeed, the brothers are so deluded about what they’ve actually done – thanks to infantile euphemisms hiding all the negative consequences of their actions – that at the end of the film when they make a deal with Ray to withdraw from the company, they insist on keeping their original San Bernadino restaurant as a ‘gift’ to their employees. Here’s an idea, why not pay them more? Or allow them to rotate roles so they aren’t just doing the same thing day after day? But no. They genuinely believe they’ve created a good thing, even for the people they have systematically exploited.
Crosses, Flags, Arches
My favourite scene in the entire film is when Ray is trying to convince the brothers to franchise their restaurant. Initially, they explain that they tried to do that but it didn’t work out, so Ray goes back to selling multi-mixers for a while before returning to San Bernadino to talk to them again.
I like this scene not just because it’s funny and it’s the pivot for the first half of the movie, but because there’s some truth to what Ray is saying here. Symbols like flags, religious architecture, logos – they mean a lot to people, they have strong, lasting connotations. And McDonald’s has become almost as ubiquitous as the church. There was a McDonald’s in Moscow years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Herein lies an interesting struggle that is particularly acute in the US but to some extent exists everywhere. As capitalism has globalised – which you could say began with the European discovery of the Americas – many cultures that haven’t proven as efficient or profitable have been left behind. This is the result of many things, not least the rate of technological development, but capitalism is also one of the causes.
This is represented in the film by the struggle over powdered milkshakes. Franchisees begin complaining to Ray about refridgeration costs for all the ice-cream needed for milkshakes, and one of them suggests powdered milkshakes as a cheaper alternative. Ray phones up Mac McDonald and has an argument, with Mac maintaining that a milkshake should contain real milk. Ultimately Ray wins out, and most of the McDonald’s outlets start serving powdered milkshakes.
I have mixed feelings about all of this. I wouldn’t buy a milkshake from McDonald’s so I don’t really care what they put in them, and it does less to deplete natural resources if you use the powdered kind. Again, what is never factored into the equation is the environmental impact of choosing one option over the other, the decisive factors are merely brand value and profitability. Traditions aren’t seen as valuable in themselves, only as means to create a brand image and uphold the appearance of being a company with traditional values. So I think the rhetoric of ‘the world has moved on’ and the rhetoric of ‘all loss of tradition is sad and should be opposed’ are both somewhat misleading. After all, the tradition of witch burning is a long-standing one, and could be quite profitable if we brought it back, but it would be a moral disaster.
The USA is especially caught up in this tension between its Christian colonial roots and its current power deriving from being the foremost capitalist nation. Sometimes these two things overlap and reinforce each other but other times they are in conflict. Hollywood is a good example of how they overlap, because Hollywood helps sell cultural consumerism, which in turn helps keep the US economy as big as it is, which in turn helps maintain US military supremacy. Make no mistake, the US could not and would not be as powerful a nation without having such a vast GDP. This is how product placement serves the military-industrial complex.
Indeed, you could see this entire movie as an act of product placement, but the product is not just McDonald’s but the entire state capitalist system. Like a good advert it only shows you the positive attributes of the product, and like a good ideologue it creates an image of human struggle to distract you from the real world consequences. You might come away thinking Ray Kroc deserves most of the credit, you might think the brothers deserve it, but the idea that no one deserves the credit, and maybe that both deserve criticism for visiting this angel of heartburn and landfill on the human race, isn’t part of the equation.
This, at heart, is what is wrong with capitalism – it values everything in terms of its monetary value. The idea that something might have other values but it’s not at all profitable, or that it might be immensely profitable but still a really bad thing, is not up for consideration. Sticking the prefix ‘anarcho’ in front of ‘capitalism’ does absolutely nothing to change that.