In Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal, journalist and author Eric Schlosser explores the origin, evolution, ascendance, operation, impact, and exportation of the uniquely American (and extremely toxic) fast food industry. From its birth in the west coast post-war car culture to its capture of food markets around the planet, the fast food industry has succeeded in radically altering the human species’ relationship to food – its meaning, production, distribution, content, form and flavor, cost, acquisition, and consumption.
Schlosser gives great attention to the negative consequences and true costs of the industrialization, enfranchisement, and conglomeration of control over the food supply. In turns, he describes the corporate monoculturing of US agriculture and society, and the international exportation of the fast food model. He draws attention to the ironic contradiction between capitalist ideology and the titanic public subsidization of corporate America. He follows the slow but steady insinuation of fast food products, advertising, and influence into every aspect of daily life – even into the public school system; the fast food industry’s dominance of both the food consumer and food production markets, and its plutocratic control of the public policies intended to regulate it. Schlosser documents the industry’s disregard, not just for its consumers, but for its workforce as well. The young and old, immigrants and disabled – but always the poor – are systematically exploited: they are dehumanized, deceived and manipulated, prevented from organizing, abused, injured, poisoned, assaulted, and ultimately abandoned by what I would describe as the corporate capitalists’ unchecked war on humans for the spoils of profit, market, and capital.
Schlosser’s narrative meanders through the unreal valley carved by the floodwaters of corporate influence on the landscape of American society. Many of the book’s most disturbing anecdotes describe the ubiquity of legally conducted political bribery by lobbyists systematically co-opting or bypassing society’s democratic forms. Though the language is never used in the book, Schlosser concisely describes the human- and societal-level consequences of America’s contemporary corporate oligarchy. Of particular value are the examples of public relations and mass media operating as propaganda machines manufacturing fear-based control, distraction-based consent, and emotion-based consumption by carefully calibrating the parameters of public consciousness and the models of preferred behavior. Most sinister, Schlosser discusses the strategic targeting of children for cognitive and behavioral manipulation pioneered by Walt Disney and McDonald’s and now universally practiced across virtually all consumer industries: cradle-to-grave marketing to win “the hearts and minds” of children to create life-long brand-loyal customers.
Fast Food Nation concludes by presenting suggestions for improving some of the most egregious crimes and vulgarities committed by the fast food industry. For example, Schlosser asserts that “congress should immediately act to ban all advertisements aimed at children that promote foods high in fat and sugar,” a proposal with which I wholeheartedly agree. But for the most part, Schlesser’s ideas amount to reform and regulation rather than transformation, and reflect the same narrowness of vision I observe among many public health thinkers and leaders: namely, the failure to critically assess the deepest root causes of society’s ills, to vision a world in which such foundational conventions were different, and to translate that vision into reality.
To wax metaphorical, the privatization and concentration of capital and the sanctification of the profit motive have together created an owning class of insatiable wolves mercilessly preying on the herd of society. And as with all predators, it is the powerless, the vulnerable, the unwary and unaware who are the targeted victims of predation. The United States, which fashions itself as the greenest of pastures, has become a hunting ground where the shepherds are suckled by, and so obey, the wolves.
Actually existing capitalism, with its morality of greed and worship of profit; its liturgy of privatization, extraction, externalization, and expansion; its sacrament of inequity and doctrine of infinite accumulation, is an innovative and enormously successful hybridization of pseudo-religious ideology and Machiavellian norms, demonstrably false economic premises, and class-based social Darwinist objectives. Capitalism is perhaps history’s most potent and infectious meme, one that has intertwined American domestic and foreign policies with global corporate economic hegemony so inextricably thanks to the conspiring, proselytizing forces of western technological superiority; American exceptionalism; and the inherent nature of empire to expand. By the early 21st century – and in stark contrast to the popular support of the socialist critique and fervent working-class solidarity of the early 20th century – systematic, longitudinal, ubiquitous government and corporate propaganda, policy, and practice had succeeded in suppressing the “crisis of democracy”, in “manufacturing consent”, and in converting an informed and engaged citizenry into irrational consumers. These victories, in turn, helped create the contemporary American consciousness that regards capitalism and class as unquestionable features of the natural order – as necessary as breathing, yet invisible as air.
The downstream reverberations of capitalism’s post-cold war sovereignty affect the psychosocial, socioeconomic, political, and even physical landscapes of all peoples and nations. The world’s trajectory and its most intractable problems are forcefully propelled by the enormous momentum of the mass-suicidal Ponzi scheme to which all of earth and its living inhabitants have been involuntarily committed.
To my mind, the central subject of Fast Food Nation – the American fast food industry in the 20th and early 21st centuries – is but a case study in a larger thesis regarding the outputs of our society’s peculiar configuration; what we observe in this single sector is but one example of the real-world consequences of America’s organizing principles and ideologies. Fast Food Nation describes a single act of the anti-humanism tragedy called Capitalism, played out in real time on the stage of history; starring economic elites as The Rulers of the Earth, with special guests: the professional classes as The Administrators, and a supporting cast of billions as The Exploited Cogs and Commodities of the Machine; set internationally but with primarily American props; penned by acolytes and sycophants of privilege eager to join the ruling caste for whom the work has been both commissioned and dedicated.
Until the intellectual and professional classes – those with both the education to know and the influence to effect – (1) illuminate and inject Deep Root Causes into mainstream consciousness and discourse, and (2) incorporate its lessons into real-world alternatives inverse to the structural instability, injustice, and unsustainability inherent in actualized capitalism, conventional efforts in fields such as public health will only ever be “polishing silver on the Titanic”, rather than steering her – and all of us – clear of the impending iceberg and into safer waters.