Schlosser begins this chapter by describing Plauen, a smaller German city in a region called Vogtland, about halfway between Munich and Berlin. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Plauen was a textile town. But when these industries collapsed following the German defeat in World War One, the town became a hotbed of radical National Socialist sympathy—for example, on Kristallnacht, in 1938, “a crowd eagerly destroyed Plauen’s only synagogue.” During the World War two, Plauen was mostly spared until the end of the fighting, in 1945, when the British bombed the city heavily, destroying most of its buildings.
Schlosser ends the book not in the American context, but abroad, with an examination of how fast-food culture impact the rest of the globe. Schlosser settles on Germany for the reasons he explains—because, in many ways, the two German states in the second half of the 20th century represent two different cultural attitudes, capitalist and socialist, regarding the relationship between the state and individual economic enterprise.
The Soviets eventually took over control of Plauen—it was “just” inside the East German state, only nine miles from the border with the West. Although Plauen suffered under the economic strictures of East Germany (which was controlled by the Soviets), it was chosen, in 1990, as “the first McDonald’s site in East Germany.” And that McDonald’s was the first new building built in Plauen since the re-unification of Germany after the falling of the Berlin Wall.
Plauen’s McDonald’s, Schlosser notes, therefore has a kind of double symbolism. McDonald’s itself is already a potent symbol of American economic might, and of the kinds of food-production efficiencies that now exist the world over. And, for a McDonald’s to exist in the former Socialist East Germany, is to underscore just how much that country has changed since 1990.
Schlosser notes that throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and increasing in the 1990s, fast-food companies in America began setting their sights on overseas expansion as a way of increasing profits, since so much of the American food market had been saturated. When fast-food companies expanded abroad, they also brought with them the “efficiencies” of food production developed in the United States, transforming how food was produced in foreign cultures. In places as remote as India, Beijing, and Germany, fast-food in the ‘90s was hip, modern, and “American,” a “status symbol” for many who wanted to appear knowledgeable of American culture.
What Schlosser implies, throughout this chapter, is that fast-food companies had reached a kind of near saturation of the American market by the 1980s or so. Companies need to expand to continue to make profits—thus, McDonald’s and other fast food conglomerates looked abroad, hoping to find new and eager consumers of mass-produced burgers and fries.
Schlosser tells of the most “bizarre” experience he had during the three years writing the book: a speech he witnessed, in Las Vegas in 1999, delivered by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, and given to the 26th Annual Chain Operators Exchange, a meeting for owners and franchisers of fast-food restaurants. Schlosser notes that Gorbachev’s politics—far to the left of many anti-union American franchise owners—were an odd match for the convention, and some people became so bored during Gorby’s speech that they walked out of the auditorium, complaining that the previous year’s speaker, Margaret Thatcher, was better. Schlosser tells this story simply to demonstrate how powerful fast-food interests in the US are: they are capable of hiring the most famous politicians in the world to speak at their conventions—even politicians who are a poor fit for their policies.
Here, Schlosser tracks one of the many peculiarities of the economic and political order of the 1990s. Mikhail Gorbachev is by no means a “Republican” or a “conservative” in the American sense. But he did, of course, begin the project of opening the Soviet Union to the West, which ended in the dissolution of that union and the reemergence of a non-Soviet, at least superficially democratic Russia, in the 1990s and 2000s. Thus, Gorbachev is a kind of “hinge” figure between state control and private enterprise—making him a sought-after public speaker for events like this.
Schlosser describes the impact of “Americanization” of food on global health. Fast-food is low in fiber and nutrients, high in fat and sugar—a poor substitute for fruits and vegetables and home-cooked meals. And yet Americans, and many others in countries around the world, are eating more fast-food—and experiencing a vast increase in clinical obesity. Schlosser notes that obesity, as a national and global problem, is hard to fix, especially since fast-food chains seem to satisfy such high and entrenched consumer demand, inside and outside the US.
Of course, the Golden Arches have a dark side to them. They are an indicator of American efficiency and marketing—but they are also a sign that native food cultures, and native patterns of nutritious eating, might be falling by the wayside in other countries. It would be unfair, of course, to blame this entirely on McDonald’s, but fast-food chains are leading the push toward a globally “American” style of dining out, and of mass-produced food.
Schlosser mentions another case, which was litigated throughout the 1990s, in which London Greenpeace activists produced and distributed a leaflet, accusing McDonald’s of selling food filled with “lethal toxins.” McDonald’s fought Greenpeace in court, using aggressive British anti-libel laws, which typically allow corporations and famous individuals to fight back against those who criticize them without strict and complete factual accuracy (celebrities have also fought British reporters in court using these laws). But despite this, various courts of appeals in the UK still acknowledged that some parts of the “McLibel” leaflets, issued by Greenpeace, were true—that McDonald’s food is unhealthful, and that it causes, or is one of the primary causes of, an enormous number of ill societal effects, including increased obesity on a grand scale. Schlosser notes that, as of his book’s publication, the McLibel case had not been fully settled one way or another.
This is a complex legal trial, and Schlosser is less concerned with who wins and who loses—a result which wasn’t even determined by the time of the book’s publication. Instead, Schlosser views the McLibel case as an indication that strong and concerted opposition to the fast-food industry exists in other countries. Schlosser implies that that opposition could also exist in the United States, if enough people were to join together. But, of course, Schlosser also points out that McDonald’s was more than willing to fight these charges in court, and to defend its image before the public, even at great expense to the company.
Schlosser closes the chapter by writing that life in Plauen now is far different from what it was in East German times, and that McDonald’s plays a major part in that city’s “Westernization.” American-themed bars have sprouted up, and the McDonald’s in town is “spotless,” a “beacon” of American-style living, hard to miss when one walks around the downtown portion of Plauen. Plauen is by no means perfect, as Schlosser asserts—there is, as a consequence of the influx of western-style businesses, a more visible difference between the “haves,” who run these businesses, and the “have-nots,” who have not benefitted directly from market-style reforms in East Germany. Schlosser notes that Germany presents a “new frontier” for companies like McDonald’s, which were founded in the “frontier” land of California in the US—a place where capitalist values and spurred the streamlining and explosive growth of the fast-food industry.
Perhaps one of the most important through-lines in Schlosser’s book is the idea, now discussed a great deal in the second decade of the 21st century, that a very clear divide exists between those who have money and economic power, and those who do not. Fast-food can then be, among other things, a symbol of income inequality. People who have more money typically don’t eat as much fast food, and the executives who manage fast-food companies make a great deal of money. But people who work in, and eat frequently in, places like McDonald’s might be precisely those segments of the population harmed by a government that is unwilling, or unable, to focus on lower- and middle-class economic issues. Instead, the federal government, according to Schlosser, is often more focused on ensuring that corporate profits remain high.