I’ve never eaten at a McDonald’s. Never a fry, never a nibble, never a sip. I don’t know if this principled (or eccentric) stand of mine has anything at all to do with what the protesters in Seattle have against McDonald’s. But when, the morning after the Seattle riots, the bookers started to call seeking punditry expertise, and I said I had never eaten in a McDonald’s (and added, for that matter, that I don’t have a driver’s license), I saw the clear opportunity for a career as a leading pundit for this new rejectionist movement (my tag, but feel free to adopt it).
Indeed, having written about the rise of the e-decade – that triumph of technology and capitalism – just days before, now I was being eagerly sought to judge whether the protesters in Seattle were foreshadowing its end. I was wondering myself.
The challenge for media people, bookers, producers, editors, columnists, and pundits last week was to go from zero awareness and understanding of free trade and its malcontents to entertaining the possibility that what we had witnessed, that garbage can through the Gap’s plate-glass window, represented a major cultural moment, that this could be a Zeitgeist-moving event.
The first day, it had seemed, through the media eye, to be just an instance of the Seattle police’s screwing up – shooting weakling professors with rubber bullets, for goodness’ sake. What we were seeing in Seattle were nostalgists: all those former sixties people who, when the world turned, had tipped into the Northwest. Then there followed a lot of scoffing: An economic protest in a time of economic splendor! Making a stand against globalism in the middle of one of the greatest global trading cities of the age! Right.
But then, characters came into focus: The Times described one participant in the mêlée, straight-faced, as a teacher of protest tactics at Berkeley; and the head of the anarchist movement in Eugene, Oregon, turned out to be in regular touch with Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber (it is something to consider that Ted Kaczynski could gain a share of immortality, that one of my children might come home with a free kaczynski button).
“This could be a revolt against branding, which is a revolution I would join. Sort of One more logo and I’m going postal.”
At a company called Working Assets in San Francisco, a long-distance-telephone-service provider with a do-good philosophy (sort of a Ben & Jerry’s telco), members of the staff headed up to join the protests, as if on cue. (In my mind’s eye, I saw them as sleepers suddenly activated by their controllers in Moscow, or as some new kind of Boys from Brazil – left-wing clones now grown up and ready for duty.)
The targets were vivid enough: McDonald’s, Starbucks, Nike, the Gap. Fuck culinary and fashion imperialism!
All of a sudden there seemed to be enough weird details to suggest, possibly, there was a good story here – young people living lives that were (a) awfully peculiar, (b) heretofore invisible to the national media, and (c) impassioned enough to entice others to follow them.
Many mass movements and cultural watersheds have begun with less.
In other words, the next big new new thing might turn out to be not some technology enhancement or entrepreneurial scheme or megacorporate combination, but a rejection of all of the above. The next big new new thing could actually be a previously unrecognized sense of meaninglessness (what if everybody doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur? Is that possible?), which, by the by, naturally leads to rage and rebellion.
What if the nineties are actually the fifties, and here, as the decade turns, we are looking at the first sign of the sixties, the turn against prosperity and mindless commerciality (mindless e-commerciality) and anti-intellectuality and the endless stupefying banality and conformity of fast food and malls and dot-coms (and just when you were thinking prosperity was fun)?
Mediawise, of course, we are always looking for such forks in the road. That’s what many of us are paid to do: wake up in the morning and check the Zeitgeist indicators (I just checked zeitgeist.com on the off chance I could grab the domain name – taken!). This time a year ago, with the Russians defaulting and Asia shuddering, we were writing a different sort of end to the era. Many of us were, briefly, envious of Esquire’s entirely incorrect cover story of last October about the impending economic collapse: “What Did You Do After the Crash, Daddy?” (How could they have known? What timing! What prescience! What luck!)
It is the big story, of course: How will the bubble burst? Part of the fun of this (it’s fun at least before the bubble bursts) is trying to predict not only when the pop will occur but what will be the rude cause of it. Or perhaps the bubble won’t burst at all, but large numbers of people will come to hate its dominance, its protuberance, its unremitting expansion. At any rate, what will happen will very likely be a perfect surprise (although later, seem perfectly inevitable). Bubbles, after all, burst, or countertrends begin, just when you’re most convinced they won’t – ever.
That’s partly why what happened in Seattle appeared so odd and dream-like – because it had seemed like we were doing such a good job of navigating late capitalism’s contradictions.
But what contradictions!
* The poor nations, which tend usually to oppose free trade, were now defending free trade because it protected their right to use oppressive labor practices; the protesters, who, classically, are on the side of poor nations against the resource-consuming rich, were eager to impose sanctions on the poor.
* While the culinary, retail, and otherwise economic might of the U.S. was taking it severely on the chin, policy-wise the U.S. government seemed to stand, in some oddly truculent fashion, on the side of the protesters.
* Although the WTO represented evil incarnate, the problem, many of the protesters seemed to be saying, was not that the WTO was too strong but that it was too weak.
* Anti-Nike protesters wore Nikes.
* The anti-technology forces were organized through the Internet.
* The happiest, mellowest city on the planet (so they say) was awash in tear gas.
The difficulty in figuring out just what was at issue in Seattle, or just who exactly the villains were, suggests not that there are no real issues but that the real issue is very likely a larger unhappiness, or restlessness, or reflexive itch to oppose and overthrow. The countervailing force may be quiescent, but it never goes away. It always reemerges. Always. We just don’t know yet if this is it.
Although protest surely seems in the air.
It feels European. it makes a clichéd sort of sense that if capitalism is to be opposed once again, it will be opposed by a European-inspired movement.
The French, of course, are ecstatic.
Let me claim invention of another sobriquet: The Roquefort Revolution (roquefortrevolution.com isn’t taken yet).
It is, as perhaps we cyclically ought to have expected, time for the revenge of the intellectuals. After all, how likely was it that an instinctively suspicious world would just shrug off this decade of technological upheaval?
Spokesmen for the digital revolution and global capitalism often say, as though to reassure, that what technology has wrought is so large that it will change everything in our lives. Indeed, if you just lie back, technology and the global economic order will make you happier than you ever dreamed possible, they say.
Imagine how that makes the French feel.
The last few times I have been in Europe, the Europeans of my acquaintance have nattered on about this Frankenfood issue. Oh, please, I’ve thought. How could their logic, not to mention scientific assumptions, diverge so dramatically from ours?
Okay. They hate us. In the embarrassing years after the fall of Communism, the Euros have had to grin and bear an American resurgence of overwhelming and insulting proportions (in that time, the stench of McDonald’s has become pervasive in Europe). In some sense, we’ve done in the nineties, after the fall of the Eastern bloc, what we did after World War II – we laid America on thick. Similarly, as it started to happen in the late fifties, it probably makes sense now to expect an anti-American backlash, even an epochal turning of the tide against our urge to commercially colonize and accordingly Americanize the world.
The anarchists – already I write this as though anarchists were a commonplace, a definable group, a viable point of view – seemed to imply a kind of science-fiction premise: faceless, massive, functionally undifferentiated corporations replacing legitimate states and governments, Rollerball-like. It was odd, therefore, that the most visible targets for the Seattle protesters were retail enterprises.
Is this just some inexact symbol? It would have been hard, after all, to make the trek out to Redmond to smash a Microsoft window. Perhaps they tell you in the protest-tactics course at Berkeley that you need a street-level target, and a really impressive expanse of plate glass, and a worldwide logo. Coca-Cola, of course, was for many years the symbol of U.S. vulgarity and crassness (and, indeed, having recently made Europeans sick en masse, is becoming unpopular once again).
But maybe it isn’t just the shadowy corporate state that’s the enemy of the new rejectionists. I’m thinking that, just in time, this could be a revolt against branding, which is a revolution I would join. Sort of one more logo and I’m going postal. An aesthetic opposition. Cybernetic guerrillas fighting perceptual imperialism. A throwing-off of the shackles of the Gap. Of this enforced orderliness. Of standardization. Suburbanization. Sameness = death. Fuck khakis! It is worth noting that the downtown Seattle that got messed up is virtually indistinguishable from downtown San Francisco or Austin or Boston or Chicago or Columbus Avenue.
Could this be it, then? The next big thing? Microsoft on the verge of break-up, together with the shattering of the windows at the Gap, and finally someone (besides me) taking a stand against McDonald’s? If only we could include professional sports here, too.
On the other hand, speaking of globalism, my favorite restaurant in the world is a chain restaurant – a highway restaurant called the Autogrill, which spans the coming and going lanes of Italy’s Autostrade. It’s an imitation of U.S. highway fast-food franchisees. Except that the food in these places in Italy is the most delicious (for the most reasonable price) I’ve ever had. Big pots of risotto. Mountains of mozzarella. Come-hither figs. And my favorite, a very un-vegan roasted pork shank (this meat just melts). The Autogrill – controlled by the Benetton family, owners of the Italian competitors to the Gap – recently completed its buyout of U.S. plastic-food giant Host Marriott Services. Now Autogrill will be running truck stops across America. Will it be serving wild-boar salami and penne arabbiata and deep-fried zucchini flowers on U.S. highways?
If so, then I am a free trader.