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The Robots Have Arrived: A Marginal Sociologist’s Take on McDonald’s and the Rationalization of American Society in the Age of Extreme Capitalism (With Bonus Coverage of McDonald’s’ Love Affair With Industrial Football

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As an educator it is sometimes difficult to explain the intricacies of Sociological theory. Much of it is abstract and can best be understood only through real social interactions. Since too many sociologists (in the current context) shy away from actually interacting with their fellow humans (due to, mainly, political disagreements) I believe that it is important to put the subjects I teach in the context of real-life situations. A few nights ago, at the local McDonald’s, I was provided an experience that allowed me to better explain eminent Sociologist Max Weber’s concept of rationalization to my students. I shared it with them in class, and I believe it is equally relevant to the wider social world so I am choosing to share it in this context as well. After all, McDonald’s is one of the major corporations that sponsors football’s most visible competition, the FIFA World Cup.

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McDonald’s and the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Image Courtesy Of: http://bizztro.tumblr.com/post/88927751559/fifas-game-of-sponsors

 

Sociologist George Ritzer coined the term “McDonaldization” in his book “The McDonaldization of Society”. It was essentially an extension of Max Weber and his ideas regarding the development of a form of social control driven by a focus on efficiency and “means-end” concerns. This process involves a certain degree of homogenization and it is something that globalization itself perpetuates: Everything—down to our human interactions—must be rationally controlled; even the football stadium is not immune to this process. More and more new stadiums are being built in the interests of corporate profit and not the fans—what earns the the team money is the most important concern. This is why we have seen a backlash to industrial football among world football fans. The stadium has become a space for profit, not passion.  This process erodes human agency, and I saw—first hand—how this process works at my local McDonald’s.

 

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Marginal Sociologists Can Sometimes Transcend Their Own Marginality (Author’s Note: I Have Yet To Achieve That Level). Image Courtesy Of: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_McDonaldization_of_Society

 

I dropped by the nearest McDonald’s for a late night snack the other day. Upon walking in I noticed that there were four (4) computer screens set up for ordering; there was just one human cashier. Since I am against the growing computerization (and mechanization) of society, I decided to wait in line so as to physically interact with a human being during my transaction. After all, the only way of telling corporations that human beings are better investments than machines is by supporting them. After waiting about three minutes I actually got the “privilege” of interacting with a human being.

 

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How Human Is The Idea Of Breaking Burgers Down Into Nationality For the World Cup? It Seems Like More Of  a Tool To Further Atomize–and Divide–Global Society In the Age of Globalization. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.lifehacker.com.au/2014/05/taste-test-mcdonalds-2014-world-cup-brazil-and-australia-burgers/

 

I ordered one double cheeseburger (only onions and ketchup; no pickles or mustard). Assuming it would be a small purchase I presented two (2) American dollars as payment. The cashier informed me that the final price was two dollars and two cents ($2.02). I asked if $2.00 dollars was enough; it would save her the time of counting out ninety-eight cents in change and me the time of waiting. It made “sense” insofar as it reduced the need for “cents”. The cashier, for her part, did not budge. $2.02. She wanted those two cents. I searched on the floor for dropped change in vain. I pleaded for her to drop the two cents but she was adamant. $2.02. In effect, my human cashier had become as robotic as the machines that will soon push her out of a job. But, in the context of the rationalized world of extreme capitalism, she couldn’t understand that she had lost her human agency. If she had cut me some slack—as a human being could (and arguably should)—she would be held accountable by her manager for the missing two cents in her register at the end of her shift. And I get that. But I also get that it represents the kind of bureaucratic rationalization that Max Weber argues leaves human beings bereft of their own human agency. My cashier on this night might have saved the McDonald’s corporation from losing two cents, but that will not keep the McDonald’s corporation from laying her off in favor of a computer somewhere down the line. This particular cashier was all too willing to earn the company profit—which will likely not trickle down to her paygrade—at the expense of having a human interaction. In fact, for two cents, she even risked losing a customer (After all, I am not opposed to criticism of corporations who subscribe to the values of extreme capitalism, such as Starbucks).

 

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Again, in 2006, McDonald’s Was At the Forefront of Football Advertising. Image Courtesy Of: http://fifaworldcup.tk/fifa-world-cup/fifa-world-cup-2006-logo

 

In the end I decided to order a second double cheeseburger (since two are $3.20) so as to at least get more “bang for my buck(s)” (and to get less change). As I waited for the food, however, I became more and more incensed at the blatantly impersonal nature of the modern fast food restaurant. Eventually I lost my appetite. Rather than refuse the food (an action which I, for a moment, contemplated), I decided to take it and walked out hoping (for possibly the first time in my life) that one of the famous panhandlers in my city would accost me looking for money. When one did—asking for a dollar so as to purchase a bus ticket to a city more than five hours away—I made my own move: “I don’t have any money for you, but I do have two hot McDonald’s double cheeseburgers with only onions and ketchup—will you take them?” At that a smile crept across the gentleman’s face and I presented him with the food I had ordered. It was fitting that—in a dehumanizing world—we can still strive for humanizing experiences (even if extreme capitalism tries, at times, to suppress our own humanity).

 

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Like Starbuck’s, McDonald’s Might Attempt to Send a Multicultural Image (Look At the Clearly Inter-ethnic Display of the Four Children In This Advertisement) But That Doesn’t Mean They Don’t Pursue The Kind Of Global Homogenization That Globalism and Globalization Encourage; A Kind of Discriminatory Cultural Imperialism That Erases All That Is Local. Image Courtesy Of: http://bizztro.tumblr.com/post/88927751559/fifas-game-of-sponsors

 

 

Football and Geopolitics: Behind the FIFA Scandal

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May 27 2015 will prove to be a day that lives in infamy—the day scandal rocked world soccer’s governing body, leaving 14 FIFA officials under arrest in Zurich, Switzerland. This is, of course, old news. I’ll try to make it interesting by putting the whole surreal event in a geopolitical context. Lets start with the basics. It was the United States Department of Justice that spearheaded the operation in a 164-page 47-count indictment. In some ways it felt like turning back the clock; the United States of America emerging from its isolation to ostensibly “save the world” by crossing the oceans as in World War One and World War Two. Of course, there were reasons for this particular move since parts of the scandal pertained directly to the United States of America; the Economist outlines them nicely. A video version for those averse to reading is available courtesy of CNN.

The United States has, since World War Two, controlled much of the world system indirectly through both formal and informal international organizations, befitting its hegemonic role. Financially it was initially through the Bretton Woods system, since then it has been the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. Politically control came first through Woodrow Wilson’s brainchild the League of Nations, now there is the New York headquartered United Nations. Culturally the United States has been able to influence the world to a great extent as well; first through Hollywood and music, now it is through technological advancements such as iPhones and iPods, Google, Facebook and Twitter that American culture is felt the world over.

The one sphere in which the United States has failed to make a global impact is, arguably, the world of sports. Indeed the results of a 2014 Harris poll, which has asked Americans aged 18 and older the simple question, “What is your favorite sport?” every year since 1985, tell us that Americans are very USA-centric when it comes to sport.

 

America’s Favorite Sports in 2014 (Courtesy of ESPN)

The National Football League (NFL)(Professional [American] Football): 35%

Major League Baseball (MLB) (Professional Baseball): 14%

College Football (NCAA): 11%

Auto Racing: 7%

National Basketball Association (Professional US Basketball): 6%

National Hockey League (Professional Hockey): 5%

College Basketball (NCAA): 3%

 

The top three vote getters—and more than half of the entire poll’s respondents and 60 percent—listed sports played almost entirely in the United States as their favorite sports. The next highest sport listed is Auto Racing. Although this is a global sport—think of Formula 1 and Rally cars—I personally believe that responders had NASCAR (Again, very American) in mind when answering this question. That leaves the NBA and the NHL—just 11 percent of all respondents called these two their favorite sports—as the only ostensibly international sports to make the list. I say ostensibly because although basketball is played all over the world—and the NBA has been making itself more international with each passing year—it is still a very different game than FIBA’s Euroleague, to name one. Hockey is international in the sense that the NHL has 7 Canadian teams (alongside 23 American teams), but I’m sure very few responders cited in this poll had ever watched a game from Russia’s KHL. Hockey also has a fairly small fan base, limited to those living in northern climates along a belt stretching from Vancouver to the steppes of Central Asia and going only as far south as, perhaps, Zurich, along that belt outside of the United States.

Soccer is certainly the one place in world sport—and world culture, for that matter—that the rest of the world has a chance to best the United States. And it is this chance for “the rest to beat the best of the West”—the battle between the global South and global North played out on the pitch—that gives international football, and the World Cup in particular, its unparalleled allure. The recently departed Eduardo Galeano’s masterpiece Soccer in Sun and Shadow explains the phenomenon well without explicitly saying it (and therein lies the book’s genius, at least for me). So why did the United States focus its power on FIFA, what I explained in my thesis was arguably the first international organization and the globe’s first foray into global civil society, when the US isn’t even interested in the sport? The answer may lie in the organization’s history. FIFA was founded in 1904 in the midst of a different era, the era of empires when the hegemonic power base was located in colonialist Europe and old world territorial powers such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russian Empire, and Ottoman Empire were in decline. Fledgling nations rushed to achieve FIFA membership in order to affirm their independence—to states such as Lebanon, Syria, and others, emerging from the ashes of empires that had long controlled them as dusty peripheral provinces from lavish imperial palaces in far-off capitals, FIFA Membership was what NATO membership now means to Georgia, what European Union membership now means to Ukraine and Serbia. Membership to FIFA was a bold statement to the world: We Have Arrived! And this feeling has not gone away. Today there are 209 members in FIFA. Compare that to the 193 official member states of the United Nations. Look at Palestine’s attempts to push Israel out of FIFA if you don’t believe that FIFA membership can provide succor to those unable to get a seat at the United Nations at which to air their grievances. Perhaps the United States moved to strike a blow at an international institution that had strayed from its original goal of bringing together nations in fair play for everyone’s benefit; it was not founded to line the pockets of a few corrupt officials after all. So, like the American interventions in both World Wars, this can be looked at as another benign intervention by the world’s superpower in order to save the (sporting) world from itself. But there are other theories as well.

As many know, the nexus of the FIFA scandal lies in the bribes received by officials in return for, among other things, votes in choosing World Cup hosts. The hosts of the next two World Cups—as chosen by the aforementioned officials—are Russia (in 2018) and Qatar (in 2022). Both of these countries have something else in common—they are, on some scale, geopolitical rivals of the United States. And both won the right to host their respective World Cups over the United States’ interests; chief US ally England lost out to Russia in 2018 and Qatar beat out the United States’ own bid for 2022. Clearly, the United States could not sit idly by when the chance at winning a considerable amount of soft power influence in the world for themselves and their ally went by the way side. Russia has long been a geopolitical rival to the United States; Qatar is using the confusing situation in the Middle East to cement their role as a regional power in a region key to the United States’ foreign policy interests and hope that hosting a major sporting event such as the World Cup can add to their influence in the region. South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula represents another voice from the global South who criticized the U.S. move by mentioning the U.S./British alliance, saying that it is “for the United States and Britain to fight their own battles: ‘We have fought colonialism and defeated it and we still fight imperialism and we will fight it whenever it manifests itself.’

With the stakes this high, the United States’ move may still pay off. Although FIFA insists that there will be no re-vote for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, signs are showing that nothing is certain. Human rights groups have called on Qatar to publish the death figures for workers building stadiums for the tournament and it is estimated that 1200 migrant workers have died in the construction since 2014. Long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter—who was reelected days ago despite the scandal—resigned on June 2 from his position at the head of Soccer’s governing body. These events—along with UEFA president Michel Platini’s long standing issue with the 2022 World Cup’s potential to affect the European football season—signal to me that a re-consideration may be on the cards.

In such a globalized world—where the World Cup has become bigger than ever—it is only fitting for the world’s sole superpower, the United States, to take a leading role. And in this increasingly interconnected world it is equally fitting that geopolitics is intimately linked with cultural and sporting events.

I find it refreshing that some action has been taken against corruption in world football. But there is still more to be done—the Economist warns that the endemic corruption in sports goes beyond just Sepp Blatter because “sports corruption is a reflection of wider problems—sport merely being an organism to which criminal succubi attach themselves—it is too formidable for sporting organisations to tackle alone.” For the sake of the game we all love let’s hope the United States’ intervention keeps the game from turning into a vehicle to make the rich richer. In David Goldblatt’s words, “the entire football industry has traded on the notion that the game really is the most global cultural practice in the world, a rare form of universalism on a divided planet. That, if nothing else, is worth salvaging from the wreckage.” I can only agree.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://pulse.ng/sports/football/sepp-blatter-resignation-sepp-blatter-resignation-the-football-world-reacts-id3822195.html

Journalists Attacked After Turkey’s 3-1 Victory over Kazakhstan: What It Means

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Often sports can provide an interesting lens through which to view societies. The aftermath of Turkey’s 3-1 victory over Kazakhstan in Sunday’s Euro 2016 Qualifier provides a very good example of this phenomenon. While the game was supposed to be an awakening for a Turkish side that has had a shaky start to the qualifying campaign, it instead became a showcase for many of the issues affecting Turkish society in general and Turkish sports in particular.

Before the game Turkey’s first choice goalkeeper and Fenerbahce stalwart Volkan Demirel (Not Suleyman Demirel) was subjected to verbal abuse from the home fans (In Turkish). The match was played at Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena and evidently some fans forgot that this was not the Istanbul derby. Sadly, the profanity got the best the goalkeeper and he refused to play. In fact, he opted to leave the stadium entirely.

While the fans were unquestionably wrong to abuse a player suiting up for the national team—club rivalries should be forgotten in such cases—I personally think that Volkan should have shown a little more professionalism in this instance. After all, he is on the field and they are in the stands. Instead of responding to the crude jeers he should just do what he does best—playing hard and stopping shots. But on this night it was too much for him.

His deputy Volkan Babacan suited up instead and the victory came. But after the game it was an ugly scene, a scene that truly shows the darker side of today’s Turkey. A group of journalists trying to get access to Volkan Demirel and take video of him leaving the stadium were attacked by private security guards inside the stadium.

Video of the incident is here:

Police intervention came too late and many journalists were savagely beaten. Following the attacks the Turkish Sports Writers Association (TSYD) made a strongly worded statement calling for justice; afterwards five of the private security guards were detained and taken in for questioning by prosecutors.

Attacking journalists—especially at a sporting event—is unforgivable, but for a moment let’s look at Turkey’s press freedom rankings in general. They don’t make for good reading. Most recently Al-Jazeera wrote a piece one month ago noting that according to “Turkish media watchdog Bianet media freedom is at its lowest point in decades”. One year ago the US based Committee to Protect Journalists noted that Turkey is the world’s leader in jailing journalists—211 to be exact, ahead of such bastions of journalistic freedom Iran and China. Others rounding out the top ten (or bottom ten) of this list were Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan. Not exactly honeymoon destinations, although both Egypt and Uzbekistan are undoubtedly beautiful in their own ways.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 154th out of 180 countries, their summary is below:

Despite its regional aspirations, Turkey (154th) registered no improvement and continues to be one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists. The Gezi Park revolt highlighted the repressive methods used by the security forces, the increase in self-censorship and the dangers of the prime minister’s populist discourse. In view of the upcoming elections and the unpredictability of the peace process with the Kurdish separatists, 2014 is likely to be a decisive year for the future of civil liberties in Turkey.

Turkey’s ranking of 154th—one step below Iraq and one step above Gambia—is abhorrent for a country whose leader always sings the praises of democracy. In fact, in 2002—when the current ruling Ak Party came to power—the country was ranked 99th. That spot now belongs to Turkey’s long time geopolitical rival Greece.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://rsf.org/index2014/data/carte2014_en.png

But Turkey’s precipitous drop in worldwide rankings in the years since 2002 is not confined to journalistic freedom alone. According to the most recent FIFA World Rankings Turkey is ranked 46th—tied with Serbia (a country with their own sporting problems) and just below Israel (a country with their own political problems). In September 2002 Turkey was ranked 7th in the world—a spot now occupied by France.

What has become clear in the aftermath of a dark Sunday night is that Turkey has declined in several societal aspects in the past twelve years. What the future holds is an open question…

US World Cup Hangover: The Economics of Soccer in the United States

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The United States bowed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a spirited performance against Belgium—a nation of just 11 million (or, as one humorous article put it, “a Dakota and a half”. For the record, Ohio’s population of 11,570,808 makes it the closest state in terms of population to Belgium. A “Dakota and a half” renders only around 1.5 million).

While the loss was not unexpected it was still upsetting for me as it is any time one of my countries loses in football—especially since, inexplicably, the US had a chance to win the game at the death before Chris Wondolowski—also inexplicably—managed to make a mess of his moment in front of goal. But football is, sometimes, like life. You get your one moment, and you either make the best of it . . . or you don’t. There is no real in between.

A few articles have been written in the wake of the United States’ second round exit, including a very interesting one that asks the question “Has the US Men’s National Team Plateaued?”. Personally, I would be less dramatic—after all, this is football and anything can happen. I should know. My other team, Turkey, made an improbable run to third place at the 2002 World Cup—and another to the semifinals of the 2008 European Championships with an admittedly under-talented side. Hard work coupled with heart and belief can go a long way in football (like it can in life)—just look at the Greece team that won the 2004 European Championship!

So do I think the United States will, in the next three World Cups (a twelve year cycle), have a stunning performance? Yes, I suppose I do. But I won’t ask them to compete with the likes of Brazil, Argentina, and Germany year in and year out. And that’s ok because I also—secretly—like soccer in the US to be more of an inside joke amongst those of us who truly enjoy the game for what it is, and not some marquis event for frat boys who want an excuse to slam beers at odd hours of the working day in the name of banal nationalism done ‘Muricuh style. And that inside joke would be made even sweeter if the US somehow managed to scare the world by advancing past the Quarterfinals of a World Cup. I’ve watched enough US matches on foreign soil to recognize the glee when the US concedes a goal—in the last week alone I’ve seen it in both Russia and Turkey—and I can imagine the fear of a US World Cup win.

It does not appear that soccer in the US will ever move beyond being an inside joke that becomes part of the country’s mainstream culture for just a few summer weeks once every four years (selling many Nike shirts in the meantime) before, again, retreating into hibernation. I don’t think like this because I’m negative or a non-believer in US soccer, it is mainly because I am a realist—both in International Relations theory and in terms of football. When one looks at the facts it should not come as a surprise that the United States will never be a true world power in football. At the heart of it—as in so many cases—lies economics (James Carville would be proud).

The top professional soccer league in the United States is Major League Soccer (MLS), a league that has been steadily improving since its inception in 1996 despite competing with the other major American sports for visibility, fans, and . . . athletes.

Its not hard to understand why. On April 10, 2014 MLS released their salary information and the results were shocking. The top seven salaries in MLS—those of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Defoe, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill—account for 31% of all player salaries. In fact, as Empireofsoccer.com shows, the top 5% of earners represent 45% of total player salaries. That is a huge disparity for a country that prides itself on equality (perhaps there is a psychological dimension to this as well—the economics of MLS are fundamentally un-American!).

The salaries of the aforementioned seven players have, as empireofsoccer.com stated, inflated the league’s average salary to a figure of $207,831 (up from the 2013 figure of $165,066 when the median salary was just $100,000). Still, just a cursory look at a sample of the Colorado Rapid’s salary information for the 2014 season shows some glaring examples of the issues in play. At least three Rapids players—professional athletes who face far greater risk of serious injury daily than I ever did at work—make less money than I made sitting at a desk in my old day job!

Now compare the (admittedly inflated) average salary figure of $207,831 in MLS to the average salaries in the other major US sports from two years ago, courtesy of Forbes unless cited otherwise:

 

Major League Baseball (MLB): $3.2 million in 2012, now it is just under $4 million.

National Basketball Association (NBA): $5.15 million, now it is 3,453,241 (with a median of $1,500,000—fifteen times the MLS median in 2013).

National Football League (NFL): $1.9 million

National Hockey League (NHL): $2.4 million

 

The disparity is staggering. And now lets look back at that list of the seven highest paid MLS players, for a moment. Only three of the seven—Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan—are American. And after Jurgen Klinsmann’s now legendary snubbing of Landon Donovan, only two of them made it to the United States’ World Cup squad! Clearly, what big money that does exist in MLS is certainly not going to help the development of the US Men’s National team. And that means that for your average American soccer player, the chances of making big money at home—and representing your country on the biggest stage—are very small indeed.

This in itself poses a problem for the development of the game in the US. Many talented soccer players at the youth level in the United States often play multiple sports. Soccer is either a fall or spring sport depending on where you live, so that leaves the options of American Football and Baseball in other seasons, not to mention Basketball and Hockey in the winter months. Unlike in other countries, where football is the only money-making game in town, American athletes have other options as well that may prove to be more lucrative in the long term. While it is obviously difficult to make it as a professional in any of the major US sports, the fact that there is more money—and more collegiate scholarships (Soccer has the same number of NCAA Division 1 scholarships as Swimming/Diving and Wrestling)—available in the other sports means that it is very difficult to keep the country’s best athletes playing football. This is a fact that, unfortunately, does not bode well for the hopes of developing a truly world class US Men’s National Team; it doesn’t meant that it is impossible by any means, just that it is more difficult than it is in other nations.

 

Tim Howard Does His Country Proud, But Can Only Slump Off In The End As Belgium Move On:

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2014/07/01/onsoccer/r7h11DZZUn5HsRJGqfZ0hJ/story.html