I5. The Irrationality of Rationality


According to George Ritzer, rationalization is growing out of control. He calls the rationalization of the economic sphere "McDonaldization" - a play on the overwhelming success and popularity of the McDonald’s restaurant franchise.


McDonaldization is "the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world" (1993: 1). Ritzer takes his critique largely from the work of Max Weber regarding formal rationality and applies it to economic developments that are leading us into the twenty-first century. He describes formal rationality as "the search by people for optimum means to a given end [that] is shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures" (1993: 19). The social mechanism by which such formal rationality is to be carried out is the bureaucracy. "Weber viewed bureaucracy as the paradigm case of formal rationality" (1993: 20). Ritzer also describes the precedents set in the economy that led up to McDonaldization. First, he mentions the proclivity toward scientific management.


Scientific management was created [at the turn of the century] by Frederick W. Taylor, and his ideas played a key role in shaping the work world throughout the twentieth century. Taylor developed a series of principles designed to rationalize work and was hired by a number of large organizations (for example, Bethlehem Steel) to implement those ideas. Employers found that when workers followed Taylor’s methods, they worked much more efficiently, everyone performed the same steps (that is, their work exhibited predictability), and they produced a great deal more while their pay had to be increased only slightly (calculability) (1993:24).


These elements of efficiency, predictability and calculability are key concepts in the discussion of rationalization. Second, Ritzer describes the assembly line and the part that the automobile industry played in manipulating technology to increase the elements of rationalization described above. From here, the examples become more and more numerous, ranging from the mass-produced houses of Levittown to fully enclosed shopping malls that reinforce the kind of ‘franchisism’ that the McDonald’s chain made famous. Ritzer is intent to point out that "McDonaldization did not occur in a historical vacuum; it had important precursors…[that] contributed some of the structural bases needed for chains of fast-food restaurants to thrive. Although the fast-food restaurant adopts elements of its predecessors, it also represents a quantum leap in the process of rationalization". As we shall see, it also seems to represent a quantum leap in the process of irrationalization (1993: 34).


Rationalization can be seen as essentially paradoxical. The ‘rationale’ for rationalization, its a priori assumption, is that increased efficiency, predictability, and calculability is akin to an increase in the ability of man to manipulate his environment, to adapt, to conquer the chaotic elements of life so as to obtain a quality of life that can be considered ‘better’ than previous times. It is the empirical economic realization of the notion that "social change is ‘normal’ " (cf. p. 6). It is an effort to increase the ‘standard of living’ of those citizens of the social order who agree to capitulate to institutionalized rational systems.


However, ‘standard of living’ has come to be defined not in a qualitative manner, but rather as a quantity: of income, of ‘gross national product’, of the rise and fall of interest rates. The ‘standard of living’ is measured as a numerical gesture rather than experienced as a real circumstance. The way we gauge our ‘progress’ into the future is based on a notion of quantitative growth rather than qualitative happiness. It is merely assumed that a growth in production will allow us to shrug off the dangers and inconsistencies of the unpredictable natural environment; there is, in fact, a need to reevaluate this assumption. This is the paradox of rationality: it inevitably leads to irrationality. "The bureaucracy," writes Ritzer, "is a dehumanizing place in which to work and by which to be serviced. The main reason we think of McDonaldization as irrational, and ultimately unreasonable, is that it tends to become a dehumanizing system that may become antihuman or even destructive to human beings".


The ultimate proof of the irrationality of rationality lies at the end of World War II: rational systems undertaken to construct an ideal utopia for humankind have led, ironically, to our ability to develop the technology of the atomic bomb that makes the ultimate extinction of homo sapiens possible. William Shirer (1959) writes in the foreword to his history of Nazi Germany,


Adolf Hitler is probably the last of the great adventurer-conquerors in the tradition of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, and the Third Reich the last of the empires which set out on the path taken earlier by France, Rome and Macedonia. The curtain was rung down on that phase of history, at least, by the sudden invention of the hydrogen bomb, of the ballistic missile and of rockets that can be aimed to hit the moon.


In our new age of terrifying, lethal gadgets, which supplanted so swiftly the old one, the first great aggressive war, if it should come, will be launched by suicidal little madmen pressing an electronic button. Such a war will not last long and none will ever follow it. There will be no conquerors and no conquests, but only the charred bones of the dead on an uninhabited planet (xii).


Destructive indeed! Our pursuit of the benefits that arrive with newfound technologies based on scientific principles seems irrevocably linked to the depths of the evils that plague modern socieites, including the threat of their own demise.


However, bringing the irrationality of rationality to a less apocalyptic level, it should be understood that the growth of rationalized systems has a pronounced impact on our everyday lives, both as producers and consumers. Ritzer (1993) identifies the dehumanizing aspect of fast-food restaurants in customer/employee relations ("The nature of the fast-food restaurant turns customer’s and employee’s contact into fleeting relationships"), in the simple and repetitive nature of the jobs ("Said Burger King workers, ‘Any trained monkey could do this job’") and in the dining experience of the consumer ("The diner is reduced to a kind of overwound automaton who is made to rush through the meal"). Given the rate at which the model of McDonaldization is being adopted by the business world, such a trend in the degradation of relationships between people and other people, and between people and their work, is disturbing. The individuation that accompanies rationalization is a process of isolation by which persons in our society are found to be separated from each other by invisible barriers of custom and culture that guide our relationships in directions that are not conducive to an honest and meaningful human exchange.


The omnipresence of certain cultural icons, such as McDonald’s Golden Arches, leads to an unconscious state of mind that eludes the perception of change or alteration in the dimension of space that surrounds the individual. "The following advertisement appeared on September 17, 1991, in the Washington Post (and The New York Times): ‘Where else at 35,000 feet can you get a McDonald’s meal like this’…" (Ritzer, 1993: 6). Rationalization and the accompanying conformity in the architecture of both the physical presence of, say, a McDonald’s restaurant and, perhaps more importantly, the non-physical presence (i.e., the behaviorism described above as a style of service) act as an eraser upon our perception to our movement through time and space. Due to the predictable, calculated, and controlled measures of rationalized business, we can escape from the chains of chaos that fettered our forefathers; however, we make this getaway only to run into the mouth of an even greater threat to our emancipation as individuals and historical actors - the emergence of mass society. Arendt writes that


with the emergence of mass society, the realm of the social has finally, after several centuries of development, reached the point where it embraces and controls all members of a given community equally and with equal strength. But society equalizes under all circumstances, and the victory of equality in the modern world is only the political and legal recognition of the fact that society has conquered the public realm, and that distinction and difference have become private matters of the individual.


This modern equality, based on the conformism inherent in society and possible only because behavior has replaced action as the foremost mode of human relationship, is in every respect different from equality in antiquity, and notably in the Greek city-states…The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.


It is the same conformism, the assumption that men behave and do not act with respect to each other, that lies at the root of the modern science of economics [the same science that guides the businessmen in their actions], whose birth coincided with the rise of society and which together with its chief technical tool, statistics, became the social science par excellence.


The unfortunate truth about behaviorism and the validity of its ‘laws’ is that the more people there are, the more likely they are to behave and the less likely they are to tolerate non-behavior. Statistically, this will be shown in the leveling out of fluctuation [regression to the mean]. In reality, deeds will have less and less chance to stem the tide of behavior, and events will more and more lose their significance, that is, their capacity to illuminate historical time. Statistical uniformity is by no means a harmless scientific ideal; it is the no longer secret political ideal of a society which, entirely submerged in the routine of everyday living, is at peace with the scientific outlook inherent in its very existence (1959: 41-42; my emphasis).


It is this behavioral uniformity, as fostered by today’s corporate culture, that seems to be isolating people into narrowly privatized expressions of their own values and beliefs. This behaviorism hides from view the existence of a reflection (based upon past historical events) and stifles the existence of imagination (based upon future historical possibilities), rather than connecting people in a genuine, contemplative fashion. It is, quite remarkably, the very same mainstream corporate culture fostering this behaviorism (through rationalization) that justifies huge economic inequalities among individuals by saying that they are the result of meritocratic procedures (e.g., Hilbert earned his enormous compensation). However, such a justification cannot be valid, given the following argument: "Excellence," according to Arendt, "itself has always been assigned to the public realm where one could excel, could distinguish oneself from all others. Every activity performed in public can attain excellence never matched in privacy; for excellence, by definition, the presence of others is always required, and this presence needs the formality of one’s peers, it cannot be the casual, familiar presence of one’s equals or inferiors" (1959: 48-49). The existence of this public realm where excellence can exist, however, has been overtaken by a new mode of social reality. The irrational processes of rationalization have led to the arrival in modern societies of what Arendt calls the "social realm." "The phenomenon of conformism is characteristic of this modern development" (Arendt: 1959, 40).


And it is this social realm that contemporary capitalists (i.e. those who posit that they have accumulated all that they can safely possess by the virtue of their excellent character) helped to create, using modern economic science as their guide. The premise that great wealth is justified by the fact that the wealthy earned their keep is bad, for "the social realm…made excellence anonymous, emphasized the progress of mankind rather than the achievements of men, and changed the content of the public realm beyond recognition" (Arendt: 1959: 49).


So it can be seen that as we have striven to eliminate chaos from our lives using the process of rationalization, the alternative to which we have turned (a conformist mass society) is both ultimately destructive to the variety of individuality (the so-called "private" realm) that emerged during the Renaissance and leads to vast economic inequalities. Is there, then, any other way out of this "iron cage" that has increasingly encapsulated our society from the time of the industrial revolution? Is there any hope for non-rationalized business to appear on the horizon? Ritzer, in fact, names several businesses that make an attempt to stray from the path of formal rationality and the conformity of contemporary capitalism. Included among them is, not surprisingly, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc.


Next Section - Ben & Jerry's: The Anti-McDonald?

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