I love McDonald’s breakfast. I love the way you can bite into the buttery biscuit and the rest of the breakfast sandwich keeps its constitution, and the way the perfectly salted (and square) eggs keep the melted American cheese from falling to my fingertips. As my olfactory glands catch wind of perfectly crisp hash browns, I am overcome with memories of cold winter mornings with my father and brother as we stopped for “Micky D’s” on the way to our local ski hill. Each time I pull through the second window, I embody the commercials of my youth, with nostalgia and brand loyalty intermingling in the spaces between my stomach and my brain.
I know I should not eat McDonald’s. I have read the first chapter of enough Michael Pollen books to know that McDonald’s doesn’t really constitute food, so much as “edible foodlike substances” (Pollan & Kalman, 2009; p. 5). Having read Fast Food Nation (Schlosser, 2001) in year 3 of my ten-year self-imposed moratorium on buying McDonald’s, I am well aware of their transgressions towards and neglect of workers and the environment. Watching Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me when it came out reinforced the significant health risks associated with eating their products. Somewhere in my late 20’s my sense of outrage and moral purity gave way to hunger on the New York State Thruway.
Although I limit my visits to a few times a year, I still feel a twinge of guilt as I order my egg and cheese biscuit and hash browns, knowing I probably had enough time to whip up a breakfast at home. After all, I support the fight for $15 and the rights of all workers to unionize. I care about the environment and the ways in which large global food manufacturers devastate ecosystems through monoculture, factory farming, and pollution. I believe that marketing to children should be highly regulated and should include disclaimers for knowingly dangerous products (like fast food). And still, that first bite of my egg and cheese biscuit is a heavenly experience.
You could probably swap out McDonald’s with any number of commodities that I use on a far more regular basis. From the clothes I wear, to the gasoline in my car, to the Apple products I gleefully use to record my music and write my essays, my daily practices of consumption and creation are inextricably tied to advanced capitalism’s modes of production. And yet, I rarely think twice about using my computer, buying gasoline, or wearing clothing. Why then, does eating McDonald’s, still inspire guilt and discomfort?
My tenuous relationship with the golden arches further embodies the neoliberal condition, as I agonize over the decision to buy a McDonald’s breakfast. “Our practices of consumption are now more central to us than our roles associated with production in processes of identity: what we buy is more significant than what we do” (Wood, 2010; p. 264). I vote with my dollar and if a company is unethical, it is my responsibility to spend my money elsewhere. It is only through the act of consumption that I can further my political agenda. If I care about the environment, buy Patagonia. If I like organic foods, shop at Whole Foods. This is the foundational logic of the fair trade movement. Rather than pushing for policy reform within a broken political system, make a difference now by shopping for products that are made ethically. This is a far cry from the consumer activism of the 1970’s (vis a vis Ralph Nader), in which activists pushed for government policies about lead paint and car safety. Rather, this new form of consumer activism relies on the market logic of supply and demand. If enough of us as individuals care about a brand or product, the market will respond in kind.
Through this logic, however, we fall trap to neoliberal subjectivity. While there are certain brands and companies that inspire distrust or ire for past labor practices, hostile work environments, and poor environmental records, there are no unproblematic ways to live in the American Empire. The wealth and comfort that I experience as an American citizen is directly related to the ways in which global economic policy facilitate the extraction and exploitation of resources and labor from the global south (Ferguson, 2006). That’s a paralyzing thought. If I am culpable simply by being American, does it matter what I do? (Hint: the answer is a resounding YES!).
In attempting to examine our cultural relationships to economics and economic language, I recognize my own complicity in this broader system. I am cis-gendered, heterosexual, white man from privileged background. My parents could afford to take me skiing, send me to summer camps, pay for tutors, and fund my undergraduate degree at a private university. I am a product and beneficiary of American capitalism. At the same time, I am ensconced in a culture of conspicuous consumption, personal branding, and excessive waste. My daily routine includes tuning out an endless deluge of increasingly personalized advertisements. I work in schools where first grade teachers lament the ways in which mandated standards-based lessons push out time for social and emotional development, community building, and play. I am pursuing a master’s degree at an institution of higher education that prioritizes academic departments by their ability to generate income. I reside in Illinois where the state constitution prohibits rent control. I vote in an electoral system in which anonymous financiers can bankroll campaigns without accountability, promoting racist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideas. I live on a planet in ecological crisis.
As I navigate my own role as a citizen, consumer, educator, student, and artist, I reflect on the ways in which I have been socialized into accepting market-driven narratives and language as normal. In owning my position and articulating my ambivalence, discomfort, and tension in these roles, I offer an interpretive analysis of how I am able to unpack my own place within the broader neoliberal paradigm. Through the exploration of media and policy as cultural texts, I am exploring the ways in which market based logic and language help to further shape our “figured worlds” (Gee, 2011; p. 63). By appropriating these texts into my lyrics and music, I am attempting to highlight threads of logic that permeate the social imaginary. What type of citizen do I become when my social life is so thoroughly mediated by the neoliberal condition? And, how do I find points of resistance and contestation in my practice?