Denial and the Exaltation of Personal Taste: We all fetishize our preferences, but we can do better politics than that

Taco Hell

The Mises Institute's Jeffrey Tucker recently wrote a post entitled Fast Food Is Beautiful. I know. Here's Tucker's definition of beauty as excerpted from the Bloomberg article he was writing about:

Every Taco Bell, McDonald's (MCD), Wendy's (WEN), and Burger King is a little factory, with a manager who oversees three dozen workers, devises schedules and shifts, keeps track of inventory and the supply chain, supervises an assembly line churning out a quality-controlled, high-volume product, and takes in revenue of $1 million to $3 million a year, all with customers who show up at the front end of the factory at all hours of the day to buy the product.

Yup, right up there with truth, symmetry, sublimity, and sunsets, for sure.

Read the whole Bloomberg article; it certainly is a nice primer on the experience of the Taylorist fast food industry. It's author is not quite as worshipful as Mr. Tucker, alluding to the problems he has learning the machine-like, precise routines at first. In many ways, it's hard to read his descriptions of such an intense shop floor in a positive light. The whole environment seems so mindless and soul-crushing. Clearly, these businesses really squeeze the $8.50 an hour out of the staff, no matter what else you want to say in favor of the business model. I'll note that the only hints of the inhumanity inherent in fast food were his personal experiences of actually working there.

In fact, it is only the desirability of working at these establishments that escapes Mr. Tucker's breathless list of fast food's heroic virtues (not an atypical Misesian oversight). It's difficult to imagine a more stark rejection of aesthetics than my feelings about Mr. Tucker's post. Just about everything that he values and sees as a miracle on Earth, I regard as a maladaptation to a ueber-corporatized, homogenized market. I find "customer service", "efficiency" and "convenience" to be rather shallow measures of human happiness, no matter how many superlatives Misesians want to assign them.

To put it bluntly: I object to the factorization of food. I find everything about the culture of fast food distasteful: the insipid, childish, pandering marketing with which it assaults my eyes and ears; the gleamingly clean logos juxtaposed with grimy floors, bored staff, and greasy smells; the way every one looks the same, even if they're different franchises; the sense of being in a plastic bubble eating fake food. I absolutely loathe the politics inherent in these "factories": the scientific managerialist dictation of the precisely engineered ways to scoop meat or greet customers; the vapid euphemisms employed to dress up direct terms like "employee" (which becomes "champion") and "scoop" (which becomes the "Beef Portioning Tool"); the behavioral conditioning and deskilling inherent in assembly lines; the disadvantaged workers used as replaceable parts by similarly replaceable but slightly less disadvantaged managers; the exploitation of artificially cheap infrastructure to grow to cancerous scales; all the influence and privilege attained from regulatory capture, political maneuvering, and other non-market goodies. When I reflect on the degree of dysfunction in fast food, I tend to identify Taco Bell's key features as responses to a world gone horribly wrong in at least a few important ways.

What bugs me more than anything else about these factory food outlets is the mirror they hold up to our society. The factorization of food production only makes sense in a regimented, less-than-spontaneously organized society where the population is so effectively mobilized according to industry's needs that free time is minimized, going so far as to cut into core activities of life. Eating, traditionally a time of rest and respite (if not enjoyment and fellowship), is turned into something more akin to a dose of product, to be minimized as a cost, not maximized as a virtue. The rational delivery of dirt cheap product scientifically designed to be consumed as quickly and unthinkingly as possible has more to do with the corporate establishment's tastes and priorities than our own. For the industry, food is a uniform processed platform for flavors, fat, salt, and sugar according to brand guidelines, and nothing more. The banality reflected in this dystopia stretches far beyond fast food, defining the progressive project of efficient resource utilization, not human happiness. Whatever progress means in other industries, in fast food it signifies a drive to improve the experience and the brand, not the food; to excel at entertaining customers, not feeding them.

The Primacy of Values

Now, with all of that off my chest, I'll gladly admit that much of what I'm saying is at least a little snobby. I can afford to cook meals and shop at places with high quality fresh produce. I was raised to appreciate good nutrition. I've educated myself about the problems of fast food. Not everybody is as lucky as I am. And, personally, I just am grossed out by the whole concept (I can hear the cries of "then don't eat there!" already).

If Mr. Tucker's over the top praise of fast food factories reflected concerns and values peculiar to his approach and personal tastes, then my withering attack was just as particular and subjective. I can readily see why people would find my sense of taste, my high standards for eating, my disgust at the relationships inherent in the factory food setting to be unconvincing. That would lead them to read the above rant about fast food in an unfavorable and dismissive light, just as surely as Mr. Tucker's views strike me as absurd and deeply distorted.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Tucker and I probably hold more values in common than not. If pressed for a quick explanation of the kind of society we're working towards, the political prerequisites Mr. Tucker would list as crucial to a libertarian society would be roughly analogous to those I'd recite. However, I imagine few libertarians are working towards some vague, unspecified future society where the only thing that matters is the abstract recognition of the non-aggression principle. No, we have hopes and dreams we want to fulfill. We're working towards a society in which we can fully express ourselves and live according to the values we hold dear and with which we identify. The liberty we seek is not just intrinsically rewarding; it is functional, a means towards our own goals and self-actualization that have nothing to do with politics.

What bothers me about commerce-ueber-alles libertarians like Mr. Tucker is that they really believe it. Many seem to genuinely look forward to the sort of sterile, superficial, rationalized corporate world satirized in the film "Idiocracy". To apply the adjective "beautiful" (or "ugly") to fast food is to betray a basic, irrational attachment that precedes any counterarguments about corporatism and consumerism. It means that they would promote this corporate aesthetic even if it didn't come with a hefty side of statist intervention and privilege. So from their point of view it makes no sense to belabor the link between fast food and corporatism; the world they're working towards freely organizes into franchise chains and little factories for everything. People just fall into boss and employee roles (perhaps they would prefer to call those roles "Command Facilitator" and "Obedience Hero").

This taste for the culture of large scale commerce is likely involved in their promotion of corporations as extra- or anti-statist institutions. These are the people who argue that even without statist incorporation and other privileges, people would voluntarily and spontaneously give a crap that I'm calling myself a corporation. I don't find the argument convincing, but it's clear that their embrace of the values of corporate organization are a motivating force, above and beyond the Austro-libertarian economic and political principles involved.

Indeed, as I've argued before, political beliefs and philosophical principles ultimately rest on the innate personalities, particular lives, and subjective opinions that people bring to the table. People adopt values for reasons that are not entirely clear, and then reason to positions, actions, and words they articulate in society as a reflection of the values. Given that ideologies like libertarianism function as incomplete models of the world, their adoption is almost certainly motivated by irrational values that are assumed prior to any rational inquiry. We all have these arbitrary blind spots that any incomplete, particularist experience will create.

It all reminds me of the arguments people made to me about working with national anarchists. These national anarchists, the arguments go, might be willing to work with leftists and libertarians to overthrow the state and abolish capitalism. But they hold values that impel them to replace the status quo with exclusionary, discriminatory, unenlightened institutions that run counter to values I want to see thrive. Our visions of what we're working towards are opposed, so in what sense are we really on the same team? Because we share an enemy at present?

Better Self-Understanding Through Politics

It seems we all bring a mix of ideations, principles, and opinions to the table whenever we set out to influence our world and neighbors. We all have our idiosyncrasies, our unexamined habits of thought, those painful memories or singular realizations that forever color our thinking. All these matters influence our politics, and they influence the manner of our belief as well as the content. These preferences are innately bound up in our sense of identity, and to that extent, they represent to some degree our wish to impose that identity on the world and on each other. Butler Shaffer talks about this in "Calculated Chaos" (which I reviewed here) as the expansion of "ego boundaries", and from the conflagrations I've witnessed between disagreeing libertarians, it seems as apt a characterization as any.

So when allies happen upon differences in taste that are constitutive of their ideological motivations, it's vital that they tread lightly - at least, if accomplishing change is more important than being right. This is what Ayn Rand got horribly wrong: her elevation of tastes into moral absolutes obscured the scope of diversity inherent in the liberationist project. We are in a very human endeavor here: we will offend each other, we will make mistakes of all sorts, we will let ourselves down. But in the end, if we're not in this game to learn about ourselves and others, if we're not open to that transcendental truth that has been hidden by millennia of convention and oppression, we're in this for what I'd argue are the wrong reasons.

Above all, we must recognize the blind spots our own subjective experiences generate. Is it acceptable for Mr. Tucker to dismiss the reality of corporatist privilege inherent in fast food, just because fast food happens to exemplify some features he admires? Of course not - no more than it is acceptable for statists to dismiss the reality of government failure just because they prefer schooling to be uniform, disciplined, and universally accessible to all Americans. The challenge should not be to defend the grey area, but to articulate the white and black that much more vividly to better understand what's going on and hopefully improve on it. The alternative is for our struggle to descend into a form of shallow identity politics where we use arguments to advance our personal egos and preferences. Too much of that is going on already.

Rigid adherence to one's tastes and opinions does not simply make apologists out of us; it stunts our imagination and the scope of possibilities we'll accept as we become freer. This is dangerous because one of the reasons to advocate for liberty is to open up those new vistas and creative approaches that we can't possibly anticipate in our current context. The more we can remain open to revolutionary ideas that can transcend our problems, the more we understand our values for what they are: decisions, not boundaries. Conversely, the more we believe that freedom looks like Taco Bell per se, or looks like the Wobblies per se, the more we arrest the very impulse we seek to unleash. It is in liberty that the inspiration to discover our true selves underneath our personalities becomes more probable. To take responsibility for your values and opinions is a radical step, but we must take it if we are not to be unwittingly ruled by affectations and reflexes.

On the Left, we understand that privilege is not an individual moral failing or episodic crime but rather a systemic feature of our society. To point out an instance of privilege is not necessarily a condemnation of the beneficiary, let alone "scrupulosity". But when your motivating value is the lionization of commerce qua commerce, then reminders about its collusion with the state are probably a bit of a buzzkill.

However, libertarianism is not about getting high on self-righteousness. And the personal umbrage Mr. Tucker takes to the facts of fast food clearly indicates that this is about more than political principles. That's ok: it has always been about more than political principles for all of us. The more we recognize our subjective preferences and take responsibility for them, the more clearly we can articulate principles and realize our visions while not denying their weaknesses. More importantly, we'll start to understand ourselves and the human condition more clearly. Elevating personal taste to political absolute is ignorant and superficial, but it's an ignorance and superficiality we're all working on.

Written on Sunday, June 05, 2011 | Tags: market_fundamentalism,, libertarianism,, mises_institute