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This restless land

Last year, after a decade of violence, Maoist rebels drove through the abolition of Nepal’s monarchy

Over dinner in Kathmandu, my friend was becoming increasingly agitated. It was not the fate of her own business - high-end fashion design and retail - that concerned her most, though a winter-long electricity shortage that had blacked out the Nepalese capital for nearly 19 hours a day had crippled it, along with many others. Her biggest worry was the fate of the business belonging to a Tibetan friend.

The Tibetan ran a successful furniture factory that gave much-needed work to several dozen employees. One day, 40 armed Maoists turned up at the factory, roughed up some of the workers and made two demands: for an exorbitant contribution to party funds, and that all the factory workers join the union. None of the staff wanted to join. The factory owner, who enjoyed a good relationship with his workforce, was equally unenthusiastic. The "union", everyone knew, was a device to establish a Maoist presence in the factory. Once installed, the union would insist on recruiting Maoist cadres to the workforce, whether they were trained or not, to ensure that the party's writ would rule in the enterprise. The factory owner closed down his operations and took an unscheduled holiday. When he returned to restart his business, it was with a militia, assembled for his protection against further Maoist visits.

Since their departure from government early in the summer, after a single, ineffective year in power, Nepal's Maoists have been noisy on the sidelines, organising demonstrations and strikes and replenishing party coffers through their own brand of extortion. They had signed a peace agreement in 2006, following a decade of armed insurgency, and emerged as the largest single party in Nepal in the constituent assembly election in April last year.

In August, the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, was appointed prime minister of a coalition government. The Maoists remained the dominant party of government until May this year, when Prachanda tried to sack the head of the Nepali army, General Rookmangud Katawal, on the grounds of insubordination.

It seemed like an unnecessary quarrel to pick, given that the general was due to retire four months later. Prachanda, however, chose to force the issue of the integration of Maoist fighters into what used to be the Royal Nepal Army. The "Royal" was dropped when King Gyanendra was deposed in May 2008, but the army's attachment to the interests of Nepal's old ruling class was not lost. Faced with Katawal's reluctance to admit the Maoist combatants to the army, Prachanda insisted that the principle of military obedience to civil authority was at stake, even though the army had pledged loyalty, for the first time in Nepal's history, to the elected government. When his coalition partners backed away from the confrontation and the president, Ram Baran Yadav, countermanded the dismissal, the Maoist-led government collapsed. Prachanda resigned, leaving Nepal in the hands of an unwieldy coalition of 22 out of Nepal's 24 political parties.

The peace process is now in a precarious state. Certainly the central elements of the peace accord - a new constitution to follow the ending of the monarchy, and the proposed integration of the Maoist fighters into the army - have all but stalled. Complaints by the army that many of the 19,000 fighters were underage and underqualified were fuelled by a leaked and widely televised video of Prachanda apparently boasting to his supporters in January 2008 that he had deceived the UN special representative charged with guiding the peace process about the size of the movement's army, and that he regarded the integration of the Maoist ranks into the army as a means of politicising the military. Against this background, settling the outstanding accounts of the decade of violence - the still-unexplained disappearances and human rights violations on both sides - remains a remote prospect.

Mutual suspicions could bring about the outcome that everybody claims not to want - a return to authoritarian rule, either through the Maoists or following an intervention by the army, which has so far resisted the call to reduce its ranks to a size appropriate for a poor nation that is no longer at war. If the Maoists, who believe they have earned the right to political supremacy through both military and electoral success, feel unfairly excluded from power, a return to force cannot be ruled out. Equally, if the army and its supporters feel that the Maoists' real game plan is to establish the Leninist party-state, it might be moved to "save" democracy.

Mosaic of cultures

Democracy is not an easy proposition in Nepal. Many of the country's political parties - even the relatively disciplined Maoists - are racked with internal divisions, and defections are common. These tensions are acted out daily in the constituent assembly, which has set itself a deadline of next May to complete the blueprint for Nepal's political future. To do that, it must choose between a presidential or a prime ministerial system and determine what degree of autonomy Nepal's 100-plus ethnic groups can hope for.

General de Gaulle once remarked that it was impossible to govern a country that has 246 different kinds of cheese. Nepal, with 126 languages, presents an even greater challenge. The country's mosaic of peoples and cultures has been dominated for the past 300 years by the Brahmin and Chhetri castes, which have monopolised power in the army, the economy and political life. The overthrow of that dominance in favour of a system which would give equal ­opportunity to other groups was one of the promises held out to lower-caste Maoist fighters by their Brahmin leadership. Many already feel that the promise has been broken.

Every day there is agitation by one group or the other, anxious that such promises will be forgotten in the horse-trading around the text of the new constitution. Following the conflict, there is a new assertiveness on the part of some powerful minorities, notably the Madhesis who live in the baked plains of the Terai, terrain that merges seamlessly with northern India across an open border. The Terai covers one-fifth of Nepal's territory and contains 70 per cent of its industry, but armed and militant groups now call openly for independence from the mountainous parts of the country, with which they feel little in common. Migrants from the hills, many of them refugees from the fighting during the insurgency, are harassed in the Terai, both by armed political groups and by criminal gangs that make a living from kidnapping and extortion. The hill people are not the only victims: factories are also closing as businessmen flee the troubles.

As the ragged government stumbles on, locked in endless negotiations over the minutiae of the division of spoils, the people become more anxious and more impoverished. Nepal has the lowest per capita income in south Asia, with 80 per cent of the population making a difficult living from the land. Only 15 per cent have access to electricity and that has become increasingly unreliable. Climate change is already having an impact on the livelihoods of some of Nepal's poorest people, subsistence hill farmers, who are faced with new pests and diseases and failing crops. Two million Nepalis, out of a total population of 28.5 million, currently receive UN food aid and the government has asked for twice this number to be included. An unusually dry winter presages a low harvest for next year; a second dry winter would repeat last winter's power failures, as the rivers run too low to generate the hydropower on the which the country depends.

Peace has brought no relief from the burden of military spending: the current budget includes an increase of 27 per cent for a military that already enjoys a larger share of national revenues than the collapsing power sector, agriculture or health. Without the remittances sent home by millions of Nepalis working in construction gangs in the Gulf or serving in the British army, Nepal would be bankrupt.

Between China and India

In recent weeks, thousands of Maoist supporters have rallied in Kathmandu against President Yadav, accusing him of undermining the authority of the civilian government. Prachanda has threatened a campaign of disruption unless the party is allowed to return to government and the powers of the president are debated in parliament. Such threats merely reinforce suspicions that democracy, even in its imperfect, Nepali form, would not be safe in Maoist hands.

A further political problem is Nepal's growing role as a proxy theatre for the rivalry between Asia's emerging giants, India and China. In his brief term as prime minister, Prachanda ruffled feathers in India by making his first foreign visit to Beijing rather than to Delhi. Although Nepal's Maoists have little in common politically with today's turbocapitalist Chinese, Beijing seems happy to take advantage of the invitation to establish a larger presence in the backyard of its rival power.

Nepal's border with Tibet has been a favourite escape route for Tibetans fleeing their homeland, and the government in Beijing says it suspects Nepal's large and lively Tibetan exile community of anti-Chinese activities. Beijing's relatively modest investment in Nepal has paid dividends in tighter border surveillance and stricter controls on the refugees. For India, at odds with China over their long and still disputed border, and anxious about connections between the Maoists and India's own Naxalite insurgency, the signs of Beijing's increasing influence are deeply unwelcome.

For the Nepalese people, sandwiched between two competing giants, there is little relief. Neither the army nor the police, despite generous budgets, provides protection against disaffected armed groups. For these violent gangs, as for a corrupt and underpaid bureaucracy, for Nepal's political parties and for the police, citizens are cash machines, vulnerable to extortion and expected to offer bribes for everyday services. For these citizens, who have repeatedly taken to the streets over the years to demand democracy, a state that guarantees security, equality and opportunity remains a dream.

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.