The New Statesman Profile - McDonald's

It has become the triumphant symbol of American imperialism; but, in the new century, it surely face

McDonald's colonised Pushkin Square, in Moscow, in 1990. Its first restaurant, built while the Soviet Union still lived, was the harbinger of another world. Nearly two years later, driving past the curling queue one dark winter's afternoon in his Zil limousine, the then vice-president of Russia, Aleksandr Rutskoi, had some melancholy thoughts, which he expressed in a series of newspaper essays. Why, he asked, were the young so taken with this shrine to America? Why were they turning away from Russian customs and verities? It was an early sign of Rutskoi's growing hostility to the pro-western stance of his boss, Boris Yeltsin. McDonald's - bold, brassy, unapologetically itself in the midst of Soviet drabness - afforded him the image he needed to dramatise in his musings on the loss of native culture.

His melancholy rage was ineffective because McDonald's had what it always had on its side: its customers. It was ferociously popular. The biggest McDonald's restaurant in the world, its tables and benches were packed. It was clean, fast and relatively courteous; the food was hot and tasty. None of these things had been true for Russian public eateries, except those reserved for the nomenklatura. Families would spend two or three hours there. Young lovers would twine themselves around each other. New Russian businessmen would do deals, or bark into their cellphones. It was smart: because the price of a Big Mac and chips was high for Russians, the clients were moneyed and sophisticated. The chic thing was to give your children a party at McDonald's. Until a Russian company hit back with a chain called Russkoe Bistro (bistro is the Russian word for fast), selling meat dumplings and the like, it was all there was. In the time of pro-Americanism, it was the great symbol of the success of the dream.

Contrast the high profile of McDonald's in Moscow's Pushkin Square with its sister in Hampstead, north London. The McDonald's Hampstead branch is the most inconspicuous in the UK. It has a plain window front, with just a little black hanging sign with the arched M on it. McDonald's made these unusual concessions because a powerful association of residents, unable to stop it getting a site, insisted that at least it should be discreet. When I went to lunch there recently, the dozen or so tables were about two-thirds full, mainly with shop workers, though a Swedish couple with walking boots and guidebooks ate veggie burgers. There was a short but constant queue, mostly for takeaways. The staff of eight (visible) were working as hard as McDonald's staff always seem to work. One of the counter staff had a muted flare-up with one of the cooks, and complained to the manager: the manager remonstrated with the cook while both continued to work.

Like cigarette manufacturers, McDonald's now finds the best educated to be the worst customers; and although (or, perhaps, because) it overwhelmingly both employs and serves the poor, it is most excoriated on the left. It should worry: throughout the Nineties, its sales kept going up, as it globalised more and more relentlessly, with half of its restaurants and income outside the US. In fact, it does worry; because, for all the success, it fears that its best may be behind it and that it is trapped in the late 20th century, unable to move to the new. It not only rides the globalisation wave; in a sense, it helped to create it. But its inner fear is that it can no longer understand it.

The largest support for this belief came from its worst public relations blunder, which was committed in Britain. It took to court two penniless left activists, David Morris and Helen Steel, who had distributed a "factsheet" about McDonald's, which the company claimed was libellous. Unlike three others who also received writs from the company, Morris and Steel refused to apologise. The trial lasted from mid-1994 to the end of 1996. The judgement, though mixed, leaned mostly towards McDonald's. But Morris and Steel won the public relations battle, both through their questioning of the company's senior executives and through the huge amounts of material, damaging to McDonald's, that they put into the public domain. The trial fired up both the bien pensants of Hampstead and the direct activists of the inner cities.

And it is in the cities where McDonald's restaurants now come under constant threat. In London's May Day riots, in Seattle, in Washington, the restaurants have been targets. In the town of Quevert, in Brittany, someone put a bomb in a McDonald's, killing a passer-by. McDonald's, more than the multinational oil companies, or the cigarette companies, or the car companies, has become the cynosure of hate for the foes of globalisation.

Yet McDonald's strives mightily to be a good citizen. It has given hundreds of millions of dollars over the years to charities that care for chronically ill children. One of the sternest among its critics - George Ritzer, the US sociologist who wrote The McDonaldisation of Society in 1996 - admits that McDonald's has created very large numbers of new jobs; has brought affordable food to millions; has given, through its franchising policy, a business start to thousands, especially (in the US) to minorities; and has increased eating choice in small towns and developing countries.

The foreign affairs commentator of the New York Times, Thomas Friedman, added more lustre by equating McDonald's with peace. In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he coined the "golden arches theory of conflict prevention", which held that no countries with McDonald's franchises went to war with each other. "People in McDonald's countries don't like to fight wars any more, they prefer to stand in line for burgers," he wrote. This discovery elicited the self-regarding comment from James Cantalupo, then head of McDonald's International, that "I have a parade of ambassadors and trade representatives in here regularly to tell us about their country and why McDonald's would be good for their country".

But the mighty striving is often part of the problem. McDonald's focus on children's charities is evidently a counterpart to its focus on children as customers: most McDonald's restaurants are overtly children-friendly, and some have play areas, games and toys. Ronald McDonald, a clown figure, is used in promotions; the company tries to work with schools and kids' clubs, to further its message that McDonald's is good for them. However, the main message from the Morris/Steel trial was that Mc-Donald's is not good for children, or for adults, and that its products are low on fibre and high in fats.

In his account of the trial, McLibel, John Vidal writes that McDonald's started a US ad campaign in the late 1980s, seeking (as its internal magazine put it) to "neutralise the junk food misconceptions" by using words such as "nutrition" and "balance". It stimulated the attorney-generals of three states - California, New York and Texas - to write to the company to "request that McDonald's immediately cease and desist further use of this advertising campaign. The reason is simple: McDonald's food is not, on the whole, nutritious."

Above all, McDonald's strives to ensure its profitability: that is done by paying minimum wages to young staff, and by fearsome attention to an efficient system that reaches deep into the food chain. When McDonald's set up in Russia, it took the company several years to create a modern food-processing system in a country that did not have one: but that system requires (as the "McLibel" case demonstrated) an awesome slaughter of animals that had lived the half-life of being battery farmed. Battery farming would not collapse if McDonald's did. But in turning the business of getting bread, meat and potatoes inside billions of people across the world into a stripped-down, rapid response system all of its own (rather than of the host countries') making, it confirms its role as an imperialist.

McDonald's, like all the high-profile, usually US, multinationals, but more than any other, faces a rising tide of distrust and militancy from a far left that is becoming active once more. Introducing a special issue on "America in our heads" earlier this month, Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, wrote that now, at the height of American success and power, "it is still not abnormal that, here and there, first of all in the US itself (as we saw in Seattle in December 1999 and in Washington in April), citizens are asking themselves what sense this (US) re-occupation of the world has. What is the new face of the American empire? What is its ideological power? And what are its strategies of persuasion?"

McDonald's, which has a large security staff mainly run by former senior police officers, knows this. It will not repeat its offensive against Morris and Steel. Instead, it has a new mantra - think global, act local. It shares this faith with others in the same boat; indeed, the fullest expression of the new philosophy was revealed earlier this month in London by a Coca Cola executive - Doug Daft, Coke's Australian-born chairman and chief executive. His address to the British-American Chamber of Commerce was in part the mea culpa of a command economy man: "While the world out there was demanding greater flexibility, responsiveness and local sensitivity, we in here continued with centralised decision-making and standardised practices." Daft had discovered, he said, that Coke was not selling drinks so much as "building relationships" and that these must be based "on value . . . on trust . . . on mutual respect". They could only be furthered by using "local insight, creativity and personal attention from real, live, local human beings".

This is now the law for McDonald's: indeed, it was a senior McDonald's executive who referred me to the speech. The corporation no longer wants to be a homogenising imperialist; it wants to become more deeply encoded in local networks, and this is possible because new technology allows greater decentralisation.

But it will be hard. McDonald's has spent too long exporting the American way of life and business suddenly to become as English as roast beef, as Russian as meat dumplings, as Hampstead as the Heath. It waves too many red rags at too many urban guerrillas and professors of sociology. Already, in the US, competition is eroding its dominance. Its great days are probably over. It must now manage a decline, which will be bumpy, even violent.