Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Hamburgers will decide America's future - UnHerd


FEBRUARY 19, 2024   7 MINS

American cultural cachet has long gone hand in hand with the abundance and affordability of fast food. But while it has manifested itself in strange and humorous ways, the connection runs deep. Boris Yeltsin’s visit to an Californian grocery store in 1989 has, for instance, become a part of the Americans’ collective memory: suitably impressed by the wide selection of ice cream, he seemed to personify the divide between wealthy, liberal-capitalist consumerist America and the states of the Eastern Bloc, where the consumer would be lucky to find any ice cream at all.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, its last President, Mikhail Gorbachev, signed on to do an advert for Pizza Hut, in which a family gathering of Russians debate whether the introduction of fast-food chains like Pizza Hut was truly worth the fall of the USSR. Unsurprisingly, the pro-Pizza Hut faction win. And though that particular advert is somewhat on the nose, it wasn’t a great leap from the post-Soviet reality. When the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow in 1990, hundreds queued to get a chance to taste American fast food.

Today, however, the “McDonald’s era” in Russia has come to a close, as all of the franchise’s restaurants have been sold off. Most of them are still being operated, but they carry new names. The elusive “magic” that those Big Macs held in the Nineties in the eyes of Russians as harbingers of modernity, symbols of a new, global market society, is now well and truly gone.

But American fast food was never only important for the ways it could dazzle the Russian proletariat, or anyone else in what is now called the Global South. It has become part of the American self-conception, at the lowest and uppermost reaches of society. Pictures of Burger King lorries being unloaded from US military cargo planes in bases across Afghanistan and Iraq were a powerful symbol of American power; the now-abandoned US military base at Kandahar, for example, once boasted a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and a TGI Fridays serving alcohol-free margaritas. Like the Roman legionaries before them, wherever American soldiers and marines deployed in force, they brought their own culture and preferences with them. Far from being a white elephant and a pointless waste of resources, that McDonald’s or Burger King inside the Green Zone was a little piece of America, one that soldiers — often worn down from their long deployments into the sandbox — genuinely appreciative. For them, it really was a little slice of home.

The Kandahar Burger King closed down a long time ago; ordering Pizza Hut at Bagram air base in Afghanistan is likewise a distant memory, as the US military slowly cuts back and retreats from the world. But even on the home front, inside the continental United States, fast food isn’t what it used to be. The industry is now locked in a genuine affordability crisis, and it is unclear when — or even if — things will ever improve. The famous McDonald’s dollar menu has been renamed to the “$1, $2, $3 Dollar Menu”, and an increasing amount of items on it — even the chicken nuggets — now cost upwards of $4.

In the early years of the post-Cold War era, the ridiculous affordability of American fast food was a point of pride, waved in the faces of the snobs of Europe. Michelin chefs be damned: in the US, mass prosperity and mass culture were the order of the day. The average American could be proud of the fact that he could eat more calories and afford more stuff than the average citizen of any other country in the world (even if nothing else).

But this is no longer the case, as massive cost increases, coupled with shrinkflation, have eaten away at this central aspect of American living standards. Those same supermarkets that Boris Yeltsin salivated over are putting locks on the displays. Once, Russians queued up in droves to get a taste of Pizza Hut or Burger King; now, Americans marvel on social media at just how cheap the hamburgers in Moscow seem to be compared to their own. But though many things are becoming increasingly unaffordable for ordinary Westerners these days, the rising price of hamburgers comes with its own poignant cultural significance. And this new reality is the source of a new type of dissatisfaction on social media.

One of the internet’s most popular content creators, John Jurasek — commonly nicknamed “Reviewbrah” — posted a cri de coeur on the topic several months ago, in which he described how the fast food he reviewed had skyrocketed in price and nosedived in quality over the last few years. After listing his own experiences and complaints, Jurasek opened up the floor to people to report their own experiences in the comments section. More than 10,000 comments later, the picture painted was overwhelmingly clear: the fast-food industry inside America seemed to be in a state of near-collapse.

In response, some might be tempted to ask: so what? Fast food is bad for your health; why would the unaffordability of a greasy pizza or a cardboard box of processed chicken nuggets even be a problem? These complaints are reasonable on one level, but they ignore the broader social, economic and political reality that this affordability crisis speaks to. The United States is possibly the only country in the world where the term “food desert” is in semi-regular use, denoting areas within the country where there is little or no access to supermarkets selling fresh vegetables and the like. In this nutritional frontier country, fast food is the only game in town. Though the extent and severity of this problem shouldn’t be overstated, it is an issue, and some Americans are, for various reasons, at least partly dependent on cheap fast food in the way that the citizens of ancient Rome were dependent on cura annonae: the provision of state-subsidised bread and grain.

On another level, however, tutting at Americans who resent that their burgers are now twice as expensive and increasingly filled with sawdust is just the Western equivalent of tutting at Soviet citizens for coveting American blue jeans. The USSR collapsed in part due to its citizens being disillusioned with the promises of socialist prosperity that had been made to them. Looking at their own shabby reality, blue jeans and hamburgers became symbols of something greater. America, by contrast, is now a consumerist society where the ability to actually be a happy consumer is rapidly collapsing. Just like the Soviet Union before it, the once-alluring story of American society is now being seen as an increasingly shabby fraud by a growing segment of its own citizenry. The same feelings of anomie and cynicism that once animated Soviet political jokes are now spreading to more and more Americans, forced to contrast the newspaper headline stories of economic growth and prosperity for all with their experiences of food inflation and wage stagnation.

A very stark illustration of this fact came recently, as the American journalist and cable TV profile, Tucker Carlson, travelled to Russia. The official goal was to interview Vladimir Putin, but there’s a fair chance their meeting was the least culturally impactful moment of the trip. It’s what Tucker decided to do afterwards that has now really stirred up consternation and controversy on social media: in an ironic repeat of Yeltsin’s visit to that American grocery store, Tucker decided to visit a Russian grocery store in Moscow, ride the Moscow subway, and then visit a Vkushno i tochka — Russian for “Tasty, that’s it”, the new hamburger chain that has taken over where McDonald’s left off.

In Tucker’s own words, his visits to Moscow “radicalised” him, in a sort of mirror image of how citizens of the USSR were once equally radicalised by seeing how the other side lived. Moscow simply wasn’t that bad: the groceries were cheap, the store selection was wide, nothing was locked down to prevent theft — which is becoming extremely common in many parts of the West — and the streets were free of drug addicts and homeless people. The burgers were far cheaper than in the United States, and they were indeed tasty.

“In Tucker’s own words, his visits to Moscow ‘radicalised’ him”

Given that Russia is, according to the official narrative in the West, a backwards tyranny, run by an incompetent, brutal kleptocracy, ridden with crime and lacking in basic services, things in Moscow reasonably shouldn’t be quite so, well, normal. Why can’t we in the West, with all the natural, inherent superiority our societies supposedly possess, manage to have clean public transit, cheap fast food, or stores where you don’t have to ask an employee to unlock the deodorant shelf?

History might not repeat, but it sure does rhyme: after Tucker posted these videos from Moscow to social media, a massive firestorm broke out, as people tried their best to debunk the very idea of Russians enjoying anything close to a decent living standard or a functional society. Statistics, often decades old, pointing to Americans spending only some 8-10% of their total income on groceries (compared to Russians who supposedly spent almost 50%) made the rounds, but it is hard not to get the sense that it is all, in a very real way, a futile effort at this point.

The problem isn’t that people suddenly love Russia — it’s that they remember when the West had affordable fast food, and when stores didn’t put half their wares under lock and key. They remember living in functioning societies, and now they increasingly feel that they don’t, anymore. What Tucker — like Boris Yeltsin before him — inadvertently did is simple: he revealed that the belief in the grand narrative of his own society has withered away and died. It doesn’t matter how many statistics and graphs are posted about PPP and GDP growth and how America is richer today than it has ever been before: people don’t feel richer. They see the decay around them and they now feel they are being lied to, and that the system is broken. And not least when it comes to their hamburgers.

Almost a freak accident of history, the hamburger has been pressed into service as a grand symbol for the past half century. In 1990, it was a symbol of American cultural and economic dominance, as Muscovites waited in line for their taste of the future. In 2004, as airlifted Burger King trucks rolled off the tarmac at Bagram air base, it became a symbol not just of cultural and economic dominance but of military power too. A mere 20 years later, the hamburger is now coming to symbolise very real feelings of political and economic decline, as people take to social media to bicker over whose fault it is that they’re no longer affordable.

Anger over expensive burgers won’t bring down America, just as the lack of blue jeans didn’t cause the collapse of the USSR. But they point to exactly the same thing: a shared vision of the future, once commonly held, is now in the process of dying. And nobody knows how to repair that vision, or what to replace it with when it’s gone.

Malcom Kyeyune is a freelance writer living in Uppsala, Sweden