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Drive-Thru Capitalism: Ray Kroc, Joy Mangano and the American Entrepreneur as Schemer

the founder trailer

Still from “The Founder.”

As briskly paced and entertaining biopics, the 2015 “Joy”, which can now be seen on HBO, and “The Founder”, playing now at multiplexes everywhere, have much in common. They are celebrations of an entrepreneurialism seemingly at odds with the sense of “carnage” alluded to in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. As rags to riches tales, they hearken back to one of the foundational myths of American capitalism, the Horatio Alger novels of the Gilded Age that would have you believe that perseverance and ambition could overcome any obstacle.

Joy is Joy Mangano, the inventor of the self-cleaning mop that she considered to be the housewife’s savior. She got the idea while wringing out an old-fashioned mop with her hands. After being cut by a glass shard hidden within the mop, the light bulb went on over her head. What if a lever at the top of the mop could accomplish the same task safely by squeezing the cotton strings remotely?

The Founder is none other than Ray Kroc, the man who launched a thousand McDonalds starting in 1954 after discovering the original store in San Bernardino, California that had been started by brothers Richard James “Dick” McDonald and Maurice James “Mac” McDonald. While the film does not mention the word, they had applied Taylorism to the drive-in restaurant business with all its advantages to the employer and imposing all its ills on the employee. In this generally upbeat film, the employees are extras. Fundamentally, the film is about Ray Kroc figuring out ways to push the brothers out of the business while retaining the brand name. At the end of the film, after they have been cheated and cast aside, Dick asks Ray Kroc why he ever felt the need to involve them in a franchise operation. Since he saw the method they were using to turn out burgers and fries as if they were Model-T’s coming off the assembly line, he could have gone ahead without them. Michael Keaton, playing Kroc with considerable flair, tells him that nobody would have gone to a Krocburger restaurant—too Slavic. But McDonalds? That evokes Americana.

The films have a very clever approach. They allow the audience to simultaneously cheer for the lead characters while maintaining a sense of superiority. Much of “Joy” consists of Mangano making a breakthrough at QVC, the predecessor to the Home Shopping Network, a channel that practically defines tackiness.

Making her debut selling her mop on QVC, she freezes up in front of the lights just like Ralph Kramden did in that classic Honeymooners episode when the bus driver stammers helplessly in front of the cameras with the Swiss Army Knife-like Handy Household Helper clutched in his fist. Norton tries to help him out by offering a cue. “Can it core a apple?” (Not a typo!) Poor Ralph Kramden remains frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights and ends up going back to his bus route on Monday morning, the eternal proletarian loser.

Joy Mangano fares much better. One of her quick-thinking best friends calls QVC to ask Joy a question while she is on the air: “I cut myself wringing out a mop with my hands the other day. Can your mop avoid that kind of accident?” Like someone under hypnosis being woken up by a trigger word, she begins a convincing spiel about her mop that instantly leads to massive sales and her entry into the world of the wealthy and successful (except for some conflicts with the shady Kroc-like characters that manufacture the mops).

The New York audiences that have flocked to these two films are not the typical McDonalds or Home Shopping Channel consumers. It is more likely they go to restaurants that get reviewed in the NY Times and would prefer to make purchases based on Amazon.com customer reviews (like I do, I must confess.) John Lee Hancock, the director of “The Founder”, and David O. Russell, the director of “Joy”, go to some lengths to show how ordinary their protagonists are. When we first see Joy (played ironically by Jennifer Lawrence, the highest-paid actress in the business), she is headed off to work as an airline reservations clerk. Her house is a chaotic affair, with her mother lying in bed all day watching garish soap operas and her divorced husband living in the basement. The furniture evokes the somewhat vulgar tastes of East Meadow, Long Island, a town next to Levittown that was the prototype for post-WWII suburbs throughout the country.

When we first see Ray Kroc, he is delivering a sales pitch to a drive-in restaurant owner for the commercial-grade malted milk makers that he lugs from town to town. After a day of getting turned down, he returns to his motel room and puts a Norman Vincent Peale motivational record on his portable record player that he has listened to perhaps for a hundred times. Peale explains that having a great idea is not the key to success. It is perseverance, something that Kroc has in spades to go along with lack of scruples. While much more successful than Ralph Kramden, Kroc is still a bit of a loser. He tools around in a beat-up Plymouth sedan and drinks cheap whisky in his motel room.

One day he calls up his office to see if there were any phone messages. The secretary tells him that some restaurant in San Bernardino has ordered six machines, an amount so out of whack with his normal sale that he calls the McDonald brothers to make sure there was no mistake. They tell him there was a mistake. They need eight.

This leads him to make an odyssey to California to see what was going on. The brothers, who are amiable and openhearted souls unlike Kroc, show him the operation. Unlike other drive-in restaurants, there are no waitresses in skimpy uniforms that deliver the food to the cars (I am old enough to remember such places), nor is there glass dinnerware or metal utensils. You go up to a window and make your order, which is delivered to you almost immediately in a paper bag. Where you eat is your own business. But McDonalds is wildly popular in San Bernardino despite all this because you don’t have to wait for the food and because it is good.

It is hard to tell if screenwriter Robert E. Siegel was having a good laugh when he wrote this scene since he was a senior editor of The Onion from 1996 to 1999, and editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2003. Surely those watching the film on Manhattan’s Upper East Side appreciated the irony of Michael Keaton taking a bite out of a hamburger and telling the brothers how great it tasted. The people eating in McDonalds across Manhattan are there because the food is cheap, not because it tastes very good. I imagine that many people who have seen “The Founder” have already seen Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me”, which made clear that a daily dose of the junk served there will make you sick to your stomach.

Director David O. Russell, who also wrote the screenplay for “Joy”, was born in 1958 and graduated from Amherst College in 1981 after completing a senior thesis on American intervention in Chile from 1963 to 1973. Afterwards, he went to Nicaragua to teach in a Sandinista literacy program. In a profile on Russell written by edgy comedian Louis CK, we learn more about what makes him tick:

It is, however, instructive to know that before Russell turned to making movies full time in his thirties, he worked as a political activist and organizer, which means that he probably understands, on some very basic level, how it’s sometimes necessary to kick at things in order to change them—and that sometimes the thing that needs kicking and changing is you. If there’s an idea that seems to reemerge in his films in different iterations, it’s characters running to extremes, even as they grasp at commonalities—a struggle, in many ways, not dissimilar from the eternal tug-of-war between being saying what you want to say and being understood that Russell himself has negotiated so expertly as a filmmaker.

How exactly does all this square with making a film about Joy Mangano whose story would seem to vindicate American exceptionalism and update the Horatio Alger story for the 21st century? Breitbart.com described “Joy” as an “Inspiring, Entertaining Love Letter to American Capitalism” in a review that concludes:

This is why “Joy” is also a love letter to American capitalism, and a realistic one that doesn’t disguise the endless struggle required to achieve success, doesn’t paper over the harsh reality that life indeed is not fair, in fact it is frequently unjust. At the same time, “Joy” says declaratively that although the playing field is brutal and unforgiving, America is still a uniquely extraordinary place where, if you have the drive and the brains and the guts and are willing to repeatedly pick yourself up off the floor of failure, nobodies can become anybody.

So how does someone with a background like Russell’s end up making a film that comes about as close as you can imagine to Trump and Bannon’s weltanschauung? I suppose that’s what happens when you make a career in Hollywood. There are huge financial gains even if they come at a loss to your integrity.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, John Lee Hancock was asked about his movie’s take on capitalism. He replied:

Well, it’s interesting to me because the McDonald brothers’ McDonald’s and Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s are both capitalist ventures. Their ultimate goal is money, just the philosophy might be different.

One was the American Dream: Have the best idea, work harder than everybody else, care more deeply than everybody else and you will succeed. That was the McDonald brothers. And that was probably Ray Kroc at the start too. But toward the end of the movie it’s more about, nah, you don’t have to have the best idea, you just have to grab onto somebody else’s best idea and have the best investment bank.

Notwithstanding this vaguely critical take on Ray Kroc, it is doubtful that anybody would walk away from this film feeling that the McDonalds founder was anything much more than a raffish schemer, especially with Michael Keaton playing him with the same kind of dark charm he invested in Beetlejuice.

Ray Kroc’s greatest sin was not cheating the McDonald brothers out of their good name and millions of dollars when they agreed to a shady contract that left them with nothing but a one-time cash buyout.

It was in creating a market for beef that led to the conditions that would force Nicaraguan campesinos to rebel against Somoza in the 1970s, the very people whose lives David O. Russell sought to improve before he lost his soul in Hollywood.

The growth of McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food outlets had created an insatiable demand for beef. These types of restaurants had no need for the choice, fat-stuffed grain-fed beef that were found in super markets. They could get by on the sort of tougher, lower-grade beef that was typical of cattle that subsisted on grass alone, since the meat would be ground up anyhow. The free-range criollo cattle of Central America made a perfect fit for this expanding market.

Historically, the cattle industry in Central America was a very low-tech operation. Cowboys would drive a herd to a major city where slaughterhouses could be found. The cattle would be cut up and sent out to public markets, often in the open air and unrefrigerated, where a customer would select a piece of meat off the carcass. However, to satisfy the external market, a more modern mode of production had to be adopted. Firstly, roads needed to be created to transport the cattle by truck from the countryside. Secondly, packing houses had to be created near ports to prepare the beef for export. Foreign investors made road- building possible, just the way that British capital made railroads possible in the US for identical reasons. The “Alliance for Progress” aided in the creation of such infrastructure as well.

The packing-houses themselves were built by local capitalists with some assistance from the outside. It was these middle-men, who stood between rancher and importer, that cashed in on the beef bonanza. The Somoza family were movers and shakers in the packing-house industry. As monopolists, they could pay the rancher meager prices and sell the processed beef at a premium price since demand for beef was at an all-time high.

In addition, the Somoza family used its profits and loans from foreign investors to buy up huge swaths of land in Nicaragua to create cattle ranches. They had already acquired 51 ranches before the beef-export boom but by 1979, after two decades of export-led growth, their holdings and those of their cronies had expanded to more than 2 million acres, more than half of which was in the best grazing sectors. It was these properties and the packing-houses that became nationalized immediately after the FSLN triumph.

The gains of Somoza and other oligarchic families in Central America took place at the expense of campesino and small rancher alike. While the plight of the campesino is more familiar, the small rancher suffered as well. Before the export boom started, about 1/4 of all cattle were held by ranchers with properties less than 25 acres. After a decade of export-led growth, small proprietors had lost 20 percent of their previous cattle holdings and owned only 1/8th of the cattle in the region.

(It should be mentioned, by the way, that this decade of export-led growth was statistically the sharpest increase in GDP in Central America since WWII. Yet this growth created the objective conditions for a revolution. “Growth” is a meaningless term that may satisfy the prejudices of libertarians, but it has nothing to do with human needs or social justice.)

When a wealthy rancher needed new land for his herds, they often hired gangs to go out and burn and slash wooded areas. A more common practice, however, was to con the poor campesino into acting as an accessory. If cattle-ranching had created jobs for the displaced peasantry, this land-grab might not have had the explosive political consequences that it did. As it turns out, however, few jobs were created in comparison to other export agriculture sectors. Cotton cultivation offers 6 times more employment per acre than cattle ranching, sugar 7 times more and coffee 13 times more. Under a more equitable world economy, of course, all this land would be used to produce food for the local population instead of resources for foreign or local oligarchic companies.

Another advantage of cattle-ranching is that it inhibits return to the land by disenfranchised peasants. In other forms of agriculture, the landlord could permit the peasant to live on the fringes of the estate in return for a rental payment in kind, such as a few sacks of corn or hard labor such as clearing rocks. When the beef boom commenced, however, every acre became more exploitable and so the peasant had to be expelled. When cattle were introduced into land formerly owned by peasants, barbed wire and the grazing herds tended to act as impediments to peasant squatting.

These contradictions reached their sharpest form in the Matiguas municipo of Matagalpas, Nicaragua. There some 30 percent of the land was covered by forests but by 1976 only 5 percent of the land remained forested. Where 8 percent of the land was used to grow corn and beans in 1963, by 1976 the percentage was 1 percent. By contrast, cattle grazing land, which was 39 percent in 1963, grew to encompass 94 percent of the land ten years later.

Later, Matiguas, Matagalpas became a bastion of Sandinista support.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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