BBC World’s Latin America section has provided a sympathetic review of a Bolivian documentary titled ‘¿Por que quebró McDonald’s en Bolivia?’ (Why did McDonald’s fail in Bolivia?), which celebrates the departure of McDonald’s from the country. The review adopts the documentary’s overtone, which interprets the Bolivians’ lack of appetite for lukewarm hamburgers as a victory over global capitalism. ‘Culture has won against a transnational [corporation], against the globalised world’, rejoices the movie’s director Fernando Martínez.
It is a strange topic for a documentary, if you keep in mind what the basic storyline is:
- A company offers a product.
- Consumers don’t want it.
- The company leaves the market. End of story.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? That’s because it is the most ordinary and mundane occurrence in a market economy. While you’re reading this, several pubs in London are closing, even though there won’t be a documentary celebrating the people who brought down the mighty pub.
BBC World seems to believe that that buying an empanada from a local street vendor was somehow ‘less capitalistic’ than buying a burger from McDonald’s and that a country without McDonald’s restaurants is less capitalistic than a country with them. This clearly confuses distinct categories. Is buying a hamburger more capitalistic than buying a cheeseburger? Is a beef empanada more capitalistic than a chicken empanada?
Not quite. Broadly speaking, a country is capitalistic to the extent that its government respects the principle of consumer sovereignty, as in the freedom to choose between the local empanada vendor and McDonald’s. On this account, Venezuela, where the government frequently bullies private companies like McDonald’s, is less capitalistic than Bolivia, despite still being full of McDonald’s branches. Bolivians were never prevented by their government from buying burgers; they simply chose not to do so. This is not a victory over capitalism, it is capitalism.
Presumably, the documentary will be successful on Western campuses, among the anti-globalisation crowd armed with their Naomi Klein books and Tobin Tax flyers. It should not be. If they are smart, they should maintain funereal silence about it. Far from supporting their case, it undermines it.
Since the late 1990s, the anti-globalisation movement has been telling us that Western corporations were like alien invaders, who march into helpless poor countries to stamp out fragile indigenous cultures. The Bolivian case exposes that imagery for the nonsense that it is. If people don’t want to buy hamburgers (or any other foreign product), there is nothing McDonald’s (or any other foreign corporation) can do about it. Nobody has ever been forced into a McDonald’s at gunpoint.
Hence, Western corporations retreating from developing countries is an everyday phenomenon. Just a year ago, the French supermarket chain Carrefour decided to pull out of Thailand and Malaysia, where it had opened 67 stores. Their Asian stores were largely clones of the French ones, an expansion strategy that worked well within Europe, but not beyond. Tesco, in contrast, took a more sensitive approach, teaming up with local suppliers to build up local knowledge step by step. It worked.
It is ridiculous to assume that Western corporations can force people to buy products which are an affront to their cultural identity. Anti-globalisation campaigners, who call upon governments in developing countries to insulate their citizens from foreign influence, are imperialists with reverse signs. Traditional imperialists wanted to force Western norms upon other peoples. Today’s imperialists want to stop other peoples from adopting Western consumption norms. It would spoil the authenticity of their backpacker trips.