When Utopia Becomes a Lunch Break

James Livingston is one of the most brilliant historians of the United States. His book Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution is by far the best book I’ve read all year. In his more recent book, Against Thrift, he makes the claim that advertising is “the last utopian idiom of our time.”

If Jim is right, we’re in major trouble. Because, according to this New York Times piece, working conditions have gotten so bad that advertisers can now depict utopia as…taking a lunch break:

But marketers are urging workers to commit small acts of so-called rebellion — like taking a vacation, or going on a lunch break.

That’s the message McDonald’s sent this spring with a campaign called, “It’s your lunch. Take it.” Meant to promote the Premium Chicken Sandwich and the Angus Third Pounder Deluxe burger, it included tag lines like “A lunch revolution has begun,” “It’s time to overthrow the working lunch” and “A sesame seed of revolt has been planted.”

In one television advertisement, a woman gets up from her desk and announces, “I’m going to lunch.” Her co-workers try to dissuade her, telling her that the days of taking lunch are long gone.

In a scene reminiscent of “Jerry Maguire,” an inspired colleague stands up and says, “I’m going with her.” The music swells, he tears off the lanyard around his neck and adds, “I don’t want to be chicken, I want to eat it.”

Geoff McCartney, vice president and creative director at DDB Chicago, the agency that worked on the campaign, said the ads were based on a simple precept: “that busy people should take some time for a decent lunch.”

“Work-life balance is really at a tipping point,” he said. “People don’t have a break for lunch, and they feel like they can’t take one for whatever reason.”

Back in the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse coined a phrase in One-Dimensional Man for capitalism’s ability to use (and tame) an emancipated sexuality for the sake of advancing capitalism itself: repressive desublimation.  The basic argument was that the fantasy and idea of liberation could be mobilized to reproduce the very system that produced a need for liberation.

But what are we to make of a society in which liberation is defined as scarfing down a ham sandwich?

Update (9:40 pm)

As is so often the case, Digby was there first.


  1. Brahmski July 8, 2012 at 2:41 am | #

    Excellent little blog column, Corey. Hilarious, and sad of course. McMarcuse! What is this world coming to? Will have to check out Livingston’s books–you sold me.

  2. Connie Keyes July 8, 2012 at 10:44 am | #

    I just read in a NYT article about an ad that says “Adulthood is the bully who stole your bike. Take it back” featuring a woman on a bicycle in a park. Behind her, in the distance, are towering piles of dirty dishes. It made me think about the recent spate of articles discussing women “having it all” and your columns on workplace freedoms and unions. I think if there is any true equality in the workplace for women and men too that they should form or support the unions. Women can be aggressive and successful in getting together and organizing for a cause just look at the breast cancer campaign, mothers against drunken driving, planned parenthood, they petition, they donate and they vote surely they can form a union and put a more pressure on the corporate bullies. That is what this election, dark campaign money and Right wing conservatives (who I might add appear to be mostly male) is all about taking away the last 50-60 years of women’s live and putting us in our places, in the bedroom, kitchen barefoot and pregnant (screwed without the benefit of intercourse). If the women want it all they need to stand up and take it together.

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