|Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse and Cinderella Castle|
Crane and Matten spent the last 5 days in Disney World Orlando. Which had nothing to do with recent fatherhood or anything like that. Who would have guessed: it was the venue of this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting – the biggest conference of management academics in the world, which takes place every August – in five of the Disney Hotels in Orlando.
As if this is not ironic enough, listen to the title of this year’s conference: ‘Capitalism in Question’! Whaow. Questioning capitalism in Disneyworld – for some a joke, for others hypocritical, for most of us simply absurd.
But wait a second. Once I arrived there, it took me only a few hours to think that Minnie & Mickey’s world is actually the best place to understand what is wrong with contemporary global capitalism. And, I love to add, nothing like what you would expect to be a capitalist experience; I rather had vivid deja-vu’s to my frequent visits to communist East Germany before the wall came down in 1989.
To begin with, the treatment Disney gives you as a consumer is rather dismal. I did not have a single meal where I did not had to join a long line. Even if you reserve a table, you are still kept waiting for a good half hour. Where i stayed (Coronado Springs) there was not much choice to begin with. Just one restaurant, and one snack bar. The latter had some 15 items on the food menu – but every lunch we could just chose between two types of pre-packed sandwiches. So, by and large, a pretty socialist experience. Bars closed at midnight sharp, and off it was to bed, just in the same way as you had to rush to checkpoints at midnight when visiting relatives in East Berlin back in the day.
The inefficiency was just hilarious. Even my welcome package arrived by UPS just in time on my return back to home…
The GDR claimed to be the worker’s paradise (‘Arbeiterparadies’), just about the same as Disneyland tells us everywhere that we are in the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. Trained to be happy, wishing you a ‘magical day’ each and every second – the Disney ‘cast members’ (no workers here) have to push that message and play that role 24/7. Of course it’s mostly fake – and with dismal wages most of these actually rather nice people feel more like ‘mouse trapped’.
Slightly spooky is the extreme focus on security: tight controls and ID-ing at every (gated, of course) entrance. One colleague wanted to just walk between the different conference hotels; no such thing: all of them are heavily fenced in. He was warned that stepping off the main paths would immediately call security to the scene – so he joined the lines for the shuttle buses between hotels.
Now, I could rant on like that. The interesting question is what this all has to do with capitalism. It struck me, that at the end of the day, going to Disneyworld for five days of conferencing gives you a flavor of what it would look like if our life would be completely controlled by private corporations.
Its worth looking into the outline of the Conference to understand what we are talking about: Here is what it says:
“Three features differentiate capitalism from previous economic systems in history: (a) market competition among profit-driven firms, (b) wage employment within these firms, and (c) limited government over them.”
If we look at (a), Disney shows what large corporations have always tried to do: Once you are lured into the resorts, life is controlled by one monopolistic corporation. That’s why ‘choice’, free competition or freedom of movement no longer exists once you are there. This experience meanwhile is rather ubiquitous, certainly in US style capitalism: fewer brands and chains control growing market shares and choice with regard to our IT software, our air travel or our means of commuting is often only symbolic. Yes, we can chose between different 30 different washing powders. But at the end of the day, it’s all the same thing.
The result is rather surprising: the actual ‘capitalist’ experience resembles life in ‘communist’ times. Of course I know that East Germany (or the Soviet block in the cold war) was more a state capitalist system, but still. Disney – once you are there – gave me snippets of a socialist experience.
Including the ‘regime critique’. How I enjoyed ranting about the place with my colleagues – in the flesh, on facebook or in other ways of making fun of the ‘jail’ in which we all felt trapped. Someone even wrote a little manifesto! Anonymously of course, Disney might share it with the NSA maybe?
It was great for the spirit. Back to the cold, free world out there, I kind of miss it already. Just in the same way ‘Ostalgie’ crept up to many of my fellow countrymen after the fall of the iron curtain…
Photo by gwaar, reproduced under the Creative Commons License