Potato Chip Capitalism or What to Do with a Socialist on Vacation

Being an American requires accepting a certain level of delusion.  Going on vacation raises this level to new heights — especially when your destination is a factory tour.  In this case, I was headed to the Herr’s Potato Chip Factory just outside of Lancaster, PA for a free tour of the facilities.  It was a diplomatic mission to keep the peace in the family that turned into a look inside modern capitalism in America.

When you hear factory tour images straight out of Frederich Engel’s Condition of the English Working Class immediately come to mind.  Dangerous working conditions, child labor and endless workdays combined with squalid living conditions in the working class part of town.  Instead of this, I was met by Chipper the cartoon chipmunk mascot of Herr’s Potato Chips.

It wasn’t just Chipper who meets visitors to the plant. There are piles and piles of potato chips.  Nearly every kind imaginable — Dill Pickle, Buffalo Wings, BBQ Chicken, Red Hot Tabasco…  It’s enough to make even the sharpest class analysis melt away into package after greasy package of fried delights.  Then we headed to the theatre.

Once inside, visitors offered one of the most ideologically charged stories I have ever endured — a squeaky clean version of the Herr family history.  The movie is a straight American Horatio Alger, self-made man, story.  Elder statesman James Herr is presented as an entrepreneurial genius who combines a well timed purchase of potato chip boiling vats with good old fashioned elbow grease.  Herr is portrayed as a tireless worker who makes his name based on person-to-person customer service. He builds this into a regional snack empire one fried chip at a time.

In the backdrop, a love story between James and his sweetheart Miriam Hershey.  This is, of course, an innocent love, forged with Mennonite humbleness in the course of building an all-American small business.  At the appropriate time, the two are married and go forth to populate the world with several offspring including Chipper the cartoon chipmunk.

As the Herr family and business grows in the film, so too does Lancaster — the fate of all linked closely together.  Workers are not workers at Herr’s.  They are profit sharers and wherever you see a community event you are sure to see a Herr – in the form of a son, daughter or cartoon rodent.  If the American Dream could be encapsulated in one 15 minute propaganda film, it is offered here to thousands of visitors at the Herr Potato Chip Plant.

A perky young lady then leads you inside, reciting a monotone script about the plant.  Once inside, the first thing you notice is that something is missing – there are no people, no workers…  Instead, machines dutifully sort, fry, salt and move thousands of tortilla chips each minute.  The occasional hair net wearing worker cruises by seemingly oblivious to both the value-adding activities of the machines and the awestruck visitors.

Here is where the factory tour becomes a lot more about Karl Marx than Horatio Alger. James Herr, it seems, has managed to abolish his own story of entrepreneurial success.  The costs of running a plant such as this are astronomical. When I asked how much each machine costs the tour guide fumbled through answer — first saying she didn’t know and then stating that “they” probably wouldn’t even tell her.  She gave me a strange look perhaps wondering if I wished to set up some rouge Potato Chip production site in my tiny Brooklyn apartment.  I didn’t.  I was just trying to understand how capital manages, through the use of ever greater technology, to eliminate the ability of the “little guy with a big idea” to enrich themselves.  It will take more than a few potato chip boiling vats to challenge Herr Potato Chips for market share.  Only big capital is king in potato chip capitalism.

In large part, human labor has been eliminated from potato chip production.  There are a few checkers on the line, a few more people packing boxes and a few doing some quality checks in a lab that included putting potato chips in a blender (that was totally cool).  However, what should be a great benefit to humanity – who the hell wants to spend all day making potato chips? – remains firmly placed in the smiling, profit-filled hands of the Herr family.  The causalities of these mechanized chip profiteers haunt the downtown area in nearby Lancaster begging for change or just rotting away on benches.

This is what was most interesting about the Factory Tour – not what was put into the tour, but what was left out of it.  For instance, there was no mention of James Herr’s political activities.  He was a strident supporter and beneficiary of the pro-business anti-human policies of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.  At a senate hearing in 1982, Herr, testifying on behalf of the Small Business Association of America, called for sharp reductions in business taxes and reductions in spending on social programs including, specifically, cuts to Social Security benefits. Let’s hope Chipper never hits 65.

More recently, the Herr family provided generous campaign contributions to right-wing candidates.  These include multiple donations to the Republican National Committee.  One candidate the Herrs were particularly keen to support was US House Representative Joe Pitts.  Pitts has received the highest rating from right wing groups, is the most consistent supporter of nuclear energy in the House and is a strident anti-abortionist.    He received a rating of 0% from Labor Groups who monitor house votes.  Unfortunately for the chip tycoons, Pitts has also been under investigation by the FBI for purportedly receiving payoffs from the intelligence services of Pakistan.  The Herrs are staunch right-wingers, supportive of nearly every attempt to shred social safety nets and advance a far-right agenda over the last 30 years.  This did not make it into the Factory Tour film.

Perhaps there are two lessons to learn from my vacation trip.  The first is a cautionary one.  Even the most innocent presentation can be filled with deep ideological messages.  Cutting through this doesn’t take a genius. It just requires  a nifty app like the one from the Center for Responsive Politics.  While Chipper was blathering away, I was tracking down the Herr’s on Dollarocracy to see where they were placing their campaign donations.  This then leads to the second lesson.  Next time you go on vacation, leave the Socialist at home.  Then Chipper will just be cute and cuddly, the Herrs will be heroes and everything about America will be proud and true.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: whartonbilly@gmail.com. Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.