Work Sucks: A Radical Analysis of Office Space
By John Kane at Jul 16, 2012
Few films in recent decades have so successfully spoken to the day-to-day realities of service sector employment as 1999’s Office Space. Written and directed by Mike Judge, the fictional film is extraordinarily witty and remarkably popular. Though the film is commonly referred to as a comedy, it subtly confronts its viewers with a number of questions which thinkers within radical and leftist political circles have pondered for quite some time. However, as will be shown, Office Space is neither explicitly political nor entirely ideologically coherent. Therefore, in speaking to the overarching question of to what extent—and why—Office Space can be viewed as a political film, this paper is primarily intended for two specific groups. First, the paper seeks to reach activists and intellectuals familiar with political theory, but who may have been too detached from popular culture to come across the film (or who, for whatever reason, did not dwell on the film’s provocative content). Second, and perhaps more importantly, the paper seeks to reach those who are fans of the film, but who are not familiar with the various schools of political thought. With Office Space serving as the unit of analysis, it is sincerely hoped that this paper might provoke constructive conversation between these two groups who, generally, do not engage in much dialogue.
1. Why a “Radical” Analysis and Why Office Space?
Obviously, in seeking to do a radical analysis of anything, it is imperative that the reader has some understanding of what one means when employing the term “radical.” As political scientist Stephen R. Shalom explains, “the term ‘radical’ means relating to the root, or fundamental.” More specifically, in the pursuit of changing society so as to improve people’s lives, a radical is “someone who wants fundamental change—not just a few cosmetic adjustments…” It is in this vein that economist Ben Fine writes, when looking at politics, the economy, and society in general, “The task of the radical is surely to identify what has changed, what has not other than in form, and to translate such understanding into support for change of a deeper and more progressive kind.” So while the term “radical” may frequently be used within mainstream discourse to describe violent extremism or intractable zealotry, or to simply demonize a political opponent , it is used here to convey the specific type of “lens” through which this paper will analyze Office Space. Traditionally, this “lens” is associated with the political Left, which effectively means that its subjects are studied, first and foremost, in the context of the socioeconomic system we call capitalism. This system—as opposed to specific governments, employers, individuals, policies, etcetera—is the “root” with which radicals are chiefly concerned and seek to change, to one extent or another (and at one speed or another), in order to improve people’s social, political, and economic lives.
Before proceeding further, a quick disclosure is probably in order for those who may be new to radical modes of analysis. Very often, radical literature incorporates elements of Marxism—i.e., concepts developed by the nineteenth-century philosopher and political-economist Karl Marx. This is certainly not to equate political "radicalism" with "Marxism," but only to suggest that the two often intersect. This is important to disclose because it is difficult to think of a political figure whose name alone can generate more discomfort (save, perhaps, for Hitler or Stalin) than Karl Marx. As Mary Gabriel, a recent biographer of Marx and his family, explains, the "Marxist" label is generally only used as "toxic sludge" against political opponents, often without any real understanding of what such a term connotes. For a politician to merely be accused of agreeing with Marx is in itself extremely dangerous ; for a politician to actually speak approvingly of any aspect of Marx's ideas is instantaneous political suicide. In fact, followers of mainstream political discourse might observe that Karl Marx is apparently so self-evidently evil that one would find it extraordinarily difficult to even locate a popular commentator who dare play "devil's advocate" for any of Marx’s ideas. Yet we should be very careful not to banish all of Marx's work from political discussion simply because of the heinous atrocities committed (to one extent or another) in his name, in countries he never stepped foot in, many decades after his death. Because the overwhelming majority of his time was spent critiquing capitalism—not designing a "communist system" to replace it—fans of Office Space might find that he, and those that have since followed in his tradition, actually had quite a lot of diverse and interesting things to say about the nature of our working lives.
So why, then, would Office Space merit a radical analysis? As hinted at by the film’s pithy tagline, “Work Sucks,” one of the basic premises of this paper is that Office Space cleverly raises many questions that radical thinkers have long discussed in great detail (thereby rendering the film politically important). Moreover, this fact becomes all the more significant when we consider the film’s commercial success. Upon its 1999 theatrical debut, Office Space reportedly generated nearly $13 million in box office sales, and has since sold millions of copies in VHS, DVD, and Blue-ray disc. Since its release, the film has been reviewed by noted film critics Roger Ebert, Stephen Holden of The New York Times, James Berardinelli of ReelViews.net, and many others. Though scoring a modest 7.9 out of 10 rating on the popular film website Internet Movie Database (or, IMDB.com), it should be noted that over 110,000 of the site’s registered users have voted on it. It is listed as No. 5 on Entertainment Weekly’s 2008 list of the top twenty-five comedies in the past twenty-five years , and the film’s cult-like following has resulted in regular televised broadcasting and a wide variety of related merchandise.
Given its mainstream popularity, therefore, the film provides us with a unique opportunity to discuss aspects of radical political theory in ways that are relatable to a far greater number of people than that which is already present within activist and intellectual circles. If analyzed properly, Office Space, perhaps more so than any other film of comparable commercial success, reminds us that much radical sentiment exists in the mainstream, but is rarely identified as such. And because it is not identified as such, what then occur are various “misdiagnoses” of the social problems, ineffective or counterproductive “solutions” to these problems, and, ultimately, a large-scale forfeiture of meaningful social change. This paper aims to work against this unfortunate trend, if for nothing else than to assist in facing our present circumstances “with sober senses.”
2. The Plot and Our Main Characters
The basic, surface-level plot of Office Space is relatively straightforward: The mild-mannered protagonist, Peter Gibbons, despises his job at the computer software firm Initech (“Initiative + Technology”). The first fifteen minutes brilliantly illuminate the setting and tone of the film, and are thus extremely important. The viewer is shown every detail of Peter’s work-life, from the alarm clock shrieking, to driving in agonizingly slow traffic, to the daily electric zap he receives the moment he opens the door to his thoroughly sterilized, cubicle-filled workroom. The very first camera shot inside of the room is clearly intended to impress upon the viewer the dreariness of Peter’s station in life—we are confronted with an endless, impersonal sea of people, all working quietly in tiny cubicles, amid the electronic clamor of innumerable machines and stale fluorescent lighting. It happens to be a Monday, but the viewer instinctively senses that what Peter has just experienced is remarkably unexceptional.
Peter sits down at his desk, situated within an impressively narrow cubicle (and the viewer is given an overhead camera shot to fully convey just how confining it is), to begin his day of work. He is already exhausted. Moments later, he is approached by his main boss, Bill Lumbergh (referred to throughout simply as "Lumbergh"), who is, with an air of comically annoying passive-aggressiveness, intent on making Peter aware that he did not include "the new cover sheet on his TPS report." The viewer has no idea what this means, nor does s/he have to: all that needs to be understood is that this is a rather dull item to be criticized about, especially first thing in the morning. But it doesn't end there. Peter is then confronted by a second boss, Dom, who admonishes him about the exact same issue. When Peter tries to put the issue to rest, Dom feels compelled to further (and gratuitously) exert his authority by explaining to Peter why the new cover sheet must be used. Peter's phone then rings and, after a moment, we realize that Peter is being contacted by yet another boss, and is being disciplined for the exact same mundane company regulation.
Having observed his daily routine, Peter becomes a sympathetic, if not deeply relatable, character to the viewer. We then meet his two closest office comrades, Michael and Samir. Both are approximately Peter's age, but do not appear to be quite as miserable working at Initech. Michael has a quirky obsession with gangster rap music, and Samir (apparently born outside the United States, judging by the thickness of his accent) seems to be more preoccupied with becoming financially successful in America. Both intensely dislike certain aspects of the job, such as the morning commute and the temperamental office printer, but seem to have accepted it, at least for the time being, as a necessary evil.
The two other office-mates that we become familiar with are Tom Smykowski and Milton Waddams. Both are middle-aged, anxious to a fault, and probably “burned out” at Initech many years prior. But where Tom is more outgoing and expressive, Milton is deeply introverted, disconnected from the social world, and comically enigmatic. We can imagine that, after work, Tom returns to a relatively normal, suburban life. But we shudder to imagine what Milton's life might be like when he is not at work. (We later learn that Milton was actually laid off by Initech years before but "through some glitch in accounting continues to receive a paycheck." Also, Milton is constantly being asked by Lumbergh to move his desk elsewhere, even after the "glitch" has been fixed and he no longer receives a paycheck. The Initech supervisors assumed that “the problem”—i.e., Milton working without compensation but also without being formally fired—would simply "work itself out naturally.")
In the beginning of the film, we learn that Peter is dating a girl, Ann, though he does not appear to be too content with the relationship. This is made clear when he fixes his eye on a waitress, Joanna, whom he has been fond of for quite some time. Eventually, he effectively ends the relationship with Ann and finds the courage to ask Joanna out on a date. But it important to note that, at the beginning of the film and at the height of his misery, Peter stays with Ann despite his strong (and, we learn, valid) suspicion that she is cheating on him. When Peter first mentions these suspicions to his friends, he hardly seems fazed. He is, likely, more annoyed by it because, if true, it would force him to have to assert his dignity. But, even at this early point in the film, the viewer is sensing that Peter is constantly being “forced” to do things and, in the process, has lost nearly all ability to assert his dignity; submission, though perhaps more embittering, has become for Peter the path of least resistance, and therefore the preferable one.
The way in which Peter acquires the courage to assert his dignity represents a seminal turning point in the film. Because Peter is so unhappy with his job, Ann recommends that he see an "occupational hypnotherapist." He seems a bit embarrassed about going, but knows that the alternative—dealing with his job as he has been thus far—is even less desirable. The hypnotherapist puts Peter in a trance for a few moments, and instructs him that he will no longer be unhappy with his job. Peter is semi-conscious and, for perhaps the first time, we see him genuinely smile. But when the hypnotherapist, an exceptionally heavy man, is about to snap his fingers to bring Peter out of his hypnotized state, he instead collapses and dies. Peter, the viewer notices, remains suspended in his trance-like state.
From then on, Peter's entire outlook changes dramatically. He disregards the alarm clock, hangs up on his girlfriend, ignores calls from his job, all while being completely unfazed and unapologetic. But slowly (and the viewer doesn't exactly know when or in what gradations this is occurring), Peter returns from his trance-like state. He becomes more sober, less blissfully absent from reality, but his general affect remains markedly different than when we first met him. He refuses to do any work, but since he has received no disciplinary action—in fact, he has received a promotion—we can assume that he is willing to remain at Initech so long as he is relieved of having to perform his former, tediously repetitive job duties. During a meeting with the “efficiency consultants”—a callous duo referred to collectively as “The Bobs”—Peter is told that many employees are soon going to be laid off and his outlook takes yet another dramatic turn. Upon learning this, he hatches a plot with Michael and Samir to install a virus within Initech's computer mainframe that will deposit tiny fractions of pennies into a bank account every day (the idea being that, after several years, the deposits will amount to a hefty sum for the three of them). Even in the meeting where the three meet to discuss the plan, we can see how much Peter has changed since the start of the film: He finally feels confident, empowered and autonomous (albeit for unethical reasons).
We soon learn that the virus was programmed incorrectly, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are deposited into the account within a very brief period of time. Fully aware that this will be quickly discovered by the Initech accounting department, Peter decides to take full responsibility for the plot. He writes a letter of apology and returns the money under the cover of night, but, fortunately for him, the building burns down (at the hand of Milton) the following morning. Peter goes on to take a job with a construction company (with one of his first jobs being the clean-up of the incinerated Initech building site), Michael and Samir go to work at a competing computer software company, and Milton uses the money Peter returns to take a tropical vacation.
3. The Film and Political Theory
Competing Interpretations and Ideologies
At first glance, one could interpret Office Space as a wry commentary on some inescapable facet of life—for example, a supposed “human condition” which dooms us to lives of perpetual unfulfillment and disappointment. In what we could call the “fatalistic” interpretation, the film becomes swiftly depoliticized. Peter’s actions, and the film itself, would not be in favor of anything so much as against something: the realities and drudgeries of life itself. Peter would be akin to the child who cries and acts out in anger when a favorite pet dies. He feels, in the depths of his being, that the situation is unfair, indecent, and wrong. He cries out and rebels, and we take pity on him; we might even relate to him. But we, the matured viewers, could only feel so much pity, for he would be failing to accept what is ultimately inevitable. And while that may make him sympathetic to us, it would not make him brave. Moments such as when Peter is attempting to convince Joanna that his computer virus scheme is somehow not a form of stealing (which he appears to believe himself), followed by his suggestion to Joanna that she cope with her unfulfilling job by stealing from the cash register, would suggest that Peter is merely doing what many of us would secretly like to do, but do not do because, as adults, we know it would be wrong. Again, this type of interpretation would render him a sympathetic character, but not a heroic one.
Another view, which we might call the “conservative” interpretation, would suggest that Peter is primarily concerned with locating and acting upon his own self-interest—that is, he ultimately wishes to do as little work as possible while making as much money as possible. In this sense, there is nothing particularly interesting or unique about Peter; he becomes essentially no different than Lumbergh, Joanna, or anyone else in the film, all of whom seek to maximize pleasure and minimize displeasure. His initial situation merits no sympathy from the viewer—for, after all, he freely chooses to work at Initech—and his diatribes about what work should be like amount to little more than foolish naïvete. Moreover, it is because of this immaturity and nonsensical sense of solidarity with others that he eventually turns to an illegal “get-rich-quick” scheme instead of actively pursuing the higher-paying management job that has been offered to him. In this interpretation, Peter regresses from a man reluctant to act on his self-interest (as evidenced by his staying at Initech) to that of a “sacrificial animal” acting in the name of some imagined sense of duty to others. In other words, Peter has chosen his station in life and, though free to complain about his job all he pleases, he has little grounds for doing so. He himself admits at one point that he “ended up at Initech” perhaps because he never was able to identify what he “wanted to do” with his life. If there is anyone or anything to blame, this interpretation would suggest, it is Peter himself.
This essay, on the contrary, argues something different. Again, part of Office Space’s wonderful appeal is that it is not explicitly political or ideological. Admittedly, though, this directly results in there being “mixed messages” and, consequently, several reasonable but markedly different ways of interpreting the film. It will be argued here, in contrast to the aforementioned interpretations, that Peter's situation is not a mere reaction to some fatalistic "human condition," nor is it completely of his own making. Office Space is popular, in large part, precisely because Peter represents a kind of working-class hero. But to answer why he is perceived as such, we must first see that Peter’s dissatisfaction ultimately springs from disempowerment and a deep sense of what should be but, at this moment in history, is not. The only way to see this, though, is by observing Office Space alongside elements of radical political theory.
The dominant ideologies in American political discourse provide us with few tools (if any) to analyze Office Space as a political film. Conservatives (especially what we refer to in the U.S. as “economic conservatives”) and libertarians would likely subscribe to the second interpretation listed above, and would dwell on Peter’s “personal responsibility” to do that which is in his self-interest. But even Liberalism, for all its merits, regularly falls short of meaningfully connecting with the daily life of any working person. For example, "active state" or “progressive” liberals may advocate for "full employment" macroeconomic policymaking, but they are largely silent on the issue of what that employment might actually entail, whether or not it is empowering for each worker, meaningful, etcetera. A “job” is thus viewed simply as that which provides the “recipient” with a means of securing an income and having “something to do” with his or her time and energy. Any inquiry into the nature of this potential employment—as experienced by the individual worker on a daily basis—is deemed by the liberal to fall well outside of pragmatic policy concerns, perhaps because the very principles of “workplace democracy” and “worker self-management” are themselves regarded as hopelessly utopian. The late philosopher and scholar Mihailo Markovic describes this argument succinctly:
“…self-management is a noble humanitarian idea but it cannot be brought to life because workers and ordinary citizens are not educated enough to run a modern state and modern economy. Professional experts are needed to do the job. Therefore self-management is either a utopia or must be reduced to a rather limited participation in decision-making.”
Out of both political expediency and a paternalistic attitude toward the competence of working people, therefore, the rallying cry is restricted to “Jobs!” rather than “Empowering Jobs!”
But what do “workplace democracy” and “worker self-management” have to do with Office Space? This paper argues that much of Peter’s own misery arises from his being disempowered by Initech, from his inability to have any say over his job, from a deep feeling that his fate is completely in the hands of someone (or something) else. But, by choosing solidarity over an upper management job—as when he devises the scheme with Michael and Samir after being informed that they will be fired—he hints that power for himself was not his only aim. His true gripe seems to be with a system in which a very small group of people is able to exert a disproportionate amount of control over the respective fates of a far larger group of people; a system in which the daily debasement of human potential and dignity becomes not only acceptable, but perhaps even profitable; a system in which stock prices, standardization, routine and efficiency seem to have take precedence over human beings (as when Peter reveals that laying-off Michael and Samir will increase Initech’s stock price). Early in the film, however, Peter senses that this situation is unfair, but—like many of us often do—frequently chooses to escape from these feelings rather than confront them.
The Instrumentality of Escapism
If there is one dominant, recurring theme throughout Office Space, it is this: escape. It occurs with multiple characters, and in myriad ways throughout the film. Peter, on the Monday morning that we meet him, asks Michael and Samir to go out for coffee because, as he says, "I gotta get out of here. I think I'm gonna lose it." Michael tries to escape the wrath of the efficiency experts by saying that he likes Michael Bolton's music (which he, in fact, emphatically despises). Peter tries to escape from reality by going to the hypnotherapist and asking to be made "to think he has been fishing all day" upon coming home from work. Tom Smykowski suggests to Peter, Michael and Samir that, in order to escape the general drudgery of life, one must make some "brilliant" invention like, he says, the "Pet Rock." Tom himself is eventually severely injured in a car accident (after trying to kill himself—the ultimate form of escape—once he is laid-off from Initech) and, when we see him again, couldn't be happier: he has won a huge (apparently lucrative) lawsuit. That he is nearly enveloped in an entire body cast and travels via wheelchair is less important to him than the fact that he has escaped from the grind of daily menial labor. The entire scheme of uploading a computer virus was not only an attack against Initech, it was a means of permanently escaping from Initech and all other jobs where one could be "fired for no reason," as Peter put it. In order for Peter to go fishing with a friend, we witness him, on Friday, fervently trying to surreptitiously shut off his computer and leave work a few minutes early: he is trying to escape before Lumbergh has the opportunity to tell him that he must also work on Saturday and Sunday. Even Milton who, toward the end of the film, stumbles upon an envelope filled with travelers checks (the money Peter had stolen and decided to return along with a confession), escapes to a tropical island for what we can only assume is an extended vacation from work.
Many characters in the film are concerned with escaping their current stations in life, eager to do something with their lives, even if they haven't quite figured out what to do. Part of the genius of the film is how relatable this notion is; that many of us once imagined ourselves doing extraordinary things and, on a daily basis, we are instead faced with the crushing austerity of everyday adult life. And, for many of us, we hang on to some vague fantasy of accomplishing greater things, often without a plan for how to do so. With each passing year, the fantasy becomes more unlikely. But we hang on anyway until, one day, we resign ourselves to our current stations and perhaps reserve the dream for whimsical conversation, much like Tom, who clearly plans to stay at Initech, but gets a glint in his eye upon talking about the "Pet Rock" and his own harebrained invention: the "Jump-to-Conclusions Mat.” Until he was “freed” from his job at Initech, and came upon a substantial amount of seed money, it was unlikely that Tom would ever take the beginning steps toward making his invention a reality. But that was never the purpose of the invention, i.e., it was never really meant to be "made." It was meant to serve as Tom's vague fantasy of escaping, of being accomplished, of succeeding in life; a notion he could occasionally fantasize about to make his day somewhat more bearable, thus a notion rather instrumental in his own pursuit of escape. Paradoxically, it is often this very reliance upon escapism, much like reliance upon a drug, which serves to perpetuate and exacerbate the very situation from which one was originally trying to escape.
Alienation, the Division of Labor, and Hostility
But why is there such a drive toward escapism? What is it about their jobs and lives that compels our characters toward the pursuit of escape? Out of all the concepts within the radical political tradition, it would be difficult to find one more appropriate for Office Space than that of “alienation” (sometimes also referred to as “estrangement”). The theory of alienation, as radical political scientist Bertell Ollman explains, “is the intellectual construct in which [Karl] Marx displays the devastating effect of capitalist production on human beings, on their physical and mental states and on the social processes of which they are a part.” The effect is “devastating,” Marx argued, in no small part because the jobs that most of us perform do not satisfy any of our inherent needs as human beings. Rather, our labor only serves as a means toward satisfying an external need—i.e., making money to survive. This “alien” character of work becomes abundantly clear, Marx writes, “in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labor is shunned like the plague.” Therefore, when Peter tells his next-door-neighbor, Lawrence, that, were money not an issue, “I would relax. I would sit on my ass, all day. I would do nothing,” he is doing much more than expressing his dissatisfaction with Initech; he is confirming Marx’s suspicions of how human beings would react toward a life of alienated labor.
Alienation is so crushing, radicals argue, precisely because it exists on numerous levels: As if by some invisible force outside of human control, we are compelled to do work that is not enriching or meaningful, and is therefore alien (remember in Peter’s nightmare that the judge deems he has lived a “trite and meaningless life”); the very things we make or work on—like Peter’s TPS reports—have essentially no real meaning to us, and are therefore alien; the people who have an interest in getting us to do this unpleasant work, like Lumbergh, quickly become antagonists, and therefore alien to us; and, as a result of all these daily processes, our potentialities and aspirations as human beings are frequently abandoned—as when Peter wishes to do nothing—and are therefore rendered alien to us. It is precisely due to this last “alienation from our species” that Marx argued working people will eventually only feel free when satisfying our “animal functions,” such as eating, drinking, and procreating. It is thus no accident that when Lawrence is asked by Peter what he would do if he had a million dollars—in other words, what would he truly want to do with his life were money not an issue—his response is a sexual fantasy. “Certainly eating, drinking, procreating, etc., are also genuinely human functions,” Marx wrote, “[b]ut abstractly taken, separated from the sphere of all other human activity and turned into sole and ultimate ends, they are animal functions.”
Here it is useful to make more explicit a crucial division between “mainstream/orthodox” schools of thought and radical schools of thought. Subscribers to the “fatalistic” and “conservative” interpretations of Office Space would likely object to the theory of alienation as one that unfairly blames capitalism for the undesirability of work rather than blaming the inherent undesirability of labor (or, work) itself. They might instead argue that no one wants to do work—work is inherently displeasing, for a variety of reasons, and human beings will naturally seek pleasure over displeasure. Put bluntly, alienation does not make work undesirable; work makes work undesirable. Given such conditions, capitalism is an optimal system insofar as it serves to reward displeasure (work) with pleasure (money to buy things). The conservative celebrates the ingenious simplicity of this situation; the fatalist dislikes it, but accepts it as inevitable and unavoidable.
Radicals, on the other hand, do not consider work/labor—or, “productive activity,” as they might put it—to be inherently displeasing or prohibitive. Rather than regarding labor as a “disutility” (i.e., as something that, in the absence of an incentive to do otherwise, is to be avoided) , radicals have long envisioned a world in which labor is “not only a means of life but life’s prime want.”  Obviously, this implies that it is something about the nature of work as most of currently experience it that makes it so undesirable, rather than an inherent “disutility” of performing labor. (Thus, radicals would generally agree with the famous Office Space tagline “Work Sucks,” but with one small, yet crucial caveat. They would likely instead proclaim that “Alienated Work Sucks.”)
But what is it about the nature of modern work that makes it so alienating? Radicals argue that alienation springs from multiple sources, one of which being the highly evolved “division of labor”—that is, the breaking down of work into simple, repetitive tasks that each individual becomes responsible for, while much of the “thinking” and “overseeing” of work is carried out by a “coordinator class” (explained below) —that exists for Peter at Initech and for most of us at the firms where we work. The reason for such a breaking down of tasks, most radicals acknowledge , springs from the gains in productivity that are its consequence—i.e., each worker becomes more efficient at his or her particular task, thereby rendering the firm more efficient as a whole, thereby rendering the firm more competitive vis-à-vis other firms. However, as the renowned psychoanalyst and critical theorist Erich Fromm argued, this intense division of labor also “lead[s] to an organization of work where the individual loses his individuality, where he becomes an expendable cog in the machine.” This process occurs regularly under capitalism, Fromm argued, precisely because the worker is viewed as “part of the equipment hired by capital [i.e., by those investing money in a firm, equipment, workers, machines, etcetera, with the explicit intention of eventually turning a sizeable profit for themselves], and his role and function are determined by this quality of being a piece of equipment.”
Qualms with an intensive division of labor did not, however, begin with radicals like Marx or Fromm. Even the famous political economist Adam Smith, generally regarded as the foremost celebrant of the division of labor, warned of its potentially dangerous effects upon human beings. By only being charged with performing “a few simple operations” each and every day, a worker like Peter “generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…” Here, Smith seems to have hinted at a really important insight. It is not as though Peter desires to balance the simplicity and repetitiveness of his work-life with equal amount of complexity and variation in his private life. In other words, the one action does not provoke an equal and opposite reaction. Instead, by Peter’s own admission that he wants to “do nothing but sit all his ass all day,” the inactiveness he experiences at his job appears to only inspire more inactiveness. Just as Smith observed, “[the worker’s] dexterity at his own peculiar trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.”
If Peter’s wish to “do nothing” is indeed a key and resounding message of Office Space (which is suggested by the camera’s slow zooming-in on Peter during this scene), then we must again yield to Erich Fromm who, writing in 1955, argued that “The alienated and profoundly unsatisfactory character of work results in two reactions: one, the ideal of complete laziness; the other, a deep-seated, though often unconscious hostility toward work and everything and everybody connected with it.” Fromm further argued that the world of advertising is acutely aware of the tendency of alienated work to inspire laziness, and that it exacerbates this problem by ceaselessly promoting products which purport to make life “easier.” The result? An endless feedback loop where we buy products to relieve ourselves of having to do even more tedious work at home, yet we must work our tedious jobs in order to buy these very products.
In addition to his point about laziness, Fromm’s second point (that work results in feelings of hostility) is even more apparent throughout Office Space. Whether it is Peter’s contempt for the receptionist seated in the cubicle across from him, Michael’s contempt for the woman who hands out the employee mail, Joanna’s contempt for the other waiter, or Peter, Michael, and Samir’s mutual contempt for the office printer, it must be considered that their hostility does not merely spring from differences in personality or problems with the functioning of a particular machine. Rather, it is the sheer undesirability of their work situation that creates a setting in which it becomes remarkably easy to grow hostile toward “everything and everybody connected with it.”
Because the worker “becomes an appendage of the machine” who must learn “only the most simple, most monotonous, most easily acquired knack,” all while “placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants" (i.e., Lumbergh, Dom, The Bobs, etcetera.), the irrepressible feeling that one’s needs as a human being are being relentlessly subordinated to the company’s need to make money can, over time, have substantial effects on behavior. Peter explains at one point that his job is to review thousands of lines of computer software code for banking institutions and update the code to ensure that no problems will occur once the twentieth century changes to the twenty-first. As noted above, such compulsory monotony can easily lead to hostility, which itself often finds its ultimate expression in acts of violence. To this point, we must marvel at some of Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’s observations in The Communist Manifesto. As if foreseeing Office Space by one hundred and fifty years, the authors noted that many workers will at first destroy the “instruments of production” rather than the system of production which forces the great majority of them to “sell themselves piecemeal.” Thus, when the authors write of these disgruntled workers that “they smash to pieces machinery,” we quickly recall the epic “printer scene” where Peter, Michael and Samir destroy the temperamental printer in the middle of a barren field; and when they write “they set factories ablaze,” we cannot help but think of Milton nervously fleeing the scene as the Initech building is reduced to ashes.
The Peters versus The Bobs, The Workers versus The Coordinators
Much radical writing deals with the separation of mental and physical labor as being one of the most obvious forms of the division of labor. But in Office Space, as in most service sector employment generally, the viewer does not see much “physical” labor, so to speak. Instead, what we generally see are sedentary workers doing mostly mental, repetitive labor and what modern radicals, such as Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, describe as a “coordinator class” doing the “planning” and “overseeing” work. The criteria for what constitutes a “coordinator” are not precise, but, as the originators of the term describe, “…the coordinator wants to preserve a relative monopoly of conceptual skills and expertise giving him or her an interest in preventing the widespread intellectual advance of workers, as well as a paternal, elitist attitude toward them.” Our “coordinator class” in Office Space is thus approximately represented by “The Bobs,” Lumbergh, Dom, and Joanna’s boss, Stan. They do not own capital—i.e., they do not own the firm, the building, the computers and machines, etcetera—and are therefore not “capitalists” per se, but they do have far more decision-making authority than their employees, a virtual monopoly on knowledge of “what is going on” (provided that workers are obeying orders) and “what will be going on” at the firm, and generally exercise autonomy as they please (consider that Lumbergh may leisurely stroll around the office with his coffee, monitoring employees, while it is unthinkable that Peter, Michael, or Samir would be able to do this). In other words, the “coordinator class” is generally giving commands, while the “working class” is generally busy obeying those commands.
As demonstrated by Lumbergh and The Bobs, access to information is also of immense importance insofar as it 1) clearly divides the powerful from the powerless, and 2) serves as a perpetual rationalization for hierarchy and inequality in pay, power, job responsibilities, task differentiation/variety, etcetera. Peter and his cohorts may be using their minds rather than their muscles for their work, but their mental labor sharply differs from that of the coordinators in that they are given little access to critical information regarding the detailed goings-on of the company as a whole. They are, for example, only able to speculate as to whether the “efficiency experts” are there to oversee lay-offs, how many lay-offs there will be, when they will take place, which employees will be laid-off, which employees will be kept on and forced to (as Lumbergh puts it) “play a little catch-up,” etcetera. Without this important information, the Initech employees are at a critical power disadvantage. Decisions are made without the input of most of the Initech employees, and yet they are expected to follow them without complaint. Again, this lop-sided power imbalance quickly creates two distinct, opposing forces: one either gives orders, or one takes them. And, once this dynamic is set in motion, a kind of spiritual impulse exists whereby it feels good to disobey and defy the orders (especially if one does so without getting caught). Thus Peter at one point, for example, fillets a fish at his desk and throws the entrails onto the TPS report cover sheets that he was disciplined for not using at the start of the film.
Had Peter taken part in the discussions about TPS report cover sheets and been given equal decision-making authority over them, he may well continue to dislike them, but there would have been far less of a spiritual impulse to openly vandalize them: by doing so, he would effectively be rebelling against something he himself helped create. But without such a democratization of decision-making authority, no amount of propaganda about “teamwork” from management can overcome this “workers versus coordinators” effect. Hence why Lumbergh’s directive that each Initech employee regularly ask himself, “Is this good for the company?” rings completely hollow.
4. Analysis of Key Scenes
Peter’s First Meeting With The Bobs
Peter’s first meeting with the efficiency consultants (i.e., The Bobs) is a very revealing scene. While the actual (but unstated) purpose of the meeting is to justify one’s own employment at Initech, his hypnotherapy-inspired epiphany has already taken place, so Peter treats the meeting with an extremely lackadaisical attitude. He is dressed conspicuously casually and, lest he censor himself on what he says is the “best day of his life,” openly complains to The Bobs about the number of bosses he is “hassled” by, the TPS reports, and anything else that comes to his mind. In his admission to The Bobs that, in a given week, he only does about fifteen minutes of “real, actual work,” Peter again challenges us to think about modern work and that, because of its incredibly alienating nature, the prime want is often to escape it. Indeed, Peter freely admits that he generally arrives fifteen minutes late to work each day, but uses the side door so as not to be seen by Lumbergh. He also admits that he regularly “spaces out” at his desk so as to appear to be working. This sneaky behavior is again consistent with the “workers versus coordinators” dynamic that can be seen in various hierarchical structures: those at the bottom compete, in subtle and clandestine ways, against the ideal wishes of those at the top (by, for example, coming in late, stealing supplies, pretending to work, taking longer breaks, and cutting corners in general). In this dynamic, “victory” comes only in the form of not getting caught. This is not to say, of course, that such conduct is ethical—only that it is predictable: Any organization, whatever its “mission statement” and whatever its economic orientation, is likely to produce this dynamic so long as “thinking” and “doing” are done by separate people, and authority and autonomy are hierarchically distributed (i.e., a small group generally receiving the greatest compensation, authority, and autonomy, and a much larger group receiving the least).
Hence the need for “workplace democracy” as both an end (democracy for democracy’s sake), and a means to an end (i.e., a way to mitigate, if not eliminate, the dynamic which gives rise to what we might call the “sneaky Peter” effect). Where Peter states, for example, that the only real motivation to do work springs from “not being hassled” and “the fear of losing his job,” he is again hinting at the conflict-laden nature of the efficiency-oriented workplace. As one source describes it, because workers and managers have very different interests, “workers keep their noses to the grindstone only when forced to do so by managers, supervisors, electronic monitors, spies, or whatever else the owners can use to compel them to greater productivity.” However, as Peter aptly notes, this will “only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” So, we might instead say that “workers keep their noses to the grindstone to the extent that they are forced to do so.” The result is often mutual suspicion and hostility, coupled with a considerable degree of inefficiency (insofar as workers are not necessarily producing to their fullest capabilities, but rather to the degree to which they are compelled to produce).
Curiously, Peter also goes on to state, “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care. It’s a problem of motivation. If I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime, so where’s the motivation?” This is another intuitively appealing point for the viewer, but nonetheless runs counter to some of Peter’s other expressed sentiments. For here, Peter is in effect complaining that his compensation is not tied closely enough with his productivity. But, when the moment comes where The Bobs respond to Peter’s incentive-oriented qualms by offering him a “purely hypothetical” stock option, equity-sharing program, and ask if that would “do anything for him,” Peter is remarkably noncommittal and evasive. “I don’t know, I guess,” he replies, and then proceeds to stand up and end the meeting (!). (What’s more, The Bobs are so completely impressed with Peter that they soon recommend him for “upper management.”) As viewers, we are forced to discern what a very noncommittal “I don’t know, I guess” means, but it’s important that we consider it. For if it is Peter’s compensation that is the problem, and not his day-to-day working conditions, the film takes on a completely different tone. But nowhere else in the film does Peter complain about the salary or benefits he receives—for all we know, he could be paid extraordinarily well. So while it is certainly possible that Peter’s work-life is extremely undesirable because it is both unfulfilling and poorly compensated, it does make a tremendous difference, in terms of the philosophy underlying the film, whether the former takes precedence over the latter or vice versa.
Peter’s Last Meeting With The Bobs
After Peter is accepted by The Bobs, they inform him that there is going to be some “housecleaning with some of the software people” (i.e., layoffs). Peter acknowledges this and then says what could arguably be considered the most ubiquitous and emptiest rationalization of the modern era: “You gotta do what you gotta do.” It would appear that he has lost all camaraderie; that his war against Initech is over now that he is no longer being hassled by his bosses (even when he is flagrantly neglecting his job duties, as when he is playing Tetris and eating junk food off his desk in front of Lumbergh) and feels safe and secure within the upper circle of power. However, Peter and the viewer quickly learn that this “housecleaning” will include Samir and Michael. The Bobs go on to callously explain that the vacated positions will either be filled by lower-cost entry-level workers, or work will be outsourced to Singapore, as per “standard operating procedure.” For Peter, this adds a critical human element into the situation, and appears to change his entire demeanor. This represents yet another crucial turning point for Peter. Thus, when The Bobs then offer Peter a management position—a position, it should be noted, that would to some extent alleviate Peter’s own feelings of disempowerment—he is both baffled and appalled: “Wow” is the only word he is able to muster.
Peter’s Scene With Michael at the Bar and His Revelation
Following the meeting with The Bobs, Peter immediately meets with Michael to inform him that he will be laid off. Upon telling Michael that, while he is being laid off, he himself is actually being promoted, Peter agrees that “It’s completely unfair.” But Peter then goes on to make one of the most important statements in the film. “I realized something today,” he says, “It’s not just about me and my dream of doing nothing; it’s about all of us, together…We don’t have a lot of time on this earth; we weren’t meant to spend it this way. Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” Similarly, in a deleted scene aptly entitled “Peter’s Revelation,” Peter says to Michael (while both are standing in the middle of the office), “We don’t have a lot of time. We can’t afford to waste it being miserable.” Then, becoming more animated, Peter implores Michael to look at himself and the other workers around the office and exclaims, “Look what we’ve chosen to be!”
Together, these scenes arguably serve as the philosophical underpinnings of Office Space, and are therefore extremely important. Peter’s philosophy may not be all that developed, but his instinct is certainly one that many of us have probably felt. In using the word “We” instead of “I,” Peter suggests that this is not merely about his own self-interest. It is opposition to the logic of a system; a system in which much of humanity itself suffers disempowerment, alienation, and subjugation to the needs of efficiency and profitability on a daily basis. For Peter, this system is personified, as radicals would say , in Lumbergh (whom Peter at one point says is “an unholy, disgusting pig” who “represents all that is soulless and wrong”) and institutionalized in Initech. But, given time, he might well discover that such “wrongness” extends well beyond one particular supervisor and one particular company. Indeed, he has already connected Joanna’s job with his own, as when he says to Joanna, in the same breath, that, “Inititech is wrong. Initech is an evil corporation. Chotchkie’s is wrong.”
Joanna’s First Encounter With Stan
Before analyzing this scene, we should note how the fact that we also get to see how Joanna experiences her own job is further evidence that Office Space is not simply about one man’s personal anger with work, but about the nature of work itself. (We should also recall that there are many scenes, in which Peter is not even present, where we get to see how various characters respond to the authoritarianism and intimidation of the workplace.) Joanna works as a waitress at a restaurant called “Chotchkie’s.” We learn that it is Chotchkie’s policy that she wears a minimum number of pieces of “flair” (small novelty items, like pins and buttons, which are entertaining or interesting for patrons to look at) on top of her uniform. There is an important scene with Joanna and her boss, Stan, where he is reiterating the importance of flair to her. Joanna seems unsure of the purpose of this conversation as she notes that she is indeed wearing the minimum number of pieces of flair. The viewer, too, might at first interpret this episode as yet another needless hassling of the employee; an opportunity for Joanna’s manager to assert his authority simply for the sake of asserting authority.
But this would be too charitable a reading of the manager’s intent. He not only wants her to wear the “flair”—he wants her to “express herself,” and by this he most certainly means “embrace the flair—and therefore this job—with your mind, body, and soul, and convey this unbridled enthusiasm to each and every customer.” He points to the overly extroverted, flair-adorned server, Brian, as the model employee (who could perhaps be seen as a modernized, bizarre twist on the Soviet “model worker” Stakhonov ). To capture Joanna’s “heart and soul,”—to make her a loyal “piece of equipment” as Fromm would say—that is the real victory. Understood this way, it becomes difficult to forget a classic passage from George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, where a high-ranking government official, O’Brien, is explaining why the State goes through so much trouble to torture its political prisoners before executing them. In describing how the authoritarian State differs from the persecutors of the past, O’Brien explains that, “We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us…We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him…we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.” To love the “Chotchkie’s brand” with Joanna’s heart and soul is the true aim; spiritual conquest, not mere policy compliance.
Peter’s Last Scene With Joanna
Toward the very end of the film, just before he goes to return the stolen money and leave a confession, Peter visits Joanna. What follows is perhaps the closest we get to finding out what, in the mind of its creator, the ultimate moral of Office Space might be—i.e., for viewers who can relate to Peter’s unfulfilling station in life, what is to be done? What advice should we ultimately come away with?
After apologizing to Joanna for some misunderstandings and admitting that he should not have stolen from Initech, Peter says, “Lumbergh is not my problem…I don’t know why I can’t just go to work and be happy, like I’m supposed to, like everybody else.” Joanna responds, “Peter, most people don’t like their jobs. But you go out there and you find something that makes you happy.” Peter agrees, and says, “I may never be happy at my job, but I think that if I could be with you, that I could be happy with my life.”
In other words, his hatred of work is a given, but perhaps his loving relationship with Joanna can offset the misery at his job. This is a touching sentiment, but contains one major flaw: his work is part of his life. In her famous undercover exposé of modern low-wage work, Nickel and Dimed, author Barbara Ehrenreich echoed this point in writing that, “What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re actually selling is your life.” To pretend as though “work” and “life” exist in separate, mutually exclusive spheres—as though he is not living while he is at work—is yet another statement that speaks to the alienating nature of his job. As Karl Marx so famously argued in the mid-1800s, because modern work tends to be so alienating and externally imposed, “The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself.” Should Peter continue to entertain this dubious distinction between “work” and “life,” evidence suggests that he is likely bound for disappointment. One’s job can obviously have substantial “spill-over” effects into one’s private relationships—i.e., one’s “life,” as Peter might say. Indeed, if not for a last second interruption by his wife, Tom Smykowski would have ended his life as a result of losing his job.
Lastly, when Peter says, “I don’t know why I can’t just go to work and be happy, like I’m supposed to, like everybody else,” we should note that this must obviously be what Peter perceives to be “normal” behavior and that, by contrast, he perceives himself to be acting “abnormally.” But if Initech is part of a system which regularly represses essential human needs, as Peter suggests elsewhere, then what, exactly, does it mean to act “abnormally,” given these circumstances? On this point we should recall a passage from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, in which he argued that the people Peter would regard as “normal” are:
…normal not in what may be called the absolute sense of the word; they are normal only in relation to a profoundly abnormal society. Their perfect adjustment to that abnormal society is a measure of their mental sickness. These millions of abnormally normal people, living without a fuss in a society to which, if they were fully human beings, they ought not to be adjusted, still cherish “the illusion of individuality,” but in fact they have been to a great extent deindividualized.
Huxley then directly quotes Erich Fromm, who argued that such uniformity is “incompatible” with both freedom and mental health, and urged, much like Peter does, that “Man in not made to be an automaton, and if he becomes one, the basis for mental health is destroyed.” 
Peter’s Last Scene and “Another Lumbergh”
Peter’s last scene is also very important, especially once the extended version is considered. Some time after the Initech building has burned down and Peter is effectively absolved of all criminal liability, we see him working alongside Lawrence, his next-door neighbor, as a construction worker. Peter appears to be much more content, and even seems to be embracing the job. As he remarks, he is getting exercise and fresh air, both of which never happened at Initech. Michael and Samir stop by the worksite and we find out that both have taken positions at a firm much like Initech. When Michael offers to try to get Peter a job there, Peter quickly turns it down.
So was the issue all along that Peter desired physical rather than mental labor? Was it that he desired to be outdoors rather than indoors? Was it that he wanted to wear jeans and a hardhat rather than a shirt and tie? Were these the true sources of his discontent? While these possibilities seem unlikely given what Peter has said elsewhere, the regular ending does not provide conclusive answers to these questions. However, when the extended version is taken into account, we are given a bit more insight. In the deleted scene entitled “Another Lumbergh,” the foreman of the worksite approaches Peter and Lawrence after they have just finished talking and the camera is zooming out (in fact, the foreman can be seen approaching them in the regular ending). The foreman, speaking in an eerily similar way to Lumbergh, tells them both to “pick up the pace.” A-ha! This would suggest that only the form of Peter’s work has changed, but the essence—i.e., hierarchy, disempowerment, and alienation—all likely still remain (to one degree or another). Peter’s discontents and hostilities, therefore, may indeed eventually resurface—and perhaps in more enlightened, coherent forms—once the newness of the job has worn off and the bland, familiar face of routine is once again staring back at him.
Is Office Space a Radical Film?
Lest the reader think that such characterizations of Office Space as a protest against the authoritarianism of the profit-motivated workplace and the deeply alienating character of routinized work are wildly overblown, or are merely the author’s own biases projected onto the film, consider the review of the film done by noted critic Roger Ebert. Ebert, whom one would have little reason to ever label a “radical,” writes that Office Space is “a comic cry of rage against the nightmare of modern office life…It is about work that crushes the spirit. Office cubicles are cells, supervisors are the wardens, and modern management theory is skewed to employ as many managers and as few workers as possible.” Ebert even detects the significance and instrumentality of escapism, writing that Peter and his comrades “flee the office for coffee breaks (demonstrating that Starbucks doesn’t really sell coffee—it sells escape from the office).” Judging Office Space in the context of the radical political tradition, therefore, is not a contrived, outlandishly political pursuit. In fact, it seems only fair to pay homage to those who, writing decades and even centuries beforehand, were able to give detailed expression to the very sentiments that make Office Space the “smart” film that Roger Ebert and many others consider it to be.
And yet, it would be very difficult to argue that Office Space is an intentionally radical film. Rather, it seems more appropriate to suggest that it raises what are, ultimately, radical—and even potentially revolutionary—questions. The concerns of the film are very real, which is undeniably part and parcel of the film's impressive, sometimes quasi-cultish following. They force us to ask ourselves what we, as individuals, can do to alleviate the harsh realities of a system built on hierarchy and “efficiency” rather than human beings, as well as what we, as individuals, cannot do—i.e., what we must bind together, as kindred spirits, in order to accomplish. So, rather than explicitly setting out to raise such radical questions, it is much more likely that the film simply sought to shine a light on a substantial, often depressing aspect of "real life": our working lives. The upside to this is that the film comes across as inspiringly organic, honest, and free from political motives. It is a genuine and sincere portrayal of what many individuals often feel in their working lives: powerlessness, a compulsion toward—and eventual dependence upon—various forms of escapism, anxiety, the feeling of being without direction and, what's all the more depressing, the lack of motivation to even begin to carve out direction. Peter is less "political agitator" and more “improbable hero." He is primarily concerned with pushing back against what he feels is wrong, even if he has not dedicated a great deal of time toward figuring out what, exactly, is wrong about it, or how to go about correcting its wrongness.
But, as a direct consequence of the film’s lack of political motivation, the downside is that some of the film's sentiments are treated inconsistently. As a result, we are left with many unresolved questions. Is Peter's primary nemesis Initech, all “evil corporations,” all mundane jobs, all "soulless" bosses, all authority, or all capitalist firms? Are all corporations “evil”? What criteria, in Peter’s mind, make a corporation, or any business for that matter, “evil”? Is profit itself “evil,” or at least “wrong,” especially if we believe that profit can really only occur because people likely Peter are regularly exploited? In the end, by escaping Initech (and the software industry itself), is Peter now content? Or, like Steinbeck's famous protagonist from The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad, will Peter one day come to the conclusion that all "wrongness" in society, regardless of whether he is the victim or someone else, must be stopped, so much so that he becomes willing to dedicate the remainder of his life toward putting a stop to it? With Peter's brief speech to Joanna near the end of the film (in which he admits that he doesn't know why he can't just be happy with his job), what lessons should we take away? Does he regret acting against Initech, or only the particular manner in which he acted against Initech? Does he renounce his earlier epiphanies about there being a common bond between him and all workers? And, when he said "all of us, together" did he mean all workers, or all the employees at Initech, or he and his closest comrades at Initech? Now that he has patched things up with Joanna, Initech is gone, and he has a new employer, is he satisfied with his life? Will he always be? Were Peter's epiphanies merely the result of the botched hypnotherapy session; a kind of temporary insanity? Or was it simply because the death of the hypnotherapist taught him that life is precious and that he should be more ambitious? Or, was he "enlightened" by the session, insofar as going under hypnosis allowed him to see the real conditions of his life—and the lives of all working people—more clearly and objectively?
Consider Peter’s revelation while at the bar with Michael. Does the film depict Peter more like that of a prophet; one who has, for a brief moment, been given select access to a universal truth about life in a way that most of us will never experience? Or are we supposed to view him merely a disgruntled employee, waxing philosophical at a bar with his friend? Is his argument a grandiose opinion or a profound insight?
Lastly, does Peter actually want to spend his days “doing nothing” ad infinitum? Or, is it simply that his moments of idleness at home seem to be his only moments of true freedom, so much so that his highest aspiration is the mere endless prolongation of those few-and-far-between moments? If so, then Peter, as George Orwell once noted, is impulsively (and misguidedly) envisioning utopia to mean “the endless continuation of something that had only been valuable precisely because it was temporary.”
Short of direct responses to these questions from Mr. Judge, the writer and director of the film, we can unfortunately only speculate. Perhaps the film intentionally leaves these questions open to interpretation so as not to weigh the film (which, again, is primarily a comedy) down with philosophical arguments. Perhaps the film intended to capture “reactive” sentiments rather than offer “proactive” remedies—i.e., perhaps it intended be an appealing work of criticism rather than a provocative work of solutions (which, as a film, would inherently render it more vulnerable). Or, perhaps Mr. Judge himself never completely “thought through” the characters to the extent that he would be able to definitively answer these questions. Again, we cannot possibly know.
While we may be left with many unresolved questions, Office Space nevertheless leaves us, as this paper hopefully communicated, with much to discuss. It does not matter that we may have never identified the alienation in our lives as such—if we feel it, we are aware that something is wrong. Now, some of us may succeed in remaining largely unaware of it. As Erich Fromm argued, “…the strict routine of bureaucratized, mechanical work…helps people to remain unaware of their most fundamental human desires…Inasmuch as the routine alone does not succeed in this, man overcomes his unconscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; furthermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others.” To take one example, Michael chooses to distract himself from his slow, torturous commute to work by “consuming the sounds” of gangster rap music at loud volumes in his car. The music provides amusement and fantastical distraction; a private moment of feeling rebellious in an otherwise repressive situation. (Our characters in the film are not, however, shown to be addicted to “buying ever new things,” but it takes little reflection on the current state of our society to note that Mr. Fromm—writing over fifty years ago nonetheless—was not altogether off the mark.)
Once aware of this feeling, however, we should strive to consider how best to not only repress it, but to eliminate it. Peter, like any worker, certainly has the “freedom” to leave his particular employer “as often as he chooses,” as Marx and others readily concede. But, as many radicals equally contend, the worker is substantially less free when it comes to leaving the oppressive nature of for-profit work altogether. Similarly, in describing what “economic freedom” means to the liberal, radical intellectuals Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel highlight the limits of mainstream conceptions of freedom in arguing that “…the liberal vision of individual economic freedom to dispose of one's personal capabilities and property however one chooses…[is nevertheless] inconsistent with the radical goal of self-management for everyone.” The purpose of this paper was not to provide a solution to this problem so much as it was to alert fans of Office Space that many political thinkers have spent considerable amounts of time thinking and writing about it. However, in order to hear, and hopefully be a part of, the discussion, one must venture well-outside mainstream American political discourse. In other words, neither the Democratic nor the Republican Party will be speaking to the radicalism contained in Office Space any time soon.
It is hoped that this paper will encourage the reader to at least consider the many arguments for worker ownership, worker self-management, and workplace democracy. Such arguments generally feel that, if alienation is to ever be successfully eliminated, what is necessary (though not necessarily sufficient by itself ) is a true democratization of decision-making authority in the workplace, not, as radical author Harry Braverman warned, “the illusion of making decisions by choosing among fixed and limited alternatives designed by a management which deliberately leaves insignificant matters open to choice.” Thus, when Lumbergh gives the Initech employees the “freedom” to wear Hawaiian shirts on Friday, it must be understood for what it is: a paltry attempt to pacify potential hostilities by giving employees authority only over “insignificant matters.”
Such a democratization of the workplace is also necessary if the “worker versus coordinator” effect is to be eliminated (or at least severely minimized). As described earlier, hierarchical organization of authority can lead to a situation of mutual mistrust: Lumbergh probably thinks Peter is regularly trying to get away with doing nothing, and Peter probably thinks that Lumbergh is purposely trying to regularly give him a hard time. However, in democratically organized firms, this dynamic can be greatly diminished—or even neutralized entirely. Within the massive Mondragón cooperative community in Spain, for example, firms often enable workers to fire managers (!), with the result being an entirely different dynamic. According to one account, “This interdependence of workers and managers tends to create a high degree of trust between the two groups. This trust in turn reduces the need for managers to monitor employees and fosters information exchange, thereby improving productivity.” Asymmetries in power and information are thus negated by a conscious arrangement which most of us value quite dearly: democracy. Imagine if Peter, Michael, and Samir could vote on whether or not Lumbergh was doing his job effectively! Imagine if all Initech employees were regarded as “self-evidently equal,” rather than the workers being obliged, for example, to celebrate the birthdays of the coordinators (as happens with Lumbergh), knowing full well that no such luxury will ever be afforded to them! Imagine if the Initech employees could vote to differentiate job responsibilities instead of being forced to perform the same few monotonous functions day in and day out! Such a situation might indeed make for greater productivity, and would certainly make work far more desirable and empowering for each worker.
But simply fantasizing about such a situation will, of course, not bring it into existence. For that, nothing but good old-fashioned action will do. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” So, at the risk of sounding entirely cliché, let us dare to explore these arguments further  and heed that eternally wise recommendation: Peters of the world, unite!
1. Stephen Rosskamm Shalom, Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics (New York: Longman Publishers, 2003), 29-30.
2. Ben Fine, “Being Radical or Radical Being?” Review of Radical Political Economics, 2012; 44 (1), 105.
3. For example, see Newt Gingrich’s 1994 pamphlet entitled “Language, A Key Mechanism of Control,” in which the word “radical” appears as a term to be used to describe the opponent (in this case the Democrats): Available at http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1276. (Accessed on 6/10/12)
4. Mary Gabriel, “Who Was Karl Marx?” CNN, 10/29/11. Available at http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/29/opinion/gabriel-karl-marx/index.html. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
5. Consider, for example, the bizarre race for a Delaware Senate seat in 2010 between Republican Christine
O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons. Coons took substantial political heat for once merely joking that,
compared with his conservative Republican friends, he was effectively the "bearded Marxist" on his college campus. By using Marx's name as the equivalent of an "extreme," Coons was making a comment on the
conservativeness of his friends to whom, by comparison, it was as though he was a Marxist. But apparently even this is too dangerous to say. As a result, Coons was compelled to assure voters that "I am not now, nor have I ever been a Marxist or an enemy of the people of the United States." That Marxism is evil (and, apparently, hostile toward the United States) is thus a given—the only real debate was whether or not it applied to Mr. Coons. Available at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0910/42534.html. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
6. “Office Space,” The Numbers: Box Office Data, Movie Stars, Idle Speculation. Located at http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/1999/OFFIC.php. (Accessed 06/12/12)
7. “Office Space,” Internet Movie Database (IMDB). Located at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0151804/. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
8. “The Comedy 25: The Funniest Movies of the Past 25 Years,” Entertainment Weekly, 12/31/08. Located at http://www.ew.com/ew/gallery/0,,20221235_20499545,00.html#1109637. (Accessed 06/12/12)
9. See, for example, Phil Gasper’s “Capitalism and Alienation,” where this is briefly addressed. Available at http://www.isreview.org/issues/74/gasper-alienation.shtml. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
10. For a version of this argument see, for example, writer-philosopher Ayn Rand’s critique of Altruism, excerpted at http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/altruism.html. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
11. Mihailo Markovic, “Self-Management and Efficiency,” in Life Without Money, eds. Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 162.
12. Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (New York: Cambridge University Press), 131.
13. Karl Marx, edited by Dirk J. Struik, The Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (New York: International Publishers, 2001) 110-111.
14. Ollman, 137-153.
15. Marx (2001), 111.
16. See, for example, Phil Gasper, “Capitalism and Alienation,” which briefly addresses this type of argument. Available at http://www.isreview.org/issues/74/gasper-alienation.shtml. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
17. See, for example, Chris Harman, Zombie Capitalism: Global Crisis and the Relevance of Marx (Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, 2009), 26.
18. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, (1875). The chapter in which this quote appears is available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
19. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow (MA: South End Press, 1981), 32-33, 38.
20. See, for example, Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 443-444.
21. It should be noted that even in many (if not most) public sector and non-profit fields of employment--such as social work—the job itself can still be disempowering, tedious, and degrading. The logic of profit may not be at work per se, but employees must often still be concerned with "generating revenues" in order to remain employed, which often leads to a rationalization of pay differentials, hierarchies, and finely-tuned divisions of labor. Thus, many of the traits we see in for-profit firms (like Initech) are internalized within non-profit entities, and thus the same alienating features are replicated to a remarkable extent. Again, this isn't even really an area of concern to most liberals. They are concerned, for legitimate humanitarian reasons, that the services these agencies provide are delivered and that the respective populations are adequately served. But, when it comes to the nature of employment within these agencies, liberals generally have little to say.
22. Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 79.
23. Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (New York: Fawcett World Library, 1955), 162.
24. Quoted in Charles Sackrey, Geoffrey Schneider, and Janet Knoedler, Introduction to Political Economy (MA: Economic Affairs Bureau, 2010), 31.
25. Ibid, emphasis added.
26. Fromm (1955), 163, italics in original.
27. Ibid, 163.
28. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: Penguin Books, 2002), 227. Also available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
30. Ibid, 227-228.
31. Ibid, 228.
33. See, for example, Marx’s discussion of this in the first section of his Critique of Gotha Programme. Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm. (Accessed 06/12/12)
34. Albert et. al., 33.
35. Charles Sackrey, Geoffrey Schneider, and Janet Knoedler, Introduction to Political Economy (MA: Economic Affairs Bureau, 2010), 63-64.
36. See, for example, Michael Albert’s discussion of this effect as it appears when only “outcomes” are rewarded (as is often the case under capitalism). If we were to reward the runners of a race only based on outcome, he explains, “no one has any incentive to go much faster than the person they are barely beating, assuming they cannot beat the person finishing ahead of them,” in Michael Albert, Parecon: Life After Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2004), 232.
37. See, for example, Karl Marx, Capital: Volume I, (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 989-990.
38. See, for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 158.
39. George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1950) 255, emphasis added.
40. Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2001) 187, italics in original.
41. Marx (2001), 110.
42. See, for example, “The Effects of Job Characteristics on Marital Quality: Specifying Linking Mechanisms,” by Hughes, Galinsky, and Morris, in Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1992; 54 (1), and “Spillover Between Marital Quality and Job Satisfaction: Long-Term Patterns and Gender Differences” by Stacy J. Rogers and Dee C. May, in Journal of Marriage and Family, 2003; 65. The latter study notes of work and marriage that “Experiences in one role that leave the individual feeling frustrated, depressed, or ineffective may lead to negative spillover into the other role, contributing to withdrawal or hostility in interaction, dissatisfaction with the role, or lowered role performance,” (482).
43. Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2008) 20.
44. Quoted in Huxley, 20.
45. It is difficult to say why this extended scene was not kept in the film, but one might speculate that it would be somewhat depressing, for the viewer, if Peter were to effectively end up no better off than where he started—i.e., that the conditions of hierarchy and workplace authoritarianism are far more pervasive than he originally thought. Of course, the fact that it might be more depressing would not make such a revelation any less true.
46. Roger Ebert, “Office Space,” RogerEbert.com, 02/19/1999. Located at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19990219/REVIEWS/902190304/1023. (Accessed 06/12/12)
48. George Orwell, “Can Socialists Be Happy?” Available at http://www.online-literature.com/orwell/895/. (Accessed on 06/10/2012)
49. Fromm (2006), 80.
50. See, for example, Marx’s “Wage Labour and Capital,” where he writes, “the worker, whose only source of income is the sale of his [ability to work], cannot leave the whole class of buyers, i.e., the capitalist class, unless he gives up his own existence. He does not belong to this or that capitalist, but to the capitalist class…” Located at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/wage-labour/ch02.htm. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
51. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, “Socialism As It Was Always Meant to Be,” ZNet, 11/18/08. Available at http://www.zcommunications.org/socialism-as-it-was-always-meant-to-be-by-michael-albert. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
52. The degree to which instituting workplace democracy can, by itself, resolve the core defects of capitalism is the source of considerable debate among radicals themselves. For overviews of this debate and various perspectives on it, see, for example, Against the Market by David McNally, Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, edited by Bertell Ollman;, Remaking Scarcity (specifically Chapters 8 and 9) by Costas Panayotakis; and, “Against the Market Economy: Advice to Venezuelan Friends” by Robin Hahnel, available at http://monthlyreview.org/2008/01/01/against-the-market-economy-advice-to-venezuelan-friends. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
53. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998), 27.
54. Sackrey et. al., 248.
55. Quote available at http://www.peopleshistory.us/about. (Accessed on 06/12/12)
56. In addition to the various sources cited in this paper, the following texts might prove useful for readers somewhat new to radical arguments: Phil Gasper’s concise article “Another World is Possible,” available at http://www.isreview.org/issues/75/gasper-awip.shtml; Gar Alperovitz, “America Beyond Capitalism,” available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2011/1111alperovitz.html; Michael A. Lebowitz’s Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century; Michael Albert’s Parecon: Life After Capitalism; Richard D. Wolff’s Democracy at Work (forthcoming); Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man; Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution; and, Robert Heilbroner’s Marxism: For and Against.