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.