The Trouble With Dilbert

Nobody can doubt that [it[Dilbert is a smash hit -- a genuine national phenomenon -- a beloved icon for millions of downtrodden office workers. In a typical testimonial, Inc. magazine declared that Dilbert "has given voice to people all over America who have just about had it with management fads and corporate jargon."Meanwhile, People magazine proclaimed: "While Corporate America chants its mantra of downsizing, Dilbert, cartoonist Scott Adams' tuber-shaped alter ego, appears to be subversively upsizing. His puzzled visage appears on office walls from coast to coast, pinned there by disgruntled employees who have made Dilbert their '90s-style symbol of passive resistance."It turns out that the man behind the cartoon has little solidarity for the multitudes of Dilbert fans. His support for those who toil in corporate cubicles is more superficial than real. Dilbert's creator doesn't object to downsizing. In fact, he's in favor of firing a lot of employees to boost profits.In 1996, a Newsweek cover story on Dilbert included this cryptic sentence: "Surprisingly, Scott Adams himself thinks that downsizing does make the workplace more efficient -- fewer workers means less time to waste on idiotic pursuits like vision statements, meetings and reorganizations."I asked Adams for clarification."I'm not sure how to make that clearer," he replied. "When there are lots of people, they tend to spend all their time doing things that interfere with other people, e.g., setting standards, creating processes, writing vision statements, reorganizing."He added: "In contrast, small companies don't even consider such things because they don't have the luxury to do anything but important things. I personally experienced a huge decrease in bureaucracy at Pacific Bell that seemed mostly related to the downsizing. It's obviously not an absolute statement, but it's certainly true for many of the white-collar groups in previously bloated companies."That's it -- the complete and unedited explanation from Scott Adams, hero of long-suffering office workers. Now we know. Pink slips are good because they allow people who don't get them to experience a "huge decrease in bureaucracy."Dilbert is an attack on middle management. Adams avoids taking aim at the highest rungs of corporate ladders -- where CEOs and owners carry on... unseen and unscathed.[EXCERPT TWO]To speak bluntly about power inequities -- and to work with others to challenge them -- could be truly threatening to corporate poohbahs. In contrast, sarcasm is fine. Dilbert does not suggest that we do much other than roll our eyes, find a suitably acid quip, and continue to smolder while avoiding deeper questions about corporate power in our society.Huge fortunes keep being made on the fairly safe bet that we will remain anesthetized. Dilbert adjusts -- and fortifies -- the terms of the numbing, to take into account the undeniable alienation that besets so many workplaces.Dilbert's mockery of office workers, couched in pretenses of universality, insists that stupidity and selfishness are central to who we are -- and must be. So, readers are encouraged to believe, there's little need to explore how we ought to be relating to each other in more ideal circumstances that can never really exist.Dilbert cartoons calcify the essence of the repressive workplace. Dilbert books expound on how that workplace could become a lot more efficient and maybe a bit less distasteful. Humane values aren't on the agenda. Why would we expect they might be?"Historically," Ralph Nader has pointed out, "you control people by lowering their expectations." This is true in the workplace and other spheres of life. The diminishing of what we could or should expect -- from ourselves, and each other, and institutions -- normalizes what we find unpleasant or worse. For corporate elites, that diminishment is a pleasure to behold. In Nader's words: "If our expectations are low, they have control."[EXCERPT THREE]by Bob HarrisThings You'll Always See In Dilbert:* Stupid bosses* Stupid management practices and buzzwords* Stupid co-workers* Stupid people in other departments* Stupid temps, interns and consultants* Stupid technological innovationsReal Problems Which -- To Its Credit -- Dilbert Acknowledges:* Outsourcing of labor to temporary help* Staff restructuring as a result of downsizing and corporate takeovers* Expanded workdays* Minimizing of employees' physical spaceMajor Issues That Dilbert Rarely or Never Addresses, Although It Certainly Could:* Export of jobs to cheap labor markets* Outsourcing to prison labor* Outsourcing to workfare labor* Workplace racism* Union-busing* Corporate Welfare* Repetitive stress injuries, exposure to chemicals and other work-related hazards* Urine testing, polygraph examinations and other invasive corporate security measures* Sexual harassment* The glass ceiling for women* Planned obsolescence* The export to Third World markets of products too hazardous to sell in the United States* Cost-benefit analysis defining a finite number of workplace injuries or deaths as acceptable* Pension fund fraud* Tax abatements and subsidies for unnecessary projects* Golden parachutes for CEOs, early retirement for employees* Hiring of lobbyists and "soft money" donations to bribe politicians into passing favorable legislation* "Deregulation"-driven elimination of safety codes, health laws and barriers to monopoly* The Federal Reserve's manipulation of interest rates and the money supply to maintain a fixed percentage of unemployed and underemployed people, thereby ensuring workplace insecurityTwo Other Things You Don't See Much of In Dilbert:* CEOs, shareholders, board members and the other owners of capital who actually have power* Blue-collar workers who actually make the stuff that Dilbert designs -- people who, incidentally, face many of the same problems he does, and with far less ability to do anything about it -- Bob Harris, satirist and author of "The Scoop," a column published in alternative newsweeklies

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