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Office Space’s Neoliberal Workplace Has Only Gotten Worse

Twenty years on, we look back at Mike Judge’s Office Space, and what it told us about the terrible neoliberal workplaces we suffer through.

Office workers, 2014. Trollbackco / Wikimedia

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of Mike Judge’s Office Space. The film tanked its opening, grossing less than $10 million in theaters, but its later release on DVD allowed the film to steadily become a cult classic. Its resonance lay not just in the mass relatability of its depiction of 9–5 office life, but in the dark, biting humor that steadily picked apart the indignities of neoliberal work culture and management that were beginning to take hold.

In Office Space, characters are continually admonished for not adhering to office procedures by adding the wrong cover sheets to reports and receive several copies of the same memo from their numerous supervisors. All the while this top-down intensification of authority and “anti-production” bureaucracy is taking place, we see the emergence of attempts to placate workers. Workers attend office pep rallies, are reminded that Fridays are “Hawaiian shirt Fridays,” and gather round a cake to dolefully sing Happy Birthday to a boss they all despise.

The late theorist Mark Fisher believed that no film “better captures the bureaucratic immiseration of late capitalist managerialism labour.” But in the two decades since its release, as we face multiple crises of work is it the case that Office Space “feels like science fiction from a distant realm”? Can we still laugh at the skewering of the corporate 9–5 lifestyle when even the notion of a secure office job seems distant for so many workers?

Set before the turn of the millennium, the film follows young software engineer Peter (Ron Livingston) and his coworkers at the firm Initech. They make technology for banks to deal with the impending threat of the Y2K bug, while crammed into identikit grey cubicles, openly despising their jobs and suffering from the general malaise identified by one worker as “a case of the Mondays.” However, after a visit to a hypnotherapist, Peter reaches a moment of clarity: his way out of this immiseration is to simply not care. From then on he regularly starts showing up late or not at all, dresses down in t-shirts and sandals, openly plays Tetris at his desk and dismantles his cubicle with a power drill. Peter’s rebellion draws in his coworkers and in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, they take baseball bats to a stolen office printer, as ”Still” by the Geto Boys plays in the background.

Though bubbling resentment towards work that occasionally boils over in these acts of farcical violence is present throughout, the characters’ resistance to work is largely individualized and has minimal horizons beyond the workplace itself. The film’s central message is considerably less radical than the moments of satire that punctuate it, and can be summed up by Peter’s girlfriend Joanna’s remark near the film’s conclusion that “most people don’t like their jobs. But you go out there and you find something that makes you happy.” This argument chimes with ideas like work-life balance that were coming to prominence at the time of Office Space’s release and are largely in line with neoliberal ideology: an ideology that teaches us that everything is in our hands and that we are free to make what we want out of our lives. If you are struggling, like Peter, then it must be that you try and recalibrate your own choices, to strive for a happier, more balanced outcome.

This stands in stark contrast to the trade-off facing Cassius Green, the telemarketing-agency worker at the center of Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You who is continually faced with a choice between moral bankruptcy and financial hardship. Ultimately, however, he realizes that the only way to escape these two oppressive poles is to take collective action with his comrades on the call-center floor. Separated by nineteen years, the two films are as much a by-product of their directors’ worldviews (Judge has often refused to discuss his political leanings, while Riley is a lifelong avowed communist) as the economic and political junctures during which they were created.

By the end of 1999, the portion of the population in work was the highest it had ever been, real median household income had reached its its highest level on record, and the annual number of major work stoppages were at an all-time low. White-collar workers like Peter seemingly had no need to agitate or organize for better material conditions at work; the tight labor market, overvaluation of tech start-ups, and booming stock market would see to that. The onus was simply on them to invest enough meaning in their work to get through the day. This was the height of the Clinton era, three years after the signing of the Welfare Reform Act, as the notions of responsibility and work were being well and truly woven into the fabric of society.

It was at this point that the ethical lines between workers and shirkers were most clearly being drawn, as social policies emphasizing the value and virtue of work began to take hold. At the mere mention of redundancies one of Peter’s coworkers announces: “I’m going to be the first one they’re gonna lay off. Just the thought of having to go to the State Unemployment Office and having to stand in line with those scumbags!” The economic rationalization of work would extend outwards and fuel the “culture of poverty” tropes as part of the efforts in the years to follow to discredit nonworkers and reframe unemployment as a personal and moral failure.

As a result of these colonizing forces of work, the workplace has now acquired a therapeutic function. If, as Will Davies has previously written on the political economy of unhappiness, “people can somehow be persuaded to remain in work despite mental illness, then their self-esteem will be prevented from falling too low, and their bio-psycho-economic potential might be rescued.” When Peter admits that the reason for his lack of motivation is that he simply just doesn’t care, the considered response he is given is whether a stock option would change that for him. Were he to be brave enough to utter this in a workplace in 2019 it’s far more likely he would be recommended a course of mindfulness or encouraged to practice deep breathing while at his desk.

The mental distress facing workers today goes far beyond that experienced by those at Initech. In the UK the number of sick days lost to stress and anxiety increased by over 3 million last year, with a quarter of all absences being the result of overwork. We have an awful lot less to laugh about when it comes to the modern world of work, but despite this there is a lot more to hope for. People are collectively striking back against the notion of work as our sole source of meaning, militantly organizing across sectors for better material conditions and arguing for a politics of time where savings in working time are shared out according to principles of social justice rather than economic rationality. But to return to Fisher, he warned that paradoxically the most dangerous time of any depression is when it begins to lift: “the occasional lurching anxieties, a sense of how precarious it all seems (don’t drag me back into nothing) — and yet not only is it maintaining itself, it’s proliferating … the reality programme resetting itself.”

Office Space has shown us that we can smash up the office printer but we’ll still have to show up to our miserable workplace again on Monday; we need to collectively organize and agitate to reset the system entirely.