The Gaudy and Damned

Dilbert and me

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Back in the days when I toiled for a media conglomerate, I would find in my mailbox once a month a slim magazine called Vitality. Festooned with time-saving tips and austere food intake regimens, Vitality was a lightning-rod for scorn among the staff. I often wondered what charlatanry had convinced the company to mass-mail it in the first place. More shrill and simplistic than state-issued propaganda, its main rallying point seemed to be fat; i.e., on one’s person, in one’s finances, at one’s workplace, fat was a scourge that needed ever-vigilant trimming. If turn-of-the-century wealth implied corpulent, mutton-chopped Captains of Industry, today’s slicked-down Stairmastering stock-optioneers, as well as the companies they populate, are models of slimness: “lean and mean” or “lean production”; “rightsizing” or “trimming workstaff.” Out there in the all-you-can-eat fields of the Republic, girth may still hold sway, as we consume the full output of our production, but Vitality and a whole industry ring dissonant in the background, telling us it should not be so.

The sense of paranoia about ourselves that Vitality taught—our squandering of time, our poor eating habits, our drag on the organization, reflected our sense of paranoia out in society at large. “Job security must come from within,” advises a recent management tract, one of many that posits a nation of self-employed people working for corporations; “only the paranoid survive,” another corporate study put it. This all came back to me recently as I read Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work, a workplace variant of the original bestseller that is filled with inspirational stories about everyday people doing good things. The authors of Chicken Soup assert that there’s a “tremendous malaise in the workplace today” and that with “all the downsizing, the work going off-shore . . . people need to feel inspired”—thus the Norman Vincent Peale homilies that comprise the book. One story, titled “Santa Comes to Joan,” caught my eye: “Every office has a Joan, or should have. She’s the one everyone looks to when the workload gets too heavy. She’s the one with the good story and the ready laugh. For our Christmas party, she’s the one who transforms our sterile corporate conference room, Christmas after Christmas, with tiny white lights, real teacups, teapots, and plates she had brought from home.”

There was a “Joan” at my media conglomerate employer, and one day during the company’s year of near 20 percent profits, I came to work to find she was being let go, the result of some silent machinations from above (wherever that was). And even as the company “aggressively expanded its position” by purchasing other media entities, we would occasionally feel the brush of distant rumor telling us that our days, too, were numbered. So what was the talk around the water cooler? Plans to organize? Formal protests over the company’s shoddy personnel practices? No, no, no.

We talked about Dilbert. Hardly a day passed in which we made no reference to that great subverter of corporate hierarchy, in which I didn’t see Dilbert’s winsome visage flickering on a neighboring screen saver or peering out from a mug in the employee kitchen. In the face of real threats from a ruthless and all-too-knowing management, we turned to a fantasy office world in which managers were obvious incompetents, in which new motivational schemes were self-evidently ridiculous, and in which anonymous cubicled office drones held the real power. Even downsizing seemed innocuous in Dilbert, a practical joke that was always happening to someone else.

Symbolic acts of everyday resistance, it turns out, are healthy.

What seems remarkable about all this now is the curious relationship between Dilbert and all the absurd management fads and mission statements that it mocks. Its refusal to do anything more than gripe helped more to naturalize the managerial culture than to subvert it. As corporate America tears up the social contract, it should come as no surprise that Dilbert books have become a popular gift from managers to employees, or that executives have begun to ask the comic’s author to lecture at their conferences, or that Dilbert books have become a “business bestseller” (an entirely new category indicative of the proliferation of corporate culture commodities), or even that Hallmark should issue Dilbert mugs for “Boss Day” (the holiday invented by a Kansas woman in 1954 who says she wanted to honor her father). Symbolic acts of everyday resistance, it turns out, are healthy. They are exactly what the boss wants to see on your cubicle wall.

Like Vitality, Dilbert helps to humanize and insulate us from what is actually happening in corporate America. The two fill the same cultural need as the TV commercials that show family farmers using geosynchronous technology to plow their tracts, even though the ad’s sponsor is an agribusiness concern that has made family farmers virtually extinct. Or as all the writing about homespun investment groups like the “Beardstown Ladies,” whose folksy tips and “recipes” make believable the ridiculous conceit that information-age speculating is as familiar and safe as stowing bags of money under the bed, and that the global market, which uproots whole cultures and seeks to render locality obsolete, is somehow A-OK with the small-town values and personalities they symbolize.

Meanwhile, sales of less savvy and less cynical corporate ideo-products are suffering from a devastating backlash. The New Republic reports that the Conference Board, the folks that bring you the Consumer Confidence Index and other accouterments of the Kinko’s economy, has announced a scalding assessment of the motivational industry. As it turns out, posters of mountain-climbers and rowing crews don’t spur the unmotivated, and the already motivated don’t need them. Even Successories, the nation’s leading purveyor of corporate incentiana, has been forced to sack its management team and replace workers after a few quarters of lackluster performance.

Other dealers in positive thinking and management chicanery have been able to stay ahead of the curve. Hallmark Cards, for example, a leader in the “social expressions” category, has already supplemented its “business expressions” line with one called “Out of the Blue,” a series of small, inexpensive cards bearing some quickly digestible fragment of workplace uplift. A Hallmark spokesperson informed me that the line was part of a nationwide trend toward what Harper’s Bazaar reported as a “nicening of the workplace.” The “Out of the Blue” cards, I was told, were designed to fit in employee mailboxes, or to be left discreetly on desks, somehow providing salve to the increasing tension over layoffs, outsourcing, mergers, and the rest.

Even more noxious is the “corporate soul” movement, which argues that downsizing organizations need to inject “values” into the company or bring “healing” into the workplace in forms ranging from mass bouts of therapy to flowers left on desks (as if downsizing were some affair of the heart gone awry). It was, of course, only a matter of time before the hucksters of wellness, those ubiquitous checkout-counter gurus like Deepak Chopra and James (Celestine Prophecy) Renfield, began tailoring their soulcraft to fit the hulking frame of corporate culture. Renfield now explains how spirituality and capitalism are compatible, observing recently that “the greatest fulfillment comes when we make the world a better place, and this connects with our deepest traditional need in capitalism—find a need and fill it.” Given the increasing taste for euphemism, I suspect it may only be a short while until Fortune 500 companies follow the lead of the New Agey firms replacing their CEOs with “Keepers of Dreams and Beliefs.”

The spirituality kick reaches an illogical extreme in Jesus CEO, a book that finds Christ’s teachings applicable to today’s business world. “Jesus knew his mission statement,” the author observes, “and he did not deviate from it.” Or, taking a metaphor from the ever-relevant world of sports (a longtime corporate-inspirational favorite), “As quarterback, Jesus knew his game plan could not be to take truth up the middle.” The book essentially updates Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, which argued Jesus was, before anything else, a salesman. Barton’s book appeared in 1925, at the tail end of several decades’ effort to bring That Old Time Religion into line with the new mass consumer economy, a process that spun off such marvels as Mind Cure and spirituality-tinged bestsellers like 1907’s The Efficient Life.

“It’s like a religion,” one office worker told The New Republic about Successories. And the comparison is entirely apt: Just as Protestant ideas of salvation in the next world were once retooled into visions of abundance in this world, so is the new impetus toward spirituality in the workplace and Scripture-like motivational tales offering assurance to those caught amid the convulsive shifts of the reengineering corporation, the corrosion of loyalty and security, and the terrifying ruptures of the globalizing economy. Religion, too, drifts toward market logic, in everything from mainstream megachurches to the most outlandish cults. Note in particular the heavily entrepreneurial Heaven’s Gate, not a bunch of sandal-sporting mystics but a well-run, forward-looking organization (willing to demonstrate “teamwork” and confront “risk”) flourishing in a sci-tech haven by the sea. Indeed, in the weeks after the group’s “departure,” I stumbled across this suggestive passage in God Wants You to Be Rich, a book about the “theology of economics” by libertarian economist Paul Zane Pilzer: “To survive today, the corporation must look frequently at every task as if it were about to embark on a journey to a new kind of planet on a new kind of spaceship.”

In South Korea, in Russia, and in Europe (where, a Smith Barney analyst observed, “there have been decades of coddling the job holders”), the big changes of recent years have bred massive protests in the street by those whose lives are scheduled to be destroyed. Here we line the barricades with greeting cards and Fortune 500 faith-healers.

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