Albion Monitor /News

Dilbert is Bosses' Stooge, Says Author

by Abid Aslam

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- "Dilbert," the mouthless, potato- shaped office worker, has risen through the ranks of global cartoon characters to become the hero of disgruntled white-collar employees.

He pokes fun at incompetent managers and other "idiots" of the corporate world in the daily newspapers of 51 countries. But office workers of the world beware: this hero has been labelled a fraud!

"The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh" (Common Courage Press, $9.95), a book by media critic Norman Solomon, sets out to expose cartoonist Scott Adams's creation as a corporate double-agent working to undermine white-collar workers even as he appears to feel their pain.

"Labor unions haven't adopted Dilbert characters as insignia. But corporations in droves have rushed to link themselves with Dilbert, Why?"
The cartoon strip rails against stupid bosses, longer workdays spent in smaller office cubicles, and outsourcing of labor to temporary help, and thus taps a seam of frustration that runs deep among the office workforce.

As the dust cover to a recent "Dilbert" book boasted: "Millions of office dwellers tack Scott Adams' comic strip to their walls when murdering the boss is not an acceptable option."

The trouble is that "other options, such as union organizing or public protest, go unmentioned," Solomon argues. "In a time of rampant downsizing -- with notable speed-up, longer hours and increased strain for employees who remain on the job -- 'Dilbert' is marvelous for letting off steam from workplace pressure cookers. There's anger to burn, and not all of it can be stuffed, imploded or displaced. 'Dilbert' to the rescue."

Not the workers' rescue, alas, but management's, according to Solomon.

Earlier this year, cultural critic Tom Vanderbilt wrote in The Baffler magazine about his experience working for an unnamed media conglomerate during a year when it posted profits of nearly 20 percent. In that time, a well-liked and generous colleague was laid off amid rampant rumors that the downsizing axe soon would fall on the rest of the staff.

Vanderbilt recalled: "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'," Vanderbilt continued. "In the face of real threats from an all-too-knowing management, we turned to a fantasy office world in which management were obvious incompetents...Even downsizing seemed innocuous in 'Dilbert,' a practical joke that was always happening to someone else."

Thus, the Dilbert character is an agent of a "corporate America (that) is not selling us the rope to hang it with, (but) the illusions to exculpate it with," Solomon contends. "Labor unions haven't adopted Dilbert characters as insignia. But corporations in droves have rushed to link themselves with Dilbert, Why?

"Dilbert mirrors the mass media's crocodile tears for working people -- and echoes the ambient noises from Wall Street."

Xerox and other companies have enlisted "Dilbert" to help introduce new management techniques and office reorganizations (exactly the sort of stuff the cartoon mocks) -- and to prepare workers to be laid off
For all its recent fickleness, the stock market long has spoken loud and clear on the importance of workers; companies' stocks rise as their wage bills fall. A sure way to boost stock prices is to increase short-term profits by cutting labor costs, either by laying off workers, or by reducing their wages.

The trend of short-term profit-taking has been boosted by Wall Street, as careful readers of Solomon's sometimes awkward book will infer.

During the past 15 years, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) increasingly have been paid on the basis of their companies' stock performance. This means that CEOs looking to please shareholders and thus garner heftier bonuses have an easy option: cut the workforce and, if necessary, transfer some operations to sub-contractors.

Small wonder, then, that many CEOs are "Dilbert" devotees. "'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," Solomon writes.

Two out of every three laid-off U.S. workers end up in lower-paying jobs. Unemployment may be down, Solomon argues, "but frustration is up...and pent-up rage could go in any number of directions. From the vantage point of executive suites, the 'Dilbert' direction looks pretty darn good."

So much so, that Xerox and other companies have enlisted "Dilbert" to help introduce new management techniques and office reorganizations (exactly the sort of stuff the cartoon mocks) -- and to prepare workers to be laid off.

Solomon says, "Top-echelon corporate managers have good reason to smile on a popular cartoon that hammers away at some of their favorite messages aimed at workers: Inefficiency is really idiotic. Don't you yearn for efficiency? Isn't the lack of it the root of our problems here?"

Anyone seen as standing in the way of efficiency -- including older employees -- routinely is dismissed in the cartoon strip as an "idiot."

And what of Adams himself? Because he appears to console disenfranchised workers, many see Adams as a social critic. But the cartoonist admitted to reporters earlier this year, "Actually, my only intention is for people to transfer their money to me."

Far from opposing downsizing, Adams fervently backs corporate lay-offs, perhaps because he sat comfortably and watched as his co-workers were sent to the unemployment line. In an interview with Solomon, Adams said that he enjoyed "a huge decrease in bureaucracy" after a number of his colleagues were laid off by the Pacific Bell telecommunications company where he used to work.

What's more, Adams has endorsed products such as Intel Corp.'s video-phone technology, even as their makers have set about further cutting the workforce.

"Like Michael Jordan endorsing Nike footwear and insisting that the workers making the shoes in sweatshops overseas are irrelevant to him, Scott Adams hasn't hesitated to align himself with immense corporations if they're willing to move large sums of money in his direction," Solomon contends.

Despite some tiresome self-repetition, Solomon builds a strong case: Adams contributes to a "culture of eye-rolling capitulation," he says, and to argue that "Dilbert" is just a cartoon strip is to deny that modern mass culture is tied to modern reality and has an impact on mass society.

However, Adams, who reportedly attacked Solomon's book even before it came off the press, presumably regards the work as inefficient and its author as, well, an idiot.

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Albion Monitor November 16, 1997 (

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