Scott Adams’s Dilbert as an Opiate: the Executive’s Marxist Tool for Compliance

Cartoons can be entertaining, but they can also make you a better employee—at least that is what the managers at Xerox hope. According to Norman Solomon, media analyst and author of The Trouble with Dilbert, Xerox executives implemented Scott Adams’s Dilbert cartoons in the company’s pep-talk pamphlets. They anticipated that this satirical strip, known for its office humor, would empower employees and increase growth and production within the company. For some Xerox workers, however, Dilbert acted instead as a steam valve, releasing the stresses and feelings of oppression that accompany work. Although some fans admire Scott Adams’s cartoon because they see it as a reprieve from the maddening office atmosphere, Dilbert might also function in reality as an opiate among the business and technology labor forces, pacifying workers into compliance with their authoritarian management. This opiate effect is accomplished through Dilbert’s persona as the Everyman, which enables readers to identify with him, engaging in the satirical conversation, but eventually returning to work—content with accepting the unappealing facets of office culture as natural and ultimately unchangeable.

Before exploring how Dilbert functions as an opiate among the office masses, it is necessary to understand how the individual reader approaches the cartoon. White-collar workers are not blind consumers of popular culture; they are seekers of entertainment and stress relief, and to them, Dilbert offers just that. For example, Ryan Dube, a blog writer, sees the cartoon as almost a meditative vessel. It is an instrument to release his frustrations. He writes in his blog:

I am not ashamed to admit I’m an avid Dilbert cartoon fan. Whenever I get off the phone, frustrated with HR’s lack of cooperation regarding the company sponsored insurance plan, or every time I walk out of an especially meaningless and pointless meeting, I pop open a few Dilbert comics on my browser or mobile phone, and I feel much better. (6 Great Websites For Dilbert Comic Strip Fans)

Dilbert has been such a large influence on workers like Dube that the cartoon has influenced new work lingo. Adams invented words for some of his strips, like induhvidual and cow-worker. Satirical idioms like these have been adopted into the office environment (Kraus). Workers feel that using language like this is their way to make subversive jabs at the bureaucratic structures. To these employees, calling an incompetent coworker a cow-worker seems to help them blow off steam. However, language like this is not always the vehicle for stress-relieving rebellion; in some cases it might encourage compliance-inducing subjugation. In reality, some workers might be deceived into thinking that reading the entertaining strips and using Dilbert-inspired language offers a steam valve of relief from the pressures of the office, but the relief is illusory.

In addition to being entertaining and increasing one’s rebellious vocabulary, Dilbert cartoons entice fans with its distilled aesthetics, establishing the character Dilbert as an Everyman—someone everyone can relate to. Office workers like Dube resonate with Dilbert not just because the character works in an office in Silicon Valley, much like offices around the world, but also because of the way he is drawn. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud illustrates the concept of distilling cartoon figures in order to enhance reader identification. The simplified face of Dilbert—no hair color, glasses for eyes, basic facial features—suggests that Dilbert could be anyone. According to McCloud, “The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel into another realm” (36). This reader identification is another aspect that enables fans to function unknowingly under the opiate of the cartoon. When incompetence or stupidity arises in their workday, readers open a Dilbert comic and immerse themselves in a world where they are Dilbert, and they get to play out their own office realities. Because they are content to work through their problems through their adopted Dilbert persona, workers fail to ever make any significant changes to improve their actual office life. Their frustrations are channeled through their identification with the Dilbert character, and they are satisfied with the perspective that Dilbert offers: that idiocy is natural in the office, and it will always be there, no matter what.

Before addressing the evidence, the term opiate needs to be defined. In his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx writes that religion is “the opium of the masses” (www.marxists.org). Marx argues that religion provides an illusory happiness. If the masses believe their lives will improve after death, then they will be more compliant to oppression in this life. The opiate, in this case, is the tool that the dominant class uses to manage the lower class and keep them in a false consciousness of imagined happiness. The same principle is active among office works who read Dilbert comics. Dilbert, according to this frame, can act as an opiate, enabling the dominant class (the executives and managers) to pacify the lower class (the office workers). Pacifying office workers prevents them from inciting rebellion against the executives. Executives, like the ones at Xerox, hope that whatever cynicism workers have from undesirable office atmospheres will be deflected with a simple Dilbert cartoon.

This deflection of cynicism is what cartoonist Tom Tomorrow critiques most about Dilbert. In his own cartoon, Tomorrow depicts Dilbert and Dogbert engaged in a usual Dilbert conversation, discussing some frustrating thing the boss did. Tomorrow’s character enters the panel and comments on the manipulative nature of Adams’s cartoon:

Something’s not quite right here, guys. You poke constant fun at stupid corporate behavior—but never examine the underlying reasons for that behavior. You have become the champions of millions of insecure and beleaguered office workers—and yet Scott Adams told Newsweek he supports corporate downsizing! I’m beginning to think you’re providing a valuable service for all those idiotic bosses you parody—by giving their employees a safety valve that’s just edgy enough to ring true, without inspiring anyone to actually question the fundamental assumptions of corporate America…and which, of course, fits nicely on a plethora of spin-off merchandise! (This Modern World)

After Tomorrow’s character finishes his monologue, Dilbert and Dogbert ignore his observant remarks and resume their inconsequential conversation—imitating how real-life Dilbert fans ignore the truth behind their favorite cartoon. Tomorrow’s comic makes some serious accusations, which are seconded by Solomon. To Solomon, Dilbert is nothing more than a vaccine against truth. He writes, “A mild strain of irreverence—touted as full-blown rebellion—inoculates against the authentic malady of anti-corporate fever.” Perhaps the vaccine-like quality of Dilbert is what attracted the executives at Xerox. By making Dilbert accessible to every employee, they decreased the threat against management that the cartoon might create. Ultimately, Dilbert plays into the hands of the management because it parodies corporate life and invites empathy for the office workers, acting as a tool to satiate their employees.

Even with the evidence that points to Dilbert’s ability to calm the office masses, the question must be asked: Is it unethical for executives to employ the cartoon as a way to enforce control? In a purely Marxist view, the answer would be yes. Marxists would argue that lower classes should ascend from their false consciousness and gain a true consciousness. However, perhaps the answer is not so black and white. Is Xerox’s use of Dilbert cartoons in their company’s pep-talk pamphlets unethical—or efficient? Perhaps this is something the Dilbert cartoon should explore.

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 Works Cited

Kraus, Michael. “Dogbert’s New Ruling Class.” Dogbert’s New Ruling Class. Homebuilt. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994. Print.

Solomon, Norman. The Trouble with Dilbert. Wayback Machine. Internet Archive. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.

Tomorrow, Tom. “This Modern World.” Wayback Machine. Internet Archive. Web. 8 Feb. 2017.