Neoliberalism and The Office
The American sitcom The Office follows the daily lives of employees working at the Scranton, PA branch of fictional paper supplier Dunder Mifflin. The show focuses mostly on the personal lives of the characters and the ways they overcome the everyday tediousness of the office setting. However, when the focus of the show is placed on the business decisions and culture of Dunder Mifflin, a story of a small business floundering in a neoliberal economy is revealed. Neoliberalism, the dominant economic ideology of the past thirty years, has two key features that affect both the business of Dunder Mifflin and the lives of its employees. First, neoliberalism is characterized by the intense monopolization of economic markets (Harvey 67). Nearly every industry, including the paper supply industry, is dominated by a small number of large corporations. As a result, small companies, who have great difficulty staying competitive, are forced to cut costs in order to compete. In the case of Dunder Mifflin, this takes the form of a corporate policy of hostility to raise requests, cuts to wages and benefits, and antagonism to unions, as a unionized workforce would no doubt make demands that would impose future costs upon the company. The second key feature of neoliberalism apparent in The Office is the larger project to restore capitalist class power over the middle and working class. Sociologist David Harvey identifies this as a key feature of the neoliberal economy in his work, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, when he describes neolibralism as, “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites” (19). In the neoliberal era, economic inequality has boomed, as the business environment has been plagued with corporate and executive greed, all at the cost of employees. Dunder Mifflin, although it is only a mid-level business, is no exception. Although the company repeatedly struggles to turn a profit, the executives of Dunder Mifflin reward themselves with enormous salaries, comprehensive benefits, and expensive perks which push the company further toward bankruptcy. Dunder Mifflin is not alone in struggling to remain competitive in an increasingly monopolized market, it is not alone in its quest to cut costs by any means necessary, and it certainly is not alone in its corporate benefit culture. The Office is not just a TV show about funny personalities in an office; it is the prototypical story of a small business in an increasingly monopolized, neoliberal economy.
Dunder Mifflin struggles to compete in an increasingly monopolized paper industry. As a mid-level supplier, they have great difficulty competing with the likes of a Staples, OfficeMax, or Office Depot, who are able to offer much lower prices and a much larger selection of products. This struggle for small businesses to compete is a constant theme in the series, and an inherent feature of the neoliberal economic era. Harvey notes this dilemma, saying, “There is the problem of how to interpret monopoly power. Competition often results in monopoly or oligopoly, as stronger arms drive out weaker. Most neoliberal theorists consider this unproblematic (it should, they say, maximize efficiency).” (67) The neoliberal economy is plagued with a competition problem; small and mid-level businesses are unable to compete with larger corporations nearing monopoly status. Although, as Harvey notes, some do not see this as a problem, it is antithetical to capitalism’s key tenant: unrestrained competition. These small businesses, like Dunder Mifflin, can no longer offer competitive prices, and are forced to stay in business through other means, mainly by slashing their operating costs. Dunder Mifflin’s struggle to compete results in constant worry for both employers and employees about the possibility of branch closures, downsizing, or other cuts. This is apparent from the first episode of the series, in which Jan, the show’s corporate mouthpiece, has her first meeting with Michael, the lovable, but woefully unqualified branch manager. Jan notes the difficulties faced by the company, saying, “Since the last board meeting, we have decided we cannot justify both a Scranton and a Samford branch . . . It is up to you or Josh [Samford branch manager] to convince me that one can incorporate the other . . . Regardless, this does mean there is going to be downsizing” (S1E1). From the very beginning of the series, it is clear that Dunder Mifflin is skating on thin ice. Unable to compete in a market dominated by three major corporations, the company is forced to cut costs by closing branches; however, it is absolutely not the last time cuts must be made.
As a result of competition difficulty and market monopolization, Dunder Mifflin is forced to cut their costs of doing business. In real terms, along with branch closures, this entails cuts to wages and benefits and a corporate policy of hostility to unionizing. Dunder Mifflin corporate is in the habit both of resisting requests for raise increases and of cutting wages across the board. In Season 3, Episode 18: “The Negotiation,” Darryl, the head warehouse worker, approaches Michael to ask for a raise. Michael meets his request with immediate resistance; however, this resistance does not seem to be an individual decision. Instead, the resistance seems to be company policy. When Michael himself asks Jan for a raise (for the first time in 17 years), he is met with the same resistance he showed Darryl (S3E18). Furthermore, in at least one instance, the company is unwilling to offer cost-of-living raises to their employees, effectively cutting their income (S6E3). The employees of Dunder Mifflin are far from alone in experiencing resistance to raises and stagnating, or even declining, wages. Harvey discusses this phenomenon, along with cuts to employee benefits, saying, “How this active potentiality was converted into a highly exploitative system of flexible accumulation (all the benefits accruing from increasing flexibility in labour allocations in both space and time go to capital) is key to explaining why real wages, except for a brief period during the 1990s, stagnated or fell . . . and benefits diminished.” (53). Workers in the neoliberal era have actually seen a decline in their wages. In 1973, definitively before the beginning of the neoliberal era, real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) wages stood at $15.72/hour. Although worker productivity has continued to increase at a steady rate over time, real wages had sunk to $14.15/hour by the year 2000 (Harvey 25). Today’s workers are more productive and efficient than ever; however, they are sure to be more economically insecure than the generation of workers before them. While the plot of The Office mostly focuses on the characters’ personal lives, the underlying economic insecurity of the staff is apparent. An unfortunate number of workers can relate with Angela’s story in Season 9, Episode 21: “Livin’ The Dream,” when she, a full-time accountant who has been with the company for many years, separates from her husband. Left as a single mother, and sole income earner, she is no longer able to afford childcare or rent, and is kicked out of her apartment. Due to a declining (or at least stagnating) wage and a lack of available social safety nets, such as free or low-income childcare, Angela is left to struggle on her own, only sheltered by her coworkers’ charity. Dunder Mifflin’s goal of cutting costs is understandable, as the company struggles to remain competitive. However, its ongoing motions to reduce overhead push its employees further and further into financial duress. In line with Harvey’s findings on decreased wages, The Office provides a perfect example of what was once a stable, white collar position that no longer affords the hallmark stability such jobs formerly provided.
Another measure of cost-cutting used in Dunder Mifflin, and in the Neoliberal economy as a whole, is cutbacks to employee benefits like healthcare. In Season 1, Episode 3: “Healthcare,” Michael is charged with choosing the healthcare plan the company will offer its employees. Initially not fully understanding his task, Michael chooses to give everyone the “Gold Plan,” the most comprehensive level of care. When Jan informs Michael that the company cannot afford the plan for all employees, she exposes the company’s true goal, saying “The whole reason we’re doing this is to save money, so you just need to choose a provider and pick the cheapest plan.” (S1E3) Benefits are viewed very differently by employees and employers. In the eyes of employees, healthcare is essential to their survival, and they cannot go uninsured. In the eyes of employers, however, healthcare is another cost that must be paid out to workers (just the same as a wage). If a small business, like Dunder Mifflin, is going to survive a monopolized market, it must reduce the amount of money it pays out in healthcare benefits, as with any other cost.
Although infrequently mentioned in the show, like all businesses in the neoliberal economy, Dunder Mifflin is incredibly hostile to the prospects of unionizing within the workplace. The only time the topic is mentioned in the series is in Season 2, Episode 15: “Boys and Girls,” in which Darryl discusses the idea of unionizing the warehouse with Michael, only to be met with expected resistance. Darryl is aware of the benefits and protections that unions can bring workers, saying “You say we’re the same but we get compensated differently . . . you just said we work a lot harder . . . we get paid a lot less . . . this would not happen if we had a union.” (S2E15). Michael is reluctant to approve the union, only slightly swayed in its favor by his never-ending desire for friendship and acceptance; however, it is the position of Jan, and the corporate policy as a whole, that is much more relevant. Upon hearing from Michael that the warehouse is considering a union, Jan delivers an incredibly threatening speech to the workers, saying, “I’m told there was talk of a union . . . If there is even a whiff of unionization, this entire branch will be shut down like that. They unionized in Pittsfield and we all know what happened there . . . I would think long and hard about risking your futures just to send a message” (S2E15). Jan’s response to the warehouse unionizing may seem heavy-handed; however, it is not atypical of the neoliberal era. Unions are the biggest threat to the almost unlimited control held by employers over their employees. Although not a direct cost to employers in and of themselves, unions are the only vehicle that can successfully impose costs upon the business and demand increases in wages, benefits, and worker protections. Harvey says of unions in the neoliberal era, “While individuals are supposedly free to choose, they are not supposed to choose to construct strong collective institutions (such as trade unions) as opposed to weak voluntary associations (like charitable organizations)” (69). Employers would rather employees help one another out, through acts of charity, than pay out a living wage with comprehensive benefits. Michael could not have been a more efficient spokesman for this corporate message. As he tries to sway workers against the union, he cries out “Angela, yes! Lend Oscar a cup of sugar!” (S2E15). Dunder Mifflin, like all businesses in the neoliberal business environment, fears the costs that unionizing workers may impose. As a result, the company’s response to prospects of unionizing is one of threats and, as noted by Harvey, a push for charitable giving as an acceptable substitute. Again, we see an example of workers taking another hit in order to maintain the company’s ability to compete in an increasingly tight, monopolized market.
Finally, Dunder Mifflin is emblematic of a corporation in a Neoliberal economy in their corporate benefits which come at the cost of workers. Even small businesses are part of the larger neoliberal project of restoring class power of the wealthy over the rest of society. In the modern business environment, owners and executives are increasingly resistant to the demands of labor; however, they are more willing to reward themselves with large salaries, bonuses, and perks. In Who Stole the American Dream, sociologist Heinrich Smith discusses this trend, noting, “Average CEO pay has soared since the 1980s compared with earlier, more successful periods of American capitalism” (59). Dunder Mifflin is no exception to this trend; its executives reward themselves with massive bonuses, even in times of company crisis. In “The Promotion,” Dunder Mifflin CEO, David Wallace, reveals to co-managers, Michael and Jim, that not every employee will be getting a yearly cost-of-living adjustment. However, later (in the same season), in “Shareholders Meeting,” Michael is picked up by the company limo and taken to a lavish event hall where he speaks to shareholders alongside members of the Dunder Mifflin board. Although the company is unwilling to incur the cost of a living wage adjusted for inflation, it is more than willing to spend money on a limo and lavish event hall. The neoliberal era has been characterized by extreme levels of income inequality. That inequality is the direct result of corporate behavior such as this, in which executives reward themselves, even in times of crisis, while leaving their employees out in the cold.
In the neoliberal era, workers have been left with low and stagnating wages, inadequate benefits, and no way of collectivizing or making demands. On a larger scale, mid-level and small businesses are pushed out of the market by large corporations in an increasingly monopolized marketplace. As a result, these companies have joined in the assault on workers and labor as a measure to cut costs and remain competitive. Unless they embrace the philosophy of hostility to raises, unionizing, and any other increase to the cost of labor, they will be priced out of the marketplace. Dunder Mifflin perfectly encapsulates a mid-level or small business struggling to stay afloat in the neoliberal era. Throughout the series, Dunder Mifflin was squeezed out of an incredibly monopolized marketplace. Although they cut costs at every turn—by closing branches, downsizing, and cutting wages— eventually, the company befell the same fate as so many businesses like it. Dunder Mifflin was eventually sold to a larger corporation, named Sabre (a made-for-TV HP knockoff), and was absorbed into the very monopoly with which it could no longer compete. Although small businesses certainly struggle in a neoliberal environment, the true losers in this situation are the workers. Stagnating wages, sub-par benefits, and a lack of collectivization rights do not seem to be fading away any time soon. Although in the past, most workers, including those at Dunder Mifflin, could reasonably expect to live a more economically secure life than their parents, that is no longer the case. The most lasting legacy of the neoliberal era will be a generation of workers plagued with insecurity, struggle, and despair; although it may not seem like it at first glance, The Office tells their story.
Daniels, Greg. “Boys and Girls.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 2 Feb. 2006. Television.
Daniels, Greg. “Healthcare.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 5 Apr. 2005. Television.
Daniels, Greg. “Livin’ the Dream.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 2 May. 2013. Television.
Daniels, Greg. “The Negotiation.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 5 Apr. 2007. Television.
Daniels, Greg. “Pilot.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 24 Mar. 2005. Television.
Daniels, Greg. “Shareholders Meeting.” The Office. NBC. New York City, New York, 19 Nov. 2009. Television.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Smith, Hedrick. Who Stole the American Dream? New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2013. Print.