Office Space: Alienation as a Consequence


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The film Office Space (1999), directed by Mike Judge, is a comedy movie that sympathetically criticizes the daily work life of information technology employees of an archetypal software company named Intech. The film concentrates on unmotivated individuals, who are fed up with the routines of their work. Office Space depicts various elements of Karl Marx’s theory of alienation within the context of capitalism. Marx’s theory of alienation holds that people who are in a setting characterized by stratified classes can be estranged from their species-essence (Gattungswesen) (Sorensen 2019). The key argument in this paper is that workers in the film, Office Space, experience alienation as a consequence of being a mechanistic part of a social class in a capitalist setting, which has made them to invariably lose their capacity to determine their own life and destiny. This is demonstrated by various instances that indicated the Intech workers’ powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, as well as self-estrangement.

Alienation generally refers constricted extent of integration or lack of common values within a particular system due to isolation between individuals, systems, things, or processes (Bartha 2013). In a capitalist setting, the capitalists have controlled over all resources needed for production and derive extra value from labor through conversion of value into wage (Martineau 2015). This makes the workers to be a subject of capitalist exploitation, who works only for wage as a means for survival and nothing more (Martineau 2015). In doing so, the worker becomes alienated from the means of production and the products. Therefore, one of the key visible estrangement in the film, Office Space is alienation of workers from the product. The characters in films do not own what they produce or services they offer. They also do not benefit directly from their products, they simply just get paid for their time. For instance, Peter Gibbons, who is the key character in the film neither has ownership of the TPS reports he makes, nor does he benefit directly from the TPS reports. This can explain why he does not have the urgency to do his TPS report. The products are owned by their capitalist bosses. Peter says, “when I make a mistake, I have eight different people [bosses] coming by to tell me about it” (Judge 1999). This means that the bosses are fervently interested in the products and do not want a mistake being made.

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In the film, Office Space, alienation is proliferated through employees’ powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, and self-estrangement. Powerlessness of the workers occurs because of being under the control of others (employers or bosses) in an impersonal system at workplace. The workers have no bargain power or control of the fate of their job, since the can be fired at any time at their boss’s discretion. For example, after Peter realizes Samir and Michael are going to be laid off, Bod Slidell says, “We find it’s always better to fire people on a Friday” (Judge 1999). In another perspective, according Bartha (2013), powerlessness can be interpreted psychologically as feeling unable to attain self-realization and gratify ego-esteem need, which make workers become estranged from their work. For instance, Peter says, “I don’t like my job and I don’t think I’ll go anymore” (Judge 1999). This indicates his indifference and loss of ego-esteem due to being alienated from his work or the value of his work.

Alienation in terms of meaninglessness lacks a sense of how workers perceive the meaningfulness of their work and their contribution within the work system (Barth, 2013). In the film, the works do not perceive their work as meaningful. This is because they feel that they are compelled to do work that is not enriching their lives or have any meaning to them. Peter tells the Therapist, Dr. Swanson “So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it” (Judge 1999). This means that his work means nothing to him. He is not fulfilled by his job. Thus, he is alienated to it. He only perceives his work as an invisible external force that controls him and makes him lethargic. He says, “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.” (Judge 1999). This indicates that lack of meaning of work, alienates the workers from work itself and employers hinder them from demonstrating their potentials and aspirations.

In the film, alienation is also exhibited through isolation of workers. This is shown by the lack of sense of belonging among the employees at the workplace (Sorensen 2016). Office Space exhibits various instances that result in the sense of apartness, and isolation, which threatens their well-being and produce their anxiety (Bartha 2013). For instance, at Intech, there is exclusion of workers from workgroups through practice of division of labor, since each worker has a cubicle and special work to do. According to Martineau (2015), intense division of labor in an organization makes workers feel expendable, which makes them lose their individuality, which is manifested through complete laziness, and development of an unconscious hostility towards work, others, and everything connected with work (Bartha 2013). This is observed in Peter’s wish to do nothing and contempt for the woman responsible for handing out employees’ mail. Joanna also has contempt for the eccentric waiter. Peter, Michael, as well as Samir also have mutual contempt for the office printer. For instance, Samir demonstrates the hostility when he says, “I swear to God, one of these days I am just kicking this this piece of shit out the window!” (Judge 1999). This contempt results from monotonous work which results in division of labor.

Another aspect of alienation demonstrated by the film is self-estrangement. It refers to detachment and lack of sense of identity or personal fulfillment (Martineau 2015). This occurs when an individual is unable to confront sense of apartness resulting in engagement in respect to both personal and social identities (Bartha, 2013). In the film, there is evidence of settings and incidence of labor processes that hinders individuals from feeling a sense of completeness as well as identity. This particularly occurs when work does not become an integral part of man as a social being. For instance, when Lawrence turns down Peter’s invitation by saying “No thanks, dude. I don’t need you fuckin’ up my life, too.” (Judge 1999). In this instance, Lawrence manifests self-estrangement by isolating himself from contact with others. The film depicts alienation as an intellectual construct exhibited by overwhelming and distressing effects of capitalist production system on human beings (Bartha 2013). In other words, the capitalist system that exploits the workers has made them to think only of the wages as the key reward for their work and time (Sorensen 2019). This has impacts on the workers’ physical, mental, as well as social processes (Bartha 2013). In the film, the workers are unable to satisfy their inherent needs for work, but satisfy their external needs, which is money making for survival. Peter says, “That’s my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” (Judge 1999). This has made him to shun (alienate from) his work like as if it were a plague. Peters tells his neighbor, Lawrence, that if it weren’t for money issues, “in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exist, labor is shunned like a plague” (4). This demonstrate his self-estrangement through dissatisfaction with work.

The impact of the alienation of the workers is also vividly depicted in the film, Office Space. Alienation has resulted to various crises in the film. Some of the workers in Office Space have lost their identity due to alienation. According to Martineau (2015), alienation of workers may result to loss of identity at work. The routine of daily work results to loss of personal identity and purpose in life. Sorensen (2019) explained that engaging in routine makes an individual lose their sense of life purpose which contributes to the loss of their identity. For example, Peter says, “Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” (Judge 1999). This means that he is coming to some kind of realization that his life purpose has been taken away by his routine boring work. Thus, his life lacks identity of purpose.

Secondly, alienation may result in contradictory consciousness, marked by irrational thoughts and irrational decision making, which can be dangerous. Bartha (2013) explains that alienation can produce consequences, such as contradictory consciousness, that leads to deviant behaviors, unconscious resistance, and opposition at the work place. For When Peter reports back to work, he disregards office protocol and violates Intech’s dress code. He takes Lumbergh’s reserve parking space and refuse to listen to his instructions. He also demonstrates violence and deviant behaviors, such as tearing down his cubicle that hinders his view of the window. Another worker, Milton Waddams also thinks irrationally when he says, “I could set the building on fire.” (Judge 1999). Michael and Samir also steal the office printer and smash it in the field to demonstrate their frustration with their meaningless work. This is a demonstration of deviant behavior and resistance.

In conclusion, the film, Office Space, has adequately exhibited Marx’s theory of alienation. It can be understood that alienation is an outcome of a capitalist setting, which exploits and overwhelms employees emotional, physical, and social aspects of life. This occurs when the workers are alienated from the product and services they produce and provide. It also occurs when the workers are alienated from the work systems and processes, such as through excessive bureaucracy, stringent division of labor and limited communication and interaction among the employees and between them and their employer. Thus, the film, Office Space has depicted alienation in terms of powerlessness, meaninglessness, isolation, as well as self-estrangement. This has produced consequences, such as deviant behaviors, carelessness, and unconscious upheaval.       

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