I wanted to do a quick Marxist reading of an episode of The Office. I was struck by how this episode has a lot to say about class and gender.
The episode opens with women’s day at the office, where corporate ballbuster Jan comes in to lead a very Cheryl Sandberg version of capitalist feminism. Michael tries to join in, and patronizes to the women, but is excluded by Jan.
Michael, feeling excluded from the white collar women, brings the white collar men to the warehouse, for cross-class bonding with the blue collar men.
This episode establishes a carnivalesque inversion of structural balance. Typically, and rightfully, capitalism is structurally associated with men. When this structure is inverted, it is usually for two effects:
1. In true carnivalesque fashion, the nature of power inversions is to illuminate the nature of that power structure when reverted back to its normal dynamic.
2. Another reason women are associated with capitalism is to demonize women by association. The place I was first exposed to this rhetorical maneuver was in Ginsberg’s “Howl,” where of the few times women are mentioned at all, they’re plotting capitalists (or an overbearing mom). Ginsberg’s seemingly main exposure to women is in the form of straight men and straight women in domestic partnerships predicated on capitalism. This is, of course, a misdirection. I also don’t think this Office episode lends itself to that reading, and it’s more fruitful to read this episode through the lens of the first effect. But I wanted to throw this out there, because it’s almost like a rhetorical landmine when something does a ‘play’ of classes and identities.
Moving forward, while Michael is in the warehouse, he goofs off with industrial equipment and knocks over stock. This upsets the warehouse workers, leading them to demand a union. Michael, as the regional manager, who is trying to bond with employees, tells them that they should be united against the women, and they don’t need a union.
This is a quintessential example of how the capitalist class tries to emphasize identities in order to undermine the working class. The warehouse workers see the power dynamic clearly, because they are in the exploited position. They can see Michael’s power, and abuse of power, and his ineptitude as a worker. When the workers attempt to rectify their situation with unionization, the managerial class tries to divert their attention to women.
A very similar dynamic occurs with white supermacists. Most explicit white supremacists are poor or middle class, because rich whites don’t need to cling on to their race to feel important, their money makes them feel important. Howevet, the middle class white people look around and see a diversity of races, and then they look at rich people and say “woah, more of those people are white like me”.
Due to a variety of material conditions – for example, poor whites seeing no ability to achieve class mobility – the poor whites become associating with the rich whites. Then, for example, let’s say illegal immigrants begin working the white supremacist’s job. The poor white supremacist will never think “this is my white employer’s fault” because he already sees himself on the team of the white employer, so then he redirects his class consciousness in the form racist rage.
In this scene, there’s a similar structure woth class and sex: the workers rightfully realize that a union would be the most useful way to form themselves. The comedy comes from Michael, a representative of the capitalist class, tries and fails to “make a union” along gender lines, instead of along class lines.
There’s a deeper element too, because Michael, more or less is a worker, with a divided class consciousness, where he feels he must work on behalf of the capitalist class. Michael is a regional manager, but it’s a recurring joke of the show that he’s constantly being ballbusted and undermined by his corporate masters, and he makes much less money than people assume he should.
But since Michael lacks a proper class consciousness, and his conceptualization of his corporate overlords is the regional rep, Jan, running women’s day. Michael, lacking an ability to realize what he really wants to say is “I want to be able to join the (class) union too,” he instead says “let’s make a gender-based union against Jan,” the embodiment of Michael’s corporate overlords.
The episode continues with Michael telling Jan that the warehouse wants to unionize. Jan tells Michael that he must tell the warehouse that if they attempt to unionize, corporate will shut the branch down. Michael goes to the warehouse and can’t manage to telk them they can’t unionize. Jan enters and tells the warehouse for Michael.
This episode makes a more conservative turn than the original premise seemed to imply. Rather than shedding away the dynamic of “ball busting = capitalism = women”, they reinforce it. The episode lapses into the second effect I highlighted at the beginning, where women are associated with capitalists, and then both are demonized for being domineering and oppressive.
The episode ends with Michael buying the office workers pizzas, to satiate them. He says, “Rich people love pizza, poor people love pizza. White people love pizza, black people love pizza… Do black people love pizza?” It cuts to the black warehouse workers eating pizza, with Michael watching. Everyone is now satisfied.
This is a great joke to end the episode. This reorients the entire episode back to pizza, the quintessential American food commodity. It gestures towards the fact that the power structures involved in the episode are entirely rooted in commodity (in this case, paper and paper accessories).
It reminds me of Andy Warhol’s famous passage from his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. He writes:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
The Warhol quote is essentially a glorification of the capitalist commodity form. Although I’m opposed to commodity form like this existing, Warhol manages to describe commodity, from the consumer-side perfectly.
Just like the Coke, all of these people are in relation to each other through the paper that they sell. In fact, the power granted to Jan comes from her economic relationship to paper, and the lack of power of the workers comes from their economic relationship to paper.
The joke that ends this episode is that Michael doesn’t understand that black people enjoy the staple American food commodity. This feels like a nonsequitur joke to close the episode. But, we can see the parallel between pizza and the paper they sell, because it’s the only two commodities mentioned in the episode.
This also reinforces Michael’s lack of class consciousness. It explains why Michael is unable to express his relation to labor when the workers wanted to unionize. It also explains Michael’s confusion about the relation between class and identity, since he didn’t even know black Americans would eat pizza.