Office Space and Marx’s Conflict theory

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Office Space and Marx’s Conflict theory

Communism, as understood today, refers to a system associated with collective ownership of the means of production, central economic planning and rule of a single political party. Communism basically means communal ownership of property. Karl Marx was a German economist, philosopher and revolutionist whose writings form the basis of the body of ideas known as Marxism. His theories are the basis for modern communism. He had a lot of theories which made an impact on the world, namely the conflict theory, labor theory of value, theory of historical materialism, theory of rent, alienation and more (Mandel, 1995).

However, the primary focus of this paper will be the most basic of his theories from which most of his other theories stem from, the Conflict theory. Karl Marx was an advocate of the conflict theory which stresses the link between stratification and the ongoing struggle among competing groups and classes over a limited supply of reward and resources. According to him, capitalist society is torn by a fundamental conflict of interest between capitalists and workers.

He contends that institutions such as the educational system and other forms of communication are employed by the capitalist class to foster a false consciousness among the masses (Mandel, 1995). These institutions seek to legitimize social inequality by propagating an ideology that says existing arrangements are right and reasonable. They also foster the worker’s hope for upward social mobility. As a result, workers are socialized in tradition and this contributes to passivity and compliance.

In the Communist Manifesto, a forty page booklet he produced with Freidrich Engels, he applied the term communism to a final stage of socialism in which all class differences would disappear and humankind would live in harmony (Karl Marx, 2002). Karl Marx believed that all of history has been a story of class conflict over material privilege and power. Social customs and institutions are arranged to perpetuate class distinctions. Child-rearing practices vary by social class and affect the life chances of those being socialized.

Children are treated differently from different social classes, thereby perpetuating the dominion of one social class over another in a subtle and powerful way – by subjecting children to it before they are old enough to know what is happening to them (Mandel, 1995). One group, the exploiters, strives to maintain its advantage over subordinate groups, the exploited. In a capitalist society, the struggle takes place between those who own the means of production – the capitalists or bourgeoisie, and those who sell their labor – the workers or proletariat.

According to Karl Marx, the bourgeoisie maintain their position of domination by controlling the economic life of the population and even dictate the social standard of a certain society. Just as the feudal system had given away to capitalism, so in time capitalism would give way to socialism. The struggle would end, according to Marx, in the socialist revolution which was observed in countries like China, Russia, and Vietnam and partly in the Philippines. The socialist revolution is a way for the achievement of full communism (Karl Marx, 2002).

In his book Sociology and Anthropology, Dr. Epistacio Palispis mentioned how Marx saw the nation or state as an instrument of oppression, religion as a method of diverting and controlling the masses, and the family as a device of keeping wealth and education in the hands of the few. Marx was basically a materialist. He argued and pointed out that the populace, the proletariat is controlled by materials and needs, and that their lives are centered in how they deal with these things.

Because of the perceived the essential role of material, he also theorized that material conditions (the lack and the need for it, will be the core of class conflict. The key issue is how wealth is distributed among the people. The 1999 film Office Space, directed by Mike Judge, starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston, depicts the transparency of Marx’s conflict theory even in ordinary corporate life. The film is about ordinary employees of a fictional computer programming company, Initech, going through their daily work and the complications they meet along the way.

The main character of the movie, Peter Gibbons, played by the actor Ron Livingston, finds himself dragging his feet to work going through the same routine of everyday corporate life. He answers to eight different bosses who drone about TPS reports, coversheets, memos and the like. As a mere employee, he is subject to their authority. Peter and his fellow officemates Michael Bolton, Samir and Milton represent the proletariat and his Porsche-driving, overbearing boss William Lumbergh (Gary Cole) represents the bourgeoisie of Marx’s conflict theory.

The hierarchy of offices portrayed in the film shows how society has glorified individual achievements and the pleasure of consumption that capitalism brings. The film shows how the employees comply blindly with the patronizing orders made by Lumbergh just because he is their boss. This situation substantiates Marx’s claim that those who owned and controlled the means of production were the oppressors and those who owned nothing but their labor were the oppressed. One day, a team of experts is brought in to enact large-scale layoffs.

The character Michael Bolton, protests how he dedicated five solid years to the company, only to be one of those to be fired. Karl Marx in his Labor Theory of Value, emphasized that workers must have the highest share of goods and subsidies as opposed to what happened in the film where an employee has little job security, a typical scenario in capitalist economies. When this happened, Peter Gibbons gets discouraged and simply stops trying and adopts an attitude of total disinterest.

His only interest lies on putting in place a devilish scheme for some corporate payback, along with his office pals as his accomplices. They hack the computer system of the company and programmed it to place a fraction of every daily money transaction into their personal bank accounts, which will eventually pile up to huge sums of easy money. This scene in the movie demonstrates Marx’s notion that the conflicting interests of the two groups of classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, would inevitably lead the oppressed to overthrow their oppressors.

Although Gibbon’s scheme did not go according to plan, the company Initech still met its end from another employee, Milton, who set the building on fire as a sort of revenge when the company stopped giving him his paychecks as a way to make him voluntarily resign from his post. In a way, Karl Marx’s conflict theory sort of explains why there is a need for competition. His idea about communal ownership of property, in others words, perfect equality, is obviously unrealistic. It is merely good in theory, perfect for utopian idealism but in real life, one cannot simply live in perfect equality.

If there was equality in everything, people would lose their motivation to strive for something better, to make room for improvement. It is human nature to be insatiable. If we take away people’s motivation, mediocrity will reek in all aspects of life (Communism, 2002). There is also the issue of equity. In the movie, some of those who were fired deserved to be laid off, while there were those who weren’t. Another very important issue pressed in an imperialist world is inequality.

Since social status and wealth distribution came up as a result of specialization, often inequality is justified when specialization is absent in a society’s structure. Example, a person who took up a Ph. D would ultimately rank higher and thus will have a higher income that a person who is simply a college graduate. Communism entails that wealth is distributed “to each according to need”. In this kind of system, the basic economic needs of all people are satisfied. These needs include food, housing, medical care and education.

Excessive material possessions and acquisition are not basic needs and are therefore not allowed to exits in this system. Communism therefore, to put it simply, is the eradication of any social standards and setting anyone at a default stage for the equal distribution of resources in order o avoid mass conflicts. Since people are generally motivated by self-interest, most societies prefer wealth to be distributed “to each according to what is earned”. People who live in this system become themselves the source of their own wealth.

If they earn a great deal of money, then they will be able to acquire things beyond their needs. If they earn little, they must do without. The problem with communism in this side of the argument is that a society cannot control the interest of the people without cutting off their freedom and rights in certain aspects. Communism is only good when it ensures that the basic needs of the people are met and when it prevents greed from seeding in the hearts of the masses, since everything is controlled by a central planning agency. However, the major problem of communism, as well as in capitalism, is abuse of power.

No matter how perfect an ideology is, there will always be an anomaly because the primary instigators of such ideologies are people. Human beings are prone to irrationalities including greed, selfishness and self-glory. History has taught us that too much power in the hands of a few corrupts the minds of these leaders. Take the movie character, William Lumbergh, as an example. With his high profile status as the CEO of the company, he has bullied Milton to do as he pleases, leaving Milton no choice but to comply out of fear of losing his job.

In conclusion, the movie Office Space exemplifies important points in Marx’s conflict theory such as the continuing conflict between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, as well as how group conflict is a basic ingredient of society.

Works Cited Communism. Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge. 2002 Edition. Washington : USA, 2002 Karl Marx. Microsoft Encarta 2002 (available in CD-ROM) Mandel, E. Karl Marx. International Viewpoint. 1995. <www. internationalviewpoint. org> Palispis, E. S. Introduction to Sociology and Anthropology. Manila: Rex Publishing Inc. 2006.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 December 2016

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