The death of Dilbert—greatly exaggerated when its creator suddenly fell from media grace in late February—has led to a swift resurrection. Last week, the cartoonist and author Scott Adams launched the same daily comic strip under the name Dilbert Reborn via the right-wing online platform Rumble, which touts itself as “immune to cancel culture.” Adams has arrived at a logical destination, a milieu of privilege decrying its own martyrdom.
Twenty-five years ago, when my book The Trouble with Dilbert appeared, fans of the original satirical comic strip about white-collar work responded to my critique that “corporate culture gets the last laugh” with bafflement, if not derision. Many objected that I took a mere cartoon too seriously, failed to appreciate its dry wit, and notably lacked a sense of humor. What’s more, the story went, Dilbert wasn’t just funny—it was also pro-worker.
When interviewed about my book, Scott Adams explained that his efforts were all for fun and profit. “Dilbert is just a way to make people laugh so they will transfer their money to me,” he told The Washington Post in 1997. As for me, he told The Associated Press, “I’m totally in favor of demagoguery because that’s how I’m making my own living. So I can’t criticize him for doing exactly what I’m doing.”
Adams’s assumption that I was pandering to make money struck me as a likely case of projection. At any rate, a few months later, in the comic strip, the canine character “Dogbert” sat at a desk and said that “author Norman Solomon has determined that the Dilbert comic strip is harmful to workers.” Actually, my analysis of Dilbert was a lot more layered than Dogbert’s summary indicated.
When Adams’s next book, The Joy of Work, came out in autumn of 1998, it devoted eight pages to lampooning me. That set off a fresh round of online denunciations from Dilbert devotees. They seemed to be either missing—or somehow enjoying—the mean-spirited and corrosive aspects of Adams’s comedic labors. In his 1996 book The Dilbert Principle, Adams had written: “If you can come to peace with the fact that you’re surrounded by idiots, you’ll realize that resistance is futile, your tension will dissipate, and you can sit back and have a good laugh at the expense of others.”
The futility of cooperative resistance, with, instead, everyone just out for themselves, has been central to the Dilbert ambiance. This was not lost on the many corporate sponsors that Adams signed for lucrative partnerships. When his publisher, the powerhouse HarperCollins, teamed up with the computer-chip giant Intel in 1997, they put out a press release declaring that “Adams offers a bold, compelling vision of the society of the future, firmly grounded on the immutable principles of stupidity, selfishness, and sex—much like today, but with more advanced technology.”
As I wrote at the time, “Dilbert does not encourage class warfare from the bottom up, except perhaps in petty and silly ways that are sure to be ineffectual. But—contrary to its reputation—Dilbert provides real service to the prevalent class warfare being waged from the top down.”
My book that provoked Adams a quarter-century ago is long out of print. But its core message remains current:
To speak bluntly about power inequities—and to work with others to challenge them—could be truly threatening to corporate poohbahs. In contrast, sarcasm is fine. Dilbert does not suggest that we do much other than roll our eyes, find a suitably acid quip, and continue to smolder while avoiding deeper questions about corporate power in our society. Huge fortunes keep being made on the fairly safe bet that we will remain anesthetized. Dilbert adjusts—and fortifies—the terms of the numbing, to take into account the undeniable alienation that besets so many workplaces. Dilbert’s mockery of office workers, couched in pretenses of universality, insists that stupidity and selfishness are central to who we are—and must be.
Words like “stupidity” and “selfishness” scarcely begin to describe the horrendous racist rant that Scott Adams spewed in a YouTube video in late February. Referring to Black people as “a hate group,” Adams said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with them. And I would say, based on the current way things are going, the best advice I would give to white people is to get the hell away from Black people.” Condemnation was swift and widespread. So many newspapers canceled Dilbert that the comic strip appears to be completely dead in newsprint.
In recent years, from his endorsement of Donald Trump for president to his amplifying echoes of right-wing tropes, Adams has increasingly parroted the absurd and fascistic claims of white victimhood. All this seems a far cry from Dilbert cubicle humor. Yet wispy themes of his current extremism can be traced back to the ethos that Adams has promoted for decades.
“Industrially produced fiction has become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in the twentieth century,” Ariel Dorfman observed 40 years ago in his book The Empire’s Old Clothes.
Although these stories are supposed to merely entertain us, they constantly give us a secret education. We are not only taught certain styles of violence, the latest fashions, and sex roles by TV, movies, magazines, and comic strips; we are also taught how to succeed, how to love, how to buy, how to conquer, how to forget the past and suppress the future. We are taught, more than anything else, how not to rebel.
In his repugnant livestream video on YouTube that set off Dilbert’s brief downfall, Adams declared, “It makes no sense to help Black Americans if you’re white.” In retrospect, ingredients of such poison can be seen in three decades of the Dilbert world, where it made no sense to try to help anyone except yourself.