Current Affairs

The Adams Principle

How did cartoonist Scott Adams go from Dilbert to MAGA and what does the Cold War have to do with it?

When I was maybe nine or ten years old, I was driven by boredom to look through my dad’s book collection. (I forget the exact year, but it was definitely before we had broadband, because the years after broadband were spent diving down rabbit holes of old TV shows and video game reviews.) Among the spy novels and Reader’s Digests, I managed to find a book that actually appealed to children, picked it up, and squirreled it away for later reading. It was appealing to kids because it had a cartoon dog on the cover.

As you might have guessed from glancing at the illustrations, the book I’d chosen was not Clifford the Big Red Dog, but The Dilbert Principle, a satirical book about office life for adults by popular cartoonist, Scott Adams, based off his daily syndicated strip simply named Dilbert. Despite the book’s subject matter being seemingly irrelevant to my life, and its constant references to incomprehensible topics like Six Sigma, project management, and beta testing, I ended up reading and enjoying the whole book; not only that, but once I finished, I actually bought more Adams books with my own pocket money, to the bafflement of the staff at my local bookstore. Until recently, I actually looked back on this part of my life with shame and confusion—great, yet another part of my childhood to mark me out as abnormal—but in the last couple of years, thanks to the internet, I’ve discovered that I actually wasn’t alone. Perhaps half a dozen of my friends and coworkers that I’ve met through social media have confessed to also being “Dilbert kids”. Sadly, just as I’ve managed to get away from the shame of loving Dilbert for one reason, I’ve been forced to develop a new reason to be ashamed of loving Dilbert—namely, the increasingly strange behaviour and beliefs of Adams himself. But we will come to that later.

For the uninitiated—those strange folks who spent their childhoods riding their bikes and playing with other children—the premise of Dilbert is very simple. Dilbert is an engineer who works for a generic corporate behemoth, alongside his coworkers Wally (lazy), Asok (naive) and Alice (woman), all under the auspices of an imbecilic manager known only as the Pointy-haired Boss. Any given strip typically involves Dilbert being tyrannized and frustrated by corporate culture, occasionally venting with his anthropomorphized pet/roommate, Dogbert, or sparring with the evil Catbert from human resources. (In case you were uncertain, Dogbert is a dog. I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about what Catbert is.) Dilbert has been a stalwart (stalbert?) of print media for going on 30 years, and is syndicated worldwide in about 2,000 newspapers.

It’s easy to see why Dilbert is popular. Although the protagonist is an engineer, the setting is vague enough to act as a stand-in for practically all workplaces, and despite the occasional references to tech-specific gripes, the themes of unjust hierarchy, frustrating mundanity, and the general fact that work sucks is relatable to pretty much anyone, even schoolchildren, as it turns out. (Whom amongst us has never had a mean, pompous or incompetent Pointy-haired Teacher?) Also, a three-panel comic requires a certain kind of discipline, and despite the inevitable hit-or-miss situation you get when you churn out content on a daily basis—if you want an example, check my tweets—throughout the classic era of the strips there’s undoubtedly a tight turnaround of setup, punchline, post-punchline that usually feels good and right. 

(“Leaving at seven?” glowers the Pointy-haired Boss. “All my work is done”, replies Dilbert; “then get some more,” replies the PHB. “That would make my life an exercise in futility”, counters Dilbert, to which the PHB cheerfully responds: “exercise is good for you.”) 

There are also a lot of pieces of…philosophy is the wrong word, but the kind of stray shower-thoughts that feel impressive in their novelty, and tend to stick with you for their surface-level logic even when you know them, deep down, to be silly. 

(Courtesy of Wally: “I don’t understand why some people wash their bath towels. When I get out of the shower I’m the cleanest object in my house. In theory, those towels should be getting cleaner every time they touch me.”

This type of glib quasi-logic works really well in comedy, especially in a format where space is restricted, and where the quick, disposable nature of the strip limits your ability to draw humor from character and plot. You take an idea, find a way to subvert or deconstruct it, and you get an absurd result. In Dilbert the Pointy-haired Boss uses this type of thinking to evil ends, in the tradition of Catch-22 and other satires of systemic brutality, but the relatable characters use it to their advantage too—by using intellectual sleight of hand with the boss to justify doing less work, or by finding clever ways to look busy when they’re not, or to avoid people who are unpleasant to be around. The world of Dilbert is entirely built around this surface-level rhetorical play, which works great for a throwaway comic, and would have stayed great if Adams had kept them there. He makes constant use of something I’m going to call, for want of a better term, the sophoid: something which has the outer semblance of wisdom, but none of the substance; something that sounds weighty if you say it confidently enough, yet can be easily thrown away as “just a thought” if it won’t hold up to scrutiny. “Why don’t your towels get cleaner when they touch a clean person?” sounds clever at first, until you talk to anyone who knows about the science of water and hygiene or indeed, anyone who’s smelled a dirty towel. Of course, the average person does not try and get their wisdom from comics, but Adams did not just stick to comics: he is the author of over a dozen books (not counting the comic compendiums), which advise and analyze not only on surviving the office but also on daily life, future technology trends, romance, self-help strategy, and more. 

Illustrations by Matt Lubchansky

It’s an interesting feeling revisiting Adams’ books in full knowledge of the person he became. His books typically take the reader on a tour of various aspects of life, section by section, explaining and then dismissing office departments, cultural detritus and life philosophies alike, all interspersed with reprints of his relevant strips. In his earlier books, you can feel the weight of the 1990s pressing down on his work, flattening and numbing its potency; this was the period that social scientist Francis Fukuyama dubbed “the end of history”, when the Cold War had ended, the West had won, 9/11 was just two numbers, and there were no grand missions left, no worlds left to conquer. While for millions of people, both in the United States and abroad, life was still chaotic and miserable, a lot of people found themselves living lives that were under no great immediate threat: without bombs or fascism or the threat of eviction to worry about, there was nothing left to do but to go to the office and enjoy fast-casual dining and Big Gulps, just as the Founding Fathers envisioned. This dull but steady life produced a sense of slow-burn anxiety prominent in much of the pop culture of the time, as can be seen in movies such as Office Space, Fight Club and The Matrix, movies which cooed to their audience: there’s got to be more to life than this, right? And maybe they had a point: while the idea of a “cubicle job” can seem to younger readers like relative bliss, they were (and are) still an emblem of boredom and absurdity, a sign that life was being slowly colonized by gray shapes and Powerpoint slides. Throughout his classic-era work, Adams hits on the feeling that the world has been made unnatural, unconducive to life; materially adequate, but spiritually exhausting. 

Unfortunately, as talking to any Trump voter will tell you, intuiting correctly that something has gone wrong will not necessarily tell you how to make it right. Adams takes aim at all the outward symptoms of demeaning corporate life, but he never identifies the causes. It is not that one expects a comedy business book to take a detour into a Marxian analysis of the labour theory of value or a dead-serious history of globalization, but it is noticeable that apart from occasional bristling references to outsourcing or layoffs, there are no real gestures towards politics in the Dilbert books, as if these sprawling corporate monsters that rule our lives sprang fully-formed from under rocks. (At least, not ‘big’ politics; there are some frustrating comments on the machinations of dating, for example, that are certainly political, though it’s possible Adams did not think of them in this way.)  

Adams’ attitude towards corporate culture is also noticeably ambivalent. One would think from his subject matter that he considers the whole thing a fraud from top to bottom, and indeed there’s some evidence that he at least partly thought this at one time. In 1997, he pulled a prank on the Silicon Valley company Logitech, giving a surreal lecture in the guise of a prestigious management consultant named “Ray Mebert” (so named, of course, because if the world of Dilbert features a dog called Dogbert and a cat called Catbert, it stands to reason that the author is a ‘Mebert’). At first, it seems as though hoaxing a renowned tech firm with a bunch of nonsense should suggest Adams doesn’t think much of business culture. But on closer inspection, it’s hard to tell how ungracious his attitude towards the firm really was; he pulled the prank with the permission and assistance of the vice-chairman, which suggests less of a rebellion and more of a cosy in-joke. (If you want further proof that Adams does not truly hurt corporations, copies of his cartoons can be found on walls of corporations everywhere. As anarchists are fond of saying, “if Dilbert changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”)

In addition, for someone who satirizes business bullshit, Adams is a person who seems to have bought into much of it wholeheartedly; when he explains his approach to life he tends to speak in LinkedIn truisms, expounding on his “skill stacks” and “maximizing [his] personal energy”. (You can read more about this in his career advice book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big; I have also seen his advice quoted by other self-help gurus, such as James Clear of the bestselling Atomic Habits.) Following his non-Dilbert career more carefully, you can see that at every stage of his career, he’s actually quite heavily invested in the bullshit he makes fun of every day, or at least some aspects of it: he possesses an MBA from UC Berkeley, and has launched or otherwise been involved in a significant number of business ventures, most amusingly a health food wrap called the “Dilberito”. The idea behind the Dilberito was simple—a ready-to-eat burrito that was perfectly nutritionally balanced, delicious, microwaveable and suitable for all. (Adams called it “the blue jeans of food”). Yet the food scientists tasked with engineering the Dilberito simply could not find a way to make it taste good, and it ended up a failure. Now, I’m not a culinary expert here, but I suspect that a lot of big moneyed corporations have probably already tried “what if a Big Mac, but with the health profile of lentils” and found that it’s actually a bit tricky to pull off. Ironically, the hubris and delusion required to launch the Dilberito could have come straight out of a speech from the Pointy-haired Boss.

Illustrations by Matt Lubchansky

Adams has always had a tendency towards the intersection between corporate hustle culture and new age beliefs, where you can find such ideas as the law of attraction, the theory long bubbling under the surface of American life that you can make good things happen just by visualizing them; using the raw energy of your thoughts and desires to make the universe bend to your will. In his book The Dilbert Future, after thirteen chapters spent joking about his predictions for the future of work, family, technology, and so on, Adams spends the end of the book moving into somewhat of a different mood, easing up on the humor and delving into his beliefs that evolution will be debunked in our lifetimes, that time is non-linear, and that he can control what happens to him by writing down his preferred life outcomes fifteen times a day. (I guess he forgot to do it for the Dilberito.) Most of his reasoning for these beliefs relies on heavy use of the sophoid, skimming through layman’s understandings of quantum physics experiments, metaphors about the Earth as a bowling ball, and suggestions that various coincidences in his life imply that linear time is “probably” not real.  Since most of the book is taken up with jokes, it can be hard to gauge how serious Adams is being, and I’m not sure he even knew himself. Taking inspiration from Adams’ love of coining new concepts, I’m tempted to call this the Adams Principle: smartass sophistry is good for comics, and terrible for anything more complicated.

In the past few years, Adams has gained some notoriety as a Trump supporter; having slowly moved from “vaguely all-over-the-place centrist who has some odd thoughts and thinks some aspects of Trump are impressive” to full-on MAGA guy, even writing a book called Win Bigly praising Trump’s abilities as a “master persuader”. Fellow Dilbert fan Miles Wray noted in The Awl that in recent years the comic has actually become more sympathetic to the Pointy-Haired Boss, reflecting Adams’ shifting allegiances. To me, this honestly seems like the logical conclusion of his strange syncretic belief system: this is a guy who hates drab corporatespeak but loves the ideology behind it, a guy who describes the vast powerlessness of life but believes you can change it by writing some words on a napkin. That blend of rebellion against the symptoms of post-Cold War society and sworn allegiance to its machinations couldn’t lead anywhere else but to Trump, a man who rails against ‘elites’ while allowing them to run the country into the ground. Yet I still feel attached to Dilbert. Rereading the books and the strips, they’re still funny; there’s an undeniable skill there. Sometimes I still hear the rhythms of his writing when I’m trying to get a joke right. I just think Adams is a guy who spent so long in the world of slick aphorisms and comic-strip logic that it eventually ate into his brain, became his entire manner of thinking. Beware: as I’m pretty sure Nietzsche said, when you gaze into Dilbert, eventually Dilbert gazes back into you.

Illustrations by Matt Lubchansky

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