Bookforum talks with Nikil Saval

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace BY Nikil Saval. Doubleday. Hardcover, 368 pages. $26.

Despite recurrent media coverage of innovations in office design in the tech sector, the majority of office workers in the United States still work in cubicles. But those drab, square workstations weren’t always the symbol of drudgery they have become. Robert Propst, the designer of the precursor to the cubicle, conducted interviews with white-collar workers and various experts before creating his model, and he had high expectations that these movable units would satisfy the needs of both employees and employers. In Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, n+1 editor Nikil Saval describes how design became central to the way workers and managers thought about problems at the office, and how the great utopian hopes of office designers were invariably dashed. I spoke with Nikil in April about why so much thought has been put into office design, what separates “office politics” from “labor politics,” and the broader role white-collar work has played in shaping American culture and society.

You have a background in labor organizing and have also done white-collar work. Is it fair to say that both were an influence on this book?

My first job out of college was in book publishing. I worked for a corporate publisher, and I had a large cubicle and a very straightforward 9-to-5 day. And then I moved to a smaller publishing house with a smaller cubicle, a more precarious situation, more work. Over time, seeing people fired, even the basic experience of office politics (which is often used as a euphemism, although we should just think about it as politics) pushed me toward more concern with the labor politics of white-collar work. The workplace was so capricious, the management was so overbearing, that it occurred to me that I should organize a union! I had no concept of how to do this. If you grow up the US, you don’t learn much labor history in general, unless you seek it out. And the idea of white-collar work is often predicated on excluding categories that apply to traditional working-class history. It often isn’t treated by labor historians; it’s more commonly dealt with by women’s historians. At least for a while, there was a masculinist bias against studying white-collar work. C. Wright Mills’s White Collar and Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital were the major works for me.

It was when I left the white-collar office and entered the parallel white-collar world of graduate school and academia that I started working as a volunteer labor researcher and boycott organizer for UNITE-HERE, in San Francisco and later Philly. That perspective led me to think of this book as a kind of working-class history of what is considered the middle class.

At least superficially, it seems like Mills was prophetic. There isn’t really a white-collar political bloc. Mills argued that white-collar workers would follow whoever was winning, that it was derivative politics. A sober accounting of what’s happened in the white-collar world would seem to uphold that. But the deeper I dug, and the more I looked at white-collar work diachronically, I did find upsurges of white-collar organizing in some fashion, certainly in the 1930s.

Another major component that Mills ignores—in a way he preceded this upsurge—was feminist organizing in the office: attempts to combat arbitrary authority and domination in the workplace on feminist but not necessarily on union lines. There was a perception in the 1970s, by members of the 9to5 organization for example, that unions were not necessarily the answer. Eventually alliances developed, but it was still often assumed that unions weren’t in that part of the labor market.

The other way I found to deal with the question of white collar-politics (and this was inspired by the political scientist James C. Scott) was to see a hidden transcript of “resistance,” sometimes coming up in very odd ways.

Like dragging your feet, leaving work incomplete…

Exactly. And I started to see this in terms of design. A lot of energy against the workplace was directed into redesigning it. But resistance is still just resistance—it’s not socialist, or even labor-unionist.

Returning to Mills, it was clear that status was important. There were attempts to unionize white-collar workers that didn’t work in the way they might have worked in other sectors. There are frank confessions about this. I cite an interview with an anonymous union organizer about why white-collar workers can’t be organized. The difference in the way white-collar workers resisted might be a constructed or sedimented difference, but it’s no less real for an organizer.

You write that no workplace has been “such a constant source of hope about the future of work” as the office. Does this play a role in how workers consider the challenges they face, and how management responds to people who are upset with work conditions?

We assume that organizing, or acting on discontent or frustration, in a white-collar setting isn’t analogous to the situation outside the office. Part of that is due to the assumption of there being a meritocratic basis to this workplace. I locate that as early as the 1850s, in the assumption that white-collar workers (in merchant clerks’ offices, for example) belonged to a particular stratum, something resembling a class, distinct from manual labor. The idea that you will rise from the bottom to the top gets routinely challenged, but it never really goes away, even if it gets deeply eroded at times (and I feel has eroded a lot now). That puts a damper on the forms of resistance that take place.

It seems like new concepts of the office emerge in moments when there’s worry about unrest, or economic winds that are blowing, out of a sense that something must be done. Is it fair to characterize office design as an attempt to make unhappy people at work happier?

Yes, I argue that real changes in design are connected to perceived changes in the attitudes of white-collar workers. The simplest example would be the 1930s, when the worry of management that white-collar workers might be shirking their duty to be proud American individualists precipitates a real attempt to make offices better. I interpret the International Style as a response to this, and there is also scholarship that interprets the Chicago school of architecture in this vein, as a response to the Haymarket bombing and anarchist movements in Chicago.

But it isn’t necessarily crisis that leads to changes in design. The invention of the Action Office, the precursor to the cubicle, came about in the 1960s not exactly in response to labor crisis in the workplace, but because people felt there was a mismatch between the level of education of white-collar workers and their actual work. Conversely, in the 1980s, when things got really bad all over the place, not just in offices but even worse on the shop floor, things actually got worse at office workplaces. They crammed more people into the certain places, while a certain stratum of professionals made a ton of money. You could think of this as the worst crisis in the white-collar office since the 1930s, the worst recession, but it didn’t actually produce good or imaginative design. Instead, the cubicle came to prominence.

You describe visionary designers of both the exterior (Mies van der Rohe’s skyscrapers) and interior (Robert Propst’s Action Office) of the office. But you close two chapters with van der Rohe and Propst very resigned about the legacy of their models. Is this simply the fate of utopian ideas in an economic system where executives are really after cheap ideas, or aren’t concerned with the ideas that come with designs? People on the vanguard who speak prophetically about what they’re going to change have a real impact on the physical office, but not in the way they expect.

Partly, I consider this as a joke on right-wing historiography of utopia: “The twentieth century is full of utopias, usually left-wing ones, and they all went wrong, so utopianism is false.” But one of the greatest utopian ideas has been the white-collar office, and look how that’s gone wrong! I don’t want to gainsay the utopian content of some of these theories. Mies and others came out of a German context where socialism or social democracy, workers’ housing, were real things, and they knew architects who were designing for that model and were utopian in that sense. They came to the United States and they had corporate clients, but that content was still latent in what they did.

You argue that white-collar offices were some of the first places outside the home that saw extensive social mixing of people of different genders, even that our modern ideas of romance are derived in large part from this setting. How was gender thought about in offices before women arrived, and how did this play out once women became a major part of the white-collar workforce?

Prior to the entry of women into the office, the question of gender came up in relation to masculinity. There was a real anxiety in the American press and American culture more generally in the antebellum era about clerical work being unmanly, not even real work. Walt Whitman has this piece of journalism where he observes workers walking down Broadway, how well-dressed they are, glistening with oils and perfumes, how narrow-chested—if they were stripped naked, they’d look like “forked radishes.” This anxiety existed both because this work was so new and unfamiliar, and because it was a growing sector.

That didn’t disappear when women were hired in offices, first during the Civil War and then en masse when business became big business in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The fear over masculinity in the office was partly solved by men, who still controlled the office, assigning women the most menial, lower-class work. Nonetheless, there was still anxiety that this already feminine sphere was becoming more feminized, that morals are evaporating, the sorts of discourses that one finds when women enter any sphere for the first time. This became acute in the 1930s: Some suggested that maybe business was failing because of the women who’d entered the workplace. This can be seen in cultural works, like the Barbara Stanwyck movie Baby Face, which portrays a gold digger who ruins the morals of men and destroys a certain business ethos.

In part because there’s an interplay of new freedom for women in this environment along with a new expression of patriarchal power, there are different messages for women about how to handle this environment, whether or not to use one’s sex appeal…

Absolutely. The idea that women should not be involved in this environment because they’ll be compromised persists. On the other hand, there is an attempt to suggest that this is the future, and that the only means to make the situation work for all parties is to professionalize. The Katherine Gibbs College, for example, is really about professionalizing secretarial work, stenography, and other skills that were seen as feminine. A whole genre of the novel arises about the “white-collar girl,” where women leave the countryside, usually after the death of a male breadwinner, and go to the office. It’s interesting the way this genre changes. In the early works, there’s the conflict (which we see again today) between career and romance, and usually this was just solved by marrying the boss. This happens in the novels of Faith Baldwin, a mostly forgotten but hugely influential bestselling author. By the 1930s, Baldwin writes novels where the male boss who is trying to seduce a stenographer or secretary becomes a symbol of rapacious capitalism, suggesting that you should actually marry within your class. In both versions, it’s taken for granted that marriage is the end goal. But there are also lots of feminist, or proto-feminist, appeals to having both, of continuing to work and not sacrificing it for love.

One of the difficulties in having it both ways is that in the white-collar world, especially in the last few decades, you’re not just doing work for money—it’s about self-expression, and therefore you should spend more time on it than a job where you punch in and punch out. Is this a recent, Silicon Valley–inspired development, or does it reach back further into the way people think about white-collar work?

I think people believed for a while that white-collar work was always going to involve, especially for women, drudgery. Even for male office workers, the fulfillment was not necessarily going to be in the work but in the sense of belonging. In his one somewhat utopian chapter in White Collar, “Work,” Mills upholds craftsmanship as an ideal as opposed to rationalization and bureaucratization. Robert Propst has an interpretation of this in the 1960s: knowledge work, where you’re not just doing tasks rote, you’re doing tasks of judgment.

Silicon Valley brings this to a kind of perverse apotheosis. You see it in the architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson’s design of Pixar’s headquarters, commissioned by Steve Jobs, which features raw unfinished wood paneling and visible beams that are meant to symbolize craft. You could see this at a lot of dot-com offices. And it’s not so false when it comes to how some of this work is organized, because the labor market in the Silicon Valley is so much tighter than in other clerical sectors. Coding and engineering are high-demand skills. Compared to the rest of the American economy, it’s fairly easy to move around—unless the companies are rigging the system so you can’t move between jobs, which did happen recently! This is an atmosphere where you have some control over your work. Still, there’s certainly a discourse of creativity that pushes work to exceed the bounds of the workday. The offices of Silicon Valley often reflect that: They create set-ups, like at Google or Facebook, where you ask yourself, “Why should I leave?”

Another term that has become the object of leftist scorn in the era of the New Economy is “flexibility.” Could you talk about the abuses of this term, the way it’s used to pressure people into doing things they wouldn’t necessarily do, and why you find a kernel of optimism in the fact that many white-collar workers now believe in or expect “flexible” workplaces?

As a term of abuse, a way of further exploiting a workforce, you can find flexibility throughout the history of the office. Recent examples, when it comes to design, would be things like the “open office”—an office meant to be mobile, flexible, but that more reflects managerial intent (what is more productive for the company) than people deciding how “flexible” their work should be. The cubicle, originally the Action Office, was supposed to embody flexibility, but it ended up denoting precariousness. More recently, there have been claims that technology would allow flexibility, like through telecommuting. But as many have found, this often doesn’t mean you work less, but more.

The one thing I wanted to retrieve, the rational kernel in the mystical shell, would be that flexibility wasn’t entirely about shedding people from the permanent labor force. Flexibility is something that can be imposed on people, it can be dominating. But the fact that some people don’t have to work in an office now creates a real crisis when it comes to managing workers. It’s not utopia, but it’s significant nonetheless. What organizational form it would take for that to create a really meaningful sense of autonomy is a much more difficult question. But I don’t think it’s false to see “flexibility” as containing a real desire for a kind of freedom.

Nick Serpe is an associate editor at Dissent.