The thing about “late capitalism” or “neo-liberalism,” or whatever the kids are calling it these days, is that “productivity” becomes much less important, to the extent that it ever was. Something changes about capitalist production when structural reasons make it less important to extract as much surplus value as possible out of the laboring population; the weaker the market becomes to force competition (or, the more power Capital is able to exert over that market), the less necessary it becomes for Capital to actually work at producing value. Instead, Capital works at producing consumers; if you can monopolize what it is possible for them to buy, it’s enough that they buy something.
This doesn’t contradict anything about other styles of capitalism, of course; it’s a mode of activity that integrates nicely into others. But it is distinct, or worth distinguishing, for at least one reason: under “neoliberalism,” the best worker is no longer Taylor’s “intelligent gorilla“; instead, the best worker is the one who can be most easily fired. A worker’s true value-producing capacity, in other words, is not how effectively they can turn capital into use or exchange value (which Taylor correlates to how pliant they are in being molded into value-producing machines), but the ease by which they can be shed from the system when the time comes to cut costs. What gets euphemistically called “flexibility” is more centrally important to the profit making machine.
Michael Scott believes himself to be a certain kind of boss. Since he dimly understands that most bosses (especially those in corporate) are grown-uppy spoil sports who don’t know how to have fun, he finds his identity in bringing a little jouissance into the office. He’s far too stupid to realize the contradictions, of course; his personal hero is the obnoxious Todd Packer, a traveling salesman who lives the life of a perpetual child, while he aspires at the same time to be the world’s greatest boss. The fact that he buys himself a mug with those very words is a wonderful illustration of the sublime perfection with which he papers over the gigantic contradiction that structures his life: he can use his power to create “friends” without realizing that such people are not really friends, and he can force people to laugh at his jokes without realizing that forced laughs are not funny.
When the Stamford boss sacrifices his branch in order to further his career, though, the show reveals something about Michael: while his Michael’s failings as a boss may not hamper his ability to exercise power, his delusions are an index to his ability to stay human. Because he can never understand what an indescribably evil job he has, he manages to avoid being an evil human being. And there’s something revealingly earnest in Jim’s surprised tone of voice when he tells the camera (almost surprised to hear himself saying it) “Say what you will about Michael Scott, he’d never do that.” He (and we) are learning something about Michael Scott that our contempt for him usually masks: Michael’s delusions are produced by his basic decency. After all, in his own way, no one hates the office as much as he does. I suspect this is why he displaces all his hatred onto the innocuous Toby. Just as he needs to imagine that it is Toby who represents all that is evil so he doesn’t realize that it’s himself, his delusionary capacity is a dark closet that expands to contain his own complicity.
But be that as it may, it is the rising fortunes of Ben, the temp, who illustrates what is at stake in striving to rise in the corporate ladder. Unlike Pam, Michael, and Jim, who each live in their own particular world of make-believe, Ryan can afford no illusions about where he stands, nor are any illusions offered to him. When he first arrives at Dunder Mifflin, Ryan is the most degraded and abused person in the hierarchy, the temporary worker. So while Jim lives in the fantasy world of believing he has agency (though he is, always, a secret agent), Ryan learns how power works by serving as its object, just as Frederick Douglass and Hegel needed the idea of the slave to make power legible. And while Jim is slow to understand what he would need to do to rise within the corporate hierarchy (and while Michael and Pam could never let themselves learn), Ryan neither hesitates nor deviates. The temporary worker can have no illusions about his status; Michael Scott can fantasize about their relationship (a fantasy that covers all the ground between sexual and paternal) but Ryan understands quite well that his role in the office is to be fucked.
As early as the “Office Olympics” episode, Ryan begins to show us who he is: he muses that he could have kept the fabricated medal, but for how long? Ultimately, it’s not something he wants. So he throws it away, in front of Pam. Jim would never do this, but part of who Ryan is learning to be is a person who can do this, who can (like the Stamford boss) toss his friends under the bus whenever necessary. In this sense, business school teaches him the theory, but he learns the practice in the office. Observe, for example, the final scenes of the final episode of season three, and the terms on which Jim returns from corporate and the moment when Ryan’s triumph is made apparent: Jim sacrifices his career for Pam, but Ryan dumps Kelly without hesitation. These scenes are paired; while Jim is ultimately unable to do what would be necessary — having never fully understood what that would be — Ryan has always known how low he would need to go. It is the highest virtue of business: if the best worker is one who can be fired, the best Boss is a person who can fire without conscience.