Labor Theory of King of the Hill

– Claire Blechman

Who is Hank Hill? You don’t have to ask; he’ll tell you, with pride: Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane. He sells propane and propane accessories. Lady propane has been good to him.

Has there ever been a better example of the perfect worker than Hank Rutherford Hill? Excessively competent, inexplicably dedicated, and willing to go to great lengths to protect the system that exploits him for his labor, Hank is a capitalist’s dream.

King of the Hill (KOTH) is not a politically radical show. Even in the episode featuring the 2000 election (S05E01), in which Hank has a crisis of faith as to whether he can vote for W. Bush, and Luanne flirts with communism, the explicit message is a basic “vote: it’s your civic duty.” Although the show ran from 1997–2010, neither 9/11 nor the Obama administration happened here, and Arlen remained in simpler, Clintonian times. KOTH is not politically radical, but it is a show about the working class, and no show about the working class can avoid conflicts that arise from the deplorable conditions for workers in this country. Over the course of 13 seasons, KOTH portrays many labor actions: strikes, stoppages, scabbing, protests, and even corporate sabotage. The overt message of these episodes is never revolutionary, but a TV show doesn’t have to have revolutionary character to hold great lessons for those of us seeking to raise class consciousness. Hank’s relationship to his hedonistic boss, Buck Strickland, is rich material for uncovering and understanding the dynamics between the working class and the capitalists that run our businesses (and our lives).

When we say Hank is a capitalist’s dream, the specific capitalist living that dream is Buck Strickland, owner of Strickland Propane. Buck “discovered” Hank Hill when he was a young high school graduate selling Jordache at Jeans West. He correctly recognized Hank as his “golden goose,” and brought him into the “Strickland family,” to sell propane and propane accessories. Because of this, Hank looks to Buck as a mentor and a surrogate father figure. Buck, on the other hand, exploits Hank for all the surplus value he can squeeze out of him over the next 15 years.

All capitalist bosses exploit their workers and extract value from their labor to make their profits, but Buck takes this parasitic relationship to extremes. It is a running joke that Buck contributes nothing to the business, steals from the safe and the coffee fund, and skips town the second he might have to take any responsibility (sometimes literally bailing out the window). In the episode where Buck gets banned from his favorite strip club (Jugstore Cowboys), Hank tries to convince him to come back to work at Strickland Propane, but Buck makes his position clear:

BUCK: I hate work, Hank! It’s so god-awful boring. How you don’t kill yourself is beyond me. (S10E12)

No matter how big a mess Buck makes—philandering, gambling, even colluding on an illegal price fixing cartel—Hank is always there to clean it up. On top of Hank’s regular work managing the entire business, Buck has Hank bail him out of jail on multiple occasions, complete his community service for him, and otherwise do all his dirty work. All of this he demands of Hank without so much as a “please,” and certainly never a raise. On more than one occasion Buck loses Hank at the poker table, gambling him away like so many chips. Hank’s labor power is a commodity that his employer controls, and that Buck trades in to pay his debts.

Despite Buck’s exploitation and even outright abuse, Hank is pathologically loyal to the company that defines him. It takes a series of significant betrayals for Hank to question that loyalty.

Hospitalized with the first of many “infarctions,” Buck passes over his most effective and loyal worker (Hank) to put the toady B-school graduate Lloyd Vickers in charge of the business (S02E12). Hank, by contrast, is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds, and while at Buck’s mansion, he finds out that the man he idolizes doesn’t even cook on a gas stove.

HANK: How could you, sir? …you’ve always said that propane is God’s gas. It’s a higher calling.

BUCK: Aww hell Hank, it’s just a business! It’s about makin’ as much money as you can while you can. (S02E12)

Buck has no illusions that there is anything noble about running a business, and no compunctions about throwing his best worker under the bus in the hopes of earning higher profits (a decision he will regret in this one instance, but only briefly). Hank is loyal to his boss, but this is a tragic, misplaced loyalty that is never reciprocated. It’s a form of dramatic irony that we in the audience know Buck is a terrible boss, even if Hank will not admit it. This is a relatable characterization of Hank. It is often easier to recognize poor treatment of others rather than confront our own exploitation.

Buck puts Vickers in charge because he thinks his “fancy business school degree” might earn him more money (10 cents a gallon in fact). Hank would never consider Peak Demand Pricing because that’s “sticking it to people when they need us most” (S02E12), but to a capitalist like Vickers, the market demands they extract as much profit as they can—from both the employees and the customers. Buck agrees to put the tattler boxes in the trucks (to track drivers’ routes and cut down on unscheduled stops) for the same reason. This is the last straw for Hank.

HANK: Mister Strickland, I never thought I’d say this but…I’m not coming in tomorrow

BUCK: You quittin’, or are you taking a personal day?

HANK: You heard me! (S02E12)

For the first (and arguably last) time, Hank has finally seen through the layers of bullshit Buck uses to placate him into accepting all of this poor treatment. He goes to the lake to reflect on what it all means, but Hank is not a man who is equipped to emerge from his retreat with new philosophy of life. Because he doesn’t know how to relate to the world other than through his identity as a worker, what he ends up doing is searching for some more “authentic” work to structure his life around. He settles on being the manager of a “Mom and Pop” general store.

HANK: Peggy! Pack up the car, I’ve figured it all out. It’s not about tattler boxes or who’s in charge. It’s about service with a smile and makin’ people happy. […] Everything I thought I’d find in propane, it isn’t there. It’s in the general store, where they put people before pennies. (S02E12)

The problem is there is no aspect of the capitalist system that puts “people before pennies.” It is, as Buck said, “about making as much money as you can, while you can.” We know that Hank’s sentimental vision of the general store is also a lie. After Hank leaves the store that inspired his epiphany, “Ma” berates “Pa”:

PA: Twenty’s close enough. we don’t care about a buck here or there. People before pennies I always say

HANK: Well thank you friend; you’re good people

[HANK leaves]

MA: We don’t care about a buck here or there? Now I know why they call you Pa. Because you’re PA-thetic

PA: And I know why they call you Ma! Because you’re always riding MAH ASS. (S02E12)

“People before pennies” is a line Hank can embrace in his search for meaning in his work. But it’s a complete illusion. You cannot run a business this way, and you definitely can’t run it the way Hank envisions running his general store:

HANK: A fella’s got no money, he can’t pay his bill? Well that’s good enough for us. And then that fella will tell another fella, and before you know it we’ll have customers lined up around the block. (S02E12)

Meanwhile, back at Strickland, the drivers have all quit, Buck has fired Vickers (after unleashing a torrent of creatively TV-appropriate swearing), and customers have left dozens of messages on Hank’s voicemail asking when their propane will be delivered. Without the drivers’ labor, Strickland can’t run his business. Without Hank and his leadership, Strickland had no hope of keeping the drivers on the job.

This “Snow Job” episode (S02E12) is an outlier, in that Hank pushes back against Buck’s exploitation. Normally, Buck can count on Hank, and more passively the rest of his staff, to acquiesce to his meetings in the men’s room, his stealing from the safe to go to the strip club, his affair with employee Debbie Grund, and all the humiliating schemes he makes them work through.

Buck at one point holds the entire staff of Strickland Propane hostage at the office overnight to indulge him in playing board games, and tortures them by making anyone who voices any protest wear a wet blanket (S10E12). If a private individual did this to a random group of strangers he would be a criminal, but because a boss is doing it to his workers, Hank and the rest of the employees at Strickland Propane are acculturated to accept Buck’s egregious demands.

JOE JACK: I won’t wear the blanket again, honey. I swear I won’t.

HANK: I hate it, too, but you can’t argue with Mr. Strickland. Not when business is up. (S10E12)

Under capitalism, a lot of abuse is totally excusable (or even unassailable) so long as “business is up.” In order to keep business on the up, capitalists have to keep making increasing demands on their workers.

The only question is how much their can increase those demands, and for how long, before the workers revolt. Joe Jack might have followed through on his desire to “throw a blanket over his [Buck’s] head and do what feels right,” had Hank not intervened (S10E12).

Not all bosses are alike, and by lack of skill or circumstances, not all of them succeed at striking the delicate balance between labor exploiting and loyalty inspiring. Hank’s neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone, usually a white collar “systems analyst,” gets to try his hand at being the boss in “The Year of Washing Dangerously” episode (S10E09). It does not go well.

When Buck farms out Hank as day labor to Kahn’s car wash scheme1, Kahn (a petit-bourgeoisie striver to the core) abuses and humiliates Hank beyond his limits. What’s more, he exploits the customers, jacking up the prices and cheating them on spray time. As we learned from the Snow Job episode (S02E12), if there’s one thing Hank can’t abide, it’s screwing over customers. Kahn then accuses Hank of stealing:

KAHN: You trying to steal from me? Empty your pockets!
HANK: I’m not going to empty my pockets.

KAHN: Something to hide, huh?
HANK: Kahn, get away from me.

KAHN: Ah! A quarter! I knew it. Thief!
HANK: That is my personal quarter. I brought it from home. (S10E09)

For Hank, this is an embarrassing and intolerable questioning of his integrity. For the rest of us, we can see the absurdity of a boss like Kahn accusing a man like Hank Hill of “stealing” a measly quarter. Kahn thinks as the owner he is entitled to every quarter he can wring out of Hank and Scrubby’s, but that’s the capitalism talking. We know that Labor is entitled to all it creates.

When Hank inevitably quits, Buck takes Kahn aside and, exasperated, explains the scheme to him. Buck, like all successful capitalists, knows from where his wealth derives in this system. “I got my own little success secret,” he says. “A business thrives on customer relations and back-breaking hard work. And that’s the guy that gives it to you. Hank is the golden goose.” (S10E09)

Kahn’s failure here was not that he exploited Hank, or even that he exploited him too much. In context, the work Buck makes Hank do, and the humiliations he makes him suffer, are manifold. Buck regularly makes his employees take meetings in the restroom while he sits on the toilet. He makes Hank skip date night with his wife to go kill the Emus on his failed Emu farm, because they were no longer profitable. Most egregiously, Buck tries to frame Hank for murder (S04E14).

For 15 years Hank puts up with Buck’s bullshit, only flirting with quitting in the most egregious of circumstances and never following through, but he only lasts two days with Kahn. Why does Hank know his worth and the power of withholding his labor in this case, but not in any other?

The difference between Kahn’s clumsy petit-bourgeois exploitation and Buck’s professional capitalist version is that Kahn rubbed it in. He couldn’t help but laugh in Hank’s face and proclaim him a monkey. Insecure with his position as a member of the managerial class, Kahn reasserts his dominance over Hank at every opportunity. Buck, by contrast, named Hank employee of the month for 14 years running, and constantly reminds his staff that Strickland Propane is a “family”2. This helps maintain the illusion that the boss has a vested interest in his workers as people instead of just as commodities from which he can extract more and more labor, and thus more and more profit.

There’s an intersectional component to this too, that Kahn is a Laotian immigrant and Buck is a white man. It’s clear that, as a character trait, Kahn Soupanusinphone strives to achieve the bourgeois lifestyle he perceives as the American dream—personified in Ted Wasonasong (country club membership, giant house with a pool in a gated community, consumer luxury goods). He’s taken in by the get rich quick schemes of Asian telemarketer Doctor Money, but Kahn will never achieve the promise of the American bourgeoisie. Try as he might, he will never be admitted to the club—neither Nine Rivers Country Club nor the capitalist class3.

Hank, meanwhile, doesn’t see anything wrong with a social order in which he is the property of a white man like Buck Strickland, but cannot abide his neighbor Kahn in the same position.

HANK: I left Jeans West to work for one of the most admired men in Arlen business: Buck Strickland. Not a lazy idiot who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. (S10E09)

Throughout the series, it’s implied that Buck was once a formidable businessman, but considering we rarely see Buck do anything even approaching business acumen (with the notable exception of hiring Hank),it’s more likely that’s a myth that Hank tells to justify his current cognitive dissonance. “Lazy idiot” describes Buck perhaps even better than it does Kahn but Hank steadfastly ignores any such comparisons.

“I know the secret to success: hard work,” Hank lectures Kahn (S10E09). This is at once trite received knowledge and extreme naivete.

Hank fetishizes hard work for its own sake, an attitude that he certainly did not get from either of his parents. He tries to impart this lesson to his son Bobby on many occasions, but the depth of his work ethic is so ludicrous it always comes off as a joke. For example, when Bobby becomes the towel manager of the football team and is assigned to clean every jockstrap after a game, Hank says:

HANK: Looks like you’ve got some hard work ahead of you. Enjoy it because you’ve earned it. (S07E06)

Like Hank, many people in the real world come to the conclusion that hard work is the answer to every problem. This is deliberately instilled in us through a lifetime of capitalist ideology that permeates every aspect of our existence. The promise goes like this: work hard, and you will succeed. The corollary is if you don’t succeed, you’re not working hard enough.

Of course the Bucks of the world want the Hanks to work harder, in all circumstances. The more labor Hank puts in—to the car wash or to the propane dealership—the more profit the boss can extract from his labor.

One of the reasons that Hank remains loyal to his boss despite it all is that, far from feeling exploited when he has to go the extra mile, Hank takes pride in the fact that he works hard. But for what? The reward for all this hard work can’t be more money, or less work (both of which cut into the boss’s profit), so it becomes either a bromide like “satisfaction in a job well done,” or a passive sense of superiority over those who have less capacity or willingness to work. There is no better motivator than a strong moral compass, even if it points you in the wrong direction.

It’s a running gag over the ten seasons of King of the Hill that Hank doesn’t take any time off, and doesn’t know what to do with himself when he is forced to take a break from work. Work is not just a paycheck to Hank, it’s his identity. Even in situations that have nothing to do with work, he introduces himself as “Hank Hill, Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane.”

Hank’s identity as a worker is sewn up so tight that when he injures his back so badly that he can’t even stand up straight, the idea of taking worker’s comp is anathema to him (S08E20).

DOCTOR: Just have your office send over your workers’ compensation forms and I’ll sign off on them

HANK: Workers’ comp? Do I look like a hobo to you? No sir, I’m not going on welfare. (S08E20)

Even when Buck gives him the go-ahead to take time off, Hank’s work ethic supersedes his misplaced loyalty in his boss.

BUCK: Slow down old top! If you go on workers’ comp I can have Joe Jack’s cousin fill in for you for half the pay. And still have some left to buy my new lady some studio time.

HANK: Mister Strickland, as long as I’m breathing, I’m going to do my job. (S08E20)

Hank’s productive power is formidable, and capitalist ideology has taught him that he had better maintain that quality (and thus his value), or else what use is he? To admit that he can’t work, or needs accommodation, even for a 100% legitimate reason, is a blow to his self-concept.

When he is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds in the Snow Job episode, Hank faces one more humiliation, from the new boss Vickers.

HANK: He had the nerve to give me flex time! That’s what they give pregnant women and other disableds. (S02E12)

Under capitalism, those whose productive power is diminished beyond what is useful for a capitalist to extract from their labor are considered “disabled”. That pregnant women are included in this inferior group is no accident—even though the labor they are doing is the most productive of the entire human race. The gender politics of work in KOTH are too vast to get into here, but suffice to say, Hank rails at the idea of being thought of as womanly in any way in part because his concept of masculinity is to be a worker with enormous capacity.

Hank can toil as hard as he wants, for as long as he wants without end (“Breaks are for guys on disability” Bobby parrots in S08E08), but in the end he’ll be right back where he started, and all he will have achieved is making the capitalist who owns his labor power richer.

If hard work guaranteed success, Hank would be manager of Strickland Propane, instead of assistant manager. Without the interference and sabotage from Buck, Hank could run Strickland Propane in his sleep. He could decide he has had enough of working for a boss like Buck, go out on his own (like M. F. Thatherton did)4, and run every other propane concern out of town5. The only advantage Buck has in this situation is that he owns the means of production. But under capitalism, that is the crucial advantage, and the difference between the bosses and the working class, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“The place runs itself,” Buck says of the restaurant he owns (Sugarfoot’s). “The help makes the barbeque, I make the money” (S04E13). This is a particularly succinct statement of how wage labor works under capitalism. All of Buck’s wealth is created by the hard work of his employees, Hank especially.

Considering all this—that Buck brings nothing to the table, and is open about how he opportunistically extracts wealth from his workers and customers alike while trying to avoid any semblance of actual work—it might seem puzzling that Hank doesn’t push back, given his strong conviction in the morality of hard work. Instead, Hank actively works to prop up Buck’s authority, in increasingly hilarious ways. Whether he’s being Buck’s character witness or breaking the drivers’ strike, Hank consistently insulates his boss from the consequences of his actions.

You don’t have to be the beneficiary of the capitalist system to work to uphold it. Many people who do not directly benefit from capitalism are the most loyal enablers of the system. Some because they believe (like Kahn) that the capitalists will someday admit them to their club. Some because they imagine they are in a zero-sum game, pitted against their fellow workers for scraps. Hank does it because he has constructed an identity around work, and because he desperately wants Buck to be his surrogate father (in the next installment we’ll cover how capitalists exploit the family dynamic to maintain control over workers, and how Hank is particularly susceptible to this as the product of an abusive home).

In the same episode where Buck humiliates Hank by assigning him to feed his hounds, Hank bails Buck out of hot water yet again. The drivers’ strike threatens to put Arlen out of propane during the cold snap, and Buck out of business. The drivers know their power, in part because they have class C licenses to transport hazardous materials, but also because, as we find out earlier in the episode, they have a union. They want the tattler boxes out of their trucks, so they withhold the most valuable thing they can give to Strickland: their labor.

This is a sound strategy, but like all labor actions, they were vulnerable to scabs and class traitors. Hank breaks the drivers’ strike by hooking up the bobtails to tow trucks, so that they can deliver propane without needing the labor of drivers with class-C licenses. He does this even though he agrees with the workers’ demands, and knows this problem is entirely the work of his nemesis Lloyd Vickers (S02E12).

Towing the bobtails is presented as a can-do solution to a crisis which gets the people of Arlen their propane in a rare snowy cold snap, but the real solution would be to remove the tattler boxes and invite the licensed drivers to come back to work. By caving on his stand against Buck’s harsh treatment (and worse, by scabbing against his fellow workers) Hank loses any chance he had to make gains for a better workplace. He is only setting himself up for another 15 years of wage slavery and exploitation.

The bobtail incident is not the only time Hank scabs while workers are on strike. In the episode “A Fire-fighting We Will Go” (S03E10), Hank and the gang knowingly cross a picket line in order to live out their childhood fantasy of being volunteer firefighters. They are not paid for this labor, but no one seems to care so long as they can drive around in the fire truck and posture about their new “occupation.”

The episode itself is critical of Hank’s choice to cross the picket line, reminding us of the paid workers that they are displacing, and making it extremely clear that their scab labor is disastrously incompetent. They burn down the entire firehouse, in fact. But none of this matters to Hank.

HANK: They’re striking? Well sir, fires don’t go on strike, I tell you hwat (S03E10).

When there’s work to be done, Hank is there to do it. He feels no remorse for any of his scabbing. Hank works hard, uncritically, because he has been indoctrinated not to think about who his hard work is serving—or hurting. For many people, capitalism is an uncritical good, and for Hank it is inextricably linked to being an American (nationalism is another way ideology solidifies the ruling class’s power over workers’ labor).

HANK: This is wrong, Mister Strickland. You’re the greatest American I know. If anyone can fix this, you can. (S12E11)

Hank is an extremely loyal person: to his country, to his friends and family, and to his boss. He cares deeply about his customers, and (foolishly) about the propane business that he has built his identity around. But he doesn’t have the sense of solidarity with other workers that is so crucial for building the labor movement. Without class consciousness, Hank will always put the interests of capitalists above his fellow workers. He will work like a dog to maintain the status quo that he knows and loves, because Hank is above all a man who plays by the rules. In America, the rule is capitalism over all.

At the end bumper of S05E01, the 2000 election episode, Hank and Bobby break the fourth wall and make a public service announcement that viewers should register to vote. “You’ll be eligible to win these valuable prizes,” Hank says: “Freedom. Civic Pride. And a brand-new President.”

If Hank had a smidgen of class consciousness, he might consider “freedom” the freedom to tell his drunk, debaucherous boss Buck Strickland where to shove it. He might finally recognize the ways Buck exploits him and extracts value from his labor beyond any returns Hank could ever imagine. He might even recognize his own power to join in solidarity with his fellow workers.

Hank Hill will never do any of these things. Not just because he’s a TV character, but because he is the consummate worker. Unlike Kahn, who futilely seeks to join the bourgeoisie, Hank is content to work hard every day at the propanerie, never rock the boat, and remain Assistant Manager forever.