Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano and the declining dignity of work
By Thomas M. Sipos
Although published in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut's dystopian novel, Player Piano, serves as a prescient satire of current day America and a foreboding prediction of what lies ahead.
Seemingly influenced by Fritz Lang's Metropolis and foreshadowing The Twilight Zone's "The Brian Center at Whipple's," Player Piano paints a future America where a technocratic oligarchy has established a corporate command economy and cradle-to-grave socialism. The leaders think they've created a utopia but the proles disagree.
One big problem is that advancing technology makes more people useless every day. Retraining is no answer; even engineers are being replaced by computers. Society has become a player piano, creating flawless music without aid of human hands.
But this Social Darwinism is not untempered. The useless do not go homeless and hungry. On the contrary, everyone's basic needs are met: per-fabricated homes, washers, TV, even free national health care. And twelve years of free education, which is pretty pointless, as most people graduate to idleness.
Well, not quite idleness. Those with top test scores enjoy free college, then join the ever-diminishing ranks of engineers and managers. They run those computers. The less-brainy majority must choose between the Army or the Reconstruction & Reclamation Corps (aka, the Reeks & Wrecks), and begin a life of menial make-work rather than real jobs.
Yes, that includes the Army. Wars are primarily fought with machines, so millions of soldiers remain idle in the US, training with wooden guns. Only those stationed safely abroad are trusted with real guns.
The less-gifted wealthy can go to private college, though I'm not sure what they'd become in this meritocracy. Perhaps politicians. It's a perfect niche for privileged idiots because Player Piano's America enjoys complete separation of politics and power. Elections are free, but elected officials are impotent PR shills. The President is a goofy dunderhead whose main job is telling everyone how great things are, while publicly "ooooing" and "aaaahing" over the engineers' latest computer. It's a job even a Joe Biden could do... oh, wait.
Despite their safety net, men feel useless and miserable because they're paid for undignified make-work. Women feel useless because of all those kitchen appliances, and miserable because they're married to losers. With few exceptions (entertainer, athlete, politician), it's mostly engineers and managers who enjoy meaningful work and its accompanying dignity.
They also earn more money, but it's the dignity that the useless majority envies. Player Piano has an anti-materialist theme. Despite calling himself a socialist, Vonnegut has written a novel in which free health care does not guarantee happiness.
Player Piano's technocratic America is the legacy of a war that had put engineers and managers in charge of a command economy, creating a permanent centralization of corporate and government power over the economy and security forces. Vonnegut's book was doubtless inspired by America's command economy during World War Two, but libertarians have long noted that "War is the health of the state." Even "good wars" invariably expand government and diminish liberties.
Player Piano could easily be describing modern America. Technology and outsourcing are relegating ever more people to menial, government-subsidized work. (Wal-Mart reputedly advises employees on how to obtain food stamps to supplement their paychecks.) And Covid has increased demands for handouts, stimulus checks, Medicare for all, reparations, and guaranteed income payments.
In Player Piano, "anti-machine" books are banned for encouraging terrorism. In modern America, anti-woke books and videos are deplatformed from Amazon and YouTube. Both Americas, ours and Player Piano's, are characterized by rising federal surveillance and harassment (or "canceling") of dissidents.
In Player Piano, politicians are simpleton mouthpieces for national security officials and technocratic oligarchs. In modern America, well, ditto.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, our Neocons imagined that we had reached the end of history. So too Player Piano's leaders. Their last war is referred to as The Last War. America's high-tech weapons and economy dominate the globe. Yet freedom does not abound in the U.S. A visiting autocrat, hosted by the State Department, mistakes average Americans for slaves.
Yes, Player Piano fails on a few predictions. Vonnegut didn't foresee so many women in the workforce. And he failed to predict that so many Americans would want to be paid for doing nothing. His novel is informed by an American work ethic that died even as automation made labor less arduous.
Vonnegut has written that during the Great Depression, his neighbors threw a party whenever anyone found a job. It didn't matter what the job was. However menial, a job was cause for celebration. That work ethic permeates Player Piano. One worker is ecstatic at the chance to fix a car. He says it was the first time he felt useful in a long time.
Vonnegut regards himself as a man of the left, but many libertarians, objectivists, and conservatives admire his work. Libertarians like that he's antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. Conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America in some of his work.
With a little updating, Player Piano could make a fine film satire of modern America. Vonnegut's never been adapted effectively to the big screen, though he was reportedly pleased with Slaughterhouse-Five's film version. The problem is that his greatest strength is not his plots or characters, but his unique authorial voice. Mother Night was adapted with unusual faithfulness to the plot, yet the film was dreary and grim, unlike the often hilarious book.
Player Piano shouldn't have this problem. It was Vonnegut's first novel, his voice still undeveloped and not yet evident, so the book's merits are not based on something unfilmable.
Unfortunately, a critique is not a solution. I don't know what can be done about automation or the outsourcing of jobs. Socialism breeds poverty, corruption, nepotism, and ethnic clashes. Protectionism leads to trade wars, and then, say some, to shooting wars. What we have today -- a sort of statist crony corporatism -- produces government favoritism for politically-connected insiders, resulting in legalized cartels and monopolies. And a free market exports good jobs to the lowest foreign bidder. Good for consumers and foreign workers. Bad for small business owners, domestic workers and their human dignity.
Player Piano is ultimately about the dignity of work and self-reliance, and how automation and welfare capitalism rob men of that dignity. Like many satirists, Vonnegut is better at identifying and ridiculing a problem than in offering a solution. Player Piano ends on a pessimistic note. That might be because some problems have no solution.
Thomas M. Sipos writes horror fiction, satire, and film reviews. His website is http://www.CommunistVampires.com/