Kurt Vonnegut's Neocon America: War and Socialism in Player Piano

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Although
released in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian Player
Piano
can serve as a satire of modern America. That may
not be readily apparent to those who focus only on its theme of
technology obsoleting workers. 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. However, this Darwinism is not
untempered. The useless do not go homeless and hungry. On the contrary,
everyone’s basic needs are met: pre-fabricated homes, washers, TV,
even 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.
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 meritocratic society. Perhaps politicians.
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.

Despite
their safety net, men feel useless and miserable because they’re
paid for make-work. Women feel useless because of all those kitchen
appliances, and miserable because they’re married to losers. (Yeah
I know, but it’s a 1950s book.) With few exceptions (entertainer,
athlete, politician), it’s mostly engineers and managers who enjoy
meaningful work and its concomitant prestige. They also make more
money, but that’s not the main gripe of the useless majority. Player
Piano has an anti-materialist theme. Despite calling himself
a socialist, Vonnegut has written a novel in which national health
care doesn’t bring happiness.

So
how does Player Piano parallel modern America? There is the
loss of good jobs; in the book through technology, in modern America
through outsourcing. Both Americas relegate ever more people to
menial, government-subsidized work (Wal-Mart reputedly advises employees
how to obtain food stamps to supplement their paychecks). Both Americas
employ rising police surveillance to fight terrorism, and feel rising
suspicion toward dissenters. In Player Piano, terrorists
are also called “saboteurs,” the ugliest of obscenities. Alleged
saboteurs cannot appeal to a judge. Judges have been replaced by
computers that analyze precedents and spit out verdicts.

Most
importantly, in Player Piano the centralization of corporate/government
power over the economy and security forces is a legacy of the last
war, which was largely responsible for putting engineers and managers
in charge of a command economy. It was a big war, fought overseas
with drones and nukes and Gamma rays. A real turkey shoot, except
for the soldiers attending the high-tech weapons during a return
fire.

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.” Some conservatives may not like to hear it,
but even “good wars” invariably expand government and diminish liberties.
Just ask Louis XVI what the American Revolution did for his treasury.
Thus, true conservatives, like all true patriots, are always skeptical
of war, and suspicious of those who say we must not question or
doubt our elected leaders in times of war.

Player
Piano’s neocons imagine that they’ve ended history. The last
war is referred to as the Last War. America’s high-tech weapons
and economy dominate the globe. Yet freedom does not abound, not
even in the US. “Anti-machine” books are banned for encouraging
terrorism, the authors risking jail. Indeed, a visiting autocrat,
hosted by the State Department, mistakes average Americans for slaves.

Vonnegut
regards himself as a man of the left, but I’ve met many libertarians,
conservatives, and objectivists who admire Vonnegut’s work. Libertarians
admire him because he’s antiwar and distrusts government. Objectivists
mostly enjoy his atheism and Bokononist satire of religion. And
conservatives discern a patriotic nostalgia for small town America
in some of his work. While I think that’s especially true of his
short stories, I’ve met one conservative who was taken with Vonnegut’s
midwestern family history in Palm Sunday. Ralph Nader has
praised such “true conservatism,” distinguishing it from corporatism
or empire building.

With
a little updating, Player Piano would make for a fine film
satire of modern America. Vonnegut’s never been adapted effectively,
though he was reportedly pleased with Slaughterhouse-Five.
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
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 and contracts
for politically-connected insiders. But even an authentic free market
would drain good jobs to the lowest foreign bidder. Good for foreign
workers and consumers, bad for domestic workers.

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 may be because some problems have no
solution.

May
2, 2005

Thomas
M. Sipos’s [send him
mail
] libertarian-leaning novels include Vampire
Nation
and Manhattan
Sharks
. His website: www.CommunistVampires.com.

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