BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Prophets, almost by definition, are not appreciated in their own times. Small wonder. They are either slagging the establishment or warning everyone how bad the future looks. Such outbursts tend to be mood killers. We do not want to hear how the powers that be are walking us off a cliff.
I recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s deeply prophetic first novel, Player Piano. It is, in my estimation, about as good as a first novel can be.
Published in 1952, it was also way ahead of its time, unintentionally describing the first step toward the cliff of middle-class job insecurity we walked off in, oh, I suppose the 1990s. It portrays the increasing social dominance of technical expertise in America just after World War Two, a time when the promise of automation was just beginning to capture the public imagination. Older and wiser, we now know automation has led to, not just less drudgery, but also a diminishing sense of purpose in one’s work and the widespread fear that one’s job could be rightsized or outsourced any day. Player Piano catches this story at its sunlit beginning, when Americans were still focused on the intended consequences of all-out automation.
Literature exists, of course, to show all the ways the world escapes our grasp, especially when we think we have it thoroughly sewn up. It wasn’t just drudge work we were abolishing when we began programming machines to do our jobs (faster, better, and around the clock). Here’s the basic setup of Player Piano: In postwar America, the government, elite newspapers and leading universities have determined that the thing that won World War Two was American know-how. Russia fought a long, bloody, desperate campaign against the better-organized Nazis and won only by Stalin’s luddite sacrifice of millions of Soviet lives; Britain barely held its own even after it developed the ability to carpet bomb German cities at will. Not until America put its unique genius to work developing the atom bomb and proliferating the world’s best arms factories did the game change and the war turn toward an end.
In Vonnegut’s Pax Americana, the country’s master class is a small cohort of managers and engineers, the two types of people who generated the know-how that won the war. America has turned into a comprehensive meritocracy based on this historical test case; if you have know-how you’re in, if not, you’re out. Every factory, indeed all of society, is overseen by managers and engineers whose job it is to expand automation to its natural limits. The factories they supervise hum quietly with computer processes and electric current; the roar, swoosh and clang of industry is gone. The managers of know-how are less like floor bosses, more like curators of museums of the future. The new engineers write routines that cut more and more humans out of the loop. (The roots of artificial intelligence are evident here.)
Player Piano‘s antgonist, Paul Proteus, is a high-flying, mild-mannered manager of a large plant in upstate New York. His staff consists of one secretary and one engineer; as the book opens, the latter is about to design a circuit that will render his job redundant. Paul delivers the bad news; the engineer takes it equably, having already worked out the consequences of his latest inspiration. He’s a smart, affable guy from Georgia.
Paul, however, perceives what his genius is doing to the less affable remainder of society, the ranks of the laid off who didn’t get the chance to write their own pink slips. The problem is the system as a whole. Elementary schools track young students to determine their fitness for a future in management or engineering, which increasingly means their fitness to rule society. Most of them–shall we say 99 percent?–will be shunted into the class of the ruled. Workers all across the new America are now former workers: where they used to contribute to society, they now face a choice between conscription in the do-nothing Army (presumably machines do all the real fighting) or a federal jobs corps whose only function is to absorb excess labor energy.
Of an evening the useless proletariat gathers at the bar, which is where Paul meets them. The plot of Player Piano is the story of how he defects from his class to become the leader of an insurrection on their behalf . The story is a tragedy: after Paul’s rebels make a bloody stand to smash the machines and restore humans to meaningful work, they immediately set about designing “efficiencies” in their primitive new society that would eventually debase them and shunt them aside once again. They can’t help themselves; or maybe better: they are addicted to helping themselves.
The real substance of Player Piano, though, is in its ideas, not its plot. In a key moment, as Paul is about to take the leap and assume leadership of the workers’ rebellion, he tries to persuade his wife that the wealth and comfort of the master class–their class–has created the cause he now feels he must fight for. “In order to get what we’ve got, Anita, we have, in effect, traded these people out of what was the most important thing on earth to them–the feeling of being needed and useful, the foundation of self-respect.”
This indictment is essentially a restatement of Marx’s idea of alienated labor, the contention that maximal efficiency-seeking in productivity dehumanizes work. It is worth quoting Marx at length on this idea. Long presumed dead, Marx’s words from Das Kapital describe the setup of Player Piano to a tee and, much more unsettling, touch on many things that still plague workers today:
. . . within the capitalist system all the methods for increasing the social productivity of labor are carried out at the cost of the individual worker. That all means for developing production are transformed into means for domination over and exploitation of the producer; that they mutilate the worker into the fragment of a human being, degrade him to become a mere appurtenance of the machine, make his work such a torment that its essential meaning is destroyed; cut him off from the intellectual potentialities of the labor process in exact proportion to the extent to which sicence is incorporated into it as an independent power; that they distort the conditions under which he works, subjecting him . . . to a despotism which is all the more hateful because of its pettiness . . . .
For all the poetry of this passage, the key to understanding it is that odd little clinical-sounding phrase about science being an “independent power.” What we are supposed to take away from this term is a sense of inexorability: certain objective forces drive the means of productivity forward, and we just have to accept that we are along for the ride. History determines the haves and have-nots. In Player Piano, it was the job of the managers and engineers to propagate this narrative of inevitability: although the proles might honestly feel they had reason to grumble about lacking meaningful work, the forces that had set them adrift were an established historical fact that you simply couldn’t get around. Remember the engineer who coded himself out of a job and then took it well?–That’s the way to handle these things, the managers tell us.
Alienated labor is still very much alive today. And workers are still not good at taking it equably when robots or cheap foreign workers push them out of their jobs. Indeed I would argue that the populism that gave us a demagogue for a president last year is based in the very same complaint that the proletariat raises in Player Piano: the feeling that invisible, unaccountable powers have debased labor and disconnected people from their jobs. This trend has been going on long enough now–and has been buttressed by new wondrous means by which the rich expropriate the workers’ wages, including offshoring, benefits reductions, and tax havens–that it has become toxic. Alienated labor gave us Trump. It is the thing that, since the 1970s, has gutted America’s middle class, wrecked the hopes of those left behind by new “efficiencies,” and supercharged our class antagonisms into a political culture of tribal hostilities. And since Trump only stirs the anger of the alienated without actually addressing any of their complaints, their cause will continue to fester and inflame, making a future revolution of some kind that much more likely.
One of the background characters of Player Piano is EPICAC, a supercomputer that is biding its time, waiting for the top engineers and managers to write the codes and business plans that will put an end to their own jobs, the last human workers.
In a delicious scene, a visiting foreign dignitary, a shah, has taken in the briefings at Paul’s plant that foretell the demise of work. Eventually, EPICAC will run the place, as it will presumably run every other place in America. Paul offers to send a crack team to to the shah’s homeland to install this business model of the future. Intriguing, the shah responds, but “before we take this first step, please, would you ask EPICAC what people are for.” Wonderful.
Vonnegut is an artist, of course, so he can leave the question at that. Most of us are “just” citizens, though, and we must look to practical means, imperfect as they may be, to help us define what we are “for” and what work is supposed to mean to us. Is the need to feel useful in our jobs as sacred as it seems? What if the established powers deprive us systematically of the opportunity to so perform and to so feel?
The glowing heart of Player Piano is the (thoroughly Marxist) reminder that we need not accept the ruling elite’s narrative that morally-neutral forces of history have placed them in lear jets and the other 99 percent in the entryways of Walmarts, in the seasonal Amazon warehouses, and in the rest of the places where every job threatens to become a mcjob and impose a “despotism . . . hateful because of its pettiness.” Pro-labor political reform is still an option, and rebellion need not take the form of a do-nothing populism.