Player Piano in the Age of Trump | Shapshay on Player Piano

Sandy Shapshay


Player Piano is THE novel to read in the Trump era. I’m no political scientist, but I have a keen suspicion that if this novel had been required reading for the Clinton campaign, we might not be in the Trump era right now. Allow me to make a case for these bold claims.

Vonnegut’s foreword proclaims that this is “not a book about what is, but a book about what could be.” According to Player Piano, the society that the US could become is one that combines broadly liberal-democratic institutions, with New Deal–like social programs, alongside the advanced logic of automation. By the “logic of automation” I mean that whatever work can be done more efficiently by machines, including “thinking machines” (today’s computers), will inevitably come to be done by machines rather than by human beings. The resulting society is one in which only a small “cognitive elite”—human beings with as yet machine-proof jobs, most of whom are engineers and managers—have any real functional value in the economy.

One might think that with something like 80 percent of the adult population essentially unemployed, mass poverty would readily lead to revolution. But that is not the case in this fictional world, because the wise central planners have made sure that all citizens have not only a decent minimum standard of living but actually have a rather comfortable standard of living. Each adult citizen is equipped with his or her own house that features all of the modern appliances, and no one in this society is wanting for food or clothing, or access to education and health care. The problem is not poverty, but rather a problem of existential meaning, for unless a person (really, a man in this still sexist, futuristic society) scores very high on an IQ test, or is extremely well connected to the managerial elite, he will have no useful function in the economy, which becomes a source of deep, existential ennui.

Despite some residual class inequality in this society—there are but two classes really, the cognitive elite and the vast “stupid masses”—a philosopher like Karl Marx might very well be pleased by this situation on its face. In The German Ideology Marx describes how wonderful it will be in a post-capitalist society when people might be able “to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner” without having to be stuck in any of these activities as a means of gaining a subsistence living.

An advanced state of automation, the great material wealth created by this highly efficient society, and the central planning that ensures that all citizens have a comfortable material situation all seem like an incredible liberation for the proletariat. People have nothing but leisure time in which to pursue their autonomous interests! They can spend quality time with their families, go fishing, cultivate a garden, learn to play the piano (not just listen to the eponymous player piano), read and write novels, go hiking and enjoy the natural environment, learn a foreign language, and explore different cultures. Isn’t this in part the dream of communism?

Yet, in the fictional world that Vonnegut has created, the masses are bored, angry, drunk, and depressed. They are filled with self-loathing and envy of their superiors. Sadly, the masses in Vonnegut’s novel are not especially creative. However, even the more creative types channel their artistic energies into frivolous games and amusements, such as parading about in garish costumes. Even those who are “artistic,” like Paul Proteus’s wife, Anita, spend that impulse exclusively on unsatisfying home décor projects. The masses are also not religious, as, according to the ex-minister Lasher, “for generations they’ve been built up to worship competition and the market, productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men” (90).

Thus, Vonnegut takes a pessimistic view of the human nature that has been shaped by generations of free-market capitalism: without the need and opportunity to do productive work in a society, the vast majority of people will not feel any purpose in their life. Pace Marx, having material comforts and plenty of leisure time do not constitute a heavenly freedom for the masses, but rather a hellish prison, where people are bored and lack self respect. Self-respect, it seems, comes only from feeling oneself useful in the economy.

So what has this novel to do with the Trump era as I purported at the start?

There certainly are major differences between the world of Player Piano and contemporary US society. First off, we lack the kind of welfare state that provides everyone with a decent minimum of housing, food, medical care, and education. For example, even with the Affordable Care Act still in place at the time of my writing this essay, approximately 20 million Americans do not have reliable access to medical care. Broadly speaking, there is necessity to work in the US in order to meet the most basic needs.

However, very much like the world of the novel, for folks who are not in the “cognitive elite,” many of the good, productive jobs that traditionally paid solid wages and came with solid benefits have been taken over by machines or shipped overseas where labor is cheaper. This has led to chronic unemployment or underemployment and the problems of alcoholism, drug-addiction, hopelessness, and suicide that tend to come with it.

The two-class society that Vonnegut depicts is strikingly similar to the diagnosis of contemporary American society made by controversial American Enterprise Institute thinker Charles Murray. In a blog post shortly before the 2016 presidential election, Murray summarized the state of the nation as follows: “The new upper class [which Murray refers to explicitly as the “cognitive elite”] consists of the people who shape the country’s economy, politics and culture. The new lower class consists of people who have dropped out of some of the most basic institutions of American civic culture, especially work and marriage. . . . Trumpism is the voice of a beleaguered working class telling us that it too is falling away” ( Very much like the state of affairs in Player Piano, Murray believes that IQ is at the basis of the separation of classes nowadays, and the “coming apart” of these classes, he holds, is due in large part to the snobbery of the cognitive elite, whose neighborhoods, tastes, and cares are a long way off from Joe and Jane Six-Pack.

The visionary of the novel, Lasher, sums up the situation as follows: “Things, gentleman, are ripe for a phony Messiah, and when he comes, it’s sure to be a bloody business. . . . Sooner or later someone’s going to catch the imagination of these people with some new magic. At the bottom of it will be a promise of regaining the feeling of participation, the feeling of being needed on earth—hell, dignity.” It’s hard to read these words in the novel without thinking of the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Thinking counterfactually, however, even if the Clinton campaign would have appreciated to a greater extent the attraction of a powerful businessman who chided the rich coastal elite for being out of touch with the working class, and who promised to bring “good paying jobs” back to America and to reserve those jobs for Americans rather than immigrants, the novel suggests that the deep, underlying problem posed by the logic of automation would remain regardless of regime. This is because it’s not clear whether the displacement of human beings from meaningful productive work can be addressed on a societal level at all.

At the end of the novel, the motley band of revolutionaries attempt to address the problem of automation in the manner of modern-day Luddites: they smash the machines. The narrator recounts, “The four had come to an exciting decision: during the six months of blockade . . . they would make the ruins of a laboratory, a demonstration of how well and happily men could live with virtually no machines” (336); Lasher proclaims that “we’ll heat our water and cook our food and light and warm our homes with wood fires”; Finnerty exclaims that people will now walk everywhere; von Neumann is excited that people will “read books instead of watching television”; finally, Paul envisions the wonderful renaissance of self-reliance: “No quarter asked, no quarter given.” In all of these hopes for the future, a reconnection to the natural world is emphasized: feet making contact with the ground in walking, hands cultivating the earth for food, arms chopping wood for fire, people relying on their own ingenuity and sweat in harmony with nature. This is nostalgia for a life more akin to that of a “good Indian” (333).

Yet, these delightful, hopeful, but anachronistic visions crumble when the “liberated” masses want to get the machines back up and running ASAP in order to provide the accustomed modern conveniences. Furthermore, the ur-engineer among them, Bud Calhoun, is thrilled to comply. The people’s desire for material comfort, and the excitement of the engineers to meet that desire will lead the “people of Ilium . . . to recreate the same old nightmare” (340).

Ultimately, Vonnegut’s preferred solution is an individual, spiritual one. It is the road contemplated but not taken by Paul Proteus: to go live a simple, hardworking life on that old farm (think Thoreau at Walden Pond). It wouldn’t be a comfortable, glamorous, or even socially important life, except insofar as it provides a model for others to emulate, but it would be one that would represent, as von Neumann says, the rediscovery of the “two greatest wonders of the world, the human mind and hand” (336). And it would be a life where one cultivates a satisfaction and communion with the simple gifts of the earth. This is, I think, the recommendation cited from the Gospel of Matthew 6:28 at the very start of the novel: to be like the humble but beautiful lilies of the field, which do not “toil” or “spin” but gratefully receive the gifts they receive from heaven and are satisfied.

Vonnegut’s diagnosis of human nature may be overly pessimistic. Greater educational opportunities may very well enable everyone to realize the meaningful, creative, intellectual possibilities afforded by material comfort and leisure time. As John Stuart Mill writes, “Capacity for the nobler feelings [e.g., the mental pleasures to be found in engagement with art, history, science, etc.] is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise” (Utilitarianism, ch 2). Consequently, Vonnegut’s assessment of possible political solutions to the problems of advanced capitalist societies may be overly grim as well: What about robot-proof-job training programs? What about the meaning that people can derive from being a productive member of a family, local community, religious organization, club, sports team, or art guild?

Notwithstanding these possible means for avoiding the dystopia of Player Piano, Vonnegut put his finger on something very potent in 1952 that prompts serious reflection on the threat of automation to the dignity afforded by productive work in 2017.