Saturday, January 11, 2014

Readings: Vonnegut's Overly Optimistic Dystopia


Some of my friends on Facebook know that I have recently embarked on a mission to reread the early-to-mid-career fiction of Kurt Vonnegut. They may also know that I am currently reading his first novel, Player Piano, which was published more than sixty years ago, in 1952. For those of you not familiar with the novel, I provide a link to a brief Wikipedia synopsis here.

The basic premise of this futuristic piece of fiction is that society has emerged, following “the War,” as so highly mechanized that there is no longer any work for most citizens to do. Society is divided into an elite class of managers and engineers, and everybody else. Those in the latter category are employed, if at all, by the government -- either in the Army, or in the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, the workers for which are derisively referred to as the “reeks and wrecks.” To my way of thinking, this trend, recognized by Vonnegut 60-plus years ago, is a trend by which we are ever more rapidly being swept along now. All you need do is consider our perpetual war, employing hundreds of thousands, and Obama's call for "shovel-ready" infrastructure reclamation jobs, designed to employ hundreds of thousands more.

If you have read the synopsis linked above, you will already know who the character, the Reverend James J. Lasher is (if you have not read the synopsis, please do so now.) Below, I want to quote some of the speeches -- delivered to the novel’s central character, Dr. Paul Proteus (a rising manager) and Edward Finnerty (a disgruntled one) -- by which Vonnegut introduces Lasher to the reader:

“When I had a congregation before the war, I used to tell them that the life of their spirit in relation to God was the biggest thing in their lives, and that their part in the economy was nothing by comparison. Now, you people have engineered them out of their part in the economy, in the market place, and they’re finding out--most of them--that what’s left is just about zero.

[…] “For generations they’ve been built up to worship competition and the market, productivity and economic usefulness, and the envy of their fellow men--and boom!--it’s all yanked out from under them. They can’t participate, can’t be useful any more. 

[…] “You know--those ads about the American system, meaning managers and engineers, that made America great. When you finished one, you’d think the managers and engineers had given America everything: forests, rivers, minerals, mountains, oil--the works.

[…] "This crusading spirit of the managers and engineers, the idea of designing and manufacturing and distributing being sort of a holy war: all that folklore was cooked up by public relations and advertising men hired by managers and engineers to make big business popular in the old days, which it certainly wasn’t in the beginning. Now, the engineers and managers believe with all their hearts the glorious things their forebears hired people to say about them. Yesterday’s snow job becomes today’s sermon.”

I have to credit Kurt Vonnegut with remarkable foresight.  The one thing he got wrong -- at least to this point in the novel -- is leaving out any consideration of the banksters. In Vonnegut’s vision, there is no citizen who is not provided for by the wealth created by the engineers and the managers. The "reeks and wrecks" may be dispirited by feelings of uselessness, but they are not desperate due to cold or hunger.

As things are currently shaking down, however, this is not the case. Vonnegut -- most likely due to his extraordinarily good heart -- overestimated the goodness of American society; he didn’t foresee an America where the overriding lust for profit by any means necessary would leave the people not only useless, but also homeless and hungry -- if not incarcerated or worse.