In Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel and cutting critique of corporate identity and politics in the age of mechanical production, Player Piano (1952), protagonist Paul is invited to lead the Blue Team at “the Meadows”, the annual corporate games for Ilium’s (his employers) elite staff. The Blue Team usually win. Paul, despite the foregone conclusion, is still expected to train for the events, demonstrate his exemplary leadership skills, and abstain from a lot of the merriment (free bars put on for the rest of the team, smoking) in order to do so.
Vonnegut uses these nonsensical and contradictory details of the company traditions laid on by Ilium to poke fun at the performative nature of nepotism posing as meritocracy. Paul is, after all, only in his position at Ilium because of his father’s legacy. But the portrayal of Ilium’s sports day also signals at something else looming over the horizon: the corporate bid for our “free time” in the form of “corporate entertainment”.
Corporate entertainment and events take many different forms depending on sector, country, and budget. It can mean company boxes in stadiums, work trips to the theatre, picnics, in-house games rooms and award ceremonies. And many of these examples can and will be well-meaning attempts to galvanise a team or lift morale, enhancing the social aspect of getting through the working day.
Vonnegut’s portrayal however captures the worst version of this phenomenon – in being a thinly disguised veil to reinforce the company narrative, and by removing the autonomy of the employee. The Meadows in Player Piano lacks any spontaneity (the team songs are already written – even the words are also set to to well worn tunes, re-using old and second hand artistic merits); and in one scene the company mythology (of good – The Sky Manager – triumphing over evil – The Radical) is recited to the employee audience in the form of a play. The mechanicalisation is echoed in the frequent overhead announcements during The Meadows event regarding how to socialise – who to socialise with, to remember to talk to a stranger, build networks. A request familiar to many at these kinds of events, but a reminder from Vonnegut that in this context all activity must have a function and corporate purpose, and as such must be planned and executed in orderly fashion.
Theodor Adorno, in his 1969 essay “Free Time”, explores the notion (and commodification) of leisure as it stands in opposition to salaried time. His argument is that free time is anything but free, and it too must be claimed by capitalism – with value placed on its use and commodity fetishism endemic in activities such as holidays and sun-tans. He also makes a link between such activities and their function in relation to the the ability of the workforce: “Free time then does not stand in opposition to labour. In a system where full employment itself has become the ideal, free time is nothing more than the shadowy continuation of labour”. He uses the example of the promotion of sport which benefits the system by cultivating a more physically able workforce. And while this example does tie neatly with Player Piano’s example of The Meadows, Adorno never goes into the overt instances (fictional or in real-life) where corporate takeover of leisure can be found.
The pessimistic question is, if we agree with Adorno in that free time is an extension of the labour paradigm, does it really matter that this sometimes happens so overtly? However “Free time” ends positively – Adorno hints at the possibility of psychological resistance which in turn would result in “freedom proper”. Vonnegut’s Player Piano ends more ambivalently, with a failed insurrection against machines which demonstrates the will for a different way of doing things, but not the ability to overcome corporate power. But as the group in the closing scenes acknowledge: at least they tried.
Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, (New York: Dial Press Trade, 2006)
Theodor Adorno, “Free time” in The Culture Industry (Oxford: Routledge Classics, 2008)