Thursday, March 19, 2009
Kurt Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
“[I]t occurred to him that a really good science-fiction book had never been written about money. ‘Just think of the wild ways money is passed around on Earth!’ he said. ‘You don’t have to go to the Planet Tralfamadore in Anti-Matter Galaxy 508 G to find weird creatures with unbelievable powers. Look at the powers of an Earthling millionaire!'” Vonnegut's satire of wealth and philanthropy resembles Terry Southern's 1959 novel The Magic Christian by focusing on a millionaire's idiosyncrasies that shock society. I'm not sure either Vonnegut or Southern really understands how money works in the capitalist economy, so their satires always run the risk of merely moralizing about greed and social inequality. In Vonnegut's novel, Eliot Rosewater, heir (in a way) to the Rosewater fortune, decides "to love people who have no use." He sets up an office in his small hometown and offers money, advice, and pretty much anything else that people ask of him, all without reservation or judgment. Needless to say, his office soon becomes popular among the town's drunks, criminals, and single women. Expanding upon the theme of automation that is central to Player Piano, Vonnegut uses Eliot to question whether the American work ethic will become obsolete along with production? Eliot is prepared to love and assist everyone who cannot or does not wish to work. Vonnegut seems completely blind to the rise of a service economy (lets not even mention immaterial labor), yet Eliot's office often seems to provide services more than money or goods, and therefore anticipates that economy in which people useless to immediate production would still find themselves useful. I would consider Vonnegut's book yet another example of corporate fiction, in which the peculiarities of the corporate form affect literary aesthetics. Eliot Rosewater's father wished to avoid having his fortune taxed when passed on to his son, so he created the Rosewater Corporation to manage and expand that wealth and made his heirs officers of the Rosewater Foundation, which receives the profits from the corporation. "No member of the Rosewater Foundation could tell the Corporation what to do with the capital. Conversely, the Corporation was powerless to tell the Foundation what to do with the copious profits the Corporation made." Eliot's generosity doesn't involve giving away his own wealth, but in distributing what might be considered the "dividends" of the corporation, which others run for him. The novel concludes with Eliot adopting a large number of the children of his hometown, who will therefore be made officers in the foundation and further extend the distribution of corporate profits. But the Rosewater Corporation fulfills its function largely by trading the stocks of other corporations (Eliot's ancestor also specialized in "paper money" like bonds and stocks). This fact makes Vonnegut's concern with automation seem misguided. The profits from the corporation can be distributed to ever greater numbers of "useless" people not because of automation that increases productivity while decreasing the need for labor, but because the corporation thrives off of the stock market's belief in capital as what Marx once termed "self-valorizing value," the belief that money can generate more money without circulating through the sphere of production.