Marx and Modern Times

Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) provides a striking illustration of Marx’s theory of Alienation.

Modern Times opens with a shot of a clock-face, the second-hand rushing towards 6 (am we suppose) and determining the start of the working day. This is followed by a shot of workers filing into a factory, cut with a shot of sheep being led to the slaughter (a superb example of intellectual montage), with the notable black sheep representing our hero.

When we first see Charlie he is working on an assembly line. This type of modern assembly line was actually developed by Henry Ford in the early twentieth century and, as such, is post-Marx (who is writing about factory production and increasing industrialisation in the mid-nineteenth century). However, through the innovation of Ford, we perhaps see Marx’s fears most clearly realised.

Chaplin’s comic portrayal of an assembly line worker illustrates Marx’s view concerning mechanisation due to the division of labour. The machines here do not aid Charlie’s work (he is a bolt-tightener) but rather determine the nature of his boring yet demanding task. The process of labour is entirely outwith the worker’s control; he is unable even to stop to sneeze without causing the production line to grind to a stop, much to the annoyance of his co-workers and foreman. It’s not just the workers that struggle either. Even the capitalist factory owner seems to have problems; popping pills as he sits in his panopticon attempting to maximise production.

Marx’s point about the product of labour as power that confronts the worker is captured brilliantly in the seminal scene where Charlie is sucked into the machinery, and passes through the cogs and wheels. Furthermore, the film demonstrates how the assembly line actively transforms Chaplin from a man into a machine. At first we see his body twitch and jerk, as a result of the repetitious work; but later his transformation is complete, as he views the world around him solely in terms of his labour. Chaplin’s physical and mental mechanisation is complete – he has become a bolt-tightening machine.

Modern Times is, in my view, a superb example of what film can bring to the philosophical table. It does more than merely provide a vehicle for Marx’s views on alienation; it actually shows what it means for a man to be turned into a machine – albeit overemphasised for comic effect.

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