Draft: Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Abstraction of Labour

Comparative Literature R1B: Section 7

04/11/2009 Wednesday

Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times and the Abstraction of Labor

The subject matter and subtexts of Charlie Chaplin‘s 1936 film, Modern Times make an excellent companion to Karl Marx‘s Das Kapital. The conditions of the dispossessed and criminalized poor in both texts are the results of an industrial capitalist system that made human capital an abstraction and sublimated the role of labour in the use-value of products. However, Modern Times presents a very different kind of critique that reaches a much wider audience and utilizes a different kind of media.  The film satirizes industrial capitalism while injecting humor through stark and paradoxical portrayals of the progress of laissez-faire economic policies. Charlie Chaplin‘s 1936 film is a critique of capitalism and the Red Scare in America in the 1930s (Great Depression). The film begins with a herd of sheep and juxtaposes this image with a crowd of workers heading to the factories for a day of work. The sheep are identical and interchangeable, just as the workers are interchangeable within a capitalist society. Several times in the film workers become part of the machinery as they work on the assembly lines and fix the machines and this speaks to the essentialization of workers. Assembly lines necessitated a movement away from skilled labor to unskilled, specialized labor. De-skilled workers lost the advantages of training in their respective fields and also lost clout in the market, as they were subordinate  to producers and on a larger scale, to the contingent supply and demand of the market.

The opening sequence of the film is significant because it juxtaposes a herd of sheep with workers heading to the factory. The two shots of the sheep and the workers are identical, panning in closer and closer until the details are lost in the movement of the apparently identical subjects.  Animals- especially domesticated animals intended for consumption- are constructed as voiceless and de-individuated beings. The symbolism is particularly powerful when one considers the agency of the worker and the domesticated animal; both are subordinate to a larger system, both rely on incentives for their livelihood. Similarly, the sheep are confined to pens, surrounded by fences.  Their confinement signifies their commodification. The workers are confined by the walls of the factories and constrained by the economic necessity of work within a capitalist society. Similarly, there are commodified as industrial capital grows in the face of govenment de-regulation and laissez-faire policies. Both are commodified in some way; the worker is valued for what he/she can produce and the sheep is valued for what can be produced from it.  The unifomity of the sheep and the workers suggests something about their value within a capitalist framework. Reducing workers to uniform and nameless statistics- numbers, even- just makes it that much easier to treat them as interchangeable parts- cogs in the machine. Interchangeability strips workers of their bargaining chips.  When persons are valued for what they can/cannot produce, there is an aspect of their personhood lost. Additionally, workers are valued for their utility rather than for their other attributes. The worker becomes one cog in the machine and their individual worth is devalued. Valued not as human beings, but as producers, one’s human worth is tied into the works of one’s hands. By extension, the time expended to produce objects that have use-value is far more precious to the worker (Reader, 70).

The constrasts between the images of the sheep and the factory workers are apparent also.  The sheep signify a pre-capitalist rural setting. Their worth is tied to an agricultural sector that pre-dates industrial capitalism. The factory workers are surrounded by the sumbols of industry: factories and machines. The laborers outside of the factory are situated at a point in time when there is a shift away from pre-capitalist practices like guilds, skilled, specialized artisan labor towards urbanization, de-skilled labor and atomized labor.

Karl Marx defined labour as „an expenditure of human labour power“ (Reader, 97) In his discussion of „use-value,“ he makes it clear that human labor is not valued in itself, but „it becomes value only in its congealed state, when embodied in the form of some object.“ (Reader 100) This de-emphasis on the „homogenized labor“ that produces commodities speaks to the dis-empowerment of the worker in the movement toward more efficient forms and means of productions. Assembly lines employ interchangeable parts – mere cogs in the machine. In Modern Times, the little tramp sprays his fellow co-workers with oil as though they are moving parts of a machine; Garrett Stewart wrote:

“The final lap of this run-in with neurotic frenzy has Charlie lubricating his fellow workers with a large oil can, reducing them to cogs in the great wheels of industrial progress as well as simultaneously, in an heroic effort, trying to free up their natural human functions.“

In his madness, Charlie Chaplin‘s character exacts a subtle critique of the status quo while revealing the truth of the worker‘s status as part of the machinery of production. Labor is no longer valued in and of itself:

„rather, labour appears merely to be a conscious organ, composed of individual living workers at a number of points in the mechanical system; dispersed, subjected to the general process of the machinery itself, it is itself only a limb of the system whose unity exists not in the living workers but in the living (active) machinery, which seems to be a powerful organism compared to their individual, insignificant activities.“ (Reader, 74)

Marx discusses the abstraction of labor as the valuation of what is produced as opposed to the actual labor that produced the object.  The value of the worker‘s labor means less than the object‘s use-value, and the worker is actually separated from the works of his/her hands. This abstraction of labor relative to the use-value of capital speaks to the subordination of the worker to corporations that produce and consumers who possess effective demand.

In Das Kapital, Marx analogizes beef and corn to workers in a capitalist society: „We find that the values of products are measured by labor, not the labour actually employed, but the labor that is necessary for their production. (Reader 70)“ A cow is not valued for its sacrifice (let‘s set aside the question of agency for a moment) in the production of beef for the market, and much the same way, neither is a corn plant. Marx put it succinctly: „But the value of his work does not in the slightest depend on his feelings; nor does the value of the hour he has worked.“ In Modern Times, this contrast is made as the opening credits are shown against a clock, and after the scene dissolves, the a herd of sheep is shot in the same manner as a crowd of workers

The machines represent fixed costs, investments of capital that promise steady output. Workers are fallible, unconsistent human beings. Machines are more efficient, albeit constrained by protocol. Efficiency is defined in physics as expending less energy [mechanical, potential, nuclear, electro-magnetic, etc]  or material resources in the production of some quantity of something. In the field of economics, efficiency is defined as the use of resources to maximize the production of goods and services and to minimize waste. For the producer, it means production proceeds at the lowest cost-per-unit possible, and the marginal cost-per-unit is minimal. However, in the quest for efficiency, there is indeed much waste.  One example in the film was the „feeding machine“ that promised increased efficiency at mealtimes: „no wasted energy!“ Also the salesman promised that the feeding machine would eliminate the necessity of the lunch break. As the salesmen tested it on the protagonist (Charlie Chaplin), the true inefficiency of the machine became evident; spilled soup, soiled clothing, a half-eaten cob of corn and a short-circuited engine were the results of the trial. This moment was simultaneously a display of the true waste of the quest for efficiency as well as  the necessity of breaks for workers. The promise of eliminating the lunch break and boosting workers‘ productivity is not fulfilled. Karl Marx stated in Das Kapital that

„consumption, within the production process is, however, in fact use. (Reader, 83)“

Marx discussed value objectified in machinery as prerequisite of the abstraction of labor. It is detrimental to the valorizing of the individual worker which is small compared to the machines themselves. As the „most adequate form of fixed capital“ machines are particularly attractive to producers, they are often over-valued to the detriment of workers. The worker becomes a redundant part of the machine that is expendable and interchangeable: „the worker appears to be superfluous in so far as his action is not determined by the needs of capital.“ This passage acknowledges that the agency of the worker exists despite his/her marginalised status within a classist, capitalist society. However, this agency is severely undermined by the „scientific character“ that capital brings to production processes, which reduces direct labor to „a simple element in the process. (Reader 75)  Embedded in all of this, the supply and demand curve for labor shifts in favor of the producer, as the superfluity of the individual worker is compounded by the availablity of laborers on the labor market.  One pertinent scene in Modern Times is when the little tramp‘s boss gets stuck in the machine and his movement is severely constrained. Chaplin throws in some slapdash comic relief as the little tramp attempts to feed him his lunch, but the image of a man who has essentially become part of the machine is an unforgettable one.  The man was trying to fix the machine and in the process became embedded in the machinery.  This differs from previous interactions with the machine, because the man embedded in the machine is dynamic and communicative. In earlier scenes, the little tramp‘s interactions with the machine resulted from his nervous breakdown, when he threw himself onto the conveyor belt and went into a frenzy of repetitive movement, tightening bolts as he is buffeted and crushed by the machine. Immediately after, he then becomes fixated on using the screwdriver on his fellow workers, even spraying oil on them as if they were the moving parts of the machine.

The machinization of meant less bargaining power for the laborer and increased control in the hands of the factory owners. It is important to note that the worker is not only subordinate to the producer, but to the consumers that drive demand (the ones who possess effective demand), and to the market as a whole. Demand is contingent to supply, as supply is contingent to demand.  The transaction between worker and employer is not one made on a flat plane. When worth is based upon wealth, certain persons (producers, consumers with effective demand) will always hold more social and economic capital within a capitalist society.  Subsequently, the voice of the worker is silenced, and unionization is a counter-measure to this trend.  In Das Kapital Marx states that „the worker‘s activity, limited to a mere abstraction, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, not the other way round. (Reader, 73)“ The figurative machinery of the market and the literal machinery of the automatons that represented fixed capital stand in as constraints that inhibit the full agency of the worker.

Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times touches briefly on the topic of unionization. The gamine‘s father is shot and killed by a policeman in the midst of a labor march. Charlie Chaplin‘s protagonist waves a red flag and unwittingly becomes the apparent leader of a burgeoning labor movement. The police arrest him for subversive activities and civil unrest. Modern Times came out in 1936, during the Great Depression. In the worst economic climate known to America at the point, dissatisfaction with the current laissez-faire economic system manifested in labor movements that called for the acknowledgement and recognition of workers‘ rights. As previously stated, the worker had been almost wholly subordinated to a capital economy wherein producers who possessed the most capital acted as oligarchs in a capitalist society.

Additionally, when the measure of wealth became the amount of disposable time one has, labor time becomes the measurement of wealth. The paradox of capital is that the effort to reduce labour time is simultaneous to the establishment of labour time as the standard and origin of wealth. In Modern Times, the paradox presents itself in as the camera cuts from the repetitive labor of the factory workers to the leisure of Electro-Steel Corporation‘s president. The juxtaposition between the workers‘ manipulation of identical bolts to the president‘s care free search for the correct jigsaw puzzle piece is jarring. The bolts and puzzle pieces are identically shaped and both are being manipulated by a human, but for entirely different purposes. The music shifts from a more frantic string instrument piece to a slower paced wind-instrument composition.  It is worth noting that the president of the company is seen reading a newspaper that features Tarzan on the front page.  This pre-modern, anachronistic figure is so clearly antithetical to the thoroughly modern innovation of industrial capitalism.  Later when the little tramp attempts to take a smoking break in the bathroom, the president‘s nebulous face appears on a screen and his voice admonishes the little tramp for wasting time. The president‘s voice breaks the calm silence that characterized the little tramp‘s moment as he prepared to smoke a cigarette,  The paradox of wealth and poverty is what Marx referred to when he argued that wealth is based on poverty. As Marx put it, „time as the measurement of wealth implies that wealth is founded on poverty and that disposable time exists in and through opposition to surplus labor time.“ (Reader 81). The implication is that all time is labour time, thus individuals are essentialized as workers and instruments of labor only. This paradox explains why work hours increased despite the supposed efficiency of machines.  Marx uses this point to invalidate contemporary economists‘ arguments that machines would replace human labour. Recapitulating that „machinery only replaces labour when there is a superfluity of labor force,“ Marx rebuts Lauderdale, asserting that machinery comes to the aid of the worker only in the imagination of the economists at the most theoretical level.  Moreover, Marx continues on to acknowledge that the „surplus labour of the masses“ is no longer a condition for the development of wealth.

The proliferation of the „gospel of wealth“ in the social discourse coupled with the enduring myth of the „American dream“ fueled latent frustrations within the poor and working-classes.  Pulling oneself up by the bootstrap was no guarantee to the attainment of wealth.  This is evident in Modern Times as the little tramp and the gamine dream of a house with a picket fence.  Their tattered clothing and the way the policeman treats them as vagrants point to class barriers to socio-economic mobility. Modern Times demonstrates the detrimental effects of un(der)employment due to the stream-lining of production processes and the subsequent criminalization of poverty-stricken individuals. As the little tramp struggles to find and maintain gainful employment, the gamine finds work under an assumed identity as a dancer and singer in a restaurant. While their shared shack is „no Buckingham palace,“ it shares some semblance with the dream of owning a home. It may not have been a palace, but it was their very own home.

Garrett Stewart compares Charlie Chaplin to Charles Dickens in his 1976 article Modern Hard Times: Charlie Chaplin and the Cinema of Self-Reflection in the journal Critical Inquiry.

Having grown up in poverty in London, Chaplin’s experience with poverty and nomadism as a Roma deeply informed his portrayal of the little tramp. His criticism of capital industry was couched in utterly romantic terms, based less in intellect and more in the emotional appeals. The love the little tramp and the gamine share endures joblessness, incarceration and vagrancy. The opposition of organic movement and mechanical movement parallels this point. As the little tramp moves at his own leisure, he moves in rounded geometrical shapes, taking on the forms of classical European dance (particularly ballet and ball-room dancing). When he is with the gamine, his movements take on a natural character as he bows, kisses her hand and carries her across the threshold of their new home. It is worth noting that when the little tramp had his nervous breakdown in the factory, his movements also became increasingly non-linear and flowy.  It would seem that organic movement is directly tied to the emotional state, rather than the intellectual state of the protagonist. Perhaps it is for this reason that W.C. Fields referred to him as „that goddamn ballet dancer.“

The unmistakably romantic character of Chaplin’s critique is markedly different from Karl Marx’s methodical, linear and- at times- tautological approach.

Modern Times offers a very different sort of critique of industrial capitalism. The critique Chaplin levies is embedded in the comedic misdeeds of the little tramp and his gamine.  The medium of the silent film is accessible to even the functionally literate whereas Karl Marx generally appealed to a very specific audience composed of literate and politicized scholars.  Charlie Chaplin was a world-renown film director, actor and composer whose films reached the proverbial ‚common man.‘ In the political climate of the 1940s, Charlie Chaplin’s critique of capitalism was considered unpatriotic.

As a result, like the „tramp in Modern Times who gets caught up in the cogs of industry Charlie Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s found himself entangled in the ‚machinery’ of McCarthyism.“

Chaplin’s artistic critique did not conform to the dogmas and constructed binaries that characterized the Red Scare.  As a famous director, actor and composer, Chaplin was not impervious to accusations of being a communist or a spy.  John Sbardellati and Tony Shaw argued that his status as an icon and his „influence upon minds and culture“ threatened the status quo.

The „subversive“ elements of the film posed a threat to the repression and propaganda that bolstered the ideological binaries of the Cold War. While the little tramp may have unwittingly waved a red flag, he was certainly not a communist or a labor organizer. J. Edgar Hoover, then head of the Justice Department Bureau of Investigation (later Federal Bureau of Investigation) took an interest in Chaplin as early as 1922. „Guilt by association“ was one of the commonest charges levied against alleged „reds“, „pinkos“ and „commies,“ and Chaplin was said to have made donations to the Communist Party and anti-fascist groups. In his own speeches, Chaplin called for reform and expressed disgust at the red-baiting of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Committee’s activities. Clearly this lay outside of the dichotomy of the Cold War polarities, especially when the fear of espionage, labor activity and efforts toward racial equality were tantamount to communism.

Karl Marx‘s Das Kapital and Charlie Chaplin‘s Modern Times are two texts that present a critique of industrial capitalism.  However, the differences in media, methods and audience radically shape the resulting message.  In terms of method, Marx and Chaplin could not be more different. Marx appealed solely to the intellect, whereas Chaplin‘s penchant for romanticism injects a certain humanity into his critique. Also, the slapdash comid relief almost coerces the audience into laughing at the mockery the film made of the then-current state of capital industry. Marx‘s audience was primarily educated, politically aware men, whereas Chaplin‘s audience spanned gender, class, educational levels. In 1936, the silent film was anachronistic but accessible. This accessibility made the dissemination of Chaplin‘s views problematic in light of the Red Scare of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. His nuanced assessment of the modern innovations of factory labor and the increased machinization of the workforce was not situated within the polarized political and ideological discourse, thus it was considered subversive. It is also important to note the 80 years that passed between Marx‘s earlier works and Charlie Chaplin‘s 1936 film. The fact that this topic remained salient for so long, warranting such extensive critique and analysis points to the timelessness of both texts.


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