Karl Marx’s Ideas in Modern Times (1936)

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8th Feb 2020 Film Studies Reference this

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 Through art, whether it be paintings, music, or movies, is a way to portray the socio-economic struggles of the society is facing. The life and experiences of the characters in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) reflects the reality of the workers as described by Karl Marx in his writings. The movie uses comedy and exaggeration to relay its socio-economic messages and connection to Marx’s ideas. The Modern Times reflects the theory of Alienation and the themes of capitalism as emphasized by Karl Marx.

The movie Modern Times illustrate the theory of Alienation, a concept by Karl Marx, that explains the dehumanizing impacts of the workers from the capitalism. According to Karl Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, it is stated “the alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labour becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him”(Marx, 88). As workers produces the commodities, they are also producing themselves as commodities. The more the worker works for the products, the more he is dehumanized by the so-called alien object. Karl Marx uses religion as an analogy to this concept of alienation. He explained that just like in religion, people has less control of their life the moment they put their life into their faith and God (Marx, 88). It is the same idea in capitalist world. The more workers put their life into their work, the less control they have in their life. In the movie, Chaplin’s character emphasizes Marx’s concept of Alienation. As a worker in the factory, his only job is to tightens the bolt in the assembly line. The repetitive work alienated him from the labor. There is a scene where Chaplin’s character become a robot-like by his involuntary actions. He kept doing the same monotonous action, tightening the bolts, even when it is lunch break. Because of his repetitive labor and alienation from the work, he has become depersonalized and dehumanized. There was an inevitable lose control of his lives as he loses control of his work. With Marx’s theory, it is more comprehensible on why workers in a capitalism often become alienated from their work. They lose control on their life since they put massive amount of labor into their work. Karl Marx expresses that “the more the worker produces, the less he has to consume; the more values he creates, the more valueless, the more unworthy he becomes” (Marx, 88). Just like Chaplin’s character as a worker in a factory, workers lose the more they produce in capitalism. The less powerful workers become the moment the labor becomes powerful that can control them which in fact happens in the capitalist world. It is the capitalist who only earn and benefits.

According to Karl Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, he stated “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society” which imply that the capitalists (bourgeoisie) would not exists without their changes in production such as the revolution in technology and their suppression on worker’s wages. Capitalists would not prevail if they do not take advantage on worker’s labors by making them works for long hours with not enough wages. This idea of Marx is portrayed in one scene in Modern Times where there is an experiment on Chaplin’s character about the new technology. This new technology in the movie is shown to be an innovate product that will provide food and drinks for the worker while they work in which would remove the lunch break if successful. The lunch break is the only time workers be able to eat, rest, and socialize. By removing this, it would totally put workers’ labor nothing but a commodity. The scene illustrates two of Marx’s ideas. One is furthering emphasis on Alienation because by using the technology and removing the lunch break, it purely makes the labor mechanical. It removes the nature of the laborers as the only time they will interact and socialize, the lunch break, would be removed. Marx’s describes such thing as “the worker becomes a servant of his object” in Economic and Philosophy Manuscripts of 1844 (Marx, 88). Another Marx’s idea that is emphasize by this scene in the movie is Marx’s description on the classes in capitalism, rules of reproduction in capitalism, and the condition of the working class.

As described by Karl Marx, there are two classes in Capitalism—the Proletariat (workers) and the Bourgeoisie (capitalists) in which the economic structure of the capitalism is from the economic structure of feudal society. According to Marx’s Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation, the proletariat are the free laborers which “in the double sense that neither they themselves form part and parcel of the means of production” (Marx, 2). They are free of the means of production and free to sell their labor power. And as described by Marx’s theory of alienation, the workers have no autonomy over labor process which means they have no self-control over it. The one that controls the labor process is the Bourgeoisie. They are the capitalists, the owners of the factories and productions. Workers sell their labor power while the bourgeoisie buys it. In the movie Modern Times, Marx’s descriptions of both classes and their roles is illustrated by Charlie Chaplin’s character and the president of the factory. Chaplin is a factory worker whose only job is to tighten the bolt in the assembly line. He has no autonomy over labor process. The capitalist is the president of the factory who started in the movie by giving instructions to speed the production. Right at the beginning, his control and ownership over the labor process is shown. Around at the 2-minute mark in the movie, the president sends instructions to speed the assembly line which means the labor by the workers would also speed up since the speed of their work depends on the speed of the production. Marx expresses that both depends on the success in labor market. Capitalist’s survival depends on the success in market, more siding on the profits of the company. Capitalist wants the maximum profits for the benefits of their own good. For instance, the president of the factory in the Modern Times overlooks the workers. The technology provides him camera throughout the factory where he can see the stations and workers. The president of the factory says when and where to speed up. On one particular scene, Chaplin’s character tried to take a short break in the bathroom but even on that scenario, the head of the factory is able to tell him to get back to work through camera. This reflects the idea of capitalists trying to make their workers work as much as they can. Nevertheless, the workers also depend on the success in labor market. Their means of survival which means getting the resources they need such as food, water, and shelter is better when the labor market thrive. But, when the labor market declines it negatively affects the workers in the capitalism. As shown in Modern Times, Chaplin’s character was delighted when the factory opened because it means job. Around the 59-minutes mark, the newspaper’s headline is stated “Factories reopen! Men to be put to work at the Jetson Mills this morning” in which Chaplin’s following caption says, “work at last!” In order to survive and attain the dream they desire, like the character’s dream of having home, depends on the labor market. What comes with these Marx’s descriptions of capitalists is the exploitation.

According to Marx’s Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation, he states, “the starting point of the development that gave rise to the wage labourer as well as to the capitalist, was the servitude of the labourer. The advance consisted in a change of form of this servitude, in the transformation of feudal exploitation into capitalist exploitation” (Marx, 3). The workers give their servitude to the capitalists, the more powerful ones who has the total ownership. However, this servitude can easily turn to exploitation between the classes. Just like the economic structure of capitalism being grown out from the feudalism, the feudal exploitation also turns into capitalist exploitation. The bourgeoisies or capitalists is like feudal lords who have the possession of the land and wealth. Since they are the one who has the ownership and control labor process, they are the ones who dominates the proletariat. Marx stated, “growth of the domination of the bourgeoisie over the working class” in Wage-Labour and Capital (1847). When the value of labor power is less than 1, there is a surplus as a whole. The surplus value can either go to profit of the owner, better equipment, or equally distribute to the workers. This is where the ethical issue rise. And the exploitation comes in when an individual, the bourgeoisie (capitalists), gets the surplus only. Labor creating more value than it is payed for.

Furthermore, the significance of Karl Marx’s ideas is illustrated in the movie Modern Times during the scene of protests and strike. Around 20-minute mark of the movie, there is a scene where Chaplin’s character encounters the workers protesting. The protesters’ cardboards have written phrases like “unite”, “libertad” which translates to freedom, and “liberty or death.” This protest ended up with police raiding them, beating the protestors up, and arresting Chaplin’s character. The caption in the movie stated that he was mistaken as the Communist leader implying the protest is for communism in the world of capitalism. This scene shows how the government sees Marx’s idea of communism threatening because the law enforcers treat the protests with importance. Marx’s idea is very significant as it gives the people the opportunity of a social change. The environment of the Modern Times includes mass unemployment with the gamin’s family story focused on. People are stealing food and robbing department stores to survive. The life in jail were more comfortable than the life outside of it. Even homelessness is against the law. On the 1:11:28 mark in the movie, the girl was written wanted for vagrancy which is a state of wandering from place to place with no place of home. Interestingly how homelessness is against the law but it is not even people choice to be homeless. If given a chance, people in poverty will prefer and love to have a home, just like the girl in the movie. However, it is the government, economic situations and its corruption that lead people to be homeless. And for it to become a reason to be wanted clearly shows the corruption of capitalism. Karl Marx’s idea of communism significantly serves as a social change even today.

Marx’s ideas are still relevant today with the continuous economic inequality. According to CNBC, the United States still has an economic gap between the rich and poor. It supports the idea of the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The top 1% has more than 26 times of income than the bottom 99% in 2015 based on Economic Policy Institute (Reinicke). The United States is not a third-world country, it is an advanced rich nation. But yet, there is still a huge economic inequality between the rich and poor just like on what it was in history. Compared to 1973, the bottom 99% receives less income growth while the income of top 1% such as CEOs has increased 20 times than it was before (Reinicke). In this capitalist nation, Karl Marx’s ideas still significantly plays an important role on social change. There are still protests against bills on taxes where the government would tax people more. Wages may have gone up throughout the years but it is still not enough to keep up with the inflation. The nominal wage is still behind inflation creating economic stagnation. With Marx’s relevant ideas, the social change is possible as stated in Marx’s Philosophy and Social Thought “although exploitation and domination were apparent throughout human history, hope was not lost” (Calhoun et. al, 2008: 78). With the corrupted capitalist industry, Marx’s philosophies and ideas serves as political and economic system in which there would be less inequality between the people.

Works Cited:

  • Craig Calhoun, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Steven Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk (eds). Classical Sociological Theory, Second Edition.
  • Marx, Karl. Chapter Twenty-Six: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation.
  • Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party
  • Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

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