Marx’s theory of alienation and exploitation in labor is clearly portrayed throughout Charles Chaplin’s film “Modern Times”. The film, which takes place in the era of post industrial revolution, is set in the factory of the “Electro Steel Corporation”. The story portrays the demanding life of a factory worker, played by Charlie Chaplin, who’s job is tightening nuts onto a piece if metal as it moves down the assembly line. There are many factors of Karl Marx’s forms of alienation and exploitation in the workplace shown through the tedious and constant fast-past working style that Chaplin shows in his film.
Also the many consequences of the poor working conditions is portrayed throughout the film. The assembly line lifestyle that workers were forced to live leads Chaplin’s character to eventually suffer from a nervous breakdown. Chaplin’s character in Modern Times is an ideal portrayal of Marx’s theory of the division of labor and how it causes workers to be alienated and exploited in the work place. The first scene of the film shows a huge clock with Charlie Chaplin hanging onto it, which seems to be a clear symbol that people in an industrial society live under a mechanically made measurement of time.
This seems to be a great example of the phrase "Time is money”. We live our lives by the clock and by the clock that the bourgeoisie, or the company owners, make for us. We are constantly given deadlines and a strict schedule to follow to ensure that we are making the bourgeoisies as much money as we can. There are many other factors of the film that tie into Marx’s theory of capitalism, alienation, and exploitation of the working class. One example in particular is the machine. As shown in the film, Chaplin is working on an assembly line and all he does all day is tighten screws on metal boards that pass by.
As stated by Jorn Bramann, “Like those of his fellow-workers beside him, his repetitive movements are machine-like and tense. They do not think, nor pace or control the motions of their bodies. They are extensions of machines; they are turned into robots. The factory strips them of their humanity (Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies). As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, in an industrial society, the proletariat becomes only an appendage of the machine. This shows how in a modern industrial society such as is shown in Modern times, the workers become just another piece of equipment in a factory.
According to Marx, in any type of industrial labor there are those who own the means of production and there are those who work for means of production. This being said, the owners, or the bourgeoisie, own the production that the proletariat produces. The proletariat becomes alienated in this system because as non-owners they are forced to sell their labor and time to those who do own. This is what Marx calls modern capitalism. Marx further divides this alienation of the worker into four groups; product, process, people, and purpose.
The “product” is one form of alienation and exploitation because the proletariat are creating products that are not their own. Marx states this concept in many of his writings where essentially the product of the labor belongs not to the workers but to the capitalists who may use it any way they want to use it because it is their property, not the laborers property. The second stage, the “process”, causes the proletariat to become alienated and exploited because they never produce objects according to their own ideas or to directly satisfy their needs.
It is human nature to create things to help benefit ourselves but in an industrial society everything is made to benefit the bourgeoisie. The third stage, the “people”, is a form of alienation and exploitation because in a capitalists society the proletariat are forced to work against each other, compete against each other, and become cut off from their fellow workers. As Marx says in The Communist Manifesto, the capitalist put one worker against another to see who can produce more for them. The workers who succeed more and srtrive are rewarded and the ones who don’t are discarded.
The final stage, the “purpose”, causes alienation and exploitation of the proletariat because in a work place the workers lose their sense of purpose. Everything they do becomes a function for the machines to produce a product that means nothing to them. These four stages of Marx’s division of alienation and exploitation directly tie into Charlie Chaplin and the roles of the workers in “Modern times”. Chaplin directly faces each stage and shows how each stage affects him. He stands at an assembly line all day creating a product that isn’t his own.
He produces a piece of an object according to the ideas of the bourgeoisie and everything he does is only a benefit for the company. He also shows how the workers become alienated from one another by how they stand next to each other all day and never even get to talk to each other in fear that they might get behind in work. Finally he shows how they lose their sense of purpose in the workplace by him having a nervous breakdown. He works mindlessly on a product that he may never see or even know what is for and by doing the same movement all day he loses his sense of purpose and breaks down.
The alienation of workers from their products directly affects how the workers start to perceive the world around them. Jorn Bramann says, “As an industrial worker Charlie is involved in the collective and comprehensive replacement of the natural world by a human-made world (Educating Rita and other Philosophical Movies 2009). Workers have no control over the process or the product of their production, because they do not own the means of production. They also have no control over how they relate to each other. Because of this alienation workers lose their craftsmanship and their sense of identity.
At one point a worker could have been a brilliant carpenter who spent weeks making one dresser or one table. This would have been that persons label because all of his work was shown in the product he made and it came from his own imagination. This is lost in an industrial society because they all become just tools of the means of production that the owners buy through wage labor to create products that are owned by the them and sold by them. Ultimately, alienation and exploitation causes the dehumanization of laborers and not only degrades their labor but also their means of life.
Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times displays this merging of industry and how Marx’s theory of alienation and exploitation directly affect the lives of the worker’s. In Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscript, he describes the new way of the industrial life by saying that material life appears as the end of our life and labor and the producer of material life appears as means to our life. Chaplin is a symbol for all proletariat of how they are being used by the machines to create goods rather than the machines being used by the worker to create goods.