A Marxish Reading of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times

//Philip Conklin

In a way, the life of Charlie Chaplin represents a utopia of capitalism’s promise. Born in 1889 in London, Chaplin lived the first 10 years of his life in intense poverty. His mother, Hannah, and father, Charles Sr., were both professional performers, his father a music hall singer of some notoriety. But when his mother had an affair, the two split, and Charles Sr. took to alcohol and died while Charlie was still very young. Raising Charlie and his older brother Sydney, Mrs. Chaplin worked as a seamstress to make ends meet, but the family moved continuously, living in dilapidated one-room apartments, and often went hungry. As Hannah Chaplin’s health deteriorated she went in and out of mental institutions, and her sons spent several years of their childhood in homes for destitute children. Around age 10, Charlie joined a theater group, and began his rise to become one of the most prominent cultural and cinematic icons of the 20th century. According to Chaplin biographer David Robinson, Chaplin’s is “one of the most dramatic rags to riches stories ever told.”

In the early 20th century, Charlie Chaplin was a ubiquitous figure, by far the most popular entertainer of the period, and certainly one of the richest. Despite this, he always remained an artist of the people, a chronicler of lower class struggle. His films were nearly always steeped in the social issues of his time — poverty, unemployment, labor unrest, war, inequality, immigration — and were as searingly critical and insightful as they were hilarious. And contrary to traditional populist movie tropes, Chaplin’s Tramp, perhaps the most iconic character in the history of cinema, never succeeds in getting himself out of poverty. His is always a story of rags to rags. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum asks, “Has there ever been another artist — not just in the history of cinema, but maybe in the history of art — who has had more to say, and in such vivid detail, about what it means to be poor?”[1] I would argue not, and the fact of Chaplin’s outrageous artistic and economic success makes his devotion to the depiction of working class issues all the more important and impressive.

In light of all this, I’d like to look more deeply at Chaplin’s 1936 Modern Times, one of his best-known films. The film stars Chaplin as the Tramp playing a worker in a massive, industrialized, assembly-line factory. Through the course of the film, the Tramp incidentally gets involved with labor struggles, has a few run-ins with the law, falls in love, is mistaken for a communist — in short, he’s a member of the proletariat in the early 20th century. The film is full of shrewd political and social critique, but what I’d like to consider here is what I see as the film’s remarkably astute dramatization (comicization?) of a few of the more important concepts in Karl Marx’s Capital, my understanding of which I owe to David Harvey’s brilliant lecture series on the book. The two points I’d like to consider are (1) the importance of the capitalist’s control of the laborer’s time and (2) the relation of the laborer to the machine.

By way of brief and simplistic explanation, Marx shows in Capital that the only way for the capitalist to create profit or surplus-value — the ostensible aim of the capitalist — is through the use and control of labor power. The laborer works to reproduce his own value — that is, to earn enough money to buy the things he needs to live — which is how much the capitalist pays him, and so any time worked beyond that is surplus value earned for the capitalist. Therefore, the less the capitalist can pay the laborer, the longer he can force the laborer to work, the more efficiently he can make him work, and the degree to which he can maximize the amount time he works while in the factory (i.e., by shortening or eliminating breaks), is advantageous to the capitalist. In other words, the amount of profit earned by the capitalist is dependent upon his control over the laborer’s time.

The deftness with which this concept is depicted in Modern Times is remarkable. Roughly the first 20 minutes of the film takes place in a huge industrial factory, “Electro Steel Corp.” where the Tramp works as a bolt-tightener (what exactly the factory produces and why bolts need to be tightened, is unclear, which, of course, is the point). The president of the company presides over the factory from a large office equipped with an extensive surveillance system. With a flick of the wrist, he can see what’s going on in every part of his factory at all times on a giant screen behind his desk. This way, workers can be reprimanded at the first sign of idleness or drop in productivity. "Moments," Marx writes, are "the elements of profit," and this system ensures that not a single moment is wasted. Further, if the president determines that a certain section is not operating at full capacity, he signals a foreman to increase the speed of a particular assembly line (“Section 5, speed her up”), thus increasing the amount of labor extracted from the workers. This perfectly coincides with Marx’s notion that labor must “be expended with the average amount of exertion and the usual degree of intensity; and the capitalist is as careful to see this is done, as he is to ensure that his workmen are not idle for a single moment."

Chaplin distills this concept in a beautiful and hilarious moment a few minutes into the film. Another worker relieves the Tramp from his duties, and he’s able to leave the assembly line for a few moments. He walks down a hallway, punches a time clock, and enters a bathroom.[2] The Tramp goes inside, lights up a cigarette, and sits down on the sink to take a short break. Suddenly, the president’s face appears on a screen behind him, and he yells at the Tramp to “Quit stalling! Get back to work!” So not only are the employees not paid for their bathroom breaks, but they’re also punished if they use those breaks in an unauthorized way.

One of the film’s funniest sequences again underlines this concept of the capitalist’s control of the laborer’s time. A group of salesmen visit the president to pitch a product called the Billows Feeding Machine, “A practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch! Be ahead of your competitors. The billows feeding machine will eliminate the lunch hour, increase production, and decrease your overhead.” They try the machine out on the Tramp, and the thing is rather violent and malfunctioning, resulting in one of the better-known sequences in Chaplin’s oeuvre. At the end of the demonstration, the Tramp is KO’d, and the president rejects the machine because “it isn’t practical.” After all, the productivity gained by the elimination of the lunch hour is worthless if the worker is incapacitated afterwards. But the important thing here is that it’s the president, not the Tramp, who decides the practicality of the lunch machine. As Marx says, “From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labor-power and therefore also its use, which is labor, belongs to the capitalist."

What strikes me even more than the depiction of the capitalist’s control of the laborer’s time in the factory is the way Chaplin demonstrates the dominance of time over capitalist society at large. In his lectures, Harvey emphasizes the primacy of time in Marx’s conception of the capitalist state. Likewise, time rules over Modern Times; from the beginning of the title sequence, we’re inundated with it — a massive clock fills the frame, ticking towards six o’clock, over which looms the title “Modern Times.” The tramp’s next job after the factory is as a night watchman at a department store, where his primary duty is to walk around and punch various time clocks to prove he was doing his job.

Further, in this society, when you’re not employed, you must spend all of your time trying to find work — in this way, even when you’re out of the control of a specific capitalist, you’re still in the clutches of the system. Towards the end of the movie, the Tramp is eating breakfast with his love interest, known as the Gamin, herself a vagrant and an orphan, in a makeshift home she put up while the Tramp was in jail. It’s the first good breakfast either of them have had in a while — bacon, thick slices of bread, coffee — but right when he sits down to enjoy it, he sees a headline in the paper: “Factories Reopen! Men to be Put to Work.” Immediately, he jumps up and rushes out to the factory, where he is part of a mob of other men trying to get work.

To enforce the proletariat’s use of their time, there also exists an elaborate and omnipotent police state. As the capitalist watches over the workers while at the factory, the cops watch over the workers outside the factory. They are always there to quell strikes (at one strike the Tramp happens to be at, he accidentally steps on a board, flinging a brick at a policeman, and is taken to jail), to break up communist demonstrations (the Tramp unwittingly ends up winds up waving a flag in front of communist rally, is mistaken for their leader, and taken to prison), and to prohibit loitering (when the Tramp and the Gamin sit on a curb in front of a house and imagine living a cozy domestic life, a cop comes by to hurry them along). And if you break from the capitalist order, as the Tramp does continually, they will send you to prison, where your time is even more structured than it is in the factory.[3]

The second Marxian concept that Modern Times illustrates is the factory worker’s relation to machines. The Tramp works on an assembly line in a factory, and his job is to tighten two bolts onto a metal plate using two identical wrenches, one in each hand. There are two workers after him on the line, one of whom uses an instrument to pound the left bolt, the other the right bolt. The belt moves continuously without slowing or stopping, making it imperative that the Tramp never slow down nor miss even one plate. When he has to scratch his armpit, he must walk along the belt to catch up, then speed up his work in order to get back to his spot on the line; when a bee flies around his face, he can’t swat at it, and when he does, he must run to catch up with the plates that he missed; when he leaves to go to the bathroom, another worker comes to relieve him without the machine even stopping.[4] Of course, all the machines and conveyor belts are interconnected, and so if he messes up, it will interrupt the whole process. Thus, when he does miss one plate, the whole factory must stop so that he can catch up, and the capitalist loses valuable labor time. Lastly, when Charlie is able to extricate himself from the machine for a break, his body involuntarily continues the bolt-tightening motion.

Compare this to Marx’s description of the factory worker and the machine in Capital:

In handicrafts and manufacture, the worker makes use of a tool; in the factory, the machine makes use of him. There the movements of the instrument of labor proceed from him, here it is the movements of the machine that he must follow. In manufacture the workers are the parts of a living mechanism. In the factory we have a lifeless mechanism which is independent of the workers, who are incorporated into it as its living appendages… Even the lightening of the labor becomes an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content… [The] conditions of work employ the worker.

Marx communicates with dense academic language, and Chaplin with low-comedy slapstick gags, but they’re saying the same thing. And that Chaplin is able to make us laugh while essentially explicating (incidentally or otherwise) Marx makes Modern Times all the more impressive.

There’s one final machine gag before the Tramp leaves the factory. After lunch, the president instructs the foreman: “Section 5, give them the limit.” The speed of his line is increased, and the Tramp can hardly keep up. Delirious, he jumps into the machine to try to catch a plate that he missed, and he’s swallowed up by a rotating mass of gears, consumed, literally, by the machine. When he is spit back out onto the line, he is changed, as if the machine finally devouring him has pushed him past breaking point, and he rebels, prancing about and spraying the workers with oil, turning on and off machines, dancing and swinging from wires, displaying a microcosm of the brilliance of Modern Times — using the beauty of art as a means for subversion.

                           The worker is an appendage of the machine.

                           The worker is an appendage of the machine.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Chaplin was suspected of communist sympathies later in his life; his political leanings, which he made no secret about, were too far left, and in 1947 the FBI launched an investigation on him. Though he was never forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was eventually barred from returning to the United States after his film Monsieur Verdoux, which was severely and overtly critical of U.S. policy, was released later that year. In a way, Modern Times was remarkably prescient in this regard; twice in the film the Tramp goes to prison for, essentially, being a communist, though, again, both incidents were mistakes. Although later Chaplin films — notably Verdoux, and 1957’s A King in New York — created more of a stir for their political sentiments, “Modern Times” remains, for me, Chaplin’s most socially relevant film. It displays a remarkable intelligence about contemporary struggles while retaining a sensitivity for the humanity of those involved in the struggle.

However, many critics and commentators now dismiss Chaplin for being sentimental, old-fashioned, and intellectually or technically primitive. But I’m of the mind that, as Rosenbaum says, “Chaplin remains our contemporary — someone we can still learn from and converse with without condescension or apology.”[5] All the issues that mark Modern Times, and the points I’ve discussed here, are as pressing today as they were during Chaplin’s time. Although the past 30 years in America has been a period of rapid deindustrialization, the globalization of the economy has created factory conditions in other countries that are even worse than those we see in Chaplin’s film. Just last week marked the anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed 1,100 garment workers and injured many more.[6] Of course, the day-to-day working conditions at factories such as these are horrible. Garment factories in India that supply companies like Gap and H&M are known to recruit teenage girls — with the promise that they’ll earn a dowry — and then pay them a fraction of what they offered, subject them to long days working dangerous machinery, deduct pay for medical expenses for injuries suffered while on the job, sexually harass the workers, and commit myriad other offenses. And when you consider that weaving machines like the ones used in these factories were also a problematic point of interest for Marx, we see that the issues Marx was dealing with, the issues Chaplin skewered in Modern Times, are still very much with us today.

As David Harvey says, “Capitalism never solves its crisis problems. It moves them around geographically.” When neoliberal policies in the United States and Britain squashed labor power in the 70’s and 80’s, freed up finance capital, and opened up labor markets all over the world, these issues that seemed so immediate and real to Chaplin were pushed out of our view. And those policies are the same ones that encourage brutal working conditions in countries with less strict labor laws to produce cheap consumer goods for the American middle class; and it’s these policies that underlie the Chinese government’s agenda to push 250 million farmers off their land and into cities, a rapid urbanization process that will bolster the country’s consumer economy, while creating an enormous but fragile — and easily exploitable — working class. In light of all this, “Modern Times” ceases to be a relic of a distant era, and it becomes clear that a critique of capitalism is as important today as it was in 1936. Chaplin’s genius here is on full display; nearly 80 years after it’s release, “Modern Times” is still living up to its name.

//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.

[1] Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia, p. 90
[2] Though I’m not sure if factory workers at this time were actually forced to clock in and out to use the bathroom, a quick Internet search reveals that oversight of bathroom breaks is still an issue today.
[3] However, in the film, prison, at its best, is a kind of idyll in capitalist society. You don’t have to work, or worry about not having work, you get three square meals a day, and labor unrest is securely on the outside. So although the regimentation of time and behavior is increased, in a way it’s better to be incarcerated. If someone is going to tell you what to do at all hours of the day, they may as well feed, clothe, and house you too.
[4] Marx writes: “The motion of the whole factory proceeds not from the worker but from the machinery,” and because of this, “the working personnel can continually be replaced without any interruption in the labour process."
[5] Rosenbaum, 88
[6] For reference, the infamous Triangle Factory fire, an industrial disaster in New York City in 1911, killed 146 garment workers.


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