Marcuse and Modern Times
Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man can be used to explain many aspects of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Both analyze the role of the laborer within the confines of society and the way that the Industrial Revolution changed that role. They also examine the role of man in society marked by the evolution of the Industrial Revolution and man’s relationship with freedom of enterprise. Marcuse’s explanation of these subjects can be used to give the characters and the movie as a whole a new meaning and a new voice, if you will.
In Modern Times, Chaplin plays a blue-collar worker at a big factory during the Industrial Revolution. The opening scene of the movie is Chaplin struggling at work. This struggle can be explained through Marcuse. With the mechanization of his factory, Chaplin is faced with new challenges, rather than the simplicity the new machines are supposed to represent. The machines in Chaplin’s case represent the new pressures and challenges of “increased speed-up, control of the machine operators (rather than of the product), and isolation of the workers from each other” (Marcuse 2). Chaplin finds it extremely hard to keep up with the machine and is repeatedly scolded by management when he fails to do so. While in Chaplin’s situation the workers are not physically isolated from one another there is a suggestion of emotional isolation. The workers are in a sense pit against each other. They are constantly trying to prove that they can keep up with the machines better than the workers around them. Chaplin gets into a few scuffles with his fellow workers because he cannot keep up. The fact that “productivity is determined ‘by the machines, and not by the individual output’” in the factory makes this increasingly difficult for Chaplin (Marcuse 2). The men are not allowed to dictate their own pace and suffer when they must itch their armpit or swat at a bee, as Chaplin does in the movie.
Marcuse also explains the experience of a factory worker “as a life-long occupation, exhausting, stupefying, inhuman slavery” (Marcuse 2). This idea of labor as “slavery” can explain many of Chaplin’s experiences in Modern Times. Chaplin’s smoke break, for instance, is interrupted and ended by the boss of the company. Not only does the company control Chaplin while he is working at the machines, but they own his private, personal time as well. The owner of the company can also simply order Chaplin to try the eating machine and he must do so, despite the fact that it may, and turns out to be, detrimental to his health. He even has Chaplin repeatedly assaulted by the machine just to see if it can be fixed. The owner has no regard for Chaplin, thus fulfilling Marcuse’s idea that labor is “slavery”.
One-Dimensional Man may also be used to describe Chaplin’s role in society after his mental breakdown. When Chaplin is put in jail he is “no longer compelled to prove himself on the market” (Marcuse 1). This elimination from the “freedom of enterprise” allows Chaplin to discover a new kind of happiness because “the liberty to work or to starve, it spelled toil, insecurity, and fear for the vast majority of the population” is taken from him (Marcuse 1). In jail, Chaplin is “liberated from the work world's imposing upon him alien needs and alien possibilities”, which is why he feels so upset when he has to leave (Marcuse 1). He no longer has to worry about doing well in work to move up in the company or getting a nice house, like the one he dreams about after he is released. Arguably, he has achieved the ultimate economic freedom in jail; “freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living” (Marcuse 1). When he is thrust back in to society, Chaplin has trouble adapting to the now foreign fight of earning a living. This struggle is evidenced by his string of firings. Eventually, he settles back in to society, but the effect of the elimination of the freedom of enterprise and the fact that Chaplin’s life was much simpler are clearly shown. The negative effect of the freedom of enterprise in Marcuse’s view, can be seen in other characters in the novel, as well. The stresses of this freedom cause the Little Tramp to turn to theft. The ever-increasing unemployed are literally fighting in the streets. Without the freedom of enterprise these problems would not exist in man, according to Marcuse. Marcuse is able to help define Chaplin’s place in society and his actions throughout the movie. Marcuse’s views apply to the new technology that Chaplin faces at work and his relationships with the labor industry and jail.