Summary: This short excerpt (if using the entire film, begin it at 2:50 & end at 10:15) is an excellent illustration of Marx's concept of alienation (including alienation from the production process, the product, species-being, and fellow workers). First, Charlie Chaplin’s character is alienated from the production process. On the assembly line, he has no control over the speed of the assembly line, how it is arranged, or his role within it. His boss stands over him barking commands at him, probably telling him to speed up and work harder. This type of alienation is pushed even further when he is subject to the automatic "feeding machine” and Chaplin even loses control over the basic activity of eating. Second, we know that Chaplin will not be able to keep the products he produces; it is not even clear from the video what he is producing. Like any capitalist enterprise, these products will become the property of the capitalist and thus the worker is alienated from them. Third, Chaplin is alienated from his own species-being. Through interaction with the industrial machinery, he is interacting not with nature through any creative means, but in an incredibly boring and monotonous fashion. The mind-numbing work requires no creativity, which Marx believes to be an essential element of human nature. Finally, the workers are alienated from each other in this clip. They are made to function in isolation, needing to each do the single mundane task assigned to them by the owner. There is no cooperation or social element to their work. Through the automatic “feeding machine,” the capitalist seeks to “eliminate the lunch hour” and “increase production.” As a consequence, the lunch hour, which is normally a social time for the worker, is lost. When showing the video in class, I ask students to identify how Chaplin's character is alienated and how this relates to Marx's broader theory about capitalism and class.
Submitted By: Paul Dean