Philosophical Films:

"Modern Times"


The Philosophical Connection

Technology has traditionally been interpreted as the human way of harnessing the forces of nature for the purpose of making human life easier and more agreeable. The Industrial Revolution in particular has always been heralded as a major step in the progress toward the control of human beings over their world and their destiny. Major events of the 20th century, however, have cast doubt on this optimistic vista. The massive mechanized slaughters of World War I provided a foretaste of how badly people can be victimized by their own industrial products (high-powered cannons, tanks, gas, airplanes, etc.), and out-of-control business cycles demonstrated how little modern societies were masters of their collective destinies. Chaplin's "Modern Times" is situated in the middle of the Great Depression, and it provides an analysis of the human condition as revealed by these circumstances.

Chaplin's film is, of course, not a philosophical treatise on social conditions, but a successful comedy. It is nevertheless a most striking illustration of what Marxists have analyzed as Alienation. The relevant philosophical text is Karl Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. In this posthumously published collection of notes Marx distinguishes between four major aspects of Alienation: The estrangement of workers from the process of production (workers do not controle what they do at work), the estrangement from the product of production (workers do not controle the human-made world that they produce and maintain), the estrangement from each other (they do not work as a democratic collective, but under the direction of unelected managers), and the estrangement from their inherent humanity (they do not work with deliberation, but more like robots or domesticated animals). All four aspects of Alienation appear in Chaplin's story. What dominates both the film and Marxist thinking is the realization that under the conditions of capitalist industrial production the vast majority of human beings are not actively in control of their lives and destinies, but rather function as passive objects in a gigantic production and consumption apparatus the very understanding of which tends to elude them. In their very activities they are essentially passive.

For a presentation of Marx' Theory of Alienation click here.

For an interpretation of Chaplin's "Modern Times" click here.

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