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Work Is No Play: Modern Times

Date Added: March 16, 2014 01:00:44 PM
Author: admin
Category: Society

To understand how human resource came to mean mostly human labor and then human-as-machine, it is profitable to go back to the 78 years old classic movie Modern Times. Written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin, in which he also appears in his famous Tramp avatar, the movie is a comment on how industrialization has changed the way we understand work-for-survival in post-industrialization times. The context of the film is the Great Depression of 1930s and 40s when a large number of people were pushed out of workforce due to advanced technologies. But the film has a continuing relevance.
If you are not familiar with the movie, here’s a taste of it: the film is monochromatic, has barely a few dialogues (some dialogues are flashed on screen rather than spoken), there is music including a comic musical performance by the Tramp, endless numbers of comic hit-and-miss accidents. All this is combined with a scathing critique of industrialization and work in our modern times.
The very beginning of the movie shows a herd of sheep moving in one direction, only to be replaced by a ‘herd’ of men hurrying at the same pace. These well-dressed humans, indistinguishable from one another are heading to their workplaces. The entry into one such factory has the Tramp working with nuts and bolts. His work, which requires repeated turning of hands in a similar way, causes him to lose control over his movements and he goes about maniacally working his wrenches on every other person.
This should remind us of Karl Marx’s ‘Estranged Labor’ where Marx shows the effect of industrial labor on humans as estranging: production process far from being a creative project is only repeated employment of a single faculty, the final output is often not even seen by majority of people contributing in the production process. This dissociation of a person from the work routine creates an estranged self, thus, also affecting social bonding between individuals. In the exaggerated but fabulously enacted scene, Marx’s concept of alienation stares in the face.
The idea of work and leisure is one major issue in socialist thought. The famous theoretician of the capitalist economy, Adam Smith, has given a very negative definition of work: it is an activity that requires a worker to forgo “his tranquility, his freedom, and his happiness” and it is in return for this sacrifice that the worker earns his wages. To this came Marx’s terse reply: “Adam Smith, by the way, has only the slaves of capital in mind.”
Socialism includes the idea of making workplace less exploitative, reducing work hours and making work a primary but one of the several activities of a person. With several private companies getting 10-12 hours’ work a day from their employees and Minimum Wages Act rarely implemented in unorganized sector, the leisure time is hardly spent in leisurely activities. A humanistic concern associated with this is that it leads to human civilization as a whole to retard its development by cultivation of art and ideas. (Art as we know tends towards becoming a commodity, and ideas become the domain of intellectuals.) The engineering of self is thwarted by the merger of worker as another part of the machinery of production. This finds a wonderful illustration in Modern Times in which a scene shows the Tramp actually trapped in the various cogs of a machine, comically moving along with it, a little vermin engulfed in a giant beast, made another part of it.
In the end it is important to remember that those business tycoons and CEOs who stand on the pulpit and prod young blood to chase their dreams, dream big, take risks and everything else we all have heard some or the other time, are all heading companies which are guilty of overworking their young employees. Some are at the top, having that privilege because many others are not there. And the few who reach the top cannot be the representative individuals of what work means under capitalism where the aim of the producers is slyly described as “maximization of profit.” The questions to ask are what profit, whose profit, and maximized at whose cost.

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