Marx among the artists


No class on Marx would be complete without a discussion of these videos.

The first two develop what we might call “aesthetic critiques” of capitalism. That is, they create a kind of artistic depiction of and protest against capitalist production.

The first is from Charlie Chaplin’s classic film, “Modern Times.” This is among the most famous sequences in film history, and it’s still pretty hilarious (just watch Chaplin’s physical movements!). I couldn’t find one video that contained all the best parts, so watch these two back to back:

And a few minutes later, as the factory owner insists that the line go faster:

The next video also presents a more “verbal” critique of capitalism, this time in the form of sock puppets:

This video, of course, is oddly sophisticated (for sock puppets, anyway), so I thought I’d offer a bit of commentary. Kiki and Bubu are describing what they think is a transformation in the nature of capitalism (what they call “neoliberalism” at the beginning of the video). Traditional capitalist production, the argument goes, was organized as it is depicted in the Chaplin videos above. The workers’ activities are determined by the plant, and profit comes from taking the products produced in these factories and selling them. The “new economy” and neo-liberalism has transformed this situation. Very little work occurs in the manner depicted in the Chaplin videos. Instead, it’s now common to try to give workers at least the appearance of more autonomy. Bosses no longer control workers through overt monitoring and discipline (bosses in the “new economy” are less likely to monitor bathroom breaks, for instance, requiring that workers “clock out” in order to go to the restroom). Why not? Well, this traditional form of discipline and control is not always effective: Workers may comply but only “overtly” (and may continue resisting “internally”); moreover, workers can also figure out ways of subverting that control (foot dragging, playing dumb, etc.).

So what has replaced these older forms? Well, the idea now is to get workers to internalize the basic values of capitalism. You are to see yourself not as a worker under the capitalists’ thumb, but instead, as an “independent entrepreneur.” The goal is to convince you that you are your own boss, that you can control your own work, and so on. And if you fail–if you are unemployed–then this just means that you should make your own employment: Create a new start-up, for instance. In other words, according to predominant ideology in the present, it is up to the worker to remain “flexible,” to constantly be getting new training and new education to prepare for the “jobs of tomorrow,” and absent that, to create one’s own jobs or one’s own new inventions. The effect of this ideology, anyway, is that workers now internalize oversight: The boss doesn’t need to watch you, because you now watch yourself (you don’t take time off, do drugs, or drag your feet, because you believe you are working for yourself and must sacrifice just about everything to stay successful). Another consequence: the dissolution of worker solidarity. If we’re all our own boss, we all do our best simply to out-work and out-compete others, instead of unionizing and the like. Your failures then become wholly your own.

(By the way, these dynamics are now pretty clearly stated directly to you: Traditional orchestra jobs are increasingly rare, so now to have a music career, you have to become your own entrepreneur, thus undermining any sense of solidarity among musicians against those who control society).

So what is to be done? Well, for that, I leave you with another video. This one is by a group of Eastman students. They made it as part of a group project from last spring, and it offers a stylized (and stylish!) version of what a non-violent Marxist revolution entails.


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