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We Are All Charlie Chaplin on the Assembly Line

Under capitalism, “efficiency” most often translates into drudgery, discomfort, and alienation. Thank Frederick Winslow Taylor.

A still from I Love Lucy. YouTube

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin played a factory worker in the film Modern Times. Its most memorable scene takes place on an assembly line, where Chaplin struggles to keep up with the lighting-fast conveyor belt.

A genius of physical comedy, Chaplin plays it up to great effect. He frantically blows on a bee hovering around his head as his arms continue to dart across the machinery. He stops to scratch an itch, and must zip down the line and work twice as fast to return to his station. When his break finally arrives, his body reflexively reproduces the repetitive mechanical motions as he saunters across the factory floor.

Another genius of physical comedy, Lucille Ball, did a similar scene in 1952 in her show I Love Lucy. Lucy and her friend Ethel have taken jobs at a chocolate factory, where their task is to wrap the candies as they come down the line. At first it’s a cinch, but as the conveyor belt picks up speed the women are caught off guard, and begin desperately stuffing unwrapped chocolates into their mouths and clothes in an attempt to hide them from their supervisor.

When the supervisor returns, there are no sweets in sight. “You’re doing splendidly,” she remarks, and then instructs the conveyor belt operator to “Speed it up a little!”

The critic Arthur Koestler theorized that comedy springs from the “clash” of “two mutually incompatible codes, or associative contexts.” What makes these assembly line scenes so resonant and timelessly funny is precisely that: a juxtaposition of two incongruous perspectives, management’s and labor’s, dramatized by the actors’ outlandish pantomime.

These scenes can only make sense, much less elicit a chuckle, under capitalism, where what the worker wants and what the employer wants are fundamentally at odds. Workers want comfort and freedom, but barring that, they’ll settle for performing their tasks well enough to keep their jobs. Employers want maximum profit and therefore maximum productivity from each worker, and they’ll go to laughably extreme lengths to get it.

Both of these scenes tickled mainstream audiences in the wake of Taylorism, or the “scientific management” of labor. Its original architect, Frederick Winslow Taylor, set out to design complex systems for extracting as much labor out of every worker as was humanly possible.

In his book Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Marxist political economist Harry Braverman described Taylorism this way:

Scientific management, so-called, is an attempt to apply the methods of science to the increasingly complex problems of the control of labor in rapidly growing capitalist enterprises. It lacks the characteristics of a true science because its assumptions reflect nothing more than the outlook of the capitalist with regard to the conditions of production. It starts, despite occasional protestations to the contrary, not from the human point of view but from the capitalist point of view, from the point of view of the management of a refractory work force in a setting of antagonistic social relations. It does not attempt to discover and confront the cause of this condition, but accepts it as an inexorable given, a “natural” condition. It investigates not labor in general, but the adaptation of labor to the needs of capital.

Braverman adds that Taylorism is not a “science of work,” as its proponents often claimed. It is the “science of the management of others’ work under capitalist conditions. It is not the ‘best way’ to do work ‘in general’ that Taylor was seeking . . . but an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labor — that is to say, labor power that is bought and sold.”

The operative word here is control. Scientific management was and remains all about implementing systems that limit workers’ range of motion and allow them as little control as possible over the speed at which they perform tasks.

The direct object of control is workers’ time. This is where the idea for the conveyor belt comes from: the belt moves not at the speed the worker would like, but at the speed the employer would like. The worker is then compelled to perform at precisely that speed, whether it’s sustainably comfortable or not. Failing to keep pace with the machine is punishable by termination, which is why Charlie futilely blows on the bee and Lucy gobbles the runaway chocolates.

Before Taylor set about changing things in the late nineteenth century, unskilled workers in large factories were already subject to intense supervision and strict production minimums. But when it came to artisans and craftsmen — who made up a significant portion of the workforce — it usually wasn’t worth it for bosses to fire a worker and hire a replacement. If a cabinetmaker was working a slower pace than his employer desired, tough luck. There were only so many skilled cabinetmakers out there, and training was expensive.

Taylor himself had an obsessive-compulsive personality. Braverman observes that “from his youth he had counted his steps, measured the time for his various activities, and analyzed his motions in a search for ‘efficiency.’” This was the same neurotic spirit in which he sought solutions to the problem of labor laxity, or as he put it, the problem of “loafing.”

Taylor famously conducted time and motion studies, observing skilled workers’ movements and measuring them with a stopwatch. He and his acolytes then broke down the process and proposed new arrangements whereby an individual worker could perform a series of single motions, each a part of the whole, producing the same result in significantly less time. This meant more productivity and profits for capitalists. But for workers, it meant unbearable drudgery, untenable acceleration, repetitive stress injuries, and deep alienation — the perpetual feeling of being a minor human cog in a vast unknowable machine.

Taylor liked to brag that “there has never been a strike of men working under scientific management.” But this was not due to a reconciliation of the mutually incompatible interests of workers and capitalists — it owed instead to eroded worker power.

The most lasting legacy of Taylorism is that it divested workers of their individual control over the production process. Braverman called this the “dissociation of the labor process from the skills of the workers. The labor process is to be rendered independent of craft, tradition, and the workers’ knowledge. Henceforth it is to depend not at all upon the abilities of workers, but entirely upon the practices of management.”

Whereas before a worker might make an entire commodity, she now only made part of it, and had no idea how that part connected to the others. She was infinitely replaceable, depriving her of the leverage she might have once had to withhold her valuable labor until conditions changed.

The fallout of Taylorism has been rather grim for the workers’ movement. It has not been totally fatal: it has also produced new possibilities for large-scale industrial unionism rather than small-scale craft unionism, and new choke points in the production process that if seized by collective action could sink profits and force concessions. But combined with a successful assault by ever-richer capitalists on the institutions of labor and the ideology of workers’ emancipation, the means to take advantage of these new possibilities have largely eluded workers’ grasp.

Many Americans who watched and laughed at the conveyor belt scenes in Modern Times and I Love Lucy knew all too well the impact Taylorism had, if not on the labor movement as a whole then on their own work lives, where it numbed their minds, battered their bodies, and broke their spirits.

This intimate knowledge may have only made them laugh harder. As Charlie Chaplin put it, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease from pain.”