The Common Good
February-March 1994

The Little Train That Couldn't

by Danny Duncan Collum | February-March 1994

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin made one of the very last silent films,
Modern Times.

In 1936, Charlie Chaplin made one of the very last silent films, Modern Times. It is perhaps most famous for the sequence in which Chaplin's Little Tramp, employed as an assembly-line factory worker, is driven to work at a frantic pace as the assembly line keeps speeding up, up, up.

Modern Times was Chaplin's vision of industrial capitalism as a social order in which human beings had become cogs in the machine. It also carried a vision of fascism - which was then on its triumphalist rise - as a political order in which the citizen is a cog of the state, just as the industrial worker is a cog of the machine.

Chaplin saw the technological, political, and cultural trends of his age coalescing into a unified totalitarian expression. In most of his work, and especially in Modern Times, he tried to raise an alarm on behalf of human dignity.

But that's not the whole story. Modern Times can also be read as a neo-Luddite, anti-technology, and anti-progress diatribe sparked by the new and near-total dominance of talking pictures in the cinema of the 1930s. Chaplin had made his fortune performing physical comedy in silent films. Talkies meant the end of his franchise. He was headed straight for the dustbin of box-office history. Of course he saw technological progress as fascistic and dehumanizing; he had an enormous vested interest in the old ways of doing things.

Does that argument sound vaguely familiar today? It should, because those two readings of Chaplin's Modern Times were rehearsed in paraphrase throughout the whole of the NAFTA debate. And they form the backbone of an argument over forced globalization that will continue into the next century. The battles will be fought again and again over questions of markets and manufacturing, as was the case with NAFTA. But they will also be battles over communal identity and cultural roots vs. the fractured and chaotic cosmopolitanism of satellite culture.

A half-decade after Chaplin's alarm bell, the cultural universe has revolved again. New technologies have created new opportunities for capital, and ordinary human beings are under enormous pressure to bend themselves, body and soul, into the contorted, and distorted, shapes required by the market.

This time the capitalist innovation is "globalism." Throughout the NAFTA debate, we heard all of the bicoastal experts assuring us matter-of-factly that we now live in a global economy and must adapt to it or die. This fact is self-evident to the elites of the information sector, the smug corps of journalists and policy wonks heard ad nauseam on the nightly network news and the Mac-Koppel-Lehrer pundit parties.

And it should be. They do live in a global society. They jet across time zones and datelines as often as most of us visit our mailboxes. They bounce faxes and E-mail back and forth across the globe in the bureaucratic Esperanto they have made of the English tongue. They are employed, or subsidized, by global corporations that stand to make a killing force-feeding cellular phones and sit-coms to the rest of the known planet. And their raises and bonuses just keep on coming.

IN SHORT, THE American promoters of globalism don't live in America. In America most people don't have computers. Most people don't have fax machines. In fact, most people don't even have cable TV.

Most people in America live in towns and neighborhoods with a name and a history. Many of them go to churches their parents went to. They nurture the memory of immigrant or exiled ancestors and an attachment to the peculiar melding of frontier and bazaar that is our self-made and distinctive American culture. And most Americans like to think that their national identity and sense of communal self-reliance is a thing beyond price.

Of course the globalist ideologues also don't live in Japan, or France, much less Mexico. If they did, for even a moment, they would probably understand what self-sufficiency in rice production means to an Asiatic island nation or what it means for the French peasantry to have tilled the same soil for almost 10 times as long as there has been a U.S.A. They might even catch a glimmer of how vulnerable the workers and small businesspeople of a Third World country could feel at being sent into hand-to-hand combat with the Leviathan of the North.

The ideology and culture of globalism is nothing but a postmodern version of the assembly-line speedup. The aim is the same, to mold the human worker-citizen to the requirements of the machine. And resistance is inevitable. Human beings are social and cultural beings. We require roots. We are differentiated to a variety of specific cultural habitats.

It is on the ground of culture that the globalist war will ultimately be won or lost, because it is our very specificities and peculiarities of culture that globalism cannot abide. It requires that all the world be prepared to watch the same TV channels, listen to the same music, shop at the same chain stores, and use the same credit cards.

And it strongly prefers that we do all these things in the same language - a crippled and cramped quasi-English. The constant battering against the language barrier is the ultimate expression of globalist ideology, and of its most sinister implications. Language is culture. You can't tell your own story, or sing your own song, in someone else's language.

When people are forced to function in an alien tongue, they are less than themselves. And when the power of culture is diluted, so is the capacity to resist other forms of exploitation. In this turn-of-the-century context, provincialism is progressive, and roots have never been more radical.

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