The Revolution That Wasn’t

Twenty years ago, we saw the lightning flash of The Matrix, an entirely new form of action movie for American audiences. It combined science fiction with noir, mixing in Japanese apocalyptic manga/anime and Chinese fight choreography, hinting at post-modern intellectual pursuits—all of this wrapped up in impressive new cinematic technologies. The movie seemed destined to change movie-making and won four Oscars, mostly in sound and visual effects, but also the very important editing award.

This turned out to be all lightning and no thunder. Cinema didn’t really change and pretty much all the movies that imitated The Matrix failed and have been forgotten. The Matrix was only the 5th highest grossing movie of 1999 with $171 million in America, and $463 million worldwide. The franchise as a whole proved to be both commercially and artistically disappointing.

The Matrix appeared to combine all four ambitions of avant-garde modern art: Intellectualism, visual technology, music, and political revolution.

That the Wachowskis set out to make an intellectual kind of action film is striking because it defies the conventions of the genre. Indeed, before shooting the movie the writer-directors had the cast read one of the important works of postmodern thought, Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 Simulacra and Simulations, and they placed the book prominently in the movie itself. They even had a major character quote from its famous opening: Welcome to the desert of the real. This, of course, suggested a radical criticism of prevailing conditions and social arrangements.

Next, the Wachowskis availed themselves of new technologies. The hope was that film would redefine itself in the digital age as the only adequate representation of our quest for self-understanding, fully employing the powers of visual effects. What society makes invisible or even unthinkable—our very imaginations—could now be adequately represented on the screen. The Matrix works with the premise that technology might fulfill its ultra-modern purpose, to make man fully malleable by computerizing our experience.

Music would then provide the animating power necessary to connect the people—indeed, mankind as such—to the ideas of revolution. From Marilyn Manson to Rage Against The Machine to any number of forgettable angry urban youth bands to club music—The Matrix was supposed to be subversive, transgressive, popular, and futuristic all at once.

This was all intended to add up to political revolution. Like my friend Pete Spiliakos says, Matrix is a Marxist awakening story. Everyman hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) lives a banal and dissatisfying life in a modern metropolis, replete with corporate cubicle work, and he thinks that’s what freedom is. Then he learns that what he takes to be capitalist democracy is in fact the worst form of slavery known to history, since it has enslaved not merely the body but the mind as well. Then Neo awakens to fight the capitalist oppressors!

But there’s something off here: Is a singular hero required to fulfill the Marxist fantasy of destroying the oppressors? Well, if he’s just an everyman, then we’d all have solved our political problems by now. And if he’s only able to accomplish this with magic, as Neo does, that’s no solution at all.

The story has a double character: it depicts an unremittingly grim political situation alongside the promise of great personal power. The class conflict has men fighting machines in a distant future where technology has erased human freedom and, indeed, become a new god that demands the ongoing sacrifice of our bodies and minds. Our wildest expectations about Progress are overwhelmed! In accordance with Marx, the machine proves to be the agent of the revolution—technology is real, ideology is fake. But the dream of Progress turns into a nightmare because human beings are stuck being human and therefore an inferior being.

There’s no denying the inferiority, but then there’s no accepting it, either. To be human is to be perplexed: Keanu asks questions all the time and seems surprisingly dim-witted. Human beings are limited by their bodies in a way the machines are not and the human form of freedom, imagining a world unlike the real world, is itself turned against them by the machines. Everyone ends up trapped in an illusion, because it beats the miserable reality of their enslaved mortal bodies. In the case of Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), we find a character who consciously chooses slavery of body and a pleasant illusion for the mind, the nearly universal condition in this technological tyranny. Therefore, liberating those bodies becomes imperative. Freedom to be who we really are, turns out conveniently to coincide with the fight for survival. There is no difference between mere life and the good life here. So the personal situation turns out to be much better than the political situation—mankind may become extinct, but Neo and his fellow rebels can explore their identities and acquire shocking powers in the process, albeit only when they reconnect themselves to the Matrix.

The film tells an important truth: Nothing can make people content to be as they are—nothing stops them from imagining things that might be better. And in the Matrix, such self-transformation is limited only by one’s imagination and ability to manipulate the system.

This is how the Marxist uprising against capitalism turns into the wonders of gender-bending. The only strangely prophetic thing about this movie was the androgynous romance where you had to try hard to tell Neo apart from Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). This is, of course, the story of the writer-directors, the Wachowskis, who were two brothers when they made this movie and are now two sisters. Discontent with the world becomes most personal in discontent with the body which, since it is not chosen, is not part of one’s identity, but part of the given world. Radical liberation is not just liberation of bodies, but liberation from the human body itself.

The movie also formulates an idea that doesn’t fit the excitement of magical powers and a Marxist uprising. It implies that the engine of history isn’t violence or power. Desire drives us: Human freedom is driven by eros, and the demand of eros is for fulfillment and completion. But the characters don’t live in a world defined by human nature or its limits. Every limit is thus overcome and the power of chance is ultimately conquered, which is of course the modern project. In a dark world like Matrix, this leads to the negation of ordinary human life itself: hence androgyny, hence adding machine powers to human powers, hence adding virtual reality to disappointments of everyday life.

This story, which fascinated so many people, failed because it shares the modern aversion to tragedy and therefore offers a strangely flat image of humanity. You cannot take seriously the struggles of those fated to win. Moreover, the writer-directors didn’t have the courage of even following their main idea and putting an unchained eros at the core of being human.

The Wachowskis suggest through The Matrix that, deeper than the political conflicts obvious already in the late 90s, individualism made people feel deeply wounded—radically incomplete, unable to be human merely by themselves, but also unable, given their search for something or someone to complete them—to dedicate themselves to any political community. Bold ideas became necessary just to get by. The Wachowskis wagered that fantastic identities would get people to act when politics wouldn’t. Mythology, not ideology, would create a perfect human-machine combination, but this hasn’t quite come to pass.

Through the film’s characters, the Wachowskis suggest that the human body might be ruled by the most demanding and ambitious desires imaginable, by tyrannic dreams we enact while awake. Our bodies make us mortal and unwise. We’re stuck chasing things we cannot have—immortality, perfection. Power encourages our delusions; it does not offer a cure. Only the power to radically alter the body and free ourselves from our bodily limitations could fix our pained awareness of incompleteness.

Politics on the basis of absolute individualism ultimately involves a desire to do violence to oneself to achieve a fullness that politics itself can never provide. This was the darkest, most dangerous suggestion of the Wachowskis, and the one we are seeing play out today.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on May 10, 2019 at 09:56:34 am

The Matrix was the ideological prison of the 1970s-1980s era of the fairness doctrine that the Wachowski Sisters grew up in. The Matrix is when there are only three identical networks---ABC, NBC, CBS---that create the belief that they express political opinions that everyone agrees with.

The first crack in the American Matrix was Reagan ending the Fairness Doctrine. Conservative Talk-radio, like Rush Limbaugh, created a second point of view in American media.

But the end of the matrix came with the creation of Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. Silicon Valley tried to rebuild the matrix by banning people from these platforms, but Trump put Gorsuch on the court who will author the opinion striking down social media censorship and deliver the final blow to the matrix right before Trump is re-elected.

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Janus Porkinlard
on May 10, 2019 at 11:00:51 am

It's the Wachowski brothers.

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on May 10, 2019 at 17:03:55 pm

The Matrix, like Marxism, is a Gnostic psychodrama: We are imprisoned in a dark world created by an evil and false god, and released through revelation of the true Gnosis. As is not uncommon among the wild variety of gnostic texts, there is here also a Hermetic aspect to the experienced liberation, in that the enlightened, like Hermes and Hermes Trismegestus, move beyond all the boundaries and limitations of the human condition. As also not uncommon among gnostic texts, such as those of Manicheism, Christian symbols, suitably deformed, are incorporated as a means of getting at their "true" meaning.

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M W Sinnett
on May 10, 2019 at 20:15:06 pm

Morpheus: "Like everyone else, you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself."

With Marxism, it's a prison for your body (serfdom?), not your mind. And you CAN be told what the capitalist prison is, Marx does it in the Manifesto and Das Capital.

But when you live within a mental prison of propaganda and social control (Russia, China, Iran, Venezuala, the fairness doctrine), you can't merely be told what it is, you have to see a society without the prison bars. That's why people write novels or make films (like in the case of the Matrix) to show the dystopia that you are living in, or to show the utopia that you can escape to.

Think about it. If you asked a democrat in 1979 about the capitalist oppression, they could go on for hours; but if you asked them about the Fairness Doctrine oppression, they have no idea what a society would look like without the fairness doctrine--because you can't tell that the fairness doctrine is oppressive when you're inside it, because it's a MATRIX, a prison for your mind.

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on May 10, 2019 at 23:21:14 pm

What are the themes of Marxism?

-Higher wages and pensions
-Shorter commutes or just work from home
-Fewer hours and more vacation days
-Safer working conditions
-publicly employed

What are the themes of The Matrix?

--Epistemology (What is the truth?)
--Science (What is reality actually like--outside the illusion/matrix?)
--Morality (Don't confine people in an illusion/simulation, tell people the whole truth)
--Liberty (people should be able to live their lives as they please, not sit in a coma serving the machines)
--Individualism (practice your liberty of mind, and you'll be able to manipulate the illusion/matrix in your favor)

The Matrix is Plato's Cave, not Marx's Mines

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Mrs. Anderson
on May 11, 2019 at 05:35:52 am

The people in the Matrix are being exploited, but they are not being exploited as workers, because they are not actually doing anything at all, but are in fact in comas in pods in the real world. There dreams ARE full of propaganda, like a 1960s tv news broadcast during the fairness doctrine, but they are still dreams, not actual experiences that are being exploited for the capitalist engine.

If you're daughter is put in a medical coma, and then the doctors start manipulating her dreams, your complaint is not that she is being treated poorly like Bob Cratchit, but that she's being indoctrinated by the propaganda in her dreams, like a public school or state news broadcast.

Think about it, would you rather have to actually do work and be exploited, or would you rather be put in a coma and only THINK you're doing work that is being exploited? Now replace the word "work" with "sex" and the answer becomes even more obvious. A person who has a dream where they're being raped isn't actually raped, and the person who dreams they're being exploited by the capitalist system isn't actually.

We never see the machines in the real world living lives of great luxury, like the capitalists do that are actually exploiting workers in the real world. If anything, the few machines we do see, like the ones that attack the ship, are living lives of police officers, not scrooge mcDucks. The real world doesn't feel like 19th-century London, it feels like 20th-century Russia--a communist country--or an animal farm.

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on May 11, 2019 at 10:01:42 am

Separate individualism and atomism

atomism is doing things on your own, by yourself; that could be conforming to society's norms and suppressing your individuality while by yourself--what's important is that you're on your own, not in the company of others and especially not working with others

individualism is being true to yourself and expressing yourself genuinely and honestly, whether by yourself or when you're in the company of others. You can practice individualism in the company of others, so long as you do not sacrifice your values for theirs, but continue to demand they respect the rights you value so highly

selfishness is not extending the same rights, opportunities, privacy, and due process that you demand for yourself

political individualism (liberalism or equality) is extending to others all those same rights, opportunities, privacy, and due process that you demand for yourself

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Adam Molecule
on May 11, 2019 at 11:11:43 am

What do Marxists want the most, even more than tenure? Just ask a professor: fewer work hours and more leisure hours, fewer work days and more vacation days. [The first union demands were the 8-hour work day and 5-day work week]

What does Neo do? He not only has a full-time job, but he then works at home. And not only does he work from home after his day job is over, but he works so long after work that he falls asleep at his computer. This is not a a marxist, this is a workaholic like Howard Roark or John Galt.

And then when he escapes the matrix, what does he do? Retire and live off a pension? No, he spends his days either training in the matrix at the dojo, or he walks around the matrix trying to free others. This is not the behavior of a collectivist Marxist who is trying to minimize his work hours and maximize his leisure time, while living off the tax collected from others (pensions). This is the behavior of an individualist who is trying to realize his potential and give others the opportunity to do the same.

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Gail Wynand
on May 11, 2019 at 22:45:45 pm

What is The Matrix? It is a simulation, an AI centrally-planned simulation. The AI/Machines create, direct, and manipulate each and every aspect of the simulation, the way communists [collectivists] want to create, direct, and manipulate every aspect of the social world and the economy. The Matrix is the Marxist utopia--a world where nothing is left to chance or individual freedom.

Neo's goal is to leave the Matrix. Even if he were a government-employed doctor and realized the communist dream of socialized medicine, it would still make sense that he would want to leave the Matrix. Because Neo's goal isn't a centrally-planned socialist utopia, it's to live in the real world--a natural, spontaneous world governed by natural laws learned in science class, rather than governed by the AI/Machines of the Matrix.

The theme of the movie is that the centrally-planned simulation of The Matrix is a dystopia, and the natural real world (no matter how impoverished) is better than living in a world planned and directed by a central AI. Better to be free and poor, than rich and on the road to serfdom.

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Neitzsche Hayek
on May 12, 2019 at 03:31:34 am

Let's say the government requires you to donate your blood for free and then they use that blood to give government-workers blood transfusions to keep them alive. By having to give up something of yours (blood) for free, you are certainly be taken advantage of, because the government is not providing you with just compensation as required by the fifth amendment. By they are not exploiting you as a worker by under-paying you for your work; BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT WORKING.

In the same way, the machines of The Matrix are taking the energy your body produces for free and giving it to themselves to live off of. They are taking advantage of you, but they are not exploiting your work (as Marxists complain about), because YOU ARE NOT WORKING, you are in a pod in a coma dreaming of the matrix.

You ARE being oppressed, but not as a worker (since you're in a pod), but by having to exist in an AI centrally-planned simulation, rather than in the natural, spontaneous real world where you can make your own choices.

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Bloodborne Franklin
on May 12, 2019 at 21:25:25 pm

What is the EVIDENCE that the revolution happened?--besides the obvious that Trump beat Our Lady Hillary

Hillary wants to bring back the fairness doctrine and shut down Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. If they'd had no effect and brought no transparency to the democrat administrations, the democrats would leave them alone.

Bush and Hillary want to persecute Assange for wikileaks. Had wikileaks had no effect and brought no transparency to the US military and the DNC, they would leave them alone.

Since Rush Limbaugh went on the air in 1987, republican support for gun-control fell practically in half from 88% to 49%. Remember, The Matrix was written in 1995, right after the assault weapons ban went into effect, and they made it very clear in the movie that "we need guns, lots of guns", the very kind of guns that were just outlawed. What a coincidence!

And the revolution happened! The assault weapons ban was't renewed and the court ruled the second amendment is an individual civilian right, not a collective militia privilege.

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Evidence Comes-Forward
on May 13, 2019 at 00:02:59 am

If the Matrix was about marxism, Neo would have a back-breaking factory job or a lung-destroying mining job. No, instead he has the marxist dream-job---a high-paying deskjob.

Neo's complaint isn't that he has an unhealthy job that leaves him in pain at the end of the day after being paid low wages. No! His complaint is that his job is boring him to death and that he has the Truman-Show impression that this is all fake, or an illusion, or something . . . something that leaves "a splinter in his mind's eye".

This is the very feeling during the Fairness Doctrine that led Rush to create conservative talk-radio and Bill O'Reilly to create Fox News . . . the feeling that we're not being told everything, or that the world the ABC/NBC/CBS monopoly news is creating for us is an illusion.

What Neo wants is to know what the world is actually like. He wants to know everything about the world, not just those details the AI/Machine's allow us to know in their simulation. Just like republicans want to know everything that's going on, not just those details democrat news are willing to tell us that don't portray the democrats in a negative light.

Destroying the Democrat News Monopoly with Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, the Volokh Conspiracy, Wikileaks, and the Intellectual Dark Web was the revolution. The revolution that culminated in total victory---Citizens United. The revolution didn't just happen, it was a success.

Nobody no longer believes that the world is made up of only whatever CNN decides to report on. Everybody now agrees that you have to get your news from multiple news sources from all sides of the political spectrum. The Matrix of democrat news monopoly was destroyed by The One (Rush Limbaugh), who could shape the narrative as he saw fit.

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Al Goresuch
on May 13, 2019 at 02:08:45 am

What did ABC, NBC, and CBS have during the Fairness Doctrine, when the Wachowski's were growing up?

Anticompetitive control of the marketplace of ideas. They had an ideological monopoly or a "matrix". The same thing the machines have over the residents of the matrix--the machines/AI control what year you think it is, they control what country you think you're in, they can even inhabit your body and literally control you, as the agents do over and over again in the movies. They can literally possess you, the way 1960s news-anchors used to possess people and make them incapable of thinking anything the news-anchors didn't think

It was only with the creation of social media and wikileaks that people were able to break out of the ideological matrix of the corporate media monopoly and see the real world as it was, by getting multiple points of view and getting the news the Democrat/Elitist media didn't want you to know---like what was really happening inside the DNC during the 2016 "democrat primary".

If you want to see just how much of a revolution social media has created, just ask the residents of the Arab Spring or Brexit

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Guten out of Ten

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