This publication is called the Marxian Matrix and I thought it would be a great idea that we start by a precise analysis of the Wachowskis’ Matrix. After watching the movies again for the purposes of this analysis, I have come to believe that it is not only a great idea, but an indispensable stop on the path of our inquiry into the present structure of social relations. This first part and the next three that follow are, as it were, arguments for this indispensability.
As an additional foreword, I ask the reader to be patient. There is a mind-boggling amount of significant details in these movies, which I will try to exhaustively bring to attention as I move on: wait until the end of this series if you feel like I’ve glossed over a scene or detail that you believe is really important.
After watching the movies, my first dilemma was where to start. There’s this extremely strong popular opinion (do a Google search “best matrix movie”) that the two sequels (Reloaded and Revolutions) are of lower standing than the first one, except maybe in terms of action scenes. I disagree with this popular opinion in all respects but one: there is a 20 to 25 minute action scene in Reloaded, at the end of the visit to the Merovingian, which is still one of the most kinetic, tense, and extremely impressive martial arts scenes in cinema. But I otherwise mostly disagree because after my careful viewing, I believe that each of the movies cannot be understood but as a part of the whole trilogy: each one explains elements of the others. In this sense, it is close to the notion of totality.
So, to decide, I thought I would tackle the materialistic aspect of Marx, as he himself uses the material to start grappling with reality. By materialistic, I mean that in all social institutions (ex. family), there is an interplay between material conditions and social relations: interplay meaning that each element conditions the other. As Marx says in the German Ideology: “Circumstances make men as much as men make circumstances.” However, “the first condition of any human existence, thus of all history, is that men be able to live so that they may make history”; to live means to eat, to drink, to house and clothe oneself, and many others. So even though each element (material circumstances, conscience of human beings) conditions the other, Marx does give more weight to the material conditions and needs of existence, since “the creation of means to satisfy [these] needs, that is to say the production of material life itself, is the first historical act”.
The Matrix trilogy does offer such a material premise to its story, and its clearest exposition is presented in what I call the Battery Scene of the first movie. You can watch it here:
Let us summarize what is presented in this scene. In this kind of loading program for the Matrix, Morpheus shows Neo that, in reality, the world as we know it (skyscrapers and all) has been more or less completely destroyed by a war between humans and machines led by an AI created by human beings at the beginning of the 21st century. During this war, explains Morpheus, the human faction somehow managed to “scorch” the sky, cutting the machines off from their most abundant source of energy, the sun. The machines riposted by using another source of energy: the human being itself. After the discovery of the bioelectricity and body heat generated by the human body, fields were created where “human beings are no longer born: we are grown”. The Matrix, then, is a computer-generated simulation, designed to maintain control over human beings so that they may effectively be used as the equivalent of a battery.
Ok, so let’s admit it: it is a somewhat convoluted and wacky story because of its poor plausibility. But this is not a historical documentary, it’s a Hollywood movie with lots of martial arts. So then what does this have to do with Marx? It has to do with Marx because, in the measure that it paints our contemporary world as a system of control forcefully reducing our lives to our productive capacities, this is precisely what Marx describes as the effect of Capital on its labourers.
In “Wage Labour and Capital”, Marx starts by looking at the phenomenon of wages. He starts by noticing that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the capitalist does not pay the wages of the worker out of the money which he will obtain from the selling of the commodity produced by the worker. No, he pays the worker out of money already on hand, that is to say before the product is brought to market, or even before the product is finished altogether. What the “money already on hand” represents is a part of already existing commodities, of already existing capital. Again, wages are not a share of the worker in the commodities produced by him; they are a fraction of the capital already constituted before the productive process.
In this way, Marx starts by giving a simple definition of capital: Accumulated labour which serves as a means to new production. For example, a cotton-spinning machine is just a machine for spinning cotton; it becomes capital only under certain conditions. Among these conditions, two are the most important: first, that accumulated labour preserve and multiply itself by exchange with direct, living, labour-power; second, that a class of people possess nothing but the ability to work. “That a class of people posses nothing but the ability to work”? Doesn’t this sound close to what Morpheus is showing us, where people are used by machines (“accumulated labour”?) simply for their ability to generate energy?
The scene may not be so wacky, after all. In “Capital in the 21st Century”, Thomas Piketty presents statistics that show that in 2010 in the United States, the top 10% of people owned 70% of American capital, the next 40% of people owned 25% of the capital and, finally and most impressively, the “last” 50% of the population together only owned 5% of the capital of their society.
“For this half of the population, the notion of patrimony and capital is relatively abstract. For millions of people, patrimony is reduced to a few weeks of salary, an old and abandoned savings account, a car and a few pieces of furniture.” (Piketty, CTFC, Chap. 7)
There’s more. Remember what we said at the beginning? When we said that “the first condition of any human existence, thus of all history, is that men be able to live so that they may make history”? So then, not only do statistics confirm there is a huge number of people that possess nothing but the ability to work, but we have to remember that if in market society you don’t possess anything you can bring to market, you can’t exchange anything for the bread and butter you need to survive. So, if you want to survive, you have to go to work, you have to use the only thing that you possess. And you use it by selling your time to those who would buy it.
“The work is the active expression of the labourer’s own life. And this life activity he sells to another person in order to secure the necessary means of life. His life-activity, therefore, is but a means of securing his own existence. He works so that he may keep alive.” (Marx, WLAC, Chap. 2)
This obligation to work entails an alienating process that will lead us straight back to the Matrix. On the one hand, the worker alienates a huge chunk of himself when he sells his time to work, because the product of his activity is not the aim of his activity: the worker mines gold, builds palaces, assembles Iphones for someone else; and life begins where and when this activity ceases, in the bar, at the movies, at home… On the other hand, the worker undergoes an alienating transformation through the eyes of his employer. The capitalist buys the time of his labourer in the same way that he buys a machine; in the end, both are just means he paid money for, so that they may serve the productive process.
“The manufacturer who calculates his cost of production and, in accordance with it, the price of the product, takes into account the wear and tear of the instruments of labour. The wear and tear of the worker, therefore, is calculated in the same manner as the wear and tear of the machine.” (Marx, WLAC, Chap. 4)
Ok, so the machines of the Matrix are not capitalists, they have simply enslaved the human species and are literally using people as batteries. But if we leave aside the “Humanity vs AI” war and the “sky scorching”, the movie portrays the Matrix to be the exact world we live in, skyscrapers and all; and it’s telling us that the Matrix exists so that human beings may be reduced to batteries. And apparently, Marx is telling us the same thing, and empirical evidence such as that we presented from Piketty’s book strongly support his claim.
Insofar as this material premise is the knot that ties the plot of the three movies together, I believe this is sufficient proof of the possibility that the Wachowskis had intentions to tell a story whose moral is one of a criticism of capitalism. In the parts that follow, I want to fully investigate this possibility: I invite you to stay with me as we find out just how Marxian the Matrix can get.
Marx, Karl. (1846) The German Ideology, available online here.
WLAC: Marx, Karl. (1849) Wage Labour and Capital, available online here.
CTFC: Piketty, Thomas. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press.