Escaping the Matrix
Are you ready for the red pill?
By Richard K. Moore
The defining dramatic moment in the film The Matrix occurs just after Morpheus invites Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill. The red pill promises "the truth, nothing more." Neo takes the red pill and awakes to reality--something utterly different from anything Neo, or the audience, could have expected. What Neo had assumed to be reality turned out to be only a collective illusion, fabricated by the Matrix and fed to a population that is asleep, cocooned in grotesque embryonic pods. In Plato's famous parable about the shadows on the walls of the cave, true reality is at least reflected in perceived reality. In the Matrix world, true reality and perceived reality exist on entirely different planes.
The story is intended as metaphor, and the parallels that drew my attention had to do with political reality. This article offers a particular perspective on what's going on in the world--and how things got to be that way--in this era of globalization. From that red-pill perspective, everyday media-consensus reality--like the Matrix in the film--is seen to be a fabricated collective illusion. Like Neo, I didn't know what I was looking for when my investigation began, but I knew that what I was being told didn't make sense. I read scores of histories and biographies, observing connections between them, and began to develop my own theories about roots of various historical events. I found myself largely in agreement with writers like Noam Chomsky and Michael Parenti, but I also perceived important patterns that others seem to have missed.
When I started tracing historical forces, and began to interpret present-day events from a historical perspective. I could see the same old dynamics at work and found a meaning in unfolding events far different from what official pronouncements proclaimed. Such pronouncements are, after all, public relations fare, given out by politicians who want to look good to the voters. Most of us expect rhetoric from politicians, and take what they say with a grain of salt. But as my own picture of present reality came into focus, "grain of salt" no longer worked as a metaphor. I began to see that consensus reality--as generated by official rhetoric and amplified by mass media--bears very little relationship to actual reality. "The matrix" was a metaphor I was ready for.
In consensus reality (the blue-pill perspective) "left" and "right" are the two ends of the political spectrum. Politics is a tug-of-war between competing factions, carried out by political parties and elected representatives. Society gets pulled this way and that within the political spectrum, reflecting the interests of whichever party won the last election. The left and right are therefore political enemies. Each side is convinced that it knows how to make society better; each believes the other enjoys undue influence; and each blames the other for the political stalemate that apparently prevents society from dealing effectively with its problems.
This perspective on the political process, and on the roles of left and right, is very far from reality. It is a fabricated collective illusion. Morpheus tells Neo that the Matrix is "the world that was pulled over your eyes to hide you from the truth....As long as the Matrix exists, humanity cannot be free." Consensus political reality is precisely such a matrix. Later we will take a fresh look at the role of left and right, and at national politics. But first we must develop our red-pill historical perspective. I've had to condense the arguments to bare essentials; please see the annotated sources at the end for more thorough treatments of particular topics.
The driving force behind Western imperialism has always been the pursuit of economic gain, ever since Isabella commissioned Columbus on his first entrepreneurial voyage. The rhetoric of empire concerning wars, however, has typically been about other things--the White Man's Burden, bringing true religion to the heathens, Manifest Destiny, defeating the Yellow Peril or the Hun, seeking lebensraum, or making the world safe for democracy. Any fabricated motivation for war or empire would do, as long as it appealed to the collective consciousness of the population at the time. The propaganda lies of yesterday were recorded and became consensus history--the fabric of the matrix.
While the costs of territorial empire (fleets, colonial administrations, etc.) were borne by Western taxpayers generally, the profits of imperialism were enjoyed primarily by private corporations and investors. Government and corporate elites were partners in the business of imperialism: empires gave government leaders power and prestige, and gave corporate leaders power and wealth. Corporations ran the real business of empire while government leaders fabricated noble excuses for the wars that were required to keep that business going. Matrix reality was about patriotism, national honor, and heroic causes; true reality was on another plane altogether: that of economics.
Industrialization, beginning in the late 1700s, created a demand for new markets and increased raw materials; both demands spurred accelerated expansion of empire. Wealthy investors amassed fortunes by setting up large-scale industrial and trading operations, leading to the emergence of an influential capitalist elite. Like any other elite, capitalists used their wealth and influence to further their own interests however they could. And the interests of capitalism always come down to economic growth; investors must reap more than they sow or the whole system comes to a grinding halt.
Thus capitalism, industrialization, nationalism, warfare, imperialism--and the matrix--coevolved. Industrialized weapon production provided the muscle of modern warfare, and capitalism provided the appetite to use that muscle. Government leaders pursued the policies necessary to expand empire while creating a rhetorical matrix, around nationalism, to justify those policies. Capitalist growth depended on empire, which in turn depended on a strong and stable core nation to defend it. National interests and capitalist interests were inextricably linked--or so it seemed for more than two centuries.
In the postwar years matrix reality diverged ever further from actual reality. In the postwar matrix world, imperialism had been abandoned and the world was being "democratized"; in the real world, imperialism had become better organized and more efficient. In the matrix world the US "restored order," or "came to the assistance" of nations which were being "undermined by Soviet influence"; in the real world, the periphery was being systematically suppressed and exploited. In the matrix world, the benefit was going to the periphery in the form of countless aid programs; in the real world, immense wealth was being extracted from the periphery.
Growing glitches in the matrix weren't noticed by most people in the West, because the postwar years brought unprecedented levels of Western prosperity and social progress. The rhetoric claimed progress would come to all, and Westerners could see it being realized in their own towns and cities. The West became the collective core of a global empire, and exploitative development led to prosperity for Western populations, while generating immense riches for corporations, banks, and wealthy capital investors.
These developments disturbed elite planners. The postwar regime's stability was being challenged from within the core--and the formula of Western prosperity no longer guaranteed public passivity. A report published in 1975, the Report of the Trilateral Task Force on Governability of Democracies, provides a glimpse into the thinking of elite circles. Alan Wolfe discusses this report in Holly Sklar's eye-opening Trilateralism (see access). Wolfe focuses especially on the analysis Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington presented in a section of the report entitled "The Crisis of Democracy." Huntington is an articulate promoter of elite policy shifts, and contributes pivotal articles to publications such as the Council on Foreign Relations's Foreign Affairs (access).
Huntington tells us that democratic societies "cannot work" unless the citizenry is "passive." The "democratic surge of the 1960s" represented an "excess of democracy," which must be reduced if governments are to carry out their traditional domestic and foreign policies. Huntington's notion of "traditional policies" is expressed in a passage from the report:
"To the extent that the United States was governed by anyone during the decades after World War II, it was governed by the President acting with the support and cooperation of key individuals and groups in the executive office, the federal bureaucracy, Congress, and the more important businesses, banks, law firms, foundations, and media, which constitute the private sector's 'Establishment'."In these few words Huntington spells out the reality that electoral democracy has little to do with how America is run, and summarizes the kind of people who are included within the elite planning community. Who needs conspiracy theories when elite machinations are clearly described in public documents like these?
Besides failing to deliver popular passivity, the policy of prosperity for Western populations had another downside, having to do with Japan's economic success. Under the Pax Americana umbrella, Japan had been able to industrialize and become an imperial player--the prohibition on Japanese rearmament had become irrelevant. With Japan's then-lower living standards, Japanese producers could undercut prevailing prices and steal market share from Western producers. Western capital needed to find a way to become more competitive on world markets, and Western prosperity was standing in the way. Elite strategists, as Huntington showed, were fully capable of understanding these considerations, and the requirements of corporate growth created a strong motivation to make the needed adjustments--in both reality and rhetoric.
If popular prosperity could be sacrificed, there were many obvious ways Western capital could be made more competitive. Production could be moved overseas to low-wage areas, allowing domestic unemployment to rise. Unions could be attacked and wages forced down, and people could be pushed into temporary and part-time jobs without benefits. Regulations governing corporate behavior could be removed, corporate and capital-gains taxes could be reduced, and the revenue losses could be taken out of public-service budgets. Public infrastructures could be privatized, the services reduced to cut costs, and then they could be milked for easy profits while they deteriorated from neglect.
These are the very policies and programs launched during the Reagan-Thatcher years in the US and Britain. They represent a systematic project of increasing corporate growth at the expense of popular prosperity and welfare. Such a real agenda would have been unpopular, and a corresponding matrix reality was fabricated for public consumption. The matrix reality used real terms like "deregulation," "reduced taxes," and "privatization," but around them was woven an economic mythology. The old, failed laissez-faire doctrine of the 1800s was reintroduced with the help of Milton Friedman's Chicago School of economics, and "less government" became the proud "modern" theme in America and Britain. Sensible regulations had restored financial stability after the Great Depression, and had broken up anti-competitive monopolies such as the Rockefeller trust and AT&T. But in the new matrix reality, all regulations were considered bureaucratic interference. Reagan and Thatcher preached the virtues of individualism, and promised to "get government off people's backs." The implication was that everyday individuals were to get more money and freedom, but in reality the primary benefits would go to corporations and wealthy investors.
The academic term for laissez-faire economics is "economic liberalism," and hence the Reagan-Thatcher revolution has come to be known as the "neoliberal revolution." It brought a radical change in actual reality by returning to the economic philosophy that led to sweatshops, corruption, and robber-baron monopolies in the nineteenth century. It brought an equally radical change in matrix reality--a complete reversal in the attitude that was projected regarding government. Government policies had always been criticized in the media, but the institution of government had always been respected--reflecting the traditional bond between capitalism and nationalism. With Reagan, we had a sitting president telling us that government itself was a bad thing. Many of us may have agreed with him, but such a sentiment had never before found official favor. Soon, British and American populations were beginning to applaud the destruction of the very democratic institutions that provided their only hope of participation in the political process.
The neoliberal project was economically profitable in the US and Britain, and the public accepted the matrix economic mythology. Meanwhile, the integrated global economy gave rise to a new generation of transnational corporations, and corporate leaders began to realize that corporate growth was not dependent on strong core nation-states. Indeed, Western nations--with their environmental laws, consumer-protection measures, and other forms of regulatory "interference"--were a burden on corporate growth. Having been successfully field tested in the two oldest "democracies," the neoliberal project moved onto the global stage. The Bretton Woods system of fixed rates of currency exchange was weakened, and the international financial system became destabilizing, instead of stabilizing, for national economies. The radical free-trade project was launched, leading eventually to the World Trade Organization. The fission that had begun in 1945 was finally manifesting as an explosive change in the world system.
The objective of neoliberal free-trade treaties is to remove all political controls over domestic and international trade and commerce. Corporations have free rein to maximize profits, heedless of environmental consequences and safety risks. Instead of governments regulating corporations, the WTO now sets rules for governments, telling them what kind of beef they must import, whether or not they can ban asbestos, and what additives they must permit in petroleum products. So far, in every case where the WTO has been asked to review a health, safety, or environmental regulation, the regulation has been overturned.
Most of the world has been turned into a periphery; the imperial core has been boiled down to the capitalist elite themselves, represented by their bureaucratic, unrepresentative, WTO world government. The burden of accelerated imperialism falls hardest outside the West, where loans are used as a lever by the IMF to compel debtor nations such as Rwanda and South Korea to accept suicidal "reform" packages. In the 1800s, genocide was employed to clear North America and Australia of their native populations, creating room for growth. Today, a similar program of genocide has apparently been unleashed against sub-Saharan Africa. The IMF destroys the economies, the CIA trains militias and stirs up tribal conflicts, and the West sells weapons to all sides. Famine and genocidal civil wars are the predictable and inevitable result. Meanwhile, AIDS runs rampant while the WTO and the US government use trade laws to prevent medicines from reaching the victims.
As in the past, Western military force will be required to control the non-Western periphery and make adjustments to local political arrangements when considered necessary by elite planners. The Pentagon continues to provide the primary policing power, with NATO playing an ever-increasing role. Resentment against the West and against neoliberalism is growing in the Third World, and the frequency of military interventions is bound to increase. All of this needs to be made acceptable to Western minds, adding a new dimension to the matrix.
In the latest matrix reality, the West is called the "international community," whose goal is to serve "humanitarian" causes. Bill Clinton made it explicit with his "Clinton Doctrine," in which (as quoted in the Washington Post) he solemnly promised, "If somebody comes after innocent civilians and tries to kill them en masse because of their race, their ethnic background or their religion and it is within our power stop it, we will stop it." This matrix fabrication is very effective indeed; who opposes prevention of genocide? Only outside the matrix does one see that genocide is caused by the West in the first place, that the worst cases of genocide are continuing, that "assistance" usually makes things worse (as in the Balkans), and that Clinton's handy doctrine enables him to intervene when and where he chooses. Since dictators and the stirring of ethnic rivalries are standard tools used in managing the periphery, a US president can always find "innocent civilians" wherever elite plans call for an intervention.
In matrix reality, globalization is not a project but rather the inevitable result of beneficial market forces. Genocide in Africa is no fault of the West, but is due to ancient tribal rivalries. Every measure demanded by globalization is referred to as "reform," (the word is never used with irony). "Democracy" and "reform" are frequently used together, always leaving the subtle impression that one has something to do with the other. The illusion is presented that all economic boats are rising, and if yours isn't, it must be your own fault: you aren't "competitive" enough. Economic failures are explained away as "temporary adjustments," or else the victim (as in South Korea or Russia) is blamed for not being sufficiently neoliberal. "Investor confidence" is referred to with the same awe and reverence that earlier societies might have expressed toward the "will of the gods."
Western quality of life continues to decline, while the WTO establishes legal precedents ensuring that its authority will not be challenged when its decisions become more draconian. Things will get much worse in the West; this was anticipated in elite circles when the neoliberal project was still on the drawing board, as is illustrated in Samuel Huntington's "The Crisis of Democracy" report discussed earlier.
The "excess democracy" of the 1960s and 1970s attacked this shared consensus from below, and neoliberal planners decided from above that ongoing consensus wasn't worth paying for. They accepted that segments of society would persist in disbelieving various parts of the matrix. Activism and protest were to be expected. New means of social control would be needed to deal with activist movements and with growing discontent, as neoliberalism gradually tightened the economic screws. Such means of control were identified and have since been largely implemented, particularly in the United States. In many ways America sets the pace of globalization; innovations can often be observed there before they occur elsewhere. This is particularly true in the case of social-control techniques.
The most obvious means of social control, in a discontented society, is a strong, semi-militarized police force. Most of the periphery has been managed by such means for centuries. This was obvious to elite planners in the West, was adopted as policy, and has now been largely implemented. Urban and suburban ghettos--where the adverse consequences of neoliberalism are currently most concentrated--have literally become occupied territories, where police beatings and unjustified shootings are commonplace.
So that the beefed-up police force could maintain control in conditions of mass unrest, elite planners also realized that much of the Bill of Rights would need to be neutralized. (This is not surprising, given that the Bill's authors had just lived through a revolution and were seeking to ensure that future generations would have the means to organize and overthrow any oppressive future government.) The rights-neutralization project has been largely implemented, as exemplified by armed midnight raids, outrageous search-and-seizure practices, overly broad conspiracy laws, wholesale invasion of privacy, massive incarceration, and the rise of prison slave labor (2) . The Rubicon has been crossed--the techniques of oppression long common in the empire's periphery are being imported to the core.
In the matrix, the genre of the TV or movie police drama has served to create a reality in which "rights" are a joke, the accused are despicable sociopaths, and no criminal is ever brought to justice until some noble cop or prosecutor bends the rules a bit. Government officials bolster the construct by declaring "wars" on crime and drugs; the noble cops are fighting a war out there in the streets--and you can't win a war without using your enemy's dirty tricks. The CIA plays its role by managing the international drug trade and making sure that ghetto drug dealers are well supplied. In this way, the American public has been led to accept the means of its own suppression.
The mechanisms of the police state are in place. They will be used when necessary--as we see in ghettos and skyrocketing prison populations, as we saw on the streets of Seattle and Washington D.C. during recent anti-WTO demonstrations, and as is suggested by executive orders that enable the president to suspend the Constitution and declare martial law whenever he deems it necessary. But raw force is only the last line of defense for the elite regime. Neoliberal planners introduced more subtle defenses into the matrix; looking at these will bring us back to our discussion of the left and right.
Divide and rule is one of the oldest means of mass control--standard practice since at least the Roman Empire. This is applied at the level of modern imperialism, where each small nation competes with others for capital investments. Within societies it works this way: If each social group can be convinced that some other group is the source of its discontent, then the population's energy will be spent in inter-group struggles. The regime can sit on the sidelines, intervening covertly to stir things up or to guide them in desired directions. In this way most discontent can be neutralized, and force can be reserved for exceptional cases. In the prosperous postwar years, consensus politics served to manage the population. Under neoliberalism, programmed factionalism has become the front-line defense--the matrix version of divide and rule.
The covert guiding of various social movements has proven to be one of the most effective means of programming factions and stirring them against one another. Fundamentalist religious movements have been particularly useful. They have been used not only within the US, but also to maximize divisiveness in the Middle East and for other purposes throughout the empire. The collective energy and dedication of "true believers" makes them a potent political weapon that movement leaders can readily aim where needed. In the US that weapon has been used to promote censorship on the Internet, to attack the women's movement, to support repressive legislation, and generally to bolster the ranks of what is called in the matrix the "right wing."
In the matrix, the various factions believe that their competition with each other is the process that determines society's political agenda. Politicians want votes, and hence the biggest and best-organized factions should have the most influence, and their agendas should get the most political attention. In reality there is only one significant political agenda these days: the maximization of capital growth through the dismantling of society, the continuing implementation of neoliberalism, and the management of empire. Clinton's liberal rhetoric and his playing around with health care and gay rights are not the result of liberal pressure. They are rather the means by which Clinton is sold to liberal voters, so that he can proceed with real business: getting NAFTA through Congress, promoting the WTO, giving away the public airwaves, justifying military interventions, and so forth. Issues of genuine importance are never raised in campaign politics--this is a major glitch in the matrix for those who have eyes to see it.
Seattle represented the tip of an iceberg. A mass movement against globalization and elite rule is ready to ignite, like a brush fire on a dry, scorching day. The establishment has been expecting such a movement and has a variety of defenses at its command, including those used effectively against the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In order to prevail against what seem like overwhelming odds, the movement must escape entirely from the matrix, and it must bring the rest of society with it. As long as the matrix exists, humanity cannot be free. The whole truth must be faced: Globalization is centralized tyranny; capitalism has outlasted its sell-by date; matrix "democracy" is elite rule; and "market forces" are imperialism. Left and right are enemies only in the matrix. In reality we are all in this together, and each of us has a contribution to make toward a better world.
Marx may have failed as a social visionary, but he had capitalism figured out. It is based not on productivity or social benefit, but on the pursuit of capital growth through exploiting everything in its path. The job of elite planners is to create new spaces for capital to grow in. Competitive imperialism provided growth for centuries; collective imperialism was invented when still more growth was needed; and then neoliberalism took over. Like a cancer, capitalism consumes its host and is never satisfied. The capital pool must always grow, more and more, forever--until the host dies or capitalism is replaced.
The matrix equates capitalism with free enterprise, and defines centralized-state-planning socialism as the only alternative to capitalism. In reality, capitalism didn't amount to much of a force until the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution of the late 1700s-- and we certainly cannot characterize all prior societies as socialist. Free enterprise, private property, commerce, banking, international trade, economic specialization--all of these had existed for millennia before capitalism. Capitalism claims credit for modern prosperity, but credit would be better given to developments in science and technology.
Before capitalism, Western nations were generally run by aristocratic classes. The aristocratic attitude toward wealth focused on management and maintenance. With capitalism, the focus is always on growth and development; whatever one has is but the seeds to build a still greater fortune. In fact, there are infinite alternatives to capitalism, and different societies can choose different systems, once they are free to do so. As Morpheus put it: "Outside the matrix everything is possible, and there are no limits."
The matrix defines "democracy" as competitive party politics, because that is a game wealthy elites have long since learned to corrupt and manipulate. Even in the days of the Roman Republic the techniques were well understood. Real-world democracy is possible only if the people themselves participate in setting society's direction. An elected official can only truly represent a constituency after that constituency has worked out its positions--from the local to the global--on the issues of the day. For that to happen, the interests of different societal factions must be harmonized through interaction and discussion. Collaboration, not competition, is what leads to effective harmonization.
In order for the movement to end elite rule and establish livable societies to succeed, it will need to evolve a democratic process, and to use that process to develop a program of consensus reform that harmonizes the interests of its constituencies. In order to be politically victorious, it will need to reach out to all segments of society and become a majority movement. By such means, the democratic process of the movement can become the democratic process of a newly empowered civil society. There is no adequate theory of democracy at present, although there is much to be learned from history and from theory. The movement will need to develop a democratic process as it goes along, and that objective must be pursued as diligently as victory itself. Otherwise some new tyranny will eventually replace the old.
It ain't left or right. It's up and down.