Political Subtexts in The Matrix
I was very young, probably pre-teen, when I first watched The Matrix. I enjoyed it a lot, but obviously a lot of the finer subtexts went over my head. Recently when I watched it again, I was surprised to see how radically political—but not overtly so—this movie was. Here are some of my thoughts on the subtextual themes of the movie.
What is the Matrix?
The matrix is a constructed reality, a “neuro-interactive” computer simulation as Morpheus puts it. This reality is also a very authoritarian one. When Trinity first meets Neo, she tells him, “They’re watching you, Neo”; this surveillance clearly gives off an Orwellian vibe. It even has a secret police like the Nazi Gestapo in the form of agents. When Neo is interrogated by the agents, he explicitly calls their tactics out as “Gestapo crap”. In this way, a clear parallel is established between the matrix and authoritarian regimes like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
But the matrix differs from this typical, Orwellian world in a crucial way—the inhabitants of the matrix don’t even know that they are imprisoned, and this is where it gets interesting. The Matrix is control, but not in the way we usually think of control. A typical inhabitant of the matrix is not oppressed and controlled by the authorities at every step of their live, at least they don’t think that they are. Nonetheless, the matrix is control. As Morpheus says, the matrix is
A dream world built to keep us under control, in order to change a human being into a battery.
This “changing of human being into a battery” can be clearly seen as an allusion to an old Marxist critique of capitalism: how individuals are seen as nothing but a source of labor under the system of capitalism. Despite this, the system is a dream world, i.e. a world which would seem perfect to many. The problem of false consciousness is clear here.
It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. The truth: you are a slave. You are born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.
Discontent and Alienation
The system works for most people, but not all. Some—like Neo—are severely alienated from and discontent with it. They “hardly sleep, live alone, night after night at the computer”. As we already discussed, the system doesn’t make its control overtly clear, but some people feel it nonetheless. They feel that something is wrong with the world, the thought is ever present like a splinter in their mind. The question, “what is the matrix”—what is this society of control and how does it work—keeps this individuals awake at night. As Morpheus tells Neo,
You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. There’s something wrong with the world… It is this feeling that has brought you to me.
How do they deal with this discontent? They indulge in criminal activities, especially cyber-crimes. For example in the movie, Trinity hacked the IRS database. The exact motive behind this hacking is not stated, but we can infer that their criminal activities are targeted towards the authorities, as kind of a rage against the machine.
Morpheus as a Radical Extremist
So the movie pretty clearly establishes that the Matrix is the enemy, the big bad. We’ve also seen how Matrix has strong parallels with Deleuzian society of control, more specifically the contemporary liberal, democratic capitalism. Many people are content with the system, but some aren’t. They also know that the contentment of the majority is based on a lie, and they intend to emancipate them from this lie—the matrix.
But what stroke me as most interesting was how Morpheus and his crew deal with the Matrix, cause it’s not that morally unambiguous as it might seem at the first glance.
At a point in the movie, Morpheus speaks,
The matrix is a system, Neo. that system is our enemy. Until we save the people, the people are part of the system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. Many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it. Anyone we haven’t unplugged, is potentially an agent.
There is no allusion here, this is a direct call to regard ordinary civilians trapped within the matrix as enemies. Morpheus is clearly organizing a violent revolution for the sake of “truth”, against the whole system without any regard for individuals. Combine that with Morpheus’s believe in fate and his part in the prophecy that’ll come to be, one can see how Morpheus’s movement is not far from radical extremism. Whether that’s justified or not is left to be commented upon.