Ever since I’d seen both movies, I’ve thought Fight Club and The Matrix would make a great double feature. Not one to share with the kids, and not for light, passive entertainment. But for a thought-provoking evening? Perfect.
Besides both being late nineties classics you watch in college and think are deep, they’re both taking a swing at the same target. Fight Club and The Matrix are both, in their own way, critiques of the American social and economic system. During the Reagan and Clinton administrations, which served as the backdrop of the lives of most of the Generation Xers who saw them in theaters, this was neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism, summed up briefly by an economics amateur, is the ideology that favors free markets, privatization, and deregulation, with minimal government involvement in the economy generally. This is the world of economic freedom that allows corporations to flourish, and so provides an endless number of “socially conscious” movies with suit-wearing, cigar-smoking, filthy rich bad guys. It also provides them with a cage from which they can free their lead characters.
Take a look at The Matrix’s protagonist, as seen by Agent Smith.
Agent Smith: “It seems that you’ve been living two lives. One life, you’re Thomas A. Anderson, program writer for a respectable software company. You have a social security number, pay your taxes, and your… help your landlady carry out her garbage.”
In previous scenes, we watch Thomas A. Anderson living out this humdrum existence. He shows up to work late and is reprimanded by his boss, then distracted by the squeak of window washers dragging a squeegee across the glass. He sits in his cubicle and does his work. He is unsatisfied with life, just another office drone in a world of office drones.
But the mysterious hackers Morpheus and Trinity offer him an escape. Morpheus asks him to look at his world, to understand its true nature. He is caught in the Matrix.
Morpheus: “The Matrix is everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window, or you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.”
Neo/Thomas Anderson: “What truth?”
Morpheus: “That you are a slave, Neo. 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.”
When Morpheus breaks Thomas Anderson, alias Neo, out of the Matrix, he takes him to a place where he can explain what precisely the Matrix is. It seems human society was long ago conquered by a race of artificially intelligent robots, who have created a vast system in which they have trapped us. Why are we hooked into this thorough illusion, this deception pervading our entire life?
Morpheus: “The human body generates more bio-electricity than a 120-volt battery and over 25,000 BTU’s of body heat. Combined with a form of fusion, the machines had found all the energy they would ever need. There are fields – endless fields – where human beings are no longer born, we are grown. For the longest time I wouldn’t believe it, and then I saw the fields with my own eyes. Watched them liquefy the dead so they could be fed intravenously to the living.
“And standing there, facing the pure horrifying precision, I came to realize the obviousness of the truth. What is the Matrix? Control. The Matrix is a computer generated dream world, built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.”
In short, the system views us as a resource. We are batteries to be drained, crops to be harvested. Thomas Anderson is not special human being, he is not a beautiful and unique snowflake. He—like us—is a cog in a machine, a replaceable part in a vast, paper-pushing, money-generating enterprise. Well, electricity generating in the world of the story. In the world of neoliberalism, the world of corporations, the real individual is nothing more than Morpheus’s coppertop battery that keeps the small appliances running.
Realizing that the machines view us this way, that the Matrix was created to keep us docile as we are drained, the hope Morpheus offers is something of a messianic one.
Morpheus: “When the Matrix was first built, there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted, to remake the Matrix as he saw fit. It was he who freed the first of us, taught us the truth – As long as the Matrix exists, the human race will never be free. After he died, the Oracle prophesied his return and his coming would hail the destruction of the Matrix, end the war, bring freedom to our people. That is why there are those who have spent our entire lives searching the Matrix looking for him.”
The way he will destroy the Matrix is never quite specified, though by the end of the movie there is some indication that perhaps the One is merely meant to wake everybody up, to make them reject the Matrix. Then, one assumes, we will be free.
And that is The Matrix’s philosophy of neoliberal society. It looks at the meaningless life of an office drone, and blames the machine. The solution it offers is simply to reject the machine, to reject the system. But then what? What replaces it?
The Matrix is pretty light on answers to that particular question. Perhaps it can be forgiven. After all, it is primarily an action movie. But that does weaken its critique. A freedom that isn’t going anywhere isn’t exactly inspiring. We’ve rejected the system, we know what we’re fighting against, but what exactly are we fighting for? Just whatever we want? Find your own meaning? What if I find meaning in being hooked back into the Matrix? After all, a lot of people seem comfortable there.
This is the option taken by the traitor, Cypher. He is sick of the fight, sick of the dystopian real world. He wants to eat steak, drink wine, be important, enjoy the good life back in the Matrix. So he cuts a deal with the machines, letting them have the resistance in exchange for letting him back in. It doesn’t work out well.
We are meant to reject that option, but on what basis? What is the better world Morpheus and Neo offer us? When we finally get to Zion in the sequels, all we get is a massive rave, and a little hanky panky. Couldn’t we have had that in the Matrix? Didn’t a lot of people? Work during the week, party on the weekend?
There’s an essential failure of imagination here. Many critics of neoliberalism’s economic order simultaneously embrace social liberalism, as if the two were unconnected. They sneer at the crass self-indulgence of consumerism, deride the meaninglessness of being a mere resource for a corporation. But ad agencies were never just selling designer handbags, they were buying and selling lives and meaning.
Social liberalism rejects all social constraints, with the result that there are no traditional identity markers to clutch onto. Who are you? You determine who you are. Your hobbies, your gender, your sexuality, your favorite causes, your favorite celebrities, your eclectic clothing style, your multicultural food palate and selection of world music—this is who you are. Let no one tell you what job you can and can’t have, let no antiquated vows hold you back from seeking a fulfilling relationship or abandoning an unfulfilling one, let no unplanned pregnancy slow down your career and dash your dreams. You are your own person.
Far from being inconsistent with a free market, this is the natural consequence of it. Traditional societies with their taboos and reluctance to try new things are not great places for advertising. If you want to sell stuff, you need to convince people that the only thing that matters is what they want, and then offer it to them. Teach them to follow their hearts, then tell them their hearts really need what you’re selling—and that may be sex, vodka, Chinese food, a good car, or the right movie collection. Whatever floats your boat.
In the world of social liberalism, all the things that were once part of traditional value structures which transcended the individual have now become a form of both self-indulgence and self-marketing. Which sexuality most appeals to me? What movie genre makes me happiest? What clothing style really expresses who I am? Social liberalism is not the antithesis of economic liberalism, it is its natural bedfellow. Liberated markets need liberated individuals.
Fight Club realizes this to a greater degree than The Matrix. When the movie begins, the problem for the nameless protagonist—let’s call him Jack—is not that he is being actively deceived by an oppressive system. To be sure, the corporations are not innocent in this, but the real problem is Jack. Jack defines himself by what he owns. He has an addiction to Ikea, a need for the right coffee table, the right lamps, the right treadmill. He defines himself by it.
Early in the movie, his apartment explodes. He lives with no one. He has no real friends, no one lost or hurt in this tragedy. What he has lost are his possessions—a fridge full of condiments with no food. But, as he states later in the movie, those weren’t just things, that was his life. He is defined by what he buys. His new friend, Tyler Durden, questions this.
Tyler Durden: “Do you know what a duvet is?”
Jack: “It’s a comforter…”
Tyler Durden: “It’s a blanket. Just a blanket. Now why do guys like you and me know what a duvet is? Is this essential to our survival, in the hunter-gatherer sense of the word? No. What are we then?”
Tyler Durden: “Right. We are consumers. We’re the by-products of a lifestyle obsession.”
Fight Club does not offer a vague messianic prophecy. It offers an active solution. Reject the unnecessary. Reject your possessions. Then reject your desire for pleasure. Embrace pain. Reject your dignity. Suffer at night, and be despised by your coworkers by day. Reject your respect for society, and reject society itself. Fight Club rejects social liberalism as much as it does the corporate world of economic liberalism. It does not offer pleasure or freedom. It offers rocks bottom, the rejection of all that society calls good, the embracing of one’s mortality.
Tyler Durden: “Listen up, maggots. You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
This is the mantra with which Tyler Durden blasts the quasi-fascist movement that springs up around him. They are all going to die, their life has no meaning, and they might as well take down this corrupt society with them. It told them they were valuable, but it treated them like they were worthless. Like a faceless resource.
Tyler Durden: “Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”
Don’t tell the small child confused about their gender, the growing adult uncertain about their sexuality, that they can be whatever they want to be. Don’t tell the little girl that she can grow up to be president. Don’t preach a gospel of racial harmony to the oppressed. Don’t tell the poor they can rise to the top. Don’t even tell the vast cast of comfortable white guys with jobs that they can obtain any sort of dignity. All these things are just lies that keep us docile as we waste our lives chasing what the ad men tell us is worth chasing.
Fight Club recognizes this, understands that this message of positivity and individual self-creations exists solely to make us consumers. The me-centric society is an ad-centric society is a corporation-centric society. We exist to work for the companies, and to buy from the companies. And beneath that, we are rotting organic matter. Don’t buy any Disney-style platitudes. Don’t delude yourself. This is the harsh reality.
The Matrix rejects the machine, but Fight Club knows the machines were not alone. We were complicit. We bought their lies, we indulged ourselves, we have become the willing slaves of a system that doesn’t value us. Tyler Durden calls us to take responsibility for that, and he would not only have us enlightened, he would have us react.
Where The Matrix offers no real plan of action, and no final vision, Fight Club at least offers the first. Durden transforms the fight clubs into Project Mayhem, a terrorist organization not too far in goal from a more militaristic Anonymous. It aims first to use guerilla tactics to expose the meaninglessness of life in the corporate-dominated system, and then blow up the credit card companies, resetting all our balances to zero. Reboot that system and cause chaos.
The movie does not want you to like this plan. It is clearly violent, clearly bad, and clearly taking things too far. Sort of. It’s hard to separate Jack’s rejection of Project Mayhem from all the other inhibitions he’s slowly been shedding as he rejects consumerist society. Tyler Durden, as played by Brad Pitt, is simply more charismatic than the wishy washy Ed Norton, and his case is more convincing. The rejection of the terroristic project is clear, but rings hollow in the larger context.
Tyler’s ultimate vision, beyond the plan, is dwelt on hardly more than Zion, but the glimpse we get is both interesting and revealing.
Tyler Durden: “In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
This is a radically primitive world, and a harsh one. Hunter-gatherer societies are not for the weak. They do not provide the safety and comforts of civilization that we are used too. They clearly also exclude much of what we consider to be the signs of our own greatness—great towers, great highways, a million meal choices. But this is entirely consistent with the values Fight Club has displayed so far. We are decaying organic matter, and anything else is a lie told to sell us something. So live life radically free from any system, live it on the edge, live it while you can. Don’t let anyone stop you.
If you value individual freedom, Fight Club’s is perhaps the more consistent conclusion. But the truth is, few of us value individual freedom that much. We don’t want to reject society altogether, we just don’t want to be batteries plugged into the Matrix, consumers leading meaningless lives.
It’s probably no coincidence that twenty years after the rash of anti-consumerist movies in the 90’s, including these two, both major parties are reeling from insurgencies in their own ranks. Bernie Sanders wants a system that isn’t afraid to hurt corporations in order to give individuals dignity. He’s an open socialist, because he cares about people more than companies. Trump doesn’t mind hurting corporations either, being open to protectionist policies that put American jobs ahead of companies that profit from an international neoliberal system. He also rejects the multiculturalism that reduces the values by which we define ourselves as a community to just one more option on a cultural free market. Hence the accusations of racism.
Both insurgencies, in their own ways, reject the neoliberalism of the past several decades. The right used to push for economic liberalism, and the left for social liberalism. Now we are seeing a right that doesn’t care about the former, and a left that, while it has not rejected the latter, may not prioritize it so much as college tuition and a true living wage. The country is not satisfied with the Matrix it has been living in, and both party establishments are suffering as a result.
But where does this leave us? What’s next? What does society look like, if not yin-yang coffee tables and a job at a large software company? What does the good life look like, if not what the advertisers tell us, if not what we see on TV, if not what the corrupt politicians ask of us? How exactly do we reject self-indulgent freedom—whether economic or social—for some sort of social cohesion? What are our new values?
Many critiques of neoliberalism reject religion, treating it as a means of social control. The Matrix certainly does—going to church is one of the ways you experience the Matrix. In Fight Club, the only clergyman is a frail looking, overly polite little pipsqueak provoked by a member of one of the fight clubs. He is weak compared to this real man, and ultimately abandons the social norms of nonviolence to attack the him, after being contemptuously sprayed with a hose. He is, perhaps, a hypocrite, or at least inconsistent with what we can assume are his principles.
But what if this picture is wrong? What if the reason we’re in this bind is that we have rejected a truly religious world, and look to a merely material world to give us meaning? We tell ourselves that there is nothing beyond the physical world, that we are no more than a complicated bit of chemistry. There is no life beyond this, no reality more lasting than the pain or pleasure our bodies feel right now. And after that, there is nothing. Is it any wonder we want to indulge ourselves while we’re still here?
I’m not suggesting a world of self-interested monsters, only a world of reasonable people. Why trouble yourself with antiquated religious taboos about sexuality, abortion, and respect for elders when it’s all going to rot anyways? Why make someone feel guilty for doing what we’re all doing—just trying to get through the day? Life is hard enough without being threatened with hellfire.
But again, what if that materialistic outlook is not true? What if the cosmos really is the produce of an entity that, though he may be far more than a “person” as we would understand it, is certainly not less? What if he not only created us, but is—contra Tyler Durden—actually interested in us?
People who reject fundamentalist Christianity often make the mistake of thinking that this idea is comforting, but the truth is often quite the opposite. As I’ve already indicated, it’s not for nothing that social liberals are easily annoyed by religious conservatives. Religious conservatives believe that God is interested in us, including being interested that we not do certain things. If there are objective, transcendent values, the kind a truly supernatural entity can give, that means that we can be wrong. Who we sleep with and how we spend our time is suddenly somebody else’s business, and that’s uncomfortable.
This cuts right against our sense of freedom. How dare someone call me a sinner, how dare someone judge me. Isn’t this a free country? Don’t I get to do what I want with my own money, with my own time, with my own body? This religion which rejects the kind of freedom at the base of neoliberalism, and the resultant dehumanization of consumers and employees, also rejects the basis of social liberalism.
Rejecting economic liberalism is one thing—most of us do not benefit much from it. But social liberalism is something that daily allows us to indulge ourselves. The average joe profits from the ability to buy anything, watch anything, drink anything, and sleep with anyone in a way he does not benefit from the profit margins seen by the big wigs in corporate. A morally judgmental Christianity is not an attractive alternative to the kind of consumerism from which he benefits.
But perhaps that is because those who reject the consumerist, neoliberal society on one level are themselves a product of it. We have found an enemy, but the enemy is us. We are still trapped in the service of our own desires, and we need a system that frees us to do that, that subsidizes our self-indulgence.
In another movie—Doctor Strange—the titular character is having a conversation with the Ancient One, who is in a particularly conversant mood. As she contemplates both death and the mysteries of life, she gives Strange some final advice, something to help him along his path to enlightenment and true self-knowledge.
The Ancient One: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.”
Dr. Stephen Strange: “Which is?”
The Ancient One: “It’s not about you.”