It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence,
but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
— Karl Marx
Imagine the Matrix story retold on another plane, this time without Zion and its rebels and even without the war against the machines. Our version of the story would unfold something like this…
Mr. Anderson thinks he works in a real world office, in a real world city, in a real world world that is very much like ours. The only difference is that everything in this almost-our-world operates within a complete vacuum of purpose. Mr. Anderson is programmed to believe in reasons for doing what he does which are all absolute lies. There are no reasons for doing anything except something absolutely mundane, and the real structure of the system he works in is completely devoid of any complexity.
Nevertheless, although there are no problems, life in Mr. Anderson’s colony is replete with repetitive tasks that must be carried out constantly and the structure is actually so basic (let us imagine a termite mound populated by homo sapiens) that no real motivation for any individual members can possibly exist in it. The inherent meaninglessness of the system is however deeply concerning for those controlling the system who know that the purposelessness of their world makes it impossible to maintain it in any transparent way. Instinct is no longer enough to keep the hive operating. The individuals that they use as slaves now require reasons and purposes in order to keep them working efficiently.
So in order to make Mr. Anderson operate as well as possible in this absolutely simple world he has to be made to believe that everything is more interesting and complex than it really is…
The difference between this and the original Matrix theme lies in the plane of reality in which the fantasy programming works. The Matrix is no longer a computer construct that is manufacturing a total fantasy dimension by pumping information directly into the nervous system and mind; our Matrix is more of a distortion of reality based on one essential lie. What the lie is covering up is the fact that everything that Mr. Anderson does in the office is a complete waste of time.
The money he thinks he is making does not really exist, the products he buys are offered to him for absolutely no good reason. Everything he wins and struggles for could be obtained with no real effort at all. The politics around him and the economic crisis he sees the country going through are all fabrications without the least bit of reason behind them. The wars and hunger in the world around him all take place for no reason at all other than to keep the workers motivated and keep them struggling to survive in the nest where, remember, there is actually no reason to do anything that is being done at all.
In this new story our Mr. Anderson will struggle to break out of his slavery and fight against the Matrix, just as he did in the original trilogy. Nevertheless, we have omitted all references to Zion. Zion does not make sense in the pointless world analogy. In fact it made little sense in the original trilogy.
In struggles against absolute power there can be rebels and terrorists, but no city states like Zion. It’s like trying to imagine an enlightened nation leading a war against Wall Street. If Mr. Anderson had started to fight the Matrix from within the Matrix itself rather than in reality, the trilogy would have had more metaphorical meat to chew on. But how could he have managed it? A tricky question even for the action specialists of Hollywood.
If Zion exists it is only in the immaterial universe of imagination. Zion is a dream within a dream, created by power in order to prevent it from ever becoming real. For the system to ensure our passivity within the system it is in the system’s interest to feed us with dreams of Zion, like Big Brother’s fantasy projections in Orwell’s 1984. Dreams of revolution may be the best way to pacify revolutionary spirits before they can be ignited.
What the lie is covering up is the fact that everything that Mr. Anderson does in the office is a complete waste of time.
Sartre points out that consciousness can be our being or it can be transcendental and focussed on our reason for being. Our modern cultures are sharply focussed on being at the expense of reason for being. Nihilism, and a great deal of existentialism, is an anti-philosophy of being that looks at reality with half an eye, and a resigned one at that. Sisyphus can only be happy if he ignores his ability to search for a reason for his being.
In a culture of rock pushers the question of why am I doing all this? is a lethal one. The nihilist culture can only provide an unsatisfactory truth – you are doing this so that we can maintain our wealth and power, or some other fantastic lie like, you are doing this so that all your dreams will come true. Reason in being has to be found in the moment. Once Sisyphus takes his eyes off the rock it will fall back and crush him. He hasto be focussed on his present condition. But Sisyphus’ hill is getting steeper and steeper. It’s not a healthy scenario and it’s time for Sisyphus to pack up and leave.
Like Sisyphus’ absurd concentration on his rolling rock, the consciousness geared toward being is a kind of unconsciousness. It is passive consciousness and easily stressed when drawn out of its lethargy. The active, inspiring force of reasonsfor seems alien to the Sisyphus-being spirit: Reasons long ago fell into the sway of relativity, thinks the Sisyphus-being. Instead of reasons we have desires and hopes. “Desires and hopes!” he repeats out loud, focussed on his rock. Then: “My rock is my reason!” he will proclaim, but will be unable to give a coherent answer when asked: “Why are you pushing that rock?” and will be at a total loss for words if you persist with: “Why are you pushing anything at all?”
If a conscious being has the means to achieve a desired end then we have activity, and we are so intelligent that the possibilities are endless. You must be defined according to your employment. But isn’t activity and productivity now the problem?
Fecund rock-pushing creatures we are, producing more and more rock pushers and inventing more and more rocks to push. But despite the increasing scarcity of rocks that can be rolled, there is hardly anyone sitting and thinking of a better, healthier way to pass our time. For if we are to ever escape the quarry, we need somewhere else to go. If we are ever to stop ourselves from pointlessly consuming things, we need to be able to satisfy ourselves in ways that don’t consume. Starvation is not the best cure for obesity; we need to find a healthier way of eating.
Another sci-fi scenario we have imagined is a kind of mixture between The Matrix and the film Inception. The central idea of Inception is the idea of information extraction, or implantation, through an invasion of an individual’s mind. But unlike The Matrix, in which the mind is completely abducted and transformed, Inception deals with a more subtle invasion via one’s dreams.
Our story would have a typical stage: the hopelessly over-populated world. In order for the human race to survive and recuperate acceptable standards of living a vast percentage of the population must become inactive. Democratically conscious of this, a democratic solution is sought (that really is a bit of sci-fi fantasy): How can we get rid of a vast percentage of the world’s population in a humane way? In the beginning there is talk of extermination camps, but the good guys in our story would contend that perhaps that proposal is too drastic and unnecessary.
A brilliant scientist then comes up with the idea that half the population could be turned off for a while by putting them into a dream-like state for ten years. After that time the “active” humans release the “inactive” ones and become inactive themselves.
The first, easiest solution, was to put this inactive race in an unconscious coma – but that was considered too cruel, as the Inactives would lose ten years of their lives. In order to make this loss of time attractive then it is decided to programme a virtual reality matrix for the inactive sleepers and a network which allows interaction between the sleepers’ consciousness during their period of inactivity.
In a culture of rock pushers the question of why am I doing all this? is a lethal one. The nihilist culture can only provide an unsatisfactory truth – you are doing this so that we can maintain our wealth and power, or some other fantastic lie like, you are doing this so that all your dreams will come true.
So far so good: but gradually our democratic perception of this reality starts to fade – drama can’t have a cast list full of good-guys, there needs to be some black to let the white stand out. At first the idea is to send the dreamers to a kind of paradise, or a prolonged holiday for ten years. In fact in the dream-reality state the holiday would be stretched out to seem like an entire lifetime. In fact the first dreamers submit to their somnolent exile believing that their condition will be a non-stop fantasy of love, romance and adventure in exotic climates, with an unlimited bank account.
At first, the fantasies are realised, but then a pragmatic doubt, coming from corporate directors, changes the minds of the Dream-weavers who are programming the deep-sleep universe. The corporate minds, after thinking the story through a few times, suspect that the paradise-dream reality will ultimately become a negative incentive for what will eventually be their future work-force. After spending a life-time in paradise, think the corporate minds, who will want to work in the corporate world reality when they are brought out of their dream-state. And so it is decided that the better tactic would be to convict the Inactives to a virtual inferno from which they will emerge in a gasping way with a sense that the real world is absolute Heaven compared to the nightmare they have just emerged from.
Meanwhile, the life in the Active world hardly improves, despite the exile of half the population. The political-economic grip of the corporate dictatorship gets stronger and stronger and conditions for the Actives gets worse and worse. Before the Inactives are restored to consciousness the Actives are put to sleep, in order to avoid interactions between the two. Reality in both states grows more and more similar, until very soon no-one is very sure if they are awake or dreaming. Some even suggest that they are not really alive anymore and that the world was destroyed in a terrible holocaust centuries ago. Pessimism seeps in everywhere. The corporate figures get richer and richer. Revolution starts to foment under the surface. Individuals start to find ways of crossing over between Active dream states into the dream world of the Inactives and when the rebels realise that they can penetrate the dreams of the corporate firm giants, the real war begins.
Our social existence determines our consciousness… What does this mean? That we are not really conscious? The struggle for freedom becomes a struggle to develop a kind of consciousness which stands apart from our social existence. We are in Plato’s cave, but in a far more materialistic sense than Plato envisaged. Plato intuitively understood that consciousness was prejudiced toward our immediate reality whilst at the same time the limitations of our organs of perception gave us a distorted interpretation of that reality. The mind is our greatest tool for elevating us above the mundane limits of consciousness, but it is not a trustworthy tool. We are looking at shadows, yes; the truth is elsewhere, yes – but even if we turn and look into the light the shadows are still imprinted on our brains, and so the cave metaphor is not relevant anymore. To see beyond social existence we have to plunge our heads under water. The problem is, until we develop gills, we can only stay submerged for a limited time.
Marx was essentially correct in observing the tie between social existence and consciousness, and in his belief that revolution comes from an awareness of conflicts that is generated through ideological forms. Through science, art and philosophy, we are starting to see through the system’s veil in order to grasp a reality beyond the common sense of our social-existence consciousness.
As Marx said: “consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life.”v Now our civilisation is immersed in a growing awareness that our impossible system is approaching the realisation of its impossibility: the economics of perpetual growth in a limited environment is reaching all its limitations. Perpetual growth is a myth; it cannot be sustained.
Revolution is now a necessity. We must question the paradigm we are living and working in if we are to survive, and that means questioning our consciousness. Freewill can only ever be a reality if we are able to be sure that our actions are not pre-programmed. In this way the new revolution must go beyond Marxist concepts of social revolution and change our economic foundations not by reprogramming society but through an even more profound alteration of consciousness that is concerned with liberating awareness.
Freedom lies in our ability to see beyond our consciousness of our social existence in order to grant us entry into the realm of real knowing.
Paul Adkin is a writer, director, playwright and actor. His novel Purgatory (ÑUBOOKS) is available at Amazon in e-book format. His fiction and dramatic work has always had a deep philosophical and psychological content and he is now drawing on his knowledge in those fields to produce his own philosophical texts.
‘Our Programmability’ builds on arguments raised in ‘Lacan, Poe, and 9/11 Conspiracies’ (Going Down Swinging #33). Both pieces are excerpts from a work in progress, Our Zeitgeist Apocalypse.
Feature photo used under Creative Commons by Pascal (Source: Flickr)