The Matrix and surplus-value
The Matrix is sometimes thought to have philosophical relevance in that it seems to deal with the issue of the reality/illusoryness of the physical world. It’s sometimes used as an illustration of the armchair philosopher’s question ‘is this table real ?’. This is a “question” which a ‘hyper-radical’ will ask to show how really, really radical they are because they are prepared to question everything. But this is a bogus “question”, it is a sham – in the sense that no-one asks it so as to seriously doubt the existence of the external world (What would they do if they acted on that doubt? How would living that doubt differ from not living with it?).This alleged relevance seems to me to render the movie a disservice.
The nature of the illusion in The Matrix is societal. That illusion is generated for a political purpose: to obscure from view the fact that humans live as energy-generators in a world ruled by non-humans, by aliens – even though these originated from human AI experiments.
However, there is a double incoherence at the heart of the story. Firstly, we are told that the aliens have nuclear fusion power, but that it doesn’t supply all their needs. We’re not told why it does not. Nor is it clear why there is any mention of nuclear fusion in the plot at all.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the core incoherence in that we are told that humans are forced to generate energy, much as does a battery (we’re actually shown a Duracell, if my memory is correct). But of course, batteries do not generate energy – they store it. Likewise, humans store energy which is ultimately derived from nuclear fusion in the Sun.
In other words, it is nonsensical to premise a narrative on the notion that humans can generate energy. An organism can emit no more energy than is inputted into it. However, there is something of which a human can produce more of than is fed into it: Wealth. A human can produce more wealth than is required to reproduce their productive labour. Above a certain level of technology humans can produce more than what is needed to survive. This opens the possibility of that extra – the surplus – being appropriated by non-producers. This is the precondition for the process of appropriation of surplus which is the objective basis of class society. When that labour is forced, as chattel slavery or as feudal bondage the expropriation is clear. When that labour is forced in the manner of wage-labour, the expropriation is masqued [sic] under the guise of a formal exchange between equal agents (the capitalist class and the wage-worker class). Here the surplus takes the historically specific form of surplus-value.
To whom does the produce of alienated labour belong?: To an alien. When Marx developed that notion in his Economic and Philosophical MSS and used the term ‘alienation’ he could have had no idea of the future representations of ‘alien’ which would simultaneously illustrate and obscure his notion.
The only way to make sense of the human ‘generators’ in The Matrix is that they are producing, not energy, but surplus-value. That is the societal illusion which The Matrix deals with. I do not suggest that this is part of its authors’ intentions, but that only this reading makes sense of its central plot-incoherence. There is irony in that this movie comes from the propaganda apparatus which helps sustain the illusion of consent. In the language of the Situationists: The Spectacle now parades the secret of its own nature as a phantasmagoria. A cynical nod to this is given in the scene where we briefly see Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations, a work which is a rip-off of Debord’s revolutionary notion of the Spectacle. It is a pale echo of a subversive notion, now the common currency of the parasites of the Culture Studies Industry – so fitting that the sequel to The Matrix is already imbricated with a range of adverts and console games.