Assuming that the average age of the current OWS protester is about 26 years old, then most of them would have been about 14 years old when The Matrix was released in 1999.
In the now famous scene (at left) from that iconic movie, Morpheus, leader of a revolutionary underground, explains the true nature of the Matrix to Thomas Anderson. It is a system of control, a world “pulled over your eyes” to blind you from the awful truth that human beings are nothing more than batteries to power the regime of a race of intelligent machines.
The idea of a “world pulled over your eyes” is nothing new to philosophers, of course. 2000 years before The Matrix, the Greek Philosopher Plato, in his famous dialogue The Republic told a similar story—the Allegory of the Cave. There Plato had his readers imagine a group of people held hostage to appearances, forced to accept a shadow play for reality, and he imagined what might happen if one of them managed to get free, and see past the shadows, and look at the world as it really is. What would we he tell his fellow captives then? And how would they react? I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it doesn’t end well.
The Wachowski siblings tapped the same rich philosophical vein in The Matrix. What is real? But they added an interesting layer to the allegory. Their contribution? The people in the Cave are not just stationary captives ala A Clockwork Orange (another masterpiece of dystopian filmmaking) but they are exploited workers, their production in captivity literally empowers the very system that oppresses them.
Sound like anyone you know? (Or perhaps like 99% of everyone you know?)
I find it interesting that one of the major cultural myths of the OWS generation is about a group of oppressed humans, living in a system that unfairly exploits their productivity who rise up in a revolution and overthrow that inhumane system. It may be a stretch for a philosopher to make such a broad psychological generalization, but surely a group of people who share that formative cultural myth are more primed for radical political action (if not outright revolution) than say, those of our grandmother’s and mother’s generations, who were told stories about elite members of the wealthiest 1% (e.g., Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen, Ted Cord, Stephen Strange, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Stark, Reed Richards, Francis Xavier, Thor, Henry Pym, et al...) and even super-powered Space Aliens (e.g. The Martian Manhunter, The Silver Surfer, and Superman himself) who were so enamored of the America of the 1950’s where law and order and fair play reigned that they shun their lives of comfort, or even the extra-terrestrial homes, to make a life for themselves in the Good Old US of A.
In a generation, we went from Clark Kent, alien immigrant in the most literal sense turned defender of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” to Thomas Anderson (Neo), a living battery in an indifferent machine, who realizes his plight and joins a desperate struggle to cast off his shackles. The Wachowskis might not have been the first to go there, but it was their enjoyable iteration on Plato that reached millions of young people the world over with message that appearance is not reality, that appearances can be tools of oppression, and that revolution is sometimes the only sensible course of action.
The Wachowskis followed up the Matrix trilogy with another grand revolutionary spectacle. In 2006, they released their film adaption of Alan Moore and And David Lloyd’s classic graphical novel V For Vendetta. The graphic novel tells the story of a anarchic terrorist, compulsively clad in a Guy Fawkes mask, who carries out a personal vendetta against a brutally fascistic 80s–90s British regime with startling acts of violence and fiery demolition. The Wachowskis tweaked this plot, much to the ire of Alan Moore, by revising the character of V, and making him more overtly heroic liberal freedom fighter, where the original V was an outright anarchist, not given to what Moore called “American liberal” sentiment.
Be that as it may, the film retained many of the revolutionary overtones of the graphic novel. This was especially apparent in the memorable scene where V addresses the nation via television about their Gov’t.
Though V for Vendetta performed poorly at the box office compared to the Matrix trilogy, this particular scene, and the character of V himself, has taken on a life of its own as an internet meme.
This is evident in the way that the famous hacker/activist/anarchist network that calls itself Anonymous has appropriated the figure of V via there use of his trademark Guy Fawkes mask. Anonymous operatives regularly appear in Fawkes masks at any public protest.
Left: OWS protesters in France; Right: members of Anonymous protesting Scientology in Florida
And the meme of the protester in a Guy Fawkes mask has spread as well to many of the OWS camps around the world.
I take the ubiquity and obvious importance of the figure of V, represented by people’s willingness to wear his mask, as evidence of a generation that associates itself with the revolutionary narrative the character embodied rather than the “Truth Justice and The American Way” narrative of our parents and our parents parents.
As more and more people awaken, like the red pills in The Matrix, to discover that they have been commodified, dehumanized, chopped, bundled, bought, and sold as means to grow corporate capital, used as fuel for a reckless financial bubble to enrich the 1%, more people will be politically radicalized, and embrace the persona, and the narrative, of revolution.
The Wachowskis, who studied philosophy in college, have managed to make an impact on millions of young people around the globe. Through their craft, they’ve helped (in no small way I suspect) to change the narrative and mythos of a generation of young Americans. In the end, the changes they helped bring about, and the narrative they helped us to imagine, might end up being a vehicle of positive change in the lives of millions of people. They might help save the world.