In 2011, the economist and former finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis posted on his blog an essay, "The Trouble with Humans: Why is labour special and especially targeted at a time of crisis," that provides an interesting reading of the science-fiction classic The Matrix. For those who have never watched this film, here is the basic plot: In the year 1999, a computer hacker named Neo (Keanu Reeves) learns from a mysterious figure, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), that the world he lives in is not real but a sinister computer simulation designed by machines to keep humans content while farming their bodies for energy. He is also told the year is not 1999 but closer to 2199. After dealing with the shock of this revelation, Neo decides to leave the simulation, enter "the desert of the real" (the real world, which is dark, grim, and gothic), and join the human rebellion against the machines.
In Varoufakis's opinion, this film is so close to the way things actually are in our world that it's basically a documentary. True, machines have not transformed humans into batteries, as is the case in the movie, but, according to Varoufakis, the relationships between the Matrix machines and their human batteries and the real world's capitalist bosses and labor are eerily similar. In both cases, the powerful want the exploited to submit with no resistance. But the minute human laborers/batteries present no challenge to those in control, the system goes into crisis. For things to work properly, it turns out, humans need to believe they are free. This is why in The Matrix, the machines decided to plug the minds of their human batteries into a massive computer that simulated their freedom.
"Our curious need for liberty was, thus, threatening the efficacy of their human-driven power plants," writes Varoufakis. "So, the machines obliged us. They forced not only nutrients into our bodies but also illusions that our spirit craved into our minds. Ingeniously, they attached electrodes to our skulls with which they fed, directly into our brain, a virtual, yet utterly realistic, life that as humans we could cope with." (Quick note: Varoufakis fails to point out that the nutrients are of the Soylent Green variety—dead humans.) But the machines begin to realize that the system devised to keep humans content is still susceptible to crises because fake freedom is not as good or as effective as real freedom. This is the contradiction at the heart of The Matrix and also capitalism.
Throughout the history of capitalism, there has been a relentless push to replace humans with autonomous machines. But, as Varoufakis explains, the more work robots do, the less value is extracted from the system. Why? Because humans are the true source of value, and their removal from the production process must result in declining profits. As profits decline, crises increase. This is pure Marx, the labor theory of value. I do not agree with the theory, but it certainly has had a huge impact on Varoufakis's thinking. And it is his thinking along these lines that certainly forced him to resign from his position as Greece's finance minister on July 6. The men and women who are trying to force Greece to cut its commitments to the public and focus on repaying its creditors won't work with a person who believes laborers are more valuable than bankers and bondholders.
Varoufakis's dark point in all of this, however, is that capitalism requires not only free subjects, but free subjects who rebel against the system. The same goes for the Matrix—the system of extracting power from humans is improved only by those rebelling against it (most of the details of this contradiction are dealt with in the second film of the trilogy, The Matrix Reloaded). The characters—Neo, Morpheus, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss)—and the machines trying to destroy them are all part of an evolutionary dialectic that is refining the Matrix. If the rebels are crushed, the system terminates. Again, the same is true for capitalism: Those in power do everything they can to replace laborers with compliant machines, but without human obstinacy, their system of value accumulation collapses.
Varoufakis writes: "Freedom of Will and the mysteries of the human psyche throw a spanner in the works of any technical, or mathematical, depiction of the relation between input and human output. A good blues song sung in unison may be as important for the productivity of a group of farm workers as the tools they are using or the prospect of a pay rise. Machines cannot even begin to wrap their software-driven thoughts around this peculiarity of human labourers."
From this he concludes that it is the work of the left to save capitalism from capitalists. Varoufakis is developing something like a mystical Marxism to fill the space made vacant by the collapse of Marxist socialism, which suffered from the same problem that neoclassical economics did between 1973 and 2008: an unrealistic faith in human rationality.
Rereading Varoufakis's essay in light of Greece's current economic nightmare makes it tempting to extend his analogy even further and cast him in the role of the Oracle (played so wonderfully in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded by the late Gloria Foster). With all of his talk about the importance of the irrational human spirit, it's useful to see Varoufakis as part of the system, made by the system, for the system. He understands that the only hope lies in disturbance and disruption of capital's drive toward total dominance. He did not want his country to exit the eurozone—he wanted to save the euro and bourgeois Europeanism from itself.
This is the form his Greek tragedy takes.