“I know kung fu.”
Neo, The Matrix (1999)
“The Red Pill uploads nothing in your head. We'll have to fight back collectively.”
Matt Schultz, in 2021
Growing up in the USSR, we didn’t have m ovies like The Matrix, but we read lots of books. The book that did for me what I suspect The Matrix did for many Western teenagers was Nabokov’s Invitation for a Beheading. In both stories, the characters discover that they have been living in the cave described by Plato and that their idea of reality is an illusion.
To the delight of movie-going audiences, Neo defeated the cool-looking agents of the System with kung fu downloaded directly to his brain with the help of a magic red pill given to him by his Platonic guide, Morpheus. Similarly, Nabokov's hero, the humble teacher Cincinnatus, who was pushed around by everyone, suddenly turned out to be the System's all-powerful destroyer. Waking up to the truth gave both these heroes god-like powers. But in the late Soviet Union, when I was coming of age, most people knew that official doctrine (“the System”) was radically at odds with our daily reality. Soviet TV talked about peace while sending troops to Afghanistan. It talked about equality while some dined on fresh pineapple and caviar and others queued for hours for eggs and soured milk. We were told about democracy but we were only allowed to vote for the same candidates year after year. Reflecting back on it now, I am convinced the USSR's collapse was a result of suspended disbelief being stretched too far. Reality then seemed so lucid, and the future so promising, but we have to remember that the collapse of the USSR led to even more suffering for its people. So, where did the glitch occur? What can we learn from it?
During the first coronavirus lockdown, it started to feel like reality was cracking up again. My late husband, David Graeber, took a keen interest in hearing what it was like for me growing up in the USSR. We found that our conversations paralleled these strange times from before and after its collapse.
Once again, the System was telling us one thing while our reality was something else entirely. The minimum-wage workers that we had been told for so long could be replaced by anyone with a pulse, were now suddenly deemed “essential workers” and given something called “hero pay” to risk their lives on the front lines of capitalism. At the same time, office workers and students were suddenly free to work from home.
The higher up the job in the administrative hierarchy, the closer the proximity to power and violence, and the more well-paid it is, the farther is it from being essential. Those in power told us money does not grow on trees. You have to earn money, and repay debts, since governments cannot just start printing more money due to inflation. Yet suddenly, magical money trees have sprung up worldwide. Finally, everyone can see that money is not an objective reality but rather an instrument used to exert power over others.
What became apparent to us was that many of the long-held assumptions repeated to us by the System no longer applied. What the System had said mattered the most for society’s functioning were obvious lies now made plain to everyone.
David’s most recently published book Bullshit Jobs, which tackled that very disillusionment directly, once again became hugely relevant in the pandemic zeitgeist.
The feeling was strikingly similar to the late 1980s in the Soviet Union when even government officials started to use language like "socialism with a human face," implying that Soviet socialism had an inhuman face before Perestroyka. Many then were understandably, like David, saying that there is no justice or rationality to who ranks which rungs on the ladder of social hierarchy, exactly as it was in the late Soviet Union.
We had long felt that no threat from outside could destroy the Soviet Union. Self sufficiency, the nuclear umbrella, and an enormous territory had made it safe for 1,000 years to come. Yet, one broken metaphor was able to infect the collective body like a virus.
Indeed, as the pandemic revealed during the lockdowns, so many of the West's jobs are bullshit, and most of the global South's jobs are shit.
I think many people all over the world were calling on David during the pandemic to take on the role of Morpheus, as the Platonic guide who would see us all out of the cave of never ending bullshit.
Both social classes: apparatchiks and the general population felt the System was imprisoning them, so they collectively destroyed it. The Soviet people hoped to get to live in the Western welfare state, but the apparatchiks aimed to legalize their existing power. Ironically, the apparatchiks achieved their individualist aims by acting collectively: they literally conspired, often with the help of Western advisers, on how to take over the media, they created lobbies, and finally, they became the government. On the other hand, the general population viewed themselves as the individualist heroes entering the mythological realm of Capitalism and Democracy. This myth did not provide a lot of space to work on practical developments of collective bargaining power. Instead of the promised land of "democratic capitalism" with its individual freedoms and universal prosperity, Soviet people had entered the scorched land of shock therapy, which led to starving pensioners, homelessness and unpaid teachers and doctors.
Maybe the idea to distribute the red pills among specially chosen individuals, like the sensitive teacher in Nabokov's novel or the kung fu fighter in The Matrix, is not exactly fruitful. Rather, the red pill distribution or the reality check must be similar to a mass vaccination program, where a notable part of society is exposed to it, or as David Graeber said: "revolution is the transformation of political common sense."
Perhaps then we will have a chance to coordinate our actions and set clear goals, like Unconditional Basic Income or a radical increase in compensation for essential workers. Maybe then we'll be able to avoid waking up in the trap of a renewed illusion.
This text is part of the series "Museum of Care"