What if I told you … this has all happened before?
You’ll remember that scene in the Matrix where (spoiler alert) Neo finds out that being “The One” is not actually all that special, that he is in fact only the most recent in a series of would-be saviors who were permitted to disengage from the Matrix only to return to the Source and reboot it before it crashes, killing everyone who is plugged in. Believing himself to be a revolutionary, Neo finds out with trepidation that he is, in fact, just a part of the program and was all along.
Libertarians will often speak of having taken “the red pill” and disengaged from the American partisan tradition upon realizing the farce at play between Republicans and Democrats who rage at each other over trivialities while conspiring to “bribe the people with their own money,” as Alexis de Tocqueville so aptly put it. During these heady days when the movement has evolved from the fringe ideology of a few alienated intellectuals to the cusp of mainstream recognition, it can be tempting to believe that this time will really be different.
This is not, of course, the first revolutionary movement to come along in American history. Only a generation ago college-age revolutionary socialists believed whole-heartedly they were on the verge of changing the world, eliminating corporate domination and consumerism and returning American values to whatever group they termed “the people.”
Libertarian anarchism has fired the imaginations of thousands of people and motivated them to "smash the state" and rob it of power through agorist protest; but anarchism as a philosophy has been around in various forms for over two centuries and has even enjoyed wide sub-cultural support in the punk movement for about 30 years. Possibly due to its popular perception as a fringe ideology of miscreants, it has failed to capture the public’s imagination or sustain itself as a social or political movement. Today, despite the encouraging growth in interest, libertarians are unlikely to number more than a hundred thousand in the U.S., and anarcho-capitalists are likely even fewer, a far cry from the millions that would be needed to reject the government and remake the social order.
What if this time isn’t different? What if libertarians find out that radical intellectual movements are just part of the programming of an industrial society, running in cycles every generation or two, manifesting in different forms but always with the same basic elements? Haven’t we seen some of the same philosophical characteristics in Rothbardian anarchism that we read about in Marxism? Don’t both claim that man once lived in the Eden of pre-agrarian society before the dawn of private property or government, which came along with the first farmers, creating government exploitation, leaving us longing for that Stone-Age simplicity?
The reality is that our generation of revolutionaries, just like previous generations, may have to contend with the sobering reality that we will not in fact deconstruct the current political order; even if we did, we couldn’t replace it with anything permanent because the human experience is one of impermanence, with existing political orders constantly changing, evolving, dying out, and being replaced with new ones down the road.
The idea of governments enduring cyclical changes is not a new one. The Greek historian Polybius believed that all societies went through stages of political rule progressing with increasingly diffuse power distribution, from the rule of one, to rule of the few, to the rule of many, and that each of these stages had what he called "benign" and "malignant" forms.
In Polybius’s theory of anacyclosis, benevolent regimes always degenerated quickly into exploitive counterparts, no matter how broadly power was shared. Democracies were no different from oligarchies in his mind, and he watched them fall apart when populations realized they could leech off of their more productive members. As he wrote over 2,000 years ago: “for the mob, habituated to feed at the expense of others and to have its hopes of a livelihood in the property of its neighbors … produces a reign of mere violence.”
Anarchism in his experience was just another part of the cycle, the violent, warped evil twin of democracy that left the people longing again for a leader. Polybius noted in his observation of the Greek city states that a demagogue always arose to lead the public to overthrow the existing order, only to replace it with a new, more broadly exploitive one. It’s a reality we see playing out in developing countries around the world with a consistency so reliable it can only be attributable to human nature.
Perhaps, then the goal should not be to destroy the matrix utterly, but to reboot it instead, to inject new life into traditional ideas, invigorating an apathetic and discontent public with unrelenting youthful enthusiasm for basic human liberty. The socialist revolutionaries of the 1960’s after all were not entirely unsuccessful: libertarian and conservative activists have spent the better part of the last forty years trying to undo the damage they’ve done through their control of cultural institutions, schools, and the American narrative. Replacing the old socialist narrative with a new one that emphasizes the values of liberty and “rebooting” founding American principles will likely be our own major contribution to history.
In the end, Neo sacrificed himself to save the Matrix, just as the narrative demanded. Most of humanity went on in their own self-constructed virtual world, unaware anything had ever happened outside of their own provincial bubbles, even though a great battle had been waged and a transformation in power relationships had occurred.
Maybe that is how real change happens.