The Matrix

The Real Clash of Civilizations

It’s not between Muslim terrorists and the rest: it’s happening inside the West, and the end of the Cold War was just the beginning.

03.01.14 5:00 AM ET

Admit it: you were scared there might be a terror attack in Sochi.

No? What happened? Did Russian security put you at ease?


Though it’s years overdue, we’re beginning to realize that terrorism is not the all-consuming threat to the West that it once seemed to be. That’s not to say terrorists won’t continue to hurt us, sometimes gravely so. They lack, however, the one thing that seems essential to mount a serious challenge to the supremacy of our bloated but powerful cultural system: an ideology that can capture our imaginations.

Weirdly enough, the bloated institutions that rule our dysfunctional way of life actually add embody a worldview we believe in. Capitalist, however corrupt; bureaucratic, however inefficient; egalitarian, however much we struggle for status and recognition. That’s us! Not one single foreign terrorist has managed to offer us anything even close to an alternate identity. Twenty-first century jihadis haven’t failed because they keep blowing themselves up. They’ve failed because their vision of being human never so much as started a spark in us.

Contrast that to twentieth-century communism—which galvanized billions worldwide and convinced thousands of Americans, from many walks of life, that “our way” was headed for history’s scrap heap.

Now we can see why, relative to the Cold War era, the supposed clash of civilizations between neoliberal democracies and paleo-reactionary Muslims is a giant dud. Armed conflict does tend, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, to break out along the global frontiers sketched by those who support the clashing civilizations thesis. Yet pundits, analysts, and ordinary human beings would seem excused to conclude, with Douthat, that “there is still no plausible alternative” to “late-modern liberal civilization.”

Let’s not excuse ourselves just yet, though. While neoliberal thought leaders have cast about the world for the next big ideological antagonist, they’ve paid less and less attention to what’s been happening in their own backyard. While the West’s most powerful figures were freaking out over September 11, 2001, they’d forgotten the lessons of 1999—when Fight Club, The Matrix, and the Battle in Seattle had begun to reveal the grand ideological alternative to the new world order.

“Under and behind and inside everything this man took for granted, something horrible had been growing.” Remember that pivotal scene, when Edward Norton beat himself up and his boss paid him to quit work?

“The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from,” said Agent Smith. “Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.”

Look at the findings of the Seattle City Council’s investigation into the first mass protests against that civilization. It’s up at Wikipedia: "The level of panic among police is evident from radio communication and from their inflated crowd estimates, which exceed the numbers shown on news videotapes. ARC investigators found the rumors of ‘Molotov cocktails’ and sale of flammables from a supermarket had no basis in fact. But, rumors were important in contributing to the police sense of being besieged and in considerable danger."

While nary a terrorist laid his filthy hands on the Olympics, yet another violent conflict between police and citizens took place in yet another urban public space—Kiev’s Independence Square. Compare the global reach and frequency of terrorist attacks to the ubiquity of police forces’ battles with their own people. In country after country, from civilization to civilization, the new archetypical threat to order is not a foreigner in an airplane. It’s a local in the street.

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Just like Fight Club or The Matrix, the wave of revolutionary protest-battles also has a mindblowing ending. When those outside the neoliberal west defeat their regime in the streets, they face a daunting choice: a return to even greater despotism, or an advance into a neoliberal realm whose foundations are rotting away. Decadent, venal, ineffective, stratified, anxiety-ridden, stumbling from one declared crisis to the next—who wants that? People convinced there is no alternative, that’s who.

Well, here’s something about humans: for us, there’s always an alternative. We’d rather dream like amateurs than turn professional at living out our nightmares. For still-growing numbers in the neoliberal West, life is marked above all by a disabling collapse of meaning, vitality, and possibility. Ostensibly free, we discover how grueling it is to compete for position with the billions of people on an equal playing field. Ostensibly free, we discover how our inequality with the talented, ambitious few makes competition against them pretty much impossible. Ostensibly free, we watch as the most powerful 0.01% fuse public and private life into a closed system of lowered horizons and narrowed choices.

It took Tyler Durden a while to accept he was Tyler Durden. It took Neo a while to accept he was Neo. This is no coincidence. The president of the United States even told us that we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for. But if this is not true in our hearts, it can never be true in our world.

Having defeated all our mortal enemies, our civilization has no avoidance mechanism left to deploy against its radical lack of integrity. Even globalization’s blitzkrieg speed cannot hurry us along fast enough to escape the pull of our reckoning with the inauthenticities that turn our governments and our citizens against each other.

“Our great war is a spiritual war,” Tyler Durden intoned. Today the political upshot is plain. The real civilizational clash we face won’t be waged against evil strangers. It will take place in our own countries and our own cities, amidst our own laws, our own lawmakers, and our own law enforcement personnel. It will take place in each of our awoken hearts. And if peace does not prevail there, somehow, you and I are in for a rough time this century, we humans.