Mad Max: Fury Road is fast paced, vibrant and bloody. It is a colourful explosion of carnage and vehicular combat. On first inspection it comes across as a visually stunning but shallow movie of wall to wall action and little character development. However underneath the explosions and car crashes Max Max makes some subtle points about how we see ourselves as individuals.
The Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang said Mad Max is a vision of the neoliberal economist’s perfectly free market. Granted he was referring to the Mel Gibson starring original but it applies equally to the Tom Hardy starring remake.
Neoliberal economics, often referred to as free-market economics, is a school of thought which believes that unregulated markets are preferable to regulated markets. They believe the government should get out of the way of private business to allow private business to create as much wealth and job as possible.
Neoliberalism is based on the liberal (liberal as in Adam Smith not George Clooney) principle of individualism and that society is made of rational individuals making decisions in their own interest. It is best for society when governments do not curtail this individualism, as what is best for society is rational individuals making decisions in their own interest. Individual freedom is at the core of neoliberalism, neoliberals often oppose programs aimed specifically at gender or racial equality claiming that group rights oppressed individual rights.
That is enough theory, we should look at the film. Mad Max: Fury Road takes place in a future where society as we know it was destroyed in a nuclear war. Most of the action takes place in a desert where vicious cultists follow bloodthirsty messiahs, who use their military power take what they need and kill anyone who opposes them.
In the world of Mad Max there is no government and no laws. Mad Max has is the neoliberal vision of a perfectly free market, with no state intervention and complete personal freedom. Why then is it so violent and chaotic and not a neoliberal paradise of plenty and economic efficiency?
Certainly environmental factors are at play here. Scarce resources has led to intense completion, which is manifesting itself as violence. Yet there are clearly enough resources to sustain a sizeable population and some individuals are clearly resource rich which indicates that the issue is not the lack of resources but an unequal distribution of resources. In Mad Max monopoly power has risen in an unregulated market, this takes the form of the film's villain, Immortan Joe, who hoards all the water for himself. What this says about the perfect neoliberal world is that rational individuals who possess social status (in this case being the leader of a militarised cult) will horded all the resources and created private monopolies. In the complete free market our intelligence or hard work is not a factor of success, it is the social status of an individual which determines success.
Mad Max is a world with complete individual freedom and no group rights, there are no affirmative action programs or governments holding back individuals. It is also a world entirely based on competition with no welfare, those who cannot compete in this violent desert die. In order to survive in such a world individuals must band together to form mutually supporting collectives. This is what the main characters of Max (Tom Hardy), Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and the wives of Immortan Joe, which Furiosa has liberated from his cult, do. These characters form a mutually supporting collective to protect themselves against individual freedom run amok. The individual freedom takes the form of the lawless bandits roaming the desert and the bloody thirsty war boys which Immortan Joe sends to retrieve his wife.
We see this in real life examples of environmental catastrophes, individual needs are set aside as people work together for the good of everyone affected by the disaster. In Mad Max no individual can stand up to the private monopoly of Immortan Joe backed up by his cultists and military power so it is necessary for individuals to form a collective. These collectives operate along Communist, not neoliberal, lines with equality of resources and mutual aid along the principal of "each unto their need and each unto their ability". (This is good loose definition of Communism laid out by David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.)
The individuals in the collective are less effective when the unspoken rules of the collective are broken, in other words when they do not work along the principal of each according to their needs and abilities. When Max tries to use a sniper rifle to stop a vehicle crewed by Immortan Joe’s followers, Max turns out to be a bad sniper. Mad Max has reverted to neoliberal individual self reliance acting as rational individual who believes he is the best shot. The safety of the collective is threatened as Max cannot shoot the incoming vehicle and has to voluntarily give up his rifle to the shooter of greater ability, Furiosa, who is able to protect the collective. It is telling that Max does not have the rifle taken from him by force, but has to voluntarily admit that his best chance of survival is trusting in someone else and not acting as a rational individual.
The neoliberal world of Mad Max is completely male dominated, with women related to childcare roles. The purpose of Immortan Joe many wives is simply to produce more male offspring to expand his private monopoly, this shows that existing oppressive social structures would get worse in a neoliberal world without state intervention to counter them. The focus on individual rights in reality is rights for the dominant class as an equal society can only be achieved through pursuing the rights of oppressed groups.
By forming a collective against individualism, group rights can be asserted and male dominance challenged. Again this is what happens in the band led by Furiosa and Max. This collective is against the male dominated private monopoly and offers a range of roles for women, not just related to children. The collective is led by a woman, women take part in all roles including fighting and is expressly opposed to the male dominated world of individualism which seeks to oppress them.
The same metaphor about the neoliberal view of individual freedom in a chaotic or post apocalyptic world is explored in other works such as the move and film The Road and and the video game Borderlands. Both emphasise the point that a complete free market and world based entirely on individual freedom without border social structures is violent, chaotic, oppressive and prone to the domination of individuals with social status. Stylistically Mad Max: Fury Road is very much influenced by Borderlands, although the game in turn is clear aesthetically influenced by the earlier Mad Max films.
Obviously, Mad Max: Fury Road can be read differently if you have different political views. It can be interpreted the other way around with Max and Furiosa representing individuals fighting back against Immortan Joe, who in this reading represents an oppressive government determined to stamp out their individual freedom. This is possible but that would make Immortan Joe some form of Communist dictator and there is clearly no sharing of resources in his society.
There is also nothing to stop the cultists leaving his army. If Immortan Joe represents the government then why are there no laws or civic institutions, something even primitive societies have? Immortan Joe’s followers are all rational individuals with their own freedom who choose to remain part of his monopoly because they dependant on it to survive due of the lack of social safety network. The reading of Immortan Joe as the government leaves more questions unanswered than the reading of him as rational individual using his social status to amass a private monopoly of society's scarce resources which he can because nothing can stop him in a perfectly free market.
Mad Max can be viewed as a simply a piece of entertainment, a silence of visual spectacle, but what entertains us makes subtly points about our hops, aspirations and fears. Mad Max speaks volumes about our fear of complete individualism, where nothing can hold back greed or violence. It speaks about our needs to band together against individuals who will do us harm. If the future is the neoliberal view of complete individual freedom then the future really does belong to the mad.