When Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) hit cinemas, it was a gasoline-fuelled shock to the senses that nobody was prepared for. It has a rightful place as one of the top ten films of the 2010s, providing nothing less than a loud, zany yet nuanced blockbuster experience. Part of the film’s magnetism is the world it creates; a society charred to the bones and ruled by a dictator bent on greed, controlling a populace left scrounging for scraps.
If this sounds a little too real for comfort, that would be the point. Director George Miller constructs a status quo ripe for unpicking through Marxist interpretation – it’s Ken Loach, but wearing steampunk goggles and throwing molotov cocktails at poisoned vagabonds. Marxism has a very particular analysis of the nation state which, given the self-contained nature of Fury Road’s post-apocalyptic setting, seems like a good place to start.
Karl Marx had his own theories of state and social formation. Here however, the focus will instead be on the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990). In chapter five of Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, Althusser elaborates on the Marxist analysis in a way that echoes what Miller depicts onscreen.
Althusser begins his argument with his own formulation of the relations of production. He claims that “every social formation must reproduce the conditions of its production” and that therefore, both the means of production and the relations of production must be replicated. The means of production are the raw materials and mechanisms used to produce things, and this requires a continual duplication of labour power. This is, ostensibly, achieved through wages – incentivise workers and they will produce things – but as Althusser argues, “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also… a reproduction of submission to the ruling ideology for the workers, and a reproduction of the ability to manipulate the ruling ideology correctly for the agents of exploitation and repression.”
In plain English, it is not enough to remunerate workers for their contribution to economic production, presumably because there would be very little to prevent them rising up in revolt when conditions of exploitation became apparent. Both the ability of the workers to work and of the rulers to rule must also be reproduced in order for the social formation of a given society to sustain itself.
In Fury Road, the bastion of this reproduction is The Citadel. The Citadel is the city state run by the ailing but ruthless dictator Immortan Joe, who commands an army of ‘War Boys’ and rules over a population clinging to survival. Immortan Joe’s position in the social hierarchy is cleverly echoed by his on-screen physicality. Whether it is his balcony in the Citadel (as seen below) or poking out of the top of his vehicle like the world’s ugliest jack-in-the-box, Immortan Joe is almost always head and shoulders above other characters. When he addresses his subjects at the beginning of the film, the camera is angled to show him looking down at the crowd. It is a status quo over which he has total control. It is their visible weakness that he exploits and in doing so, a system emerges resembling the social formation discussed by Althusser.
Immortan Joe ruthlessly controls the water supply, giving out only enough for survival and thus ensuring his people are weak and dependent. Althusser’s conception of social formation can be seen clearly in the Citadel. The workers have a supply of water which enables them to live and serve their leader, while the Immortan Joe’s control of the water means that he manages to keep himself at the top of the social hierarchy. If they were to ever try and overthrow him, he could simply cut off the water supply. This existential threat ensures Immortan Joe’s grip on this post-apocalyptic society, which then recreates the conditions of its own existence.
Althusser reiterates the conception laid down by Marx that there exists a ‘superstructure’ and an ‘infrastructure’ in every social formation. The infrastructure (or base) is the economic foundation as laid down by the relations of production, while the superstructure includes politics and religion (among other things), and this is what masks the economic reality of the situation from the proletariat population. Althusser goes on to explain that “there is a ‘relative autonomy’ of the superstructure to the base” and “there is a ‘reciprocal action’ of the superstructure onto the base,” meaning that institutions such as religion and politics act somewhat independently of the relations of production, but ultimately fuel them as well.
The Citadel proves to be an insightful example of the superstructure at work. Underpinning the War Boys’ loyalty to Immortan Joe is a belief that they will be saved from the hell that is their daily lives. This is articulated near the beginning of the film by Immortan Joe himself – “I salute my half-life War Boys, who will ride with me eternal on the Highways of Valhalla.” The War Boys clearly have faith that they will be saved by their ruler if, it is implied, they do as he wishes and gain the Immortan’s approval. They worship a stack of steering wheels before combat, proclaiming their faith in their leader and seeing the V8 engine as the source of their strength.
All of this is concealing the fact that the War Boys are as trapped as the impoverished people they help to control. They have to obey him, or else be excluded from The Citadel (as happens to one War Boy, Nux, when he fails to carry out Immortan Joe’s bidding), but this is disguised as a kind of religious rather than political control. In hammering this ideology into his War Boys, Joe is able to continue his dominance over the people he is controlling. Crucially, the War Boys at no point appear aware of this reality, creating the false consciousness that Althusser was alluding to.
Althusser goes on to elaborate on the understanding of the state as shared by Marx and Lenin. To them, “the state is a ‘machine’ of repression, which enables the ruling classes… to ensure their domination over the working class” and allowing the bourgeois to exploit proletariat workers for the sake of surplus production. The state is understood by Marxism as “the state apparatus,” which sees repressive controls such as the courts and the army used to control the population, should there be any dissent. Althusser sees this as the function of a state; allowing the repressing, controlling forces at the disposal of the ruling classes to reinforce their position in society. In line with the Marxist belief in revolution, Althusser later claims that “the proletariat must seize power in order to destroy the existing bourgeois state apparatus” in order for a new state to emerge, before the state (as recognised under capitalism) is dismantled.
The film depicts this very literally. Once the Immortan sends his war rig and a battalion of War Boys, led by the Imperator Furiosa (a ferocious Charlize Theron in one of her most memorable performances), to collect gas, the platform which brought the rig down is retracted. A crowd of people attempting to hang onto the platform and anyone managing to do so are forced off by Immortan Joe’s private militia, who closely resemble a police force (while the War Boys are more akin to an army) – both forces part of the state apparatus, according to Althusser. The platform is powered by slaves on the upper levels walking on giant wheels. If the slaves stop walking, the contraption stops; the ascent of the militia depends on the uninterrupted labour of slaves. The repressive forces of the state that Althusser was discussing can be seen working here. The ruling class exploit the workers to sustain their own position at the top of the hierarchy, and any attempt made by the people to get on their level is violently quelled. The rising platform is an illustration meant to be taken very literally; those at the top of the power hierarchy exploit those below and use them to remain at the top.
By contrast, at the end of the film when the Immortan has been overthrown and the Furiosa is triumphant, she and her allies ascend on the platform themselves. They make a point of inviting as many people as they can to join them on the platform. Unlike Joe, the Furiosa promotes equality and fair treatment as symbolised by this brief sequence. While the film essentially ends at this point, the overwhelming implication is that a new kind of state will emerge. Rather than exploitation, inclusion and equality is now the focus of The Citadel. The Marxist idea that the current state must be replaced “with a quite different, proletarian, state apparatus” as Althusser wrote, would appear to be taking hold now that the ruling class has been overpowered. The Marxist theory of state is clearly used by Miller as a plot mechanism, evoking its progressive manner as described by Althusser.
Mad Max: Fury Road clearly has strong ideas of a Marxist state when analysed using Althusser’s writing. The way that Immortan Joe keeps himself at the top of the social hierarchy, and the fact that he is eventually beaten by the people he was meant to be controlling, evokes Althusser’s own theories of social formation and the state apparatus. A lot more could be said both of Althusser’s argument – he goes on to discuss ideology and how it controls proletarian populations – and of the film, for which a much deeper textual analysis is possible. This brief argument of the presence of a Marxist state in Miller’s film, however, does enough to demonstrate how a Marxist analysis highlights how complex, fascinating and (as far as Althusser’s argument is concerned) believable a post-apocalyptic society Miller has created, complete with class struggles and a repressive state apparatus. It is this detail of Miller’ creativity that ensured Fury Road added a lot of shine and chrome to its trophy cabinet when the awards ceremonies came calling.