The economics of Mad Max

All societies need an economy, even post-apocalyptic ones
There are markets, even in the Wasteland

There are markets, even in the Wasteland

I am not exaggerating when I say that Mad Max: Fury Road is possibly one of the best movies I have seen in my adult life. The high-octane adrenaline-fueled frenzy of non-stop car chase action would be spectacular in itself; that it is also makes emotional, political and philosophical statements in its two amazing hours absolutely shatters the idea that action movies are necessarily mindless and superficial. Its overt feminist undertones have been well documented, and like all the previous Mad Max movies delivers a powerful message about humanity and redemption. What more can you ask for in a summer blockbuster?

Could Mad Max also be a sublime statement on economics? One of the key elements of any dystopian/post-apocalyptic film is that it has to be somewhat believable, and for this to be achieved, there needs to be a realistic depiction of the way society arranges its economic exchanges. After watching Fury Road and then re-watching the original trilogy, it has struck me that each film has a progressively complex economic structure that could well be a coincidence. But with George Miller coincidences rarely exist and perhaps the old man has put even deeper meaning into the franchise that most people have thought.

Here’s an analysis of the economics of each Mad Max film.

Mad Max

The original Mad Max is a low-budget masterpiece about biker gangs running amok in a dystopian not-so-far-off Australia, and an understaffed and budget constrained highway police force known as the Main Force Patrol (MFP) tasked to fight them. The movie shares a lot of similarities with A Clockwork Orange in that we have a decay in the moral order but that a still modern society coexists with the brutality and hyper-violence of these gangs: the over-theatrical antics of some of the gang members, led by the outlandish Toecutter, is very reminiscent of the Droogs when they are terrorizing innocents. That they rape and kill in such a lurid way is only possible if they weren’t particularly worried about being caught. Despite this state of savagery, there is plenty of evidence throughout the movie that a modern free-market economy still exists. In fact, there are numerous scenes in which characters are seen in diners, nightclubs, ice cream parlors, and car repair shops, proving that most economic exchanges take place in a fashion no different to that which we are accustomed to. In many ways, this makes the original film possibly the most disturbing of all in the series, because it gives the feeling that we’re not that far away from it.

In summary: Free market economy, with increasing institutional deterioration.

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

A the end of Mad Max, we see our hero driving aimlessly into the Outback (here referred to as the Wasteland) after the death of his wife and child, with no apparent purpose to his life other than survive. In the years between the movies, we are told that society has basically collapsed due to a scarcity of resources. The Wasteland, in turn, has turned into a haven for marauding motorized gangs such as that led by The Humungus, the main antagonist of the film. These gangs are constantly looking to prey on any stragglers in order to get a hold of precious gasoline, and the plot of the movie revolves around their efforts to take over a lone refinery, defended by its surviving workers. One of the clues that confirms the total breakdown of society in this film is that some of the warriors of Humungus’ gang ride converted MFP pursuit vehicles from the first film and also appear to have modified police gear.

There are no economic exchanges at all in this film, except for an attempted deal in which Max brings a wounded worker back to the refinery in exchange for fuel. With fuel being the key scarce resource, survival becomes a battle between those who hold it (the refinery workers) and those who want to take it by force. The only character in the film besides Max that does not fall into either camp is the Gyro Pilot but he also lives a primitive existence of stealing from people who fall into his trapdoor spider-like ambush (and being that he subsequently helps Max and the refinery workers, it’s clear he’s not a bad guy; he simply adapted to survive like an animal amid the lawlessness). In the absence of law and order as well as of any sort of economic system, The Road Warrior is perhaps the most barbaric of all the Mad Max films since it’s the only one that does not reveal any form of societal arrangement that isn’t based on sheer survival. Anarchists and libertarians should love it.

In summary: Anarchy and subsistence.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

According to the lore (Miller has traditionally refrained from developing much of a backstory for the franchise), over a decade has passed after the events of The Road Warrior and during this time the apocalypse got even more apocalyptic thanks to a nuclear war. After losing his camels and vehicle to a marauding pilot (Jedediah) and his son in the opening minutes of the film, Max finds himself wandering into Bartertown, the first human settlement seen in the series since the original and a veritable sleaze pit that is reminiscent of Mos Eisley from the original Star Wars. Bartertown, as the name implies, is a town based on barter. There is no evidence of the use of currency, which means that its inhabitants trade whatever they have for whatever they want whether it be weapons, water, or other services. Indeed, there is an overt reference to prostitution at the beginning of the film which means that humanity’s oldest profession was probably among the first to be commoditized in this post-nuclear world.

Bartertown: a free market with cool costumes

Bartertown: a free market with cool costumes

The existence of this relatively free market is made possible thanks to the abundance of the main resource, fuel: Bartertown’s pig farm produces gasoline from methane, which itself comes from pig poop. A dwarf/giant combo known as Master Blaster runs the farm, and is in a power struggle with the town’s nominal ruler, Auntie Entity, played to exaggerated perfection by Tina Turner. Despite the barbaric nature of the town, Auntie’s rule appears to be a benign dictatorship. She provides security (people entering the town must hand in their weapons) and some degree of rule of law is evidenced by the town’s main dispute resolution mechanism (a fight to the death in the Thunderdome) as well as a punishment for breaking deals (a wheel of fate). However, there appears to be a blind eye towards fraud and trickery (one man tries to sell Max radioactive water at the start of the film), and there is also no attempt to question the morality of some trades, as seen by the auctioning of Max’s stolen camels. In turn this is possibly an incentive for additional banditry outside of Bartertown since anything that can be stolen outside its walls can then be traded inside without much inquiry (this appears to be Jedediah’s way of life).

Compared to the lawlessness of The Road Warrior, the more complex societal arrangement in Bartertown is definitely a sign that humanity has recovered somewhat from post-apocalyptic chaos and has consequently established more sophisticated economic arrangements than the primitive autarky of the Wasteland. It is still far from “civilized”, but it works. There’s even some fun and entertainment, as seen by the revelry before Max’s fight in the Thunderdome, which actually looks considerably less feral that what you read in real life about Magaluf or Spring Break.

In summary: barter-based trade under a benign dictatorship. Could also be interpreted as feudalism, with Auntie as the sovereign and Master Blaster as a rebellious vassal.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Being neither a sequel, nor a remake, nor a reboot, it’s hard to place Fury Road in the context of the original trilogy but references to lymph node diseases suggest a connection to the nuclear war. This movie begins and ends in the Citadel, a natural mountain fortress built on a large underground aquifer that supplies its inhabitants with a limitless supply of water. The Citadel is ruled by the tyrannical Immortan Joe, who is worshiped almost as a god by his followers. The Citadel is by far the most horrific vision of society in the Mad Max series (or in practically any other dystopian film for that matter): not only does the Immortan rule with an iron fist, but there is a stratification of society into functional castes. There are the War Boys (his army); the Milk Mothers (for breast milk), the Wives (for procreation); the Mill Rats (for moving the machinery); and there is The Wretched, stragglers who barely survive on whatever is thrown at them. What the Citadel does not produce, it sources from its two subsidiary city-states: the Bullet Farm (bullets), and Gas Town (fuel) each of them ruled by one of Immortan Joe’s allies.

This is also the only Mad Max movie aside from The Road Warrior in which there are no economic exchanges except for fuel (the movie’s heroine, Imperator Furiosa, attempts to bribe a rival gang with fuel in order to secure passage across its territory). Unlike The Road Warrior, however, this is a relatively sophisticated society with a clear division of labor. The absence of exchanges in this context therefore means that it behaves as a centralized command economy. The lack of private property can be evidenced in the scene where the War Boys rush to take a steering wheel from a giant communal pile, for use in their combat vehicles. The identical appearance of each member of a certain caste also demonstrates near-total depersonalization: the War Boys, for example, are only differentiated by their scars and boils but otherwise have indistinguishable shaved heads and white-painted skins. Despite this, the customization of their combat vehicles suggests a greater value to the machine than to the man, reminiscent of how the armies of authoritarian states have often cared more for the weapon than the soldier who wields it.

Does this remind you of a something? Yes, Stalinism, particularly the North Korean kind. The Citadel is basically a post-apocalyptic desert version of North Korea, with Immortan Joe as its Dear Leader. His desperation to breed a “perfect” son for a successor is also suggestive of the hermit kingdom rather than the more meritocratic Soviet Russia as its inspiration.

In summary: North Korean-style Stalinism.

Greater economic sophistication, greater tyranny?

Despite their status as some of the most bad-ass action movies of all time, the Mad Max films have always tried to illustrate the fine balance that separates civilization from barbarism. Deliberately or not, its evolving representation of a post-apocalyptic society may also be a subtle lesson on economics as well. If anything, that the most oppressive of all these systems (the Citadel) is also the most economically sophisticated one is a rather terrifying illustration of the capability of technology to create new economic systems which can then be used both to liberate as well as to enslave. The fact that history’s most authoritarian regimes have existed in the last hundred years, after the development of advanced economic systems such as capitalism and communism, is proof of this. It will be interesting to see if any of Fury Road‘s planned sequels takes this even further, and present a society even more tyrannical than the Citadel.

So where would I live in the Max Mad universe? There’s still some semblance of a normal, modern life in the original but there’s always the risk that my private property can be taken or destroyed by those operating outside the (feeble) law. And as attractive as it may seem to anarchists, libertarians or communists, not sure how long I’d last in the survival-of-the-fittest environment of the Wasteland as depicted in The Road Warrior unless I was lucky enough to find myself inside a defensible source of resources (preferably one not under attack by a gang of psychopaths dressed in gay fetish outfits), or under the oppressive rule of Immortan Joe in Fury Road. Which leaves me with Bartertown. It’s got some degree of security as well as codified, enforced rules, and there is something resembling a free market in goods and services even in the absence of a currency. And I totally dig the post-apocalyptic chic fashion.

Hey Auntie, need an economist?

Leave a Reply