Sunday, December 20, 2015

Mad Marx: Superstructures, Ideology and Necessity

Mad Max is a film that in a subtle but noticeable way examines the relations in society using an apocalyptic fantasy.  It’s a film that I would argue depicts quite well some of the main elements of Marxist philosophy.  Particularly his views on human culture and action.
Early on in the film we see the film’s main antagonist (Immortan Joe) has an effective monopoly of water (and likely other resources) in the area which he both uses to control the area and to create the basis of the religion worshipping him to further secure his power.  We don’t know how he got to the position he is in, but it seems more-likely that he attained his material position and some social status first before a religion was made in his name rather than the other way around – and this is exactly how Marx would predict it.  For Marx, the superstructure of society (e.g. culture, religion, politics, family etc) is subordinate or determined by the base or substructure of society, namely the material resources, how those resources are used and who controls them.  The cultural life of people is largely a by-product of the more blunt facts of their material existence (The German Ideology p.6[1]).
Though the world Max lives in is not a Capitalist society, it shares a few traits of Capitalism, namely massive inequities in wealth being perpetuated through private ownership which is maintained via force.  In Immortan Joe’s world his power is maintained through the War Boys and the geography of the region – where he lives is very high up, and the only easy way to ascend is to be risen up by Immortan Joe.  In our modern Capitalist society, the massive inequities in wealth are perpetuated in many ways, but most directly through the “property rights” of the wealthy being maintained by the government which maintains their authority through force.  The analysis of base and superstructure not only can be used in analyzing the power relations of Mad Max’s world but of the particulars of their religion.
Some may find it odd that steering wheels and automobiles take on a religious significance in Max’s world.  Keep in mind that often what a society deems “sacred” is what they depend upon or use as sustenance.  In the Old Testament references are made to crops, fertility and other things that though Judaism and Christianity still exist are not nearly as emphasized today.  In Eastern faiths cattle take on a sacred dimension through (it has been argued) supplying the Indian people with much.  This perception conforms quite neatly with Marx’s theory of culture.
In an apocalyptic world where most of the organic resources that humanity had some reliance on in the past vanishes, seemingly never to return, the resources that Man has to rely on is little more than machinery and their own labor .  The war rigs that they drive to attain the weaponry and guzzle-lean are necessary to sustain their existence as well as the power of Immortan Joe (Ibid p. 6[2]).  For Marx religion is merely a by-product of the arrangements of Man’s material and social existence, and is used largely to maintain power relations.  This is seen in Christianity telling slaves to obey their masters, wives to obey their husbands, and in a religion being made where Immortan Joe is the holy patriarch. 
The religion clearly does nothing materially for the War Boys, yet many if not most of them seem to believe it.  This has to do largely with them not knowing any other alternative (most people believe the religion they are told regardless of which) but also to do with a psychological or existential reprieve from their plight.  Studies show the poorest and most uneducated nations are by-en-large the most religious.  This is theorized to be in part because where human misery abounds people will latch on to anything which promises some hope or comfort in a fundamentally cruel and unjust world, despite the irrationality and cruelty of the religion itself.  This is reflected in Marx’s statement that religion is the opium of the masses.  It both maintains socially and momentarily alleviates psychologically the people’s suffering.
Also both Immortan Joe and the Capitalist Class benefit from the passage of time and use Ideology to serve them.  Anything it seems can seem normal or right to people if it is the life they know.  Also this reflects a large part of Marx’s theory on Superstructure – namely Ideology.  For Marx the predominant values and beliefs of the people of any time will be that which support the ruling class.  In contemporary America there is a history of economic relations that distill a belief in property rights and the profit motive mixed with other Classical Liberal values, and a judicial system that reflects the interests of the ruling class (Ibid p. 32[3]).  In the world of Mad Max it is the religion of Immortan Joe which justifies his property rights on seemingly some form of divine warrant.  However just because the ideology of society is that of the ruling group does not guarantee that all or even most will undoubtedly suspend their doubts of the ideologies merits.  This is seen in the girls, Immortan Joe’s breeders, not believing in his divinity or his claim of ownership of them or their children.  Without their belief in the Ideology of their society they cannot function within it.  Lack of belief can be dangerous for both the ruler and the ruled.  It is a threat to the power of the upper-class if too many people become disenfranchised with the Ideology in a way that would prevent them from participating or even revolt; however, lack of belief in societies ideology can be dangerous for the individual for it makes it difficult if not for some impossible to passively consent or participate in what they see as unjust or invalid.  This is seen in the girls risking their lives of relative comfort to flee Immortan Joe, even though they have no guarantee they will escape him or even that if they do they will achieve a life of comfort and autonomy in “the Green Place.”
Another element of the film that expresses a Marxist tinge is the notions of necessity.  In at-least a narrow way all apocalypse movies could be argued to portray the notion of necessity through want.  But material necessity is more than simply just needs.  It is the acknowledgement that as material beings we require certain things to survive and will act however seems proper or most-likely to achieve our ends of survival – though the parameters of necessity grow as the most basic needs of the human race are met.  That is to say, people in dire circumstances cannot be judged as “sinners” or immoral for acting as they do but are largely speaking by-products of the situation they find themselves in (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy - Preface[4]).  The poor steal – according to our legal frame.  The rich do not – once again, according to our modern legal and judicial structuring of society (The German Ideology p. 31[5]).  The poor who live in want need (or at-least feel strongly prompted) to steal to survive.  While it is argued by some that the Capitalist class steal from the poor through exploitation among other things, only their theft is accepted by the government and largely speaking by society en-large – once again largely due-to the populous’ acceptance of Capitalist ideology.
Their understanding of necessity is demonstrated when one of the elderly woman is telling one of the women used for breeding about her proficiency as marksmen and the other woman retorts that she thought they were above murder.  The older woman then tells about how things were in the land of plenty where no one was “buggered” – because no one needed to be.  Murder did not exist in the Green Place (assuming she’s speaking of there and not our current society) because poverty and need did not exist.  Of course the argument will be made that some of what we consider morally wrong will always exist, and they’re most-likely correct, but they are in error if they ignore the fact that it would cease to be a systematic or systemic trait of society, just as though some cases of a particular illness may conceivably always pop up as long as humans exist, due-to vaccines and other modern medicines things like polio and small pox are no longer systematic or society-wide problems.
In conclusion, the film’s analysis of culture from an arguably Marxist lens outside of a Capitalist society (but still portraying various elements of it) is well done and thought provoking.  Thusly (and obviously for the action) it deserves remembrance and commemoration for depicting people and philosophical ideas in a way that is as intimate as it is implicit.  Its ending however seems to presume that the beliefs of the War Boys were merely superficial and once its material conditions (Immortan Joe’s power) were eliminated the love of the despot vanishes with it.  This could be seen as a perception of Marx’s analysis of culture that I would posit to be incorrect.  True the superstructure of society is maintained by its base, but that does not mean that religion and culture deeply held in a nation’s collective mind simply vanishes simply when the social relations change.  This can be seen in the pervasiveness of Christianity in the USSR even after the Tsar was overthrown and murdered, and the continuing admiration (in some cases worship) of Josef Stalin even after the de-Stalinization period of the USSR and even after the USSR’s retirement and the raise of Capitalist Russia.  The superstructure is formed by the base but can exist in the people’s lives and imaginations long after it.

Works Cited Page:

Marx, Karl.  The German Ideology.  Moscow:  Progress Publishers, 1968.  PDF Format.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977.  Marxist Internet Archive.

[1] The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which
abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the
material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those
produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.
[2] The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual
means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be
considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a
definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of
life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with
their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus
depends on the material conditions determining their production.
[3] Whenever, through the development of industry and commerce, new forms of intercourse have been
evolved (e.g. assurance companies, etc.), the law has always been compelled to admit them among the
modes of acquiring property.
[4] In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.
[5] The first form of property, in the ancient world as in the Middle Ages, is tribal property, determined with
the Romans chiefly by war, with the Germans by the rearing of cattle. In the case of the ancient peoples,
since several tribes live together in one town, the tribal property appears as State property, and the right
of the individual to it as mere "possession which, however, like tribal property as a whole, is confined to
landed property only. Real private property began with the ancients, as with modern nations, with
movable property. -- (Slavery and community) (dominium ex jure Quiritum). In the case of the
nations which grew out of the Middle Ages, tribal property evolved through various stages -- feudal
landed property, corporative movable property, capital invested in manufacture -- to modern capital,
determined by big industry and universal competition, i.e. pure private property, which has cast off all
semblance of a communal institution and has shut out the State from any influence on the development
of property. To this modern private property corresponds the modern State, which, purchased gradually
by the owners of property by means of taxation, has fallen entirely into their hands through the national
debt, and its existence has become wholly dependent on the commercial credit which the owners of
property, the bourgeois, extend to it, as reflected in the rise and fall of State funds on the stock exchange.

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