I don’t think it’s a troll question at all!
So before I dive right into this question, I’ll start by borrowing a definition of neoliberalism from Lisa Duggan’s essay “The New Homonormativity: The Sexual Politics of Neoliberalism:”
“Neoliberalism, the brand name for the form of procorporate, “free market:’ anti-“big government” rhetoric shaping U.S. policy and dominating international financial institutions since the early 1980s, is associated primarily with economic and trade policy… The primary strategy of turn of the millennium neoliberalism is privatization, the term that describes the transfer of wealth and decision making from public, more-or-less accountable decision-making bodies to individual or corporate, unaccountable hands.”
So while the TV series of Avatar: The Last Airbender does not delve too much into neoliberalism, the comics and the ultimate existence of Republic City in The Legend of Korra, are most certainly inline with these values. In fact, our beloved Asami discusses in “Reunion” that she (the owner of a private company) built much of the infrastructure of Republic City’s public parks and roads. The idea that a democracy is the ultimate form of government and must replace all failed states, as Wu suggests as a solution for the Earth Kingdom, is exactly inline with much of the rhetoric of current neoliberalist ideology.
In addition, the private sector of Republic City certainly seems rather unconstrained, as there are no mentions of limits, in fact there is only encouragement on the part of President Raiko for both Asami and Varrick to build weapons to protect the city. This, coupled with the fact that the only villains given complete redemption arcs are capitalists, Hiroshi and Varrick. Some might point out that Zaheer helps Korra, and while he is cooperative, he remains behind bars at the end of the season, suggesting that the only productive anarchy is one that is highly controlled (ironic).
Another key component of neoliberalist values is the Avatar’s cooperation with the police force, which is directly in relation to capitalism, as police were initially created to combat crowds not crime (i.e. strikes, riots, etc) in order to keep industries going. In his essay “Discipline and Punishment,” Foucault discusses how industry funds the state and the state in turn funds industries, creating the military-industrial complex seen in our own country and, by extension, the Avatar universe. Factories require a cheap labor force, and organized labor like unions are in direct conflict with that. There is a hint of the exploitation of youth with high amounts of chi (like Mako) that work in the factories with their lightning bending.
It’s not until capitalism creates a wage-gap (as is inevitable) that there we start to see gangs, NOT the other way around. In fact in comparison with the other ideologies in this series, Capitalism stands out for its complex and thorough treatment, as opposed to the reductionist approach to Communism, Theocracy, Anarchy, and Totalitarianism, one of my biggest critiques of the series as whole. Instead of just one character bearing the burden, we are given three fleshed-out capitalists - Hiroshi, Varrick, and Asami.
The one marked difference from the military-industrial complex of our world and the Avatar world is simply that it is not centered around patriarchal values - in fact, the key positions of the industry and of the police are women, and women who are willing to leave their jobs behind to follow the Avatar. And perhaps it is also important to note that the only time that Korra challenges these instutions are when they are being lead by men (Tarrlok and Hiroshi).
How does this complicate the sexual politics of the Avatar universe? Is this just not a use of marginalized groups in these fields to assimilate us to neoliberal values? Can a series, purportedly built on Daoist philosophies, really marriage values in complete contradiction to Buddhism? And even more troubling, yet, is Asami’s union with the Avatar ultimately an attempt at redemption for capitalism, coded in these neoliberal signifiers and hidden under the guise “progress,” which is the basis of Duggan’s essay?
I can’t answer these questions, as I can’t speak for Bryke. I can say that a child watching the series will most likely interpret the finale more as Korra finding happiness rather than Korra choosing capitalism. My only hope is in analyzing the last lines of the series, we can unravel Bryke’s true intentions.
It would make sense that following the destruction of Republic City (including Future Industries) and Asami’s forgiveness of Hiroshi, that she may finally be able to let her business go. As LoK Gifs and Musings has pointed out in a number of analyses, Asami time and time again is willing to sacrifice her business to help the Avatar. Dispensing her wealth for the sake of others is at the core of her character, and honestly with the destruction of Republic City at the end of the series, it’s also understood that Future Industries was obliterated as well, and unlike the the last three conversations about new democracy (Wu), future war (Mako), and rebuilding Republic City (Tenzin), we get this little gem of hope in the sea of neoliberalism, in the form of Asami’s last line:
“I’ve always wanted to see what the spirit world’s like.”
And so, in the last few lines of the series, Bryke makes their closing argument. The ending is NOT about Korra choosing Asami’s world of capitalism, but rather Asami choosing to embark on her own spiritual journey. There is a hope that two girls walking off into a spirit portal hand-in-hand, amongst the ruins of a fallen Republic, will return with new perspective, and as we’ve seen through their amazing collaborative abilities, perhaps can bring about a truly “new age.”
And so how does one answer to the prospect of taking the most important person in your life on an adventure that might change their entire world view?