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January 6, 2010

Trust the Tale, Not the Teller

Filed under: Drugs,Economics — rmangum @ 10:12 pm
Tags: ,

HBO’s The Wire is hands down my all-time favorite television show. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve begun writing an essay on the sociopolitical implications of the show might be in light of libertarian theory, to be called something like “Hegemonic Bonds: The Politics of Obedience in The Wire“. Now, despite the fact that the show’s creators favor the abolition of the drug war, as libertarians do, I recognize that the show’s politics are progressive, not libertarian. But the portrait of political institutions is about as cynical as any libertarian could be. And the problems appear to be structural in nature, so the show is pessimistic about “reform” as well. Creator David Simon has been explicit that the show is a critique of American institutions, saying that The Wire is

really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.

I’ve been watching the commentaries on the DVD lately, and its clear that Simon thinks that the show contains a radical critique of capitalism as well. At one point in the commentary, he states the show’s message as “raw capitalism is not a social policy”, and during a panel discussion, television critic Ken Tucker calls Simon a “Marxist”. Now, let’s set aside the issue of whether capitalism and the free market are the same thing or not. Someone like Kevin Carson would argue that they are not, but it’s clear that Simon means both (probably the question has never occurred to him). As a critique of capitalism in the Kevin Carson sense (what has been called “Political Capitalsim”, the show is right on, but as a critique of capitalism in the Michael Moore sense, the show isn’t even in the ballpark.

First off, the institutions portrayed are all political ones, not just in the usual sense, but in the way that sociologist Franz Oppenheimer distinguished between the “political means” and “economic means” of gaining power, where the former involves the use of force. When local governments tear down housing projects to give away the property to developers, this may in some sense be an act of capitalism, but it is in no way an act of the free market (which would include property rights for those displaced), presumably what Simon means by “raw capitalism” as a social policy. Second, The Wire goes to great pains to make comparisons between inner city drug gangs and the modern corporation. Okay, but the most elementary argument of drug war critics is that the more we try to crack down on the trade, the more violent business becomes. Businessmen who deal in illegal substances deal in an environment where state authorities are trying every day to destroy their livlihood. Is it possible to imagine a more regulated industry?

Another flaw in the show’s politics I’ve become increasingly aware of is that it fails to show how much the surveillence techniques it showcases can be abused. Part of this is just a constraint of its story, since the guys they are chasing are legitimately bad guys. And while the show admirably shows the danger of police brutality, it fails to indicate the police avarice that is ever-present in the war on drugs, in the form of asset seizure.



  1. I believe there is at least one instance where a wire is kept alive because the brass are tempted by future asset seizures if the case goes forward, but I could be mistaken.

    Comment by JMangum — January 6, 2010 @ 10:18 pm | Reply

    • After I wrote this I remembered that there was a character in season 4, a cop who keeps beating up the “hoppers” and taking their money. At one point he takes money from the most entrepreneurial character of the show, Randy, who makes money by selling candy to other students (and in this instance from handing out campaign flyers I think), reasoning that no corner kid could have that much cash on hand without slinging. You could see this as a metaphor of the drug war keeping local business from thriving in the inner city and keeping the poor poor.

      Again, not much of a critique of capitalism understood as the free market.

      Comment by rmangum — January 7, 2010 @ 10:12 pm | Reply

  2. […] Trust the Tale, Not the Teller by Ray Mangum […]

    Pingback by Attack the System » Blog Archive » Updated News Digest January 17, 2009 — January 16, 2010 @ 11:45 am | Reply

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