The Wire and Capitalism

Monday, August 4th, 2008

I missed this Conor Friedersdorf piece when it came out last March, but I’d like to revisit it because it captures something that’s bugged me for some time about the best show in the history of television.

And that is how two brilliant men like Ed Burns and David Simon can so astutely and powerfully illustrate the futility and flaws of government institutions as they did in The Wire, yet still unabashedly call themselves men of the left, which implies a kind of default support for massive government intervention to solve or alleviate suffering, poverty, crime, and other social ills.

Friedersdorf writes:

David Simon’s critique of institutions, whether schools or drug co-ops or unions or police departments, isn’t a hopeful one. He doesn’t seem to think that the right technocrat or better social science data can fix their flaws, as most liberals do. In his Baltimore, institutions are flawed because the humans that oversee and staff them, good people like Cedric Daniels and bad people like Clay Davis and everyone in between, are themselves flawed in inevitably human ways. Anytime an institution subsumes an individual — think the Barksdale organization and Dee, the police department and McNulty, the group home system and Randy — it corrupts or destroys him.

And yet….

Simon insists that he is a liberal, that the rise of sociopath Marlow Stanfield reflects the logical progression of capitalism and that the Greek, the ruthless crime boss who imports Baltimore’s drugs and kills without remorse, embodies pure capitalism. Here one begins to suspect that Simon doesn’t quite understand what that word — capitalism — means. By definition it refers to voluntary exchanges in a free market of competing non-monopolies, largely unencumbered by government regulations that limit supply or trigger black markets.

The Greek deals in coercive exchanges in a black market on which he has a near-monopoly that is enforced through violence. One could easily create a caricatured capitalist to stand in for the free market’s worst tendencies; but the Greek isn’t that character.

Friedersdorf also correctly points out that where this redemption in The Wire (think Bubbles, McNulty (briefly), Cutty, and Namon Bryce), it comes through the intervention of friends, family, support groups, or self-reliance–that is, the characters in the show who escape the odds do so by way of voluntary society, not political society.

I suppose we all tend to project our own politics onto media we enjoy and respect. But I’ve never been able to square Simon’s public denunciations of capitalism and self-identification as a radical leftist with what to me is such a clear, damning, and complete indictment of government institutions in his work.

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26 Responses to “The Wire and Capitalism”

  1. #1 |  Ginger Dan | 

    I agree with the article, I always felt and even used the Wire in discussions about how bureaucracy can easily crush the individual. The montage of Cutty trying to get all the permits to open his boxing gym is the perfect example. He finally gets the permits after help from Delegate Watkins and another minister, proving you can use the system if you know the right people, but otherwise it seems only to exist as a means of oppression.

  2. #2 |  parse | 

    One piece of the puzzle might come from a consideration of the portrait of the newspaper as an institution in the final season. It’s not just the futility and flaws of government institutions that are highlighted in The Wire. And the culprit, in terms of the news media, was pretty clearly identified as market forces, or at least decisions by management taken as their attempt to make sense of those market forces.

  3. #3 |  Dave Krueger | 

    Mindless condemnation of capitalism is almost almost as American as Capitalism itself. Those who complain the loudest are those who most take the benefits of capitalism for granted.

    It’s a testament to the irrationality of popular sentiment that so many people champion socialism which has distinguished itself by its guarantee of failure and despise capitalism which inevitably brings wealth and wellbeing to its practitioners. Socialism just sounds so fair and capitalism so brutal (at least to the average public school educated mind).

  4. #4 |  Alex | 

    I was a big fan of Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, and now Generation Kill (excellent episode last night, btw); but I can’t understand this obsession people have with The Wire and David Simon. Plenty (probably most) people can write five seasons of material about bureaucratic fuckups from any ideological perspective. His real talent is creating interesting characters and sharp, witty dialogue. In other words, he’s a writer not a prophet.

    Also, this.

  5. #5 |  Chris in PA | 

    Ginger Dan,

    That’s exactly what came to my mind too. A gov’t that can’t keep anyone safe (or doesn’t care to) but will still take its pound of flesh when a guy tries to open a gym for underprivileged kids.

  6. #6 |  Jeremy | 

    But I’ve never been able to square Simon’s public denunciations of capitalism and self-identification as a radical leftist with what to me is such a clear, damning, and complete indictment of government institutions in his work.

    As I recall, the left is a pretty big tent. It includes everybody from the near-fascist communists to the individualist anarchists of the nineteenth century like Benjamin Tucker. Indeed, if the voluntary society is not represented by the impersonal, soul crushing bureaucracy of the government institutions, then it is also not represented by the impersonal, soul crushing bureaucracy of big business. I identify as leftist and libertarian – in fact, properly understood, I’d argue that libertarianism is the true realization of the leftist tendency in political economy.

    I see a perfectly valid and insightful connection between Simon’s leftism and the critique of large-scale, artificial institutions as distinct from voluntary, human scale society. He concentrates on public institutions, sure; but remember that those few glimpses of capitalism, such as the property developers who show up here and there, aren’t flattering portrayals either (probably not the best examples of what you’d call “the free market”, I admit – but good examples of what Naomi Klein types consider “the free market”). It’s more complex than government vs. everybody else. Remember, the corporate charter – the lynchpin of modern capitalist institutions – is granted by the government. It’s no more free market than the BPD.

  7. #7 |  TGGP | 

    I think to many on the left “capitalism” does not mean a free-market and voluntary exchange but the entire sociopolitical system. Many of them also think that politics is just the tool of money. I discuss one such perspective here.

  8. #8 |  ClubMedSux | 

    And that is how two brilliant men like Ed Burns and David Simon can so astutely and powerfully illustrate the futility and flaws of government institutions as they did in The Wire, yet still unabashedly call themselves men of the left, which implies a kind of default support for massive government intervention to solve or alleviate suffering, poverty, crime, and other social ills.

    Most of my friends identify themselves as liberal, and I find that they fall prey to the same flawed logic: they rail against the government and the powers-that-be, but they still insist on using that very government to effect change. I just don’t get it; but then again, I guess that’s why I’m libertarian.

  9. #9 |  bachwards | 

    I think Jeremy is on the mark here. Being a radical leftist does not automatically imply an extreme love for government institutions.

  10. #10 |  Ginger Dan | 

    ClubMed,

    It’s the same argument people used about the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s not Communism failing, it’s the failure of the people running the government to implement it properly, as if by some divine miracle, ideas on a page could be transcribed flawlessly to real life.

  11. #11 |  Windypundit | 

    I mostly enjoyed The Wire despite the politics of its creators—if you don’t listen to them in interviews, very little of it comes out in the show. But one thing that always bothered me about The Wire was the invisibility of small businesses, other than as a front for crime or a place for the characters to eat and drink.

    Where are the fast-food restaurants, the small stores, and the beaty salons? Where are the muffler shops and the back-alley car repair operations? Where are the stay-home moms who make money selling fresh-cooked lunches to working people? Where are the guys with junk cars who make money delivering those lunches and a dozen other things every day?

    If Burns and Simon want bad guys, where are the muffler shops and beauty salons that have been in business for 20 years but are being forced out because some city councilman wants to put in a Potbelly’s.

    They could have done a whole season on stuff like this.

  12. #12 |  Lee | 

    …as if by some divine miracle, ideas on a page could be transcribed flawlessly to real life.

    This can be applied to any idea. Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Democracy.

  13. #13 |  Jeremy | 

    Jeez, I forgot all about the Sun’s nickel-and-diming in Season 5. If you can’t see the similarities between the institutional culture there and the culture in the BPD, public schools, etc. then I’d argue you’re missing something big amidst your political projecting. Who was it who said you could take a central planner from a USSR-era Soviet politburo, stick him in a Fortune 500 boardroom, and he wouldn’t know the difference?

    Simon’s work, to me, is about how human interests always get subordinated to institutional interests. Those who know what’s up have the least power to do anything to make things better, and those with the most power are isolated from the contextual information they need to direct their organizations. Because it’s a giant clusterfuck, the only place to find humanity is in the interstices and hiccups of a giant machine that’s on autopilot, chewing up human material according to the reductive formulae of bottom lines, statistics, and policy. If there were no rules, the tragic stability would give way, and that’s a hole nobody trusts human nature enough to jump down.

  14. #14 |  Matt Moore | 

    Who was it who said you could take a central planner from a USSR-era Soviet politburo, stick him in a Fortune 500 boardroom, and he wouldn’t know the difference?

    Some guy that was wrong.

    I’m enjoying (if not totally agreeing with) the points you’re making, Jeremy, but I think it’s a stretch on David Simon’s part to imply that the failures of the newspaper business is an illustration of the failures of capitalism. Newspapers are failing not because they suddenly became profit driven (they always have been) but because those profits have suddenly shrunk because of competition.

  15. #15 |  Matt Moore | 

    windypundit – They hinted at what you’re getting at. Towards the end of the series Dukie goes to a shoe store to ask for a job, and Poot is working there. Of course, he can’t get the job because he’s not old enough and he continues along the path to homeless junkiedom.

    It was a very quick and sharp attack on a stupid labor law, created to help children, that ends up hurting at least one of them.

  16. #16 |  Jeremy | 

    Newspapers are failing not because they suddenly became profit driven (they always have been) but because those profits have suddenly shrunk because of competition.

    Hmm. I don’t think Simon’s central critique is of profit, honestly – otherwise, he would have been much harsher on Hamsterdam than he was. I think the critique is of institutions – their hierarchy, their bureaucracy, their lamentable tendency to adopt purposes apart from those of their human creators.

    The problem with the BPD isn’t that they don’t want to fix the situation; it’s that that goal is subordinate to the goal of perpetuating the BPD’s particular power structure. Same with the schools and their problems. Same with City Hall and their problems. Same with the drug gangs and their problems. The people who try to transcend the rigid borders of institutional turf almost always get burned, but it’s because they elevate the real problems above the institution’s own need to perpetuate itself. That’s a no-no.

    If there was one book that described the crux of the Wire’s thesis, I’d say it’s Butler Shaffer’s Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. Shaffer argues that our need to form institutions to solve our problems, rather than addressing them on our own, spontaneous terms, fundamentally disconnects the social machinery from essential human interests. I wrote a review of the book here.

    Thanks for your kind words, Matt. Thanks also to Radley for turning me on to what I agree is the greatest TV show ever.

  17. #17 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Thanks to Jeremy for the discussion about the broad meaning of leftism. Simon and Burns may be social-democrats, but I don’t get the fire-breathing Marxist-Leninist vibe from them at all. Their critique of Marlo and other dealers may be different from mine, but is necessary. Their pathologies represent a warped, brutal version of capitalism that exists in black markets. When you empower gangsters, free enterprise can get very ugly. I would also say that this kind of capitalism is encouraged by the State Capitalist model we have in the United States. A true free market system would not have the same flaws, in my opinion.

    If pressed, I would most likely identify as a Left-libertarian, with sympathies for the Georgist school and other left-leaning tendencies in the overall libertarian movement. To me this implies being a supporter of the working class, but being libertarian enough to recognize that huge government bureaucracies, parties and “great” politicians will not, in the end, deliver the working class from oppression. It hasn’t worked yet, and it never will. I still have some regard for socialist ideas, but primarily in their voluntary form. In other words, form a co-op, join a credit union, help the poor, but DON’T support large scale forced collectivization and DON’T get carried away with “soak the rich” rhetoric. Recall the words of Thomas Paine, “I care not how rich one man be, so long as none are miserable because of it.” Also, recognize more right-leaning libertarians for what they are: fellow libertarians and allies. Too many leftists have failed to grasp the truly radical change that libertarianism, with its calls for an end to corporate welfare and less restrictive licensing for entry-level jobs, may represent.

  18. #18 |  Matt Moore | 

    Hmm. I don’t think Simon’s central critique is of profit, honestly – otherwise, he would have been much harsher on Hamsterdam than he was. I think the critique is of institutions – their hierarchy, their bureaucracy, their lamentable tendency to adopt purposes apart from those of their human creators.

    Perhaps his main concern is not profit, just like the root of evil is not money, but the love of money. As you said, his most explicit critique of capitalism was the newspaper storyline in season 5, and that critique centered around the business attempting to maximize profits at the expense of people. My point is just that it’s a rather nostalgic view of the news business… it’s always been more concerned with profits than with people, it just used to be able to afford to take care of the people better.

    As I think about it, though, you’re probably right, the story really centered on the institutional problem of the managers’ corrupting love for awards at the expense of truthful news telling.

    But I think Simon misses the point. The competition that’s destroying the news business it also saving it. If he hates institutions so much you’d think he’d be happy about the fracturing of the news market, but instead he seems to pine for the good old days.

    Anyway, Simon’s politics never bothered me. The ridiculously far-fetched story lines and paper thin characterizations of season 5 bothered me. The only fleshed out character in the newsroom was the fabricator, and even he wasn’t all that believable. Season 5 of the Wire was like Michael Jordan with the Wizards.

  19. #19 |  mcmillan | 

    Also, recognize more right-leaning libertarians for what they are: fellow libertarians and allies.</blockquote

    I think it’s worth pointing out this goes the other way too. Personally I’ve encountered a lot more right-leaning libertarians that refuse to accept views of libertarianism different from theirs. This probably turns off a lot of leftists that have libertarian leanings, since it entrenches the idea libertarianism=rightwing.

  20. #20 |  togolosh | 

    The problem is that libertarians and leftists talk right past each other because they see the world differently and use the exact same words to mean different things. TGGP gets at part of this above – to a leftist “capitalism” doesn’t mean the thing espoused by Milton Friedman, it means the actually existing set of mutually interlocking power and class structures that we see in societies labeled “capitalist.”

    Capitalism is what the USA had during the roaring twenties, for example, at time when government power was used freely to suppress the attempts of the working poor to redress legitimate grievances. The libertarian definition presupposes a certain degree of honesty and integrity on both sides of the “free exchange” or at minimum a realistic ability to walk away from the transaction unharmed. In reality this is not the case, as demonstrated by the extraordinarily exploitative behavior of coal mining companies in the early 1900s – by the time a worker realized his bosses had no intention of behaving honorably towards him, chances were he was already in hock to the company store, working as little more than indentured labor. The appeal of communism and socialism to the workers of the early twentieth century was not based on some kind of warm-hearted intellectualizations, it was based on actual concrete experience of being lied to, manipulated, and abused by the agents of the ownership class, including by government officers enforcing laws bought and paid for by the crony corporatist aristocracy.

    John Galt is fiction, wholly a creature of the imagination. In the real world, when counterbalancing forces from are not present, some fraction of the wealthy will act in an utterly rapacious manner to maximize their own power, and only a few need to succeed in order to completely dominate. For the left, those counterbalancing forces include democratic government, which in libertopia neither favors corporate interests nor impedes them, but in the real world inevitably engages in activities that favor the powerful – leftist ideology merely asks that it also engage in some activities that favor the weak.

  21. #21 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    mcmillan:
    Thanks for making that point. I forgot to get into that. I have personally gotten some backlash (not well informed backlash) simply for using the term left-libertarian. Those who don’t accept that there are left and right strains of libertarian thought are just not well versed in political theory. Libertarians such as Proudhon, for instance, identified with socialism, but also had harsh words for Mr. Marx. Bakunin predicted the evils of state socialism in his warnings about the “Red Bureaucracy.” If their are right and left strains of statist thought (Fascism v. Communism) then there are most certainly right and left flanks of libertarian thought.

    Togolosh:
    Good analysis–perception is vital, and lack of good information about the actual claims/goals of these ideologies is a real problem. Whether it’s Naomi Klein stupidly conflating Friedman’s libertarianism w/ Neoconservatism or Right-libertarians calling Obama a Marxist, it is clear that some people need to get a grip and do their homework.

  22. #22 |  Honeyko | 

    Togolosh:
    > For the left, those counterbalancing forces include democratic
    > government, which in libertopia neither favors corporate interests
    > nor impedes them, but in the real world inevitably engages in
    > activities that favor the powerful – leftist ideology merely asks that
    > it also engage in some activities that favor the weak.

    What the left “merely asks” for is a federal monstrosity that is a thousand times more powerful than any individual corrupt business (such as the aforementioned coal mine). Then, despite a century of evidence of it happening every single time, they are astonished when corrupt people assume control of that government.

    “Force always attracts men of low morality, and I believe it to be an invariable rule that tyrants of genius are succeeded by scoundrels.” — Albert Einstein

  23. #23 |  togolosh | 

    Honeyko:
    “What the left “merely asks” for is a federal monstrosity that is a thousand times more powerful than any individual corrupt business (such as the aforementioned coal mine).”

    This illustrates a fundamental difference in the terms of discussion between left and libertarian: To the libertarian each company stands on its own, to be considered in isolation. The a leftist, the nexus of power is not the companies themselves, but the group of owners who share common interests and act more or less in concert.

  24. #24 |  Jeremy | 

    The ridiculously far-fetched story lines and paper thin characterizations of season 5 bothered me.

    Definitely. I concur. It’s a testament to the show, however, that its worst season was better than 99.9% of the other crap on TV. To me, Season 4 was the pinnacle, and that’s saying a lot after the magnificent story in Season 3.

    But I do think the larger point about the capitalism, as represented by the Sun, is at least somewhat salient. Just because a business pursues profit doesn’t mean that any particular way it pursues profit is right or wrong. This is where management comes in: they’re this unique class in the organization that observes all the conditions, data, and interests, and somehow magically comes up with the organization’s best move.

    In reality, they fuck up – a lot. This may be a result of competition; it still impacts people, both employees, owners, managers, and the public. This is a story that can be told and looked at without fitting into a narrow political narrative. In fact, all too often libertarians take a 10,000 ft view of the economy without recognizing how human all of this is; that’s half of the disconnect with the Left right there: pure empathy.

  25. #25 |  Simon Daniels | 

    “Here one begins to suspect that Simon doesn’t quite understand what that word — capitalism — means. By definition it refers to voluntary exchanges in a free market of competing non-monopolies, largely unencumbered by government regulations that limit supply or trigger black markets.”, article.

    And just like someone preaching dogma, they have to add a piece instead of taking responsibility for the whole.

    Though this is a straw man with such a small comment I am attempting to push you to your limits. It’s sort of like saying that Islam doesn’t produce people who want to martyr themselves, which of course has no relation to suicide bombers. Islam is a religion of peace and supporters no forced coercion but the right keeps failing in understanding the word Islam.

    If you start being honest about capitalisms failures instead of only preaching it’s positives maybe the rest of us would have more respect for you. If you believe it is only a force of good and there is no negative results you are a believer in dogma.

  26. #26 |  avi klein | 

    i think that “the wire” is a capitalist tv show, because it’s anti-trade unions.

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