THE BLOG

The Wire Isn't a Critique of Capitalism

HBO's The Wire hasn"t won its fair share of Emmy's, but the critically acclaimed drama, the creation of former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, has generated astonishingly positive press. We're talking about a series Slate's Jacob Weisberg once called "the best TV show ever broadcast in America," because merely calling it the best television show right now wouldn't do it justice. Even more impressive was the acclaim that Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James lavished on almost every episode during The Wire's Season 4.

An October New Yorker article is my choice for best overall piece on the series, despite small spoilers that hard core fans might want to avoid before seeing Season 5. Here's a passage that captures the show particularly succinctly:

In the opening sequence of the very first episode of The Wire, Jimmy McNulty -- the half mensch, half jerk of a Baltimore cop, played by the British actor Dominic West -- is sitting on a stoop across from a crime scene. McNulty is talking to the compatriot of a dead guy called Snot Boogie, and can't resist a little philosophizing on the subject of his name: "This kid, whose mama went to the trouble to christen him Omar Isaiah Betts -- you know, he forgets his jacket, so his nose starts runnin' and some asshole, instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him Snot. So he's Snot forever. It doesn't seem fair."

Snot Boogie liked to shoot craps with his pals in the neighborhood, it seems, but, every time he did, he'd steal the pot before the end of the game. So why, McNulty wants to know, did they still let him play?

"Got to," his interlocutor answers. "This is America, man."

It was a perfectly crafted setup for Simon's themes: how inner-city life could be replete with both casual cruelty and unexpected comedy; how the police and the policed could, at moments, share the same jaundiced view of the world; how some dollar-store, off-brand version of American capitalism could trickle down, with melancholy effect, into the most forsaken corners of American society.

But, as it happened, the Snot Boogie story was real -- Simon had heard it, down to the line about America, from a police detective, and it appears in "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets." Simon's gift is in recognizing an anecdote like that for the found parable that it is -- "stealing life," as he once described it to me -- and knowing which parts to steal.

I've got just one quibble with that passage: it asserts that The Wire is partly a critique of American capitalism, a theory previously articulated by David Simon himself in a lengthy Slate Q&A and repeated by The Atlantic's Mark Bowden, whose own piece on the series, "The Angriest Man in Television," is being previewed on the magazine's Web site.

Says Mr. Bowden:

To Simon, The Wire is about "the very simple idea that, in this postmodern world of ours, human beings -- all of us -- are worth less. We're worth less every day, despite the fact that some of us are achieving more and more. It's the triumph of capitalism. Whether you're a corner boy in West Baltimore, or a cop who knows his beat, or an Eastern European brought here for sex, your life is worth less. It's the triumph of capitalism over human value. This country has embraced the idea that this is a viable domestic policy. It is. It's viable for the few. But I don't live in Westwood, L.A., or on the Upper West Side of New York. I live in Baltimore."

This is a message -- a searing attack on the excesses of Big Capitalism -- that rarely finds its way into prime-time entertainment on national TV. It's audacious. But it's also relentlessly ... well, bleak.

Here's the thing: whether Mr. Simon thinks so or not, The Wire isn't a searing attack on the excesses of capitalism! That's not to say that the show isn't audacious. It does challenge societal institutions and render harsh realities in a way that is seldom if ever seen elsewhere on television.

As Mr. Bowden notes, however, "The Wire creates a vision of official Baltimore as a heavy, self-justified bureaucracy, gripped by its own byzantine logic and criminally unconcerned about the lives of ordinary people, who enter it at their own risk."

These aren't free market failures.

Season 1 focuses on the Barksdale drug gang, a semi-feudal organization, as illustrated by the chess scene in the pit.

Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell self-consciously secure a monopoly market through force; D'Angelo asks why the drug trade is so violent when every other product in America gets sold without anyone being killed; and the Barksdale crew stops paying its employees for extended periods knowing they've got nowhere else to work and won't leave.

Capitalism it ain't.

The police department is even less capitalistic -- it is run according to the political whims of its leadership, it punishes talent and productivity, it is utterly unresponsive to the "market" in crime, it is a monopoly employer for those who want a career in law enforcement, its promotions are determined by patronage...

Season 2 is more plausibly a critique of capitalism. The theme is the death of the union-era middle class. Amoral, unsympathetic capitalism has made the stevedores a dying breed -- their kids can't make a living in the same industry as their fathers.

At the same time, capitalism isn't what victimizes the season's tragic characters. Frank Sobotka starts smuggling contraband past customs not to support his family, but because the only way to dredge the harbor -- arguably an economically efficient step -- is bribing state senators like Clay Davis for their support. Frank's son Ziggy starts selling drugs partly because there isn't enough work... but part of why he can't get work is seniority rules that assign all the work to older, sometimes corrupt workers who were grandfathered into a good deal by the union. The sex workers who suffocate in a shipping container are the victims of a black market, as are the living sex workers who are kept as semi-slaves. One could argue that global capitalism has created the income inequality that led to their vulnerable position... but The Wire doesn't argue that.

In Season 3 the drug dealers transition from feudal aristocracy to oligopoly by pooling their resources on a single drug shipment -- a step closer to capitalism, and violence falls (excepting among Marlow's crew, the lone players who still operate under the old feudal system rather than joining the drug co-op). Stringer Bell takes a college course in microeconomics; applying what he learns to the drug business makes it less harmful to society.

Later when Avon counsels violence he does so despite the fact that it's bad for business. Clay Davis and his City Hall cronies make a pretty compelling case that a market system would better allocate building permits than the Baltimore political establishment.

Meanwhile Howard "Bunny" Colvin basically legalizes drugs in one section of Baltimore, another move toward capitalism that reduces murders and violent crime citywide. Mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti, running on a public safety platform, argues that the path to recovery for Baltimore is safer streets, so that businesses -- capitalism -- will return to downtown.

In Season 4, two likable characters better themselves through capitalism -- Bubbles, whose shopping cart convenience store is successful enough to take on a partner/apprentice, and Randy, a middle school student who sells candy during lunch to make extra money. Of course, Bubbles is continually beat up, his money stolen; Randy turns to gambling to raise capital to buy candy in bulk and widen his profit margins. In both cases impediments to capitalism are the villain: Bubbles needs law and order to protect his earnings; Randy needs better access to capital.

Even The Greek, an organized crime boss who according to Mr. Simon represents capitalism in its purest form, doesn't actually represent pure capitalism at all, for pure capitalism involves no direct coercion -- it involves, by definition, people trading voluntarily in a free market. The Greek, so far as we know, deals exclusively on the black market, and regularly uses violent coercion to succeed there.

My sense is that Mr. Simon, seeing that the American system is capitalistic and that America is flawed in many ways, concludes too quickly that the flaws are rooted in capitalism. He isn't the only extremely smart person to conclude as much, but I'd argue that other factors -- unaccountable bureaucracies, violent crime, poor parenting, drug addiction, flawed criminal justice policies, corrupt politicians and human weakness, hubris and selfishness, among other things -- are actually at the root of what troubles America.

I suppose Mr. Simon could argue that unfettered capitalism brought these things about, though a man who invokes Greek tragedy when describing his work sure seems to understand that the core of humanity's problems are very old indeed -- much older than modern capitalism.

Even supposing I'm wrong, however, it seems irrefutable that Mr. Simon never uses The Wire to argue that capitalism is in fact the problem, whether or not that's his presupposition, for the problems the show grapples with are the ones I've named -- Milton Friedman could hardly object to The Wire's searing portrayals of drug policy, government bureaucracies, political corruption, unions, black markets and failing schools.

To be fair, there are probably minor moments in The Wire's 4 seasons that cut against my argument, reflecting poorly on market capitalism, but my many examples are sufficient to make this point: it is a testament to Mr. Simon's artistic integrity and talent that he has tried his hardest to render reality, and has succeeded in convincing me his Baltimore is real, even though he and I apparently disagree deeply about how to make sense of that reality.

It's the kind of integrity that is the mark of a true artist, and the beginning of useful conversation about how better to understand our world and solve its ills.

That's why I'm unconvinced by the end of Mr. Bowden's article in The Atlantic.

It concerns the only partially broadcast Season 5 of the wire, which will be about the decline of the Baltimore Sun as a great newspaper. Go read the article for a full version of Mr. Bowden's trepidations. The short version: he worries that Mr. Simon, a former Sun reporter who left bitterly in a buyout, will settle old scores and portray the newspaper business unfairly.

Here's my prediction: Mr. Simon, having produced 4 seasons of a show almost universally heralded as stunningly accurate, is unlikely to let us down now. In fact, Mr. Simon's treatment of capitalism suggests that even if wrongheaded prejudices color his personal attitudes toward journalism, his skill and commitment to truthful storytelling are sufficient guards against those prejudices corrupting what appears on screen.