"The Wire" is a 60 hour-long novel, divided into five parts by its five seasons. Deep, complicated and interwoven, the series has a huge cast, all of whom are connected by multiple, overlapping and intersecting plot lines. Though the show initially takes the form of a standard "cops and criminals" tale, it soon becomes apparent that these lowly figures are mere pawns on a vast chessboard, the series gradually expanding to tell the story of an entire neoliberalized post-industrial city, and the institutions that attempt to serve it.
We begin in the The Baltimore Police Department, an institution at the mercy of both a political obsession with the war on drugs and its own endemic incompetence. From here we expand to incorporate life on the streets, observing the street level foot-soldiers, the middle management lieutenants and the upper echelon barons of the drug trade. "The Wire" then turns its gaze to the longshoreman unions at the Baltimore docks, all of whom are suffering from a drop-off in commercial traffic and who unknowingly act as couriers for narcotics coming into the city. We then turn to the public schools, its inhabitants locked in a cycle of crime and poverty. This is a battleground between valiant teachers, disillusioned students and an indifferent City Hall. The series then expands further, turning its sights to the Democratic Party Machine and local newspapers. These institutions are likewise plagued by corruption and back scratching. Indeed, when an idealistic new Mayor comes onto the scene, he is promptly stymied by the crippling deficits left over by his predecessors and by political jockeying in the Police Department.
It is important to note that the series focuses almost entirely on places of work, "The Wire" interested in the way in which the conflicts inside the state apparatus mirror those within the criminal communities. This includes not only the influence of the police on the illegal, subalternized capitalist economy, but also the ways in which the latter (through bribery, loans and money-laundering) underwrites the upper echelons of the state through the circulation of its accumulated wealth (at which point it becomes finance capital).
So "The Wire" portrays a world caught up in an epic Darwinian struggle, the weak crushed whilst the strong are swiftly promoted. If crime as an analogy for business has become so common that it has morphed into an empty truism, "The Wire" at least reflects the fluctuating, noxious nature of contemporary capital. Gangsters who cling to old codes of acquisition are supplanted by savvier outfits who take the form of a kind of all-grasping oligopoly. But as fast as one cartel rises, it is replaced by yet another, each successive cartel more ruthless than the other. Significantly, all these gangsters rely on a mixture of old-style terror cell tactics (few people in the gang know the contacts of anyone else), modern technology and complex codes. This is not organized crime, this is business warfare, the gangs replicating state-like repressive structures that, like a legitimate organization, are ferociously hierarchal and strategically meritocratic.
At its best, "The Wire" is a work of urban anthropology that attempts to show how the "invisible hand" of the market stretches out across an entire city. Unlike most crime films, which zoom in on "one of 8 million stories" (The Naked City), "The Wire" gently zooms out, attempting to trace commodities as they change hands and states. Context is king, but this desire for super-objectivity poses a problem, for the larger the society it attempts to reconstruct and incorporate into its narrative, the less socially explanatory "The Wire's" vision becomes. Everything is wired, everything is connected, but the more we zoom out, the more invisible these wires become.
The cast recognises this, of course. As the detectives "follow the money" throughout the series, they eventually get lost in a world that has simply become too huge, too labyrinthine, for them to process. They trace the money from the streets to the skyscrapers, eventually getting lost in the tangle. It thus soon becomes clear that policing both bolsters an unjust status quo and represents a profound disavowal on the part of the state. Law enforcement (which ignores the circulation of capital) involves the fabrication of the "otherness" of the criminal, whilst the flow of money makes it clear that the supposed "other" is in fact constitutive of the state.
Late in the series, when the detectives find the lair of one gangster, they are surprised to find no signs of crime. This is because the gangster has "laundered" his lifestyle, his money now having no connection to the drug world. This is the legal, whitewashed face of criminality, highlighted by the presence of Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" on the gangster's bookshelf, a symbol which effectively links the sanitized world of finance with commodity exchange on the violent streets, capital changing hands, laundered and re-invested ad-infinitum.
So these aren't ordinary gangsters. These are gangsters who study Business Administration and discuss the "elasticity of demand". Success in the criminal world is directly linked to feeding the consumer's desire. But though the gangsters largely supply product to drug addicts, they themselves are addicts, for they ruthlessly desire to accumulate.
But not all "The Wire's" gangsters are the same. Some represent a tendency towards the formation of cooperative dealerships, others care only about self-interest, self-reliance and personal control, whilst others prefer instead to impose their own more neoliberal economy. Finally, there's a gangster called Omar, who represents a more romantic "Robin Hood" version of crime, taking advantage of the mistrust generated between the corporate and competitive styles, using guerrilla tactics to trick and rob local kingpins. On one hand, Omar becomes a local myth in his own short lifetime, but on the other, he violently debunks the myth of original accumulation.
10/10 – "The Wire" has both rendered most previous crime/gangster movies obsolete, and set a trend for all modern crime films.
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