Prewriting on The Wire and Heart of Darkness

by zunguzungu

(I’m working on a paper on The Wire (and Heart of Darkness, I think). This is me, thinking out loud.)

Why does the state withdraw? Back when I was posting on The Wire with the enthusiasm of a fresh convert, Peter Little posted a big comment to this post that I started to respond to, but didn’t. Asserting that the show reflects “shifts in the structure of the Black community in the United States,” he was interested in the way the state has withdrawn from and ceded, as he put it, “forms of direct rule to criminal/capitalist enterprises within portions of the Black community.” The withdrawal of the state, he suggested, not only gave free rein to these “criminal/capitalist enterprises,” but encouraged “the most violent, patriarchal, and parasitic forms of capitalist organization,” allowing these elements to eventually become so dominant within the community “that the state can afford to withdraw and maintain a reciprocal relationship with these organizations in the management of those communities.” Much of this seems more or less right to me, which is why (in the follow-up post to the one Peter commented at) I took off from Jean-Francois Bayart’s argument about the “criminalization of the state” in Africa. I want to expand on a bit more on that here (with only minor spoilers).

In the narrative timeline that such a formulation implies, the state’s withdrawal is seen as both precipitating a certain kind of breakdown of society and also as being enabled by the emergence of new forms of order. The state withdraws, enabling something else (Peter calls them “capitalist/criminal enterprises”) to take its place, which, in turn, enables the state to withdraw. But this is a tautology, completely underdetermined: the state can withdraw because it has withdrawn. Obviously, then, it’s not right to treat the withdrawal of the state as an isolated element; it’s neither a cause nor an effect in its own right, but is, instead, an ongoing and changing effect produced by larger structural shifts within society. To put that another way, talking about what the state should or shouldn’t do (or how the state has “failed”) is exactly wrong, because it presumes as stable and autonomous something that is fluid and contingent: the relationship between the “legitimate” organs of power and the people who are subjected to them.

The fluidity of this relationship — the extent to which “legitimacy” is never a given, but is instead a contingent function of what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call culture — is something which conventional social theory has a terrible track record for thinking about (though, of course, no one has been more aware of this than social theorists). Weberian sociology, for example, defines the state by its monopoly on the use of violence, and in some contexts–Japan springs to mind–this might even work as a plausible working framework, an until-something-better-comes-along structure. But in most, I think, it will not. After all, if The Wire does nothing else, it depicts the manner in which the state does not monopolize the use of violence, the extent to which the police exist precisely not to create order within society but to feed, quite parasitically, on social dynamics they barely understand, much less control or order. In the abstract, the Homicide department follows bodies, and in the first season it is possible to maintain the fiction that this is, in fact, what it does. But over the course of the show’s much larger narrative, it becomes clear that while some bodies precipitate hysterical police action–a police officer, for example, or the victim of a sexually depraved serial killer–most bodies do not provoke any response at all. We learn that the state doesn’t care that much about violence as such; it cares about the kinds of violence which it can instrumentalize.

The state’s “withdrawal,” then is less a failure to act than a calculated decision dictated by tactical logic: the organs of the state engage themselves where they can accomplish what they want, and where they can not, they do not. In this sense, while it might be true to argue — as David Harvey does — that neo-liberalism signifies something different and new within liberalism, it is possible to commit the epochal fallacy of drawing this distinction too clearly.

First, though, let me clarify what I mean (or what I take folks like Harvey to mean) by distinguishing between “neo-liberalism” as a form of political order distinct from the kind of American liberalism that crystallized during the new deal. As a high water mark for progressivism, the new deal sought to reinstate order by investing in and developing communities, and since the state’s very activist role was to produce and reproduce a labor force for labor-intensive capitalist enterprises, new deal liberals worked at the sorts of projects that would keep those communities of workers healthy and stable. Education, unions, infrastructure, planning and development, and the project of rehabilitating and integrating antisocial elements back into society took center stage, relatively large investments by the state that tended to pay high dividends. Neo-liberalism, by contrast, is the constellation of strategies necessary to avoid exactly these kinds of investments. Instead of taking responsibility for dysfunctional communities and attempting to police and develop them, the neo-liberal state uses neglect as a form of political rule, aspiring to a regime of order which, paradoxically, uses the very withdrawal of the state’s agencies to keep things together.

As theory, it’s great, but history is always lived in practice. And although it’s an ultra complicated history I’m about to give short shrift to, a short version of it would go something like this: US labor power used to be worth investing in, so the state invested in it, from about the Great Depression to the seventies. But after the seventies, for all sorts of reasons that you can read the other important Harvey book to learn about, structural changes in the US economy so degraded the value of working class labor power as to make it no longer worth investing in, to the extent that — ever mindful of the bottom line — capital sent its blue collar work overseas whenever it could, where friendly governments made sure that it continued to be so. Since the state, in turn, no longer had the kind of incentive that it used to have to reproduce a healthy and viable working class of minimally educated labor, it did whatever it could to detach itself from the kinds of responsibilities that New Deal liberalism had saddled it with. The Reagan “revolution” was an expression of that desire: explicitly hostile to labor (since organized labor unions were no longer necessary to keep workers working) and to community (which it preferred to ghettoize, rather than integrate), neo-liberalism attacked “big government” as a rhetorical defense for eviscerating the state’s liberal sociological functions (schools, health services, rehabilitation, and community building) and constructing a state which responded to all problems through the types of violence which implied no strings attached: schools became jails, social disorder was criminalized, and communities were cast as the villains holding back individual enterprise. Government didn’t become less big, but spending the money that used to go to social services on the military is a nice little metonym for the entire transformation. In The Wire, for example, we see this in the ways beat cops have been replaced by helicopters and cruisers, the ways that cultivating good relations with a community has been replaced by the terror-tactics of street level busts that keep neighborhoods isolated and hostile.

I like Bayart’s phrase “the criminalization of the state” because it describes not a change in definition, but the way a definition becomes impossible: the state cannot become criminal because criminality is defined by the state’s opposition to it. They are irreducibly incompatible terms. So as the Barksdale crew takes on the legitimacy of a government and the government takes on the criminality of a mob, we are forced to reflect (as Bayart wants us to) on the insufficiency of the models we use to apprehend what is happening.

In The Wire, this problem arises when the Barksdales become capitalists and when the police become little more than an unthinking gang defending their turf. But back to theory, the problem of whether capitalism itself is criminal is equally aporetic: not only is historical capitalism a system founded on un-free labor and on state regulated capital markets and enclosure, but it is to the point to observe that the most successful capitalists are those who are able to violate the central credos of capitalism — the law of property and laissez faire — while others agree to be bound by them. The trick is to get other people to play by those rules while getting around them yourself, making it a system defined by those who break its rules.

In other words, a term like “capitalism” defines a theory of legality which, in practice, gets defined a criminal behavior. Sound familiar? But I’m far more interested in that problematic formulation as problem, and so, at its best, is The Wire. The contradictions implied by the show’s terms illustrate how, when the relationship between capitalist and criminal changes significantly, the ways people go about addressing that problem also changes, and the vocabularies they are accustomed to use start to fall apart under their own weight.

Bayart’s book makes the argument (with specific reference to sub-Saharan Africa) that as neo-liberalism has gutted the global “development” project, regimes of enforced austerity and structural adjustment have opened up tremendous new spaces for criminal/capitalist networks, which occupy the niches that used to be occupied by the developmental state, now a shadow of its former self. In a very real sense, then, criminals have become the state, at the same time as the State has, by necessity, become a “state of exception.” This looks something like The Wire to me. But none of this was simply a product of neo-liberalism, even if much the collapse of the multilateral development project in Africa (the 1981 “Berg report” is a good enough marker for that) might have vastly accelerated the process. Structural adjustment has hollowed out African states into little more than patronage networks, and spaces for criminal/capitalist enterprise have opened wider and wider. But the important point is this: those spaces were already there. Most African countries had a brief period–in the fifties and sixties, usually–when the State tried to decolonize itself and function the way Weberian political sociology says it should function, when the formal economy threatened to be larger than the informal and when the State actively worked to cultivate a productive capitalist economy. But, for a variety of reasons, that period of time was usually quite short; without going into it too much (though Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed has some ideas) “development” has “failed” quite spectacularly in Africa to do the sorts of things it did more successfully in, say, the Tennessee river valley (though the obligatory James Scott essay excoriating the TVA is in this volume).

As James Ferguson has shown, development aid instead became a vector for a certain kind of legitimized corruption (and it succeeded in paying the salaries of generations of development workers out of the pockets of unborn generations of pre-natally indebted Africans), but the important point is that when both liberal and conservatives look at uncaptured peasantry or how the other half lives and see only failure, only the absence of what they expect to see, they overlook the thing that is most important, the way theoretical aporias become a habitation. This obsessive focus on the absence of the only thing one can imagine — the familiar structures of Western society — blinds those viewers to what is actually there, to the un-generalizable heterogeneity, say, of an Africa that cannot be conceptually unified.

I’m not going to try to generalize about what that is, just note its presence as an un-generalizable presence. But in this sense, while The Wire is usually taken as a gaze into “the Black community,” I would observe that nothing it shows is either exclusively or reducibly “black.” A better category would be “impoverished inner city communities of color,” even West Baltimore has been experiencing a substantial growth in Latino immigration, and if you look at a place like L.A. or New York, thinking in terms of “Black” and “White” gives you almost no purchase on the kind of racial demographics that define the social landscape. But even that’s not quite it: the important shifts aren’t really within the communities themselves as much as they are shifts in the state’s relationship to those communities, which is what constitutes them as such.

A “New Deal” / “New Liberalism” antinomy can make distinctions like fordist / post-fordist seem like the key to most mythologies; it is right to observe that government in the era of Roosevelt and Jacob Riis loved to get in there and get shit done, whereas George Bush / Barack Obama want to take as little responsibility as they can. We can say the following:

Under Fordist liberalism, capital profits from a labor pool that it cultivates, so it develops and supports institutions to sustain and reproduce that labor pool (which range from unions to schools to the whole range of social service institutions), and criminality is just part of the spectrum of deviance that (ideally) get rehabilitated. Thus the New Deal: reforming capitalism to save it, and teaching people to be good capitalist subjects. Under neo-liberalism, however, the costs of maintaining schools and hospitals and such is no longer sufficiently offset by the value of the labor pools that are created, so the government does everything it can to get out of the business of social engineering. And instead of treating social problems as an opportunity for intervention and progressive investment (as did liberals from the progressives to the New Dealers), social problems are criminalized and ghettoized, and while the war on drugs turns neighborhoods into war zones (as it’s meant to), legislation like “No Child” penalizes the failure of school systems, and licenses benign neglect. But whereas a progressive or New Deal liberal sees a failing school as necessitating the State’s intervention, a neo-liberal sees a failing school as a criminal, declaring this failure to justify the withdrawal/confiscation of privileges/resources, and stepping lightly away. Put most simply, under Fordist liberalism, the state intervenes into social disorder, while under neo-liberalism, it takes social disorder as a rationalization to refrain from intervening.

But big government vs. little government is the wrong way to think about this kind of cultural politics, as a show like The Wire is good at showing: since the criminality of an economic activity is a function of the state’s attitude towards its subjects (and since that attitude changes), the question of whether or not a particular kind of economic activity (say, drug dealing) is criminal or not will have little or nothing to do with the activity itself, and everything to do with how it impacts the state. And if “culture” is constituted by the state’s relationship with a “local” society, this relationship is also a function of “cultural” pushback and local autonomy. Neither, but both; an aporia. And as Joseph Conrad realized better than he’s usually given credit for, you can’t describe an aporia; you can only articulate it by failing to articulate.