Bart Wilson  

The Clash of Aristocratic and Bourgeois Virtues in "The Wire"

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Based upon last fall's Humanomics course, Gus Gradinger and I are submitting the following chapter proposal for a book on teaching with The Wire. If it doesn't fit with the editors' vision for the volume, we plan to work out the ideas in a paper.

Humanomics: Exchange and the Human Condition is a freshman seminar course exploring three joint lines of inquiry: What makes a rich nation rich? What makes a good person good? And what do these questions have to do with one another? Through these questions, the course examines the history of humanity as a history of poverty until approximately 1800 when something changed, something that triggered exponential growth in world GDP per capita, a shift from poverty to prosperity.

Deirdre McCloskey, in The Bourgeois Virtues, argues that exchange through markets enriched us, both materially and ethically. What changed, first in 17th Century Netherlands and then in 18th Century England, was a shift in ethical systems. Since the advent of the city-state, an aristocratic/warrior class ruled while a priestly class advised and a peasant class toiled. The advent of commerce introduced a new social class and with it a new system of ethics, one that was distinctly bourgeois. Whereas honor, loyalty, courage, and justice grounded the rules of aristocratic society; and duty, faith, fortitude, and fairness, the rules of peasant society; the new bourgeois ethic was rooted in reliability, sociability, enterprise, and responsibility.

Humanomics uses the classes of systematized virtues in The Bourgeois Virtues to understand the characters of The Wire and the story of The Wire to understand the bourgeois ethics of the marketplace. Because the distribution and sale of narcotics is illegal, the drug economy of West Baltimore is organized by its own rules and order, The Game. In a sense, the streets of Baltimore are a pre-1700 aristocratic society, achieving order through honor, demanding loyalty of subordinates, and administrating its own brand of justice.

In an early scene invoking a chess metaphor Avon Barksdale is introduced explicitly as the king of the organization (Ep. 1.01). His virtues and vices are quintessentially aristocratic and as such in conflict with those of his queen, Stringer Bell. Stringer is a businessman in a world of warriors. While most are playing the game for respect and honor, Stringer is playing for money and ultimately to be a legitimate bourgeois outside The Game. The longtime friends' and partners' conflicting ethics and individual vices inevitably lead to the demise of both, as well as the entire Barksdale organization. Their differences cannot be resolved because one cannot use the ethical rules of one system of virtues to demonstrate the right course of action to someone who relies on another system. There is an ethical gap that separates aristocratic and bourgeois virtues, which Avon concisely summarizes to Stringer as "I bleed red, you bleed green" (Ep. 3.08). The conflict between Avon and Stringer and between Marlo Stansfield and the Coop illustrate the great difficulty for wealth-creating bourgeois virtues to supplant aristocratic and peasant virtues as the world's standard ethical system. For as long as Stringer argues within the aristocratic system of virtues, he can never convince Avon to abandon it.

The world of David Simon's The Wire is a case study in understanding these two ethical systems and the conflict in shifting from an aristocratic cosmos to a bourgeois cosmos. In this chapter we will explain the insights that the authors, professor and student, synthesized from a concurrent reading and viewing of these two very different texts. Our chapter will challenge, as the course did, the perception of the humanities and economics as distinct courses of study.



COMMENTS (6 to date)
R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Hopefully you will include consideration of "The Advent of Individuality" (14th – 15th centuries) which preceded and formed the basis for the development of the Bourgeois Rhetoric.

Presumably any such study in "humanism," however labeled, would consider the rise and recession of individuality, and the various forms of its suppression (considering also the economic results).

There has been a considerable drift away from scholarly study of how humans come to regard one another, how those manners of regard for one another change and the effects of those regards on motivations, cultures and civilizations.

In an other time we might look to that quality of the regard of humans for one another for a measure of "goodness" in individuality. Today there seems to be a concentration on consequentialism and a conflation of that with utilitarianism.

Good luck in getting any of that across to others than members of the Remnant.

Jeff writes:

Interesting. Two quick comments:

Just how much order is actually achieved via 'The Game's' set of rules? Not much, it seems to me. West Baltimore's a pretty violent place in The Wire (and in real life, too, for that matter). Is this a function of the aristocratic value system of The Game itself or is it because people in The Game must evade a set of bourgeois institutions, principally the police, and this inhibits them from maintaining order? Might be something worth discussing.

One other topic for discussion is that the 3rd season. with the 'Free Zones' plot line, can be viewed as an attempt by the bourgeois elements in the city to broker a kind of compromise with the aristocratic elements of 'West Side.' This doesn't really come across in the show, but I would suspect that, much with the Baptists and Bootleggers during Prohibition, this kind of compromise was not in the long-term interests of the aristocratic types, as it would have taken a lucrative trade with cartel-type features and made it a lot more competitive, driving profits closer to zero.

Jeremy L. Neufeld writes:

I think the chess scene was in Ep. 1.03, not 1.01.

DougT writes:

This is a joke, right? Students don't really take this sort of thing for credit, do they? I mean, my kids are in college and I'm paying tuition for them to study -- a TV show? Seriously?

No wonder people think professors are out-of-touch...

Mike Rulle writes:

I really enjoyed the Wire Series---although I admit to had to watch it twice (over a few years) to actually get the full gist of the story line.

I also really dislike deconstructing television series in order to learn its "deeper" meaning (e.g., Breaking Bad, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos, etc.). Simon provided enough social commentary for me.

It is far more pleasurable to enjoy the characters and the conditions the creative writers put them in. I just enjoy taking a story literally as it is. From Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky to King to Leonard, this is the only way I have been able to truly enjoy any story telling.

I once wrote a masters thesis on Dostoyevsky. It ruined him for me. It took me literally 30 years to read one of his books again.

Noelle writes:

On one hand, I believe that liberalism provides opportunity, cooperation, and success. It encourages globalization and free trade, which allows for innovative thinking and compromise. Individuals have the ability to start their own businesses and invest in others. On the other hand, I believe that liberalism is unrealistic in terms of rectifying nations out of poverty. John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes, and John Ruggie would disagree with me in lieu of the fact that liberalism, plus minor government intervention, provides education, infrastructure, loans, and a social safety net. All of these things should, idealistically, fuel development within lower social classes. Unfortunately, I remain skeptical with respect to the average percentage of Americans living in poverty. If liberalism is so great and there are so many safety nets in place, why are there people living below the poverty line in the world’s most developed countries?

A part of me worries that capitalism inevitably excludes those with a self-fulfilling prophecy of destitution and rewards those who are fortunate enough to be born into a higher class. Another part of me is caught up in the fancy neon lights surrounding the publicity of the “American Dream.” I agree with historical structuralism in that the corrupt elite will continue to exploit the poor and the trickle-down effect will eventually evaporate before it reaches the bottom.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that as supplies run out, the only ones who will be able to participate in “free trade” are the wealthy. Therefore, the powerful will try to expand new markets, take over new lands, and increase globalization. I would like to believe that everything would work itself out in time. The problem is, time cannot be defined. I think the capitalistic system needs to be changed to account for economic fairness.

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