An Institutionalist View of The Wire

John Atlas and Peter Dreier asks, “Is The Wire Too Cynical?“:

The Wire reinforced white middle-class stereotypes of inner-city life. The show’s writers, producers, and directors portray most of the characters—clergy and cops, teachers and principals, reporters and editors, union members and leaders, politicians and city employees—as corrupt, cynical, and ineffective. Viewers may have thought they were seeing the whole picture, but the show’s unrelentingly bleak portrayal missed what’s hopeful in Baltimore and, indeed, in other major American cities. In that way, it did the opposite of what its creator, David Simon, said he wanted the show to do: spur our country to end the plight of the poor and minorities who live in America’s inner-cities.”

The main argument of the article is that The Wire paints a picture of inner-city urban life that does not allow room for any positive change through collective action such as community organization or coalition-building. The writers of the article takes David Simon to ask, by concluding:

“He generally views the poor as helpless victims rather than as people with the capacity to act on their own behalf to bring about change. He may think he’s the crusading journalist exposing injustice, but he’s really a cynic who takes pity on the poor, yet can’t imagine a world where things could be different.”

To support their argument, the writers list several examples in which people living in the kind of condition that The Wire portrays were able to form coalitions and affect positive political/economic change in their communities.

But to me, this argument misses the main, and perhaps the most important point in The Wire: namely, that while successes are possible at an individual level, they are rare if the broader institutional environment is itself corrupt. Thus, the show is really about how institutions affect individual behavior and trap its participants in social pathologies such as poverty, drug-abuse/trafficking, gang violence, lackluster education, etc.

The show itself can be seen as a dramatic illustration of institutionalism at work: in the show, the institutions–the political system, the police department, the public school system, the newspaper, the unions, the drug gangs–are really the main actors. It is really the interaction between these various institutions that produce the social pathologies that the show so accurately portrays. To its credit, the show follows good social science research and portrays each institution, as first and foremost, interested in preserving its own survival and entrenchment.

The critique, levelled by the article I linked, that The Wire somehow discounts individual expression, is missing the point: The Wire is full of individual heroes who do act with good intentions and who do try to reform the system. In fact, a couple of them does succeed. But what The Wire shows, correctly I think, is that unless the institutions themselves change, the odds of systemic reform are very low, because institutions, due to their very nature, are self-entrenching and path-dependent. In this way, they tend to outlast and wear down the individual participants acting within them. Thus, even as Avon Barksdale, Stringer Bell, and Marlo all quit the drug game, new actors arise within the INSTITUTION of drug trafficking to take over.

The remarkable thing about The Wire is its insight, almost Weberian in nature, that modern institutions, despite their seemingly divergent contexts, all operate under a similar logic: thus, the show draws explicit analogies between the police department, the drug trafficking cartel, and the political machine at city hall. They all deal with problems of insubordination, bureacratic redtape, self-perpetuation, and so forth. This insight is best illustrated by Omar’s best line in the show: the lawyer’s got his briefcase, and I’ve got my shotty.

But is this institutionalist view cynical, as the writers contend? I would say that it is no more cynical than reality itself is. The reason why so much attention has been paid to institutional reform is the fact that institutions shape individual behavior. In fact, twentieth century political philosophy is almost exclusively concerned with institutions, a la A Theory of Justice. Yes, individuals can break out of the institutions, but it is extremely hard, and it is unreasonable, if not impossible, to demand that any particular individual act completely outside of his institutional environment and still be able to achieve systemic reform.

Therefore, it misses the point to criticize The Wire for merely painting a realistic picture of how institutions behave in real life.


2 Responses to “An Institutionalist View of The Wire”

  1. purple motes » COB-26: bureaucracy begins at home Says:

    […] An Institutionalist View of The Wire, Michael at the The Sympositorium remarks: institutions, due to their very nature, are […]

  2. Roland Dobbins Says:

    This institutional behavior was codified by Dr. Jerry Pournelle, in Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    ‘In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.’

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