Arguing Marxism and The Wire

In the following email exchange, PhD students David Shorten (Boston University) and Patrick King (UC Santa Cruz) debate whether you can be a Marxist without also being a communist and what that means for Marx’s legacy, looking to the classic HBO show The Wire for inspiration.


Hey Pat,

As I was contemplating my third go-round with The Wire this week (I defy you to name a show with more re-watch value – only thing that comes close is The Sopranos and even then it’s really not that close), I came across this Guardian article about The Wire’s creator, David Simon, who gave a speech in Australia (in December) in which he advocated for a return to Marxism as a way of understanding history.

Knowing that no two things make you happier than Marxism and The Wire, I had to get your opinion on this.

For me, the most interesting question Simon’s speech brings up is how there’s a major difference between Marxism as a political doctrine about abolishing private property and Marxism as a theory about how history works.

On the one hand, communism is the idea that society should be organized along the lines of complete economic equality by getting rid of private property. To be sure, Karl Marx is the most famous advocate of this idea. But at the same time, he also wrote a pretty damn compelling theory about how history works, which understands society as being composed of economic classes that fight over their relations to wealth, and argues that these disputes always end with one class stealing that wealth from another.

The first section of the Communist Manifesto famously begins, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Another way of stating this is that each and every society since the dawn of history is characterized by class struggles, and thus all historical events can be explained by the ways in which social classes stand in opposition to each other, as oppressor and oppressed. Such antagonisms can be overt or hidden, but they always culminate in a revolution whereby society is reconstructed, which is to say, new class struggles arise, carrying with them a new set of social dynamics.

The bourgeoisie is the dominant class in the modern industrial capitalist system. It came to power thanks to its ability to meet the demands of rapidly expanding markets, which outpaced feudal productive capacity. To meet these demands, the bourgeoisie vastly improved the modes of production, i.e., it created technological and organizational innovations. In this way, it supplanted previously dominant classes and attained political power in stages corresponding to its increasing economic might to the point that heads of state were reduced to mere “managers” of bourgeoisie affairs. The new capitalist society that the bourgeoisie brought into existence has likewise been transformed. A few examples illustrate the kind of impact Marx and Engels attribute to the bourgeoisie: all occupations, including the formerly prestigious ones, have been re-oriented toward wage-earning; no longer are men religious, chivalrous, or sentimental, and the family has become a “mere money relation”; and the bourgeoisie has civilized “barbarians” by subjecting them to its insatiable thirst for new markets.

The proletariat, on the other hand, is alienated by bourgeois control over these institutions in part because the bourgeoisie has reduced proletarians to a “commodity” identical to the goods it produces. Proletarians can only survive as long as they find work, which is unskilled and without charm. In fact, the bourgeois wage system is proportional such that the increasing repulsiveness of a job is met by the decreasing wage for that job. These conditions “embitter” the unpropertied proletariat, which is destined to become the vehicle through which the final component of the historical process will take place, as it will reconstruct society through revolution.

To me, it’s almost as if Simon was following along with this list of how the bourgeoisie transformed society in conceiving of Baltimore society. The first point about wage-earning certainly holds true. Capitalism has impacted Baltimore society to the extent that even the drug game is highly structured in this way, with wage earners doing all of the work while the inner circle of Avon, Stringer, Weebe, and Stinkum get “points on the package” for mostly staying off the street. As a result, not only are the wage earners alienated from their labor, but so too must they take the brunt of the responsibility for the illegal activity, despite the fact that the inner circle is pulling the strings. This is a world in which money dominates over sentimentality, justifying the most heinous of actions, including torture and murder but also the betrayal of family members.

So, I see The Wire as drawing from Marx’s characterizations to construct two capitalistic structures, one being the drug trade, and the other being the police force. Still, it’s Marx’s insight about how history works, not his advocacy of communism, that explains what was so brilliant about The Wire. I think the deeper lesson Simon took from Marx is not in the specific mechanisms Marx rendered, but in the more general point about the way in which universal forces motivate historical change.

Just as Marx made generalizations about what motivates historical change, The Wire showed how universal forces like self-interest, greed, and the desire for political power are so influential that they operate in all societies and at all times, forever causing the same story to keep repeating itself. That’s why at the end of every season, you see how futile the police’s efforts had been. In trying to catch the “criminals,” they were chasing after a symptom rather than the cause of crime.

I think Simon’s message with The Wire was that these forces are so foundational to the criminal-justice system and to the very nature of society itself that there’s never going to be a solution to crime and poverty.

That’s also why McNulty was such a tragic figure. He’s always trying to change the nature of the system – in this case, the bureaucratic police force – to the point of being suicidal, and of course the system is just too resilient for him every step of the way.

Feel free to expand on my summary of Marxism, but either way, I believe it’s totally conceivable that you can accept Marx’s theory of history without also being a communist. This is what Simon talks about in his speech about how Marx was a great “diagnostician” but a terrible “clinician.” Am I wrong on this?


Hi Dave,

I guess you’re gonna make me work for this, huh?

What I thought was so compelling about Simon’s piece was that it brings up questions of economic justice that are now on the table in the post-Occupy, post-2008 crisis world.

It’s clear by now that capitalism as a global system is susceptible to major breakdowns every couple decades. It’s for this reason that we’ve seen an upsurge (in relative terms) in ‘mainstream’ attention given to Marx. See this article from the TIME Business & Money section that came out earlier last year.  Why is this? Because Marx devoted much of his life to developing a theory of capitalism and so he really is the great “diagnostician” that Simon referred to him as.

Remember that the subtitle to Capital, his magnum opus, was “A Critique of Political Economy.” And it is exactly that: a critique of the categories and theories of Classical Political Economy, ranging from the Physiocrats, to John Stuart Mill, to (most famously) Adam Smith and David Ricardo. All these figures had ideas about how the basic economic categories of land, labor, profit and rent come about and function in society. Marx studied them hard, and spent over 15 years sitting in the British Library trying to analyze what they got wrong and articulate his own views.

This meant that he spent a lot of time figuring out what makes capitalism work, what drives it, what makes it function so smoothly, all the while showing that at its core it is based on exploitation, and developed and grew out of a quite violent historical process. As a result, you get a vision of both the minute details of how things work — the inner details of capitalist production — but also a larger vision, an historical arc, that looks at a larger totality which distinguishes and incorporates economic, political, juridical, and ideological spheres. These are similar to the distinctions you were referring to.

This may seem like academic speak, but luckily Marx (and Engels) was good at making catchy slogans to describe this vision — to wit (now I’m taking in Wire-speak), the infamous line you referenced from the Communist Manifesto that ‘all history hitherto is the history of class struggles.’ Another well-known formulation was this full paragraph, perhaps the most infamous Marx ever wrote.

 In the social production of their existence men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

That’s from the 1859 “Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” a draft of Capital.

What the hell is a relation of production you might ask? Simon actually defines this quite nicely in that scene you sent me:

So, yes, Marx offers a vision of history in its totality. He envisions history as successive ‘modes of production’ encompassing the whole sweep of how human beings have produced, and profited from, the different forms of that labor. In feudalism, for example, as the classic story goes, the princes and lords had to squeeze the profits out of the serfs and peasants through force. Under capitalism, things changed — workers got a wage, e.g. they entered the labor process willingly (or Marx’s words, the wage laborer is ‘bird-free’). Historical change is premised upon these relations, which govern how human beings reproduce their daily lives.

But Marx was absolutely not just making an ethical point that this exploitation is bad and we should try and abolish it, no, he was making a structural point too. Exploitation is ‘inherent in the system’, and we don’t really see it laid bare, but it does pop up in rare moments where the struggle between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, becomes especially acute.

This point about capitalism as a system that interweaves the economic, the political, the courts, and everyday life is ever-present in The Wire. That’s what makes the show so depressing, yet real. From the very first season we realize that stuff is bad, all the way down, and all the way up. And we also get the inkling in successive seasons that the bad stuff goes way beyond Baltimore. Those shipping containers from Le Havre point to a criminal network that extends much further than what happens on the show.

Yet, in the space where the police can work, they open up that structure as much as they can, a world where the spaces between legitimate business and criminal organizations are blurred and the money leads unexpected (or maybe entirely expected) places. We see this come through in season 1 when some of the smarter cops like Lt. Daniels and Detective Freamon are always repeating the phrase “follow the drugs and you get a drug dealer; follow the money and there’s no telling what you’re going to find.”

Marx and Simon both have gifts for plot construction — they can provide the full sweep and the minutiae. Think of that incredible scene at the end of season two, where Nick looks out on the port of Baltimore, a local landscape that has become increasingly obsolescent in a globalized world where shipping technology has now becoming increasingly efficient (Marc Levinson describes this process in The Box), as the required ending montage plays. Frank Sobotka had fought to save that port, to revitalize it, only to see his efforts swallowed up. In season three, Bunny Colvin almost managed a society from the bottom up (still one of the most fascinating storylines I have ever seen on a TV series), only to see it demolished by his superiors.

Simon knows the pace of history, that it involves the interplay between institutions and individuals (he is always quoted as saying that this is the main point of the show), and that this interplay inevitably squashes any attempt at really reforming it. He’s never heavy-handed, only objective. And in Marx’s analysis of capitalism, the same goes (he insistently defined what he was doing as a type of science).

So yes, you can accept Marx’s vision of history without being a full-blown communist (I will leave out my own personal political views). Marx had a theory of capitalism, its forces and dynamics. That description will lead you to question its fairness, no doubt. One of the last chapters of Capital charts what he sees as the intricate link between unemployment and industrial production, and that things will always become polarized between rich and poor. But that can lead to different political programs, as Simon’s apology for capitalism as the ‘only game in town’ shows. No, it is the structural point that Simon takes to heart and shows in The Wire. But that’s not to say the structure is always stable, either.


OK so I think we are on the same page: Marx diagnosed the inherent flaws in capitalism, insight that is valuable even if you don’t accept his solution of a communist revolution. In this way, he’s an authoritative source for understanding the role of economics in determining social conditions (what you call “political economy”).

I also appreciate what you’re saying about how hard Marx studied the process of capitalism. One of the things that always made The Communist Manifesto so confusing for me is that Marx displays such appreciation for the bourgeoisie — the capitalist ruling class. Going into the thing, you’re expecting someone who’s ready to spit on those ‘capitalist pigs’ for bringing about the most exploitative system ever known to man. Yet, he can’t help but praise the capitalist class’s ingenuity.

Thus, when he writes that “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together,” he’s actually complimenting the bourgeois class.

I want to push you a little further than the question of capitalism though. You reviewed Marx’s take on capitalism in about 500 words (no easy feat), but is capitalism the central problem fueling the social inequities illustrated so poignantly in The Wire? As we’ve both been alluding to, Marx saw capitalism as the latest stage in history. If the driving forces in history are so universal, how are we supposed to contrive a system that subdues those forces? Was Marx naïve (yes, I said it) to think that we could abolish private property without merely inventing a new system of exploitation?

Going back to The Wire, was capitalism the problem motivating the vicious cycles of poverty, crime, and alienation in Baltimore society or was it something more fundamental to humanity? If the latter, is there really anything we can do? A small question, I know.

Also, please tell me there’s a connection between Marx’s “bird-free” and Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” I always knew that song was special.


Would Marx have been a Skynyrd fan? Some of the best music from the American South has been a product of the class hatred of ex-cons, only to be re-absorbed by forms of right-wing populism…

I mean, a lot of these distinctions are not really well-defined within the Marxist tradition. So, for instance, for the majority of his life, Lenin would have described himself as a Social-Democrat (however different that term was then as opposed to now), not a ‘Communist.’ In the context of the Russian Revolution, a lot of Marx’s terms took on different valences, and with the fortification of Stalinism and the rise of the Cold War, they have virtually lost any real referents here in the United States.

So, the generations of socialists after Marx, the ‘classical’ Marxist tradition of Kautsky and the German Social-Democrats, Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, etc. never divorced Marxism as a theory of capitalism from socialism as a political program. In contrast, with the Cold War, Marxism in the West migrated largely towards academic fields: history, sociology, philosophy, and to a lesser extent (obviously), economics. There were still of course active communist parties operating in Europe, but that is a complicated history bound up with the turns of Soviet policy and battles with heterodox positions within their own ranks.

Of course, it is easy to say now that Marx was naive in his embryonic formulations about the ultimate feasibility of the abolition of private property. But he was always cautious: he never proposed to offer “recipes for the cookshops of the future.” His political statements were almost always tied to concrete historical situations, when German socialists were being jailed left and right.

What’s interesting now is that movements like OWS, drawing on other recent social movements from Latin America, South Africa, and elsewhere, have started to question the current notions of private property and public space. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and George Caffentzis have written really interesting pieces on the idea of the ‘commons’ (which involves physical spaces and questions of intellectual property) as alternative modes of property ownership that could potentially be important to future political movements and in many ways conducive with some of Marx’s formulations, I think. Check this out for example, and also see The Magna Carta Manifesto and The Many-Headed Hydra.

To get back to The Wire, this last question is a good one. Does The Wire imply that capitalism is the main problem for the social ills we see on the show? After all, it is a crime procedural at its heart. It would seem more the failure of institutions and bad governance, a question of bureaucratic inefficiency were the root causes. The school system, the political system, and so on: their failure results in the rise of criminal activity, and the cycle of poverty continues. It can’t be reducible to ‘capitalism’, as some sort of abstract concept, right? I think if we understand it in that way, as a sort of spectral, reductive factor obviously obscures other problems.

But Marx’s logic is at work as to why West Baltimore has come to be as it is represented on the show. There are real reasons why there have come to be a dividing line between those in the projects and those downtown. Deindustrialization and the death of the working class, rollback of social programs and public funding cuts, slum lording, all these structural forces are in there, or at least barely beneath the surface. When the Terraces are destroyed to make room for affordable housing, the gang wars become even more violent. It really is, as one critic put it, a “Marxists’ dream of a show.”

I’m assuming your question was whether these problems are reducible to uniquely human flaws, and I would say no, it necessarily has to go beyond that. Humans are social beings, to put it banally, and Marx’s conception of human nature was grounded in our social needs, how we reproduce our lives.

But then why does Stringer Bell fail when he tries to introduce ‘market principle’s into the drug game: investment, competition, product, etc? He finds some success with the New Day Co-Op, but even that organization is just ignored by Marlo’s snatching of property and his liberal use of violent enforcement? Does Stringer ultimately find that the free market is not really free, that even as an entrepreneur, you have to conform to some rules?


There are at least three reasons why Karl Marx would have been no Skynyrd fan. For one thing, his German intellectual background would’ve clashed with the “simple kind of man” ex-Confederate culture the band championed. There’s class anxiety there, as you mentioned, but I think it’s more anti-intellectual than it is anti-elitist. I could be wrong on that. But second, there’s a religious reference in probably every song the band ever wrote. If “Lord help me, I can’t change” isn’t the sentimental veil at work, I don’t know what is. Finally, unlike Van Zant, I’m pretty sure Watergate would have bothered Marx. I think we can all agree Karl Marx would not have been a Nixon supporter.

OK but seriously, you attribute institutional failure to the cycles of poverty in The Wire, but then I have to ask: what’s behind the institutional failure? I think it goes back to the forces I brought up at the beginning: self-interest, greed, and want of power. These factors are built into the system such that the bureaucracy of the police force is designed to manage (and thereby perpetuate) rather than counteract crime.

Look at season 1. The higher-ups on the force wanted no part of the Barksdale case because it could only bring them headaches – it will cost them money to admit that a witness was killed; it makes them look bad that they’ve never heard of anyone in his crew; and it hurts their stats to have a team dedicated to one big case rather than many small ones. For these reasons, they try to undermine the case from the outset, which is Simon’s way of showing you what motivates cops to spend their resources on the street criminals, who again, are the symptoms not the source of the problem.

So anyway, I think there are inherent human flaws embedded into the system that cause the institutional failure and that these flaws are consistent across history from feudalism to capitalism (and beyond). This also explains why Stringer’s co-op doesn’t work: self-interest got in the way. I guess that makes me more of a pessimist than you regarding what can be done.

So, do I think that capitalism is the root of all social ills? I really don’t. It’s more like the most perfect encapsulation of our natural human flaws. We could argue that point forever and I’m sure we are in disagreement.

Nonetheless, I think David Simon’s speech was an important reminder about what is Marxism’s central importance. Marx taught us that individuals are not alone in changing history, but are profoundly influenced by social forces, which are generalizable across time. If the last 100 years of academic history have taught us nothing else, it’s that there is no “scientific history” coming. We are not going to isolate singular, universalizable causes of historical change.

Yet Marxism continues to be so influential in the academy so long after it was first conceived because it established a template for investigating the causes of historical change in a way that brings us closer to a more scientific understanding of that change. Marx showed us that history does not consist simply of individuals acting in isolation, rising to the challenge of crucial events to change politics. There are underlying factors behind every historically important decision, every historical change. It is our job as historians to identify and explain these forces — whether we see them as economic, cultural, intellectual, or linguistic — so that ultimately, as humans we can understand our flaws and attempt to make some positive social changes, no matter how insurmountable that task may seem.

What made Marx special was that he understood the connection between historical change and present-day social ills and was bold enough to attempt a solution. No matter how wrong that solution may have been it’s this fundamental insight that ought to motivate our own historical inquiries.

  • North west

    “Marxism as a theory about how history works.” Marx stole this from Hegel. This is a bush league debate

    • 4:20

      This isn’t a debate dumbass, it’s a brilliant exchange of ideas&theories

  • 4:20

    It’s hard to say what flaws were inherent in Stringer’s ways of running his drug cartel but you can’t forget he crossed Avon, Omar & Brother Mouzzone which in the end lead to his demise, not his business tactics