HBO series, the Wire, entered its fifth, and, unfortunately, the last season. Although I’ve wholeheartedly agreed that “the best thing ever happened to TV is Twin Peaks,” since I became an addict of the Wire, I felt the need to reconsider my allegiance. There are so many things to say about the Wire and there is so much already said about the Wire. What really grips me, however, is the way in which this series goes beyond, not only the idiocy and the self-defeating injustices and violences of state-sponsored “war on drugs,” not only the essentialized Hollywood depictions of the evil (addicts and sellers) and the good (citizens and police)—there are still heroes in the Wire, but we need to radically rethink what a hero is—but also, the critical perspective on the war on drugs that is confined to the ideology of “commodity fetishism.”

Traffic: From dope on the table (use value) to dope on the market (exchange value)
I should admit I am here using “commodity fetishism” in a very loose sense, so loose that I am afraid jamar would cut me loose. I allude to it as a particular way of understanding the world according to which many things in life, if not everything, are determined by market forces, through the interactions of the motivated sellers and buyers. The belief that the war on drugs will not be won unless the conditions that support and motivate both sides of the market are explicitly addressed and curbed typifies, for instance, commodity fetishism. A good representation of this view is perhaps the widely acclaimed and award winning movie, Traffic, by Steven Soderbergh. By making the (white) demanders as much a part of the problem of drugs as the (nth generation? immigrant) suppliers, and by highlighting the role that the corrupt states of the “third world” play in supporting the transnational drug trafficcing (yes, US state is never corrupt! Only too naïve to be actually duped to putting its trust in the corrupt and evil General Salazar, Head of Mexican Drug Police), Traffic sends the message that just like any other commodity, the elimination of drugs, would require removing the conditions of existence for this market: eliminating the (state) support for drug merchants, as well as rehabilitating the existing demanders/addicts, and preventing new ones coming into being.

Certainly, Traffic complicates the solutions and policies devised to address the drug problem. It offers a different take on the “war” on drugs by pointing, for instance, to the inadequacy and incompetence of the repressive state strategies of confiscating the drugs, and imprisoning and blaming the addict. One might say that the state, in this sense, cannot see the bigger picture beyond the individual and the use value of drugs. Thus, the familiar fetishistic displays that we often see on TV: The dope on table and the heroic police force standing right behind it. Indeed, Traffic manages to socialize the economy of drugs beyond the sphere of the individual user to the relations market exchange constituted directly by the state itself. At the same time, it puts into question the “war” metaphor altogether. Though one should admit that such questioning is certainly easier for the audiences to handle when they can readily identify it as an unfair “war,” because, after all, it is a war waged by a good-intending father from the privileged classes of suburban Connecticut—who happens to be the Head of the US President’s Anti-Drug Campaign—against his very own addict daughter—who happens to be the best student in her high school.

“Where’s it all go? The money, where’s it go?”
D’Angelo Barksdale

Still, Traffic falls short, I want to argue, because it does not leave the sphere of the market, its focus remains fixed on exchange and on exchange value. It does not enter into the “hidden abode of production” of surplus. (With production I do not have in mind the production of opium poppy or coca leaves, but the cutting, mixing and preparing the vials and other drug products). Thus, it misses the broader political economy that the drug economy connects with and sustains through the revenue flows and distributions from the surplus value appropriated from the sale of drugs. And it misses the point that the political economy of drugs is an alternative class formation that inner and shattered cities of the US have produced as a reaction to the destructive consequences of the so-called legal (and good) capitalism. Yes, horrifying as it may be, it is still an alternative…

Lt. Cedric Daniels “Here is the rub: You follow the drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start follow the money and you do not know where the fuck it is going to take you…and more than the drugs, it is the money that matters.”

It is the strength of the Wire to show in detail how intimately entrenched the drug economy is within the various aspects of the political economy of Baltimore: The surplus from the drug trade being channeled to city politicians in the form of election contributions, bribes, lobbying money, to developers to finance posh urban revitalization projects, to the establishment of local businesses (a night club, a photocopy center,…) as primitive capital accumulation, to destroyed neighborhoods as the meek substitute of the non-existing state distributions, to the disappearing dock workers and their families to subsidize their ever decreasing wages, even to high schools as fellowships for retaining students for the basketball teams of West and East Baltimore gangs, and, of course, to the “soldiers” of warring drug gangs. So much so that the territorial economy of drugs seems to be the only authentic and viable economy that gets produced within the decimated neighborhoods of Baltimore (or Body-more). It is the only one that fills the void that neo-liberal state capitalism has left behind. At the same time, it wrecks other possible economies, lives, and dreams, degenerates much more than what it generates.

the Wire also portrays the illegal drug economy as one of the few experiences that the blacks of inner city US share with the disappearing white union workers. It is the only other economy in which they participate and manage, at the expense of their lives, which they exert some power, autonomy, and subjectivity and resist against the pending option of taking their place at the lowest ladders of the labor market of US capitalism. Perhaps there is something to David Simon’s, the executive producer and writer of the series, saying that the Wire is “is more about class than race…”


“I am a soldier.”

In “This Job Has No End,” Cecilia Rio discusses how Black women in early 20th century resisted both the memory of slavery as well as the option of “capitalist wage slavery” through working in the informal market as paid domestic laborers and struggling to claim some independence over both the conditions of production and the amount of the surplus value they appropriated. In this way, Rio argues, they were able to shape more positive and empowering gender and racial identities for themselves.

What paid domestic labor was to black women of the early 20th century seems to be what the illegal drug labor is to black young men of Baltimore. The feudal, at times, communal, and times, independent, class alternatives spawned by the drug economy is one of the few ways, or so it seems, for black men to claim some subjectivity and some sense of power and community. At least it offers a fantasy, a way of life that is not completely subjected to the racial discriminations and exploitations of neoliberal state capitalism.

Though the Wire is also succesful in showing how the feudal code of the game, on the one hand, is prone to shift towards the capitalist code. This is best exemplified via the attempts of Stringer Bell to transform the competitive illegal economy of drugs to one of ‘legalized’ city capitalism as well as a ‘non-violent’ drug oligopoly in which the ‘rule of contract’ rather than the ‘ties of gang solidarity and retribution’ reigns. The attempt, however, fails. On the other hand, there is a transformation of the drug economy to a more violent, sectarian, arbitrary, and ruthless form of, can we even say, feudalism, as we witness through the rise of the new kingpin Marlo and his co.

“War on drugs” is definitely a bankrupt strategy. However, its bankruptcy should not be read a sign of its failure. In fact, if we read it through Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the camp, we will be able to see it as a strategy of keeping social antagonism at bay while continuously perpetuating it through feeding off of it. Even the police force in the Wire is well aware of this. What is called for is a serious deliberation of the social relations of production and distribution that the drug economy both constitutes and is reacting against…as well as the subjectivities and cultural meanings brought to existence in and through such economic processes. And that is what the Wire just seems to be doing.


C-blok–nice work here.

bigbadbull added these pithy words on Mar 14 08 at 5:01 pm


bengi added these pithy words on Mar 14 08 at 7:34 pm

Comments are moderated.

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Return to Top

Beyond “commodity fetishism”: the Wire and the political economy of drugs