Of all the corrupt and declining institutions on The Wire, none are more corrosive than the drug gangs. It's not just the product they're selling, which destroys lives and eats away at neighborhoods; it's the business itself, a shadow industry run by sociopaths who betray their own people when there's a dollar to be made or a risk to be avoided.
But it wasn't always like that:
The users, an army unto themselves, were serviced daily in back alleys and housing project stairwells by men who were, on some level, careerists, committed to distribution networks that paid them, protected them, paid their bails, and took care of their people when they went away to Hagerstown or Jessup. These men were professional in outlook, lethal but not reckless, and by and large, they lived with an acknowledged code, to wit:
They didn't use what they sold. They didn't serve children or use children to serve, just as they wouldn't sell to wide-eyed virgins looking to skin-pop for the first time. They carried the threat of violence like a cloak, but in the end, they didn't shoot someone unless someone needed to get shot.
This earlier generation stayed serious, cautious. On a business level at least, they understood responsibility and were therefore responsible with the package.
That's David Simon and Ed Burns describing the heroin trade of the 1960s and 1970s in order to set the historical context for the very different world they would record in The Corner (1997). The Corner is essential reading for any Wire fan, both a compelling story in its own right and an important precursor to the fictionalized ethnographies of The Wire. (You'll find an Amazon link over in the new "World of The Wire" sidebar.) Almost every Bubbles caper has its origins in the trials and tribulations of the book's hard-working dope fiends, and a lot of the school material from season four first appears there. And in one amazing chapter, Simon and Burns explain nothing less than the origins of the world as we know it today. They do it by telling the story of the Baltimore drug gangs.
According to Simon and Burns, the drug trade's transformation from the managerial criminal industry of "Little Melvin" Williams to the anarchy of the 1980s and beyond emerged from a confluence of factors: Federal prosecutions put away most of the criminal leadership by the mid-1970s. Cocaine and crack arrived in the 1980s. Mandatory minimums and the war on drugs flooded the jails with so many small-time dealers that jail time became nonexistent and arrests meaningless.
But mostly it came from a massive economic shift that's touched everything else in our culture:
With heroin alone, the sources of supply seemed finite and organizational; access was limited to those with a genuine connection to the New York suppliers, who had, in turn, cultivated a connection to a small number of importers. The cocaine epidemic changed that as well, creating a freelance market with twenty-year-old wholesalers supplying seventeen-year-old dealers. Anyone could ride the Amtrak or the Greyhound to New York and come back with a package. By the late eighties, the professionals were effectively marginalized in Baltimore; cocaine and the open market made the concept of territory irrelevant to the city drug trade.
It didn't stop there either. Cocaine kicked the dealer's code in the ass, because as the organizations gave way, so did standards. On every corner, street dealers began using minors, first as lookouts and runners, then as street-level fighters.
When children became the labor force, the work itself became childlike, and the organizational structure that came with heroin's first wave was a historical footnote. In the 1990s, the drug corner is modeled on nothing more complicated than a fast-food emporium, an environment in which dealing drugs requires about as much talent and finesse as serving burgers. No discretion; no precautions; the modern corner has no need for the applied knowledge of previous generations.
This is a brilliant analogy. The drug trade shifted from an organized industrial cartel to a franchised service industry, with all the attendant degradation of labor that comes with a service economy. Unfortunately, when skilled workers are replaced with unskilled ones in this particular sector, people start dying. The switch to child labor brought with it a random, impulsive violence on a scale unlike anything seen in the old days, and there was no one left in charge to restrain it.
There is no singular connection, no citywide cartel to enforce discipline and carve up territory. Looking up the skirt of the wholesale market from Fayette and Monroe, the drug sources are random and diffuse. [...]
The product itself is, by and large, ready to sell. Gone are the days of uncut dope on the table and four or five gangsters battling the scale, trying to get the purity down and maximize profit. Gone are the cut-buddies, who could wield the playing cards and mannitol with skill to ensure a proper package. Much of what sells on a Baltimore corner is purchased as a prepackaged item with little assembly required. A G-pack of a hundred coke vials, sold on consignment, can make you one thousand dollars, with six hundred kicked back to the supplier. Do that a couple of times, then ride the bus or the rails to New York, catch the IRT up to Morningside Heights or the Grand Concourse and lay down the grip; what comes back is precut product, with the equivalent number of vials all neatly wrapped. No math, no chemistry--a sixth-grader with patience and a dull blade can fill the vials and be on a corner inside of an hour.
Deprofessionalization. One of the dirtiest words in The Wire, even if you'll never hear it phrased exactly that way (which is probably for the best). It's no less a problem for the drug gangs than it is for the unions or the police. Bodie gets saddled with corner boys who can't count; Cutty is tasked with educating trigger-happy soldiers who can't tell when one of their own is holding out. If The Corner is telling the full story, disciplined street-level gangs like the Barksdales or Marlo's people are the anomalies. Most of the dealers are morons--morons with vials of coke and bags of heroin and loaded guns.
Their professional standards are ailing for the same reason everybody else's are. The Wire is a show about the decline of liberal society, about how institutions formed in the age of embedded liberalism, Keynesian policy, the welfare state, and the long postwar economic boom now struggle, adapt, or die in an age of neoliberal policies that remove even the most modest controls on the ability of capital to move wherever it wants and do whatever it wants. The show uses the lens of criminal investigations to dramatize the consequences of the shift from a late-modernist economy regulated both internally by managed competition and externally by liberal government to a postmodern economy that erodes all regulations, all limits, all codes.
The social devastation depicted in The Corner and The Wire is a direct consequence of postmodern turns in both the global economy as a whole and the drug trade. (Macroeconomic and more localized shifts which come together in the figure of the Greek--global capitalism personified as the god of all gangsters.) The centralized, code-bound organization of Melvin Williams and his peers--the liberals of crime--has given way to an anarchic profusion of franchises built on easy money, cheap labor, and flagrant violence. This is why Proposition Joe dies; this is why Stringer Bell dies; they both thought they could bring back the centralized cartel, the command economy, the code of professional ethics in a world that now regards the first two as fossils and the last as a sign of weakness. It's Marlo's world now.
Nor is this devastation limited to the gangs or their neighborhoods. The pains of the post-industrial economy are most obvious in the union story of season two, but all of the institutions in The Wire are feeling the same pressures. The Sun's owners are laying off reporters even though the paper is still profitable, because their only responsibility is to maximize their stockholders' returns. Teachers have become nothing more than warm bodies who stand at the front of the room and recite test questions. Veteran reporters, veteran police--even veteran slingers like Bodie--are chased out of their own organizations because they're too highly-paid, too likely to bristle, too willing to challenge the bosses. They're replaced with kids who write what the editors want to see, break heads the Western district way, kill whoever Marlo wants killed and take whatever terms he offers. They're all temps; they just don't know it.
And Bubbles. Poor Bubbles. In seasons three and four he's a street entrepreneur, a dope-fiend small business owner, the hardest-working man in Baltimore. If those comforting Ben Franklin myths about the self-made man were the whole story, if poverty and homelessness really were a matter of being poor and homeless by choice, Bubbles would have pulled himself out of it long ago. And once he registers on a stick-up man's radar, there's nothing to protect him. Even with tighter police connections than any other fiend in Baltimore, he has no safety net and he can't count on anyone else to look out for him. A work ethic isn't enough anymore.
With its fifth-season focus on the mass media, The Wire has also begun turning its attentions to some of the cultural effects of the postmodern turn. The current season has shown us a media industry that's completely disconnected from the world it's supposed to be covering, generating a torrent of column inches and radio chatter and televised bloviating that misses the real stories unfolding in Baltimore. Those are stories of fabricated events and rigged games--notice how references to juiced baseball players keep cropping up around the reporter who is himself juicing quotes--but they are also stories about economic downturns, political corruption, environmental pollution, bureaucratic incompetence, educational failure, the problems of a real world that barely registers with its self-appointed watchdogs. The media dwell in a world of simple narratives that are more fiction than fact: the Dickensian aspect, the Passion of Clay Davis, and of course the masticating serial killer on the loose. Our culture is governed by an "ontological dominant" (to borrow a phrase from Brian McHale) of multiple, mutable, and fabricated realities--a concept that sounds all well and good when you're talking about postmodernist literature, but it's horrifying and depressing when you realize the same phenomenon holds true for journalism.
The Wire is telling the biggest story in the world, the story of a profound shift in the way western societies are organized. It's nothing short of amazing that David Simon, Ed Burns, and company have found a way to tell that story without getting lost in the macroeconomics, spouting off political statements instead of dialogue, or trivializing it down to maudlin, reductive pap. They are telling a story about the devaluation of labor and the degradation of human life without forgetting that their characters are first and foremost human beings. The Wire rises and falls on their stories as they all struggle to get by in a global economy that follows the logic of the heroin market.