The Clash of Aristocratic and Bourgeois Virtues in "The Wire"
By Bart Wilson
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.