Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Political Economy as Art

I know I'm well behind the curve on this one but I'm finally catching up with The Wire. Whether or not it's as good as The Sopranos I'll leave others to judge, but it really is up there in the best 5 TV series I've ever seen. (Go get the 4 min summary of the first four series if you don't believe me).

Anyway, we're on series two now, and the centre of the action has shifted from organized drug dealing in the overwhelmingly black projects to the decaying 'all-but-post-industrial' world of the containerised docks. The few remaining longshoremen are predominately white, unionised and turbulent in a recognisably - forgive me Merseyside - scally like manner. Work is sporadic - they talk about getting odd shifts here and there. Drinking starts at breakfast time. A sense of decline hangs over the place and demands for major industrial rejuvenation - 'dredging the channel' - are dismissed as impracticable even by their own leaders.

The dockers are still organised though - they have a sense of identity and community. So when their leader comes into conflict with the local Police Chief and the cops are harassing them in various ways they can strike back. They nick a Police van and load it into a container and send it on its way somewhere or other. They're also organised enough to be taking rake-offs from organised crime to turn a blind eye to various at first unspecified smuggling activities.

But it's all too small scale and old fashioned. The Police Chief manoeuvres bureaucratically for permission to put a team of 6 detectives on the longshoremen's case in order to put away their leader, who is automatically - and rightly as it happens - assumed to be engaged in skulduggery. It genuinely shocks the dockers when the smuggling they've been assisting turns out to be person trafficking for the sex trade, and a dozen or more dead young women turn up in a container. The programme brilliantly contrasts the ruthlessness, modernity and sheer scale of both the State and, more to the point, organised crime with the faltering, traditional and frankly amateurish efforts of the dockers in trying to protect their own interests.

There's a metaphor here for the labour movement in this economic crisis. You don't need me to join the dots for you.


  1. Glad you've discovered it.

    It really is superb and just keeps getting better and better as it goes on.

    Barack Obama apparently says Omar is his favourite tv character. Sound choice.

  2. Really interesting post Charlie. I've been meaning to catch up with this programme for some time, having heard so many great reports. Your analysis cliches it for me, sounds like an intelligent bit of drama.