Monday, June 16, 2008

I am not a Marxist, but...

Much of what David Simon says in this lecture I agree with. I was so excited when he said "Capitalism is our God," but then was disappointed to hear him accept capitalism as the only game in town and disavow Marxism. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Perhaps "I am not a Marxist, but..." will become the equivalent of "I am not a feminist, but..."; In each case the analysis of the conditions stands, patriarchy, the destructive aspects of capitalism, etc. but what is disavowed is the subjective identity, the radical position.

Now, I love The Wire as the recent posts on this blog demonstrate, but I think that David Simon could perhaps use some brushing up on his Marxism. The funny thing is that I was standing less than fifty yards from David Simon a few weeks ago. I desperately wanted to talk to him, but I couldn't get close. It is probably for the better, since all I would said was "I love your show."

Follow the Youtube links to get to the rest of the video. Although it gets a little odd, since the final portions are Q and A with the questions edited out.


unemployed negativity said...

I initially put this up as video link and not really a commentary on David Simon's politics, but I thought that I would flesh out a little bit what I am getting at when I criticize Simon for disavowing Marxism. (I should also point out that Simon's politics and that of the show are not necessarily the same thing, The Wire can be read in multiple ways). First, Simon lapses into a belief in something like "capitalism without capitalism"; that is, the idea that we can have capitalism as a way to produce and distribute goods without the devaluation of human life that he rightfully criticizes. Second, and more abstractly, Simon seems to envision resistance to the system almost exclusively in the form of individual acts of bravery, lone existentialist heroes (McNulty, Freeman, Kima, Gus, etc). Which is strange because the show also presents some strange form of collective action and solidarity as these various individuals work together (in the detail, the coop, etc). So in that way the show itself is less invested in the idea of the lone hero than Simon himself.

On this last point see David Simon's interview with the Financial Times (

I just linked to the Financial Times, that is funny.

Will Roberts said...

Your Financial Times URL is off: the interview is at

(I wish you could do actual links in comments...)

Anyway, I loved this bit from the interview:
“We stole from the earlier dramatic tradition of the Greeks. Shakespeare began the process by which thinking men and women exerted some degree of control over their actions, markedly changing their ends. Hamlet and Macbeth are concerned with the interior psychological construction of their characters. They are more Tony Soprano than The Wire.

“The Wire transposed the idea of Greek tragedy by using institutions in place of the Olympian gods. And those institutions are our political and economic constructs.

“Now some people don’t want to watch that, to be told that the game is rigged. It is disturbing news. But those that do watch it will respond to the profound pessimism of the show. The people who watched Antigone or Medea were comfortable with that degree of pessimism. That was the ancient view of the world. And I’m not so sure it is so wrong in the 21st century.”

unemployed negativity said...

The address I posted worked for me, but it is too bad that it is not a link. Yeah that is an interesting quote. I definitely like Simon's point about the more psychological version of tragedy (Hamlet, etc.) versus the Greeks, but I hesitate at his point (stated elsewhere, I think) that institutions have become our gods. After all these institutions are nothing other than the effects of the actions of the people who make them up. (My friend Jackson and I have been discussing this issue). I definitely think that Simon is bending the stick in the right direction, breaking through simplistic ideas of individual agency. For a criticism that I partly agree with, but worry that I am beginning to sound too much like, see the following piece in Dissent Magazine:

Will Roberts said...

OK--I swear the URL didn't work for me the first time. I swear. I should have noticed that the "new" one I pasted in is identical to the one you posted, though.

On the substantive point, I think the analogy of institutions/capital to "the gods" is spot on. In a note to his dissertation, Marx has a discussion of the ontological argument for the existence of god:

"[T]he ontological argument means nothing but: ‘what I really imagine is an actual idea for me,’ that works on me, and in this sense all gods, heathen as well as Christian, have possessed a real existence. […] Here, also, Kant’s critique means nothing. If someone imagines that they possess a hundred dollars, if this idea is no arbitrary, subjective idea to him, if he believes in it, then the hundred imagined dollars have as much value as a hundred actual dollars. He will, e.g., make debts on his imagination, they will work, as the whole of humanity has made debts on its gods. Actual dollars have the same existence as imagined gods. Has the dollar another existence than in the imagination, if the general, or rather, social imagination of humanity?"

The gods and the modern institutions of capitalism are two very different modes of "social imagination," an inexact phrase, perhaps, but pregnant.

Your protest is that, "After all these institutions are nothing other than the effects of the actions of the people who make them up." In a sense, sure, but in another sense, not at all. It's all in the game. From the standpoint of any player, the game comes first, and is in no way the effect of their activity. As Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, "A society is not composed of individuals." I think the beauty of the Wire (aside from the amazing characters and dialogue, etc.) is this strictly "scientific" outlook.

unemployed negativity said...

Point taken. To rephrase my awkward objection, I would say that my problem with the "Gods" is that it introduces a transcendent rather than immanent cause. Institutions, Capital, etc. are immanent causes that produce their own effects of transcendence.