- Thwarting Neoliberal Security: Ineptitude, the Retrograde, and the Uninspiring in The Wire
1. Introduction: Neoliberalism and (In)security
Developments in US policy and governance over the past few decades have deepened economic insecurity in the name of freedom. These developments, commonly referred to by the umbrella term neoliberalism, involve state deregulation of corporate profit-making, the privatization of public goods, and diminished state support for social welfare.1 Although it is commonly presupposed that neoliberal developments diminish state power, they also intensify it upon the most insecure, marginalized segments of society: the impoverished inner cities and the people, often of color, who live there.2 People without high capital or the capacity to generate it have become subject to extensive state surveillance and penal sanctions, as both are deployed to control the effects of escalating social and economic insecurity. Within neoliberalism, state responses to economic insecurity are addressed not by mitigating insecurity through social security but by state securitization—securing flows of wealth from the poor. Market freedom combines with government policies that increase control and restraint over the impoverished in order to ensure the freedom of capital and corporate persons. These developments tender a social vision in which all people can be made to turn a profit while money, rather than people, must be set free. They [End Page 759] involve not the retreat of state power but an increase in securitized and militarized forms of state power over those who have little access to capital flows. Neoliberalism, then, stands for deregulation for the wealthy and their capital paired with securitization for the impoverished and vulnerable.
These developments have, in the US at least, led to a despairing sense that neoliberalism has decimated living possibilities for the economically precarious, that its securitizing measures have put on lockdown more equal and just ways of constructing social worlds. Many of the most incisive scholars of neoliberalism, including Wendy Brown, Sheldon Wolin, Jamie Peck, Guy Standing, and Loïc Wacquant, have detailed its rapid takeover of political, social, and economic spheres, as well as its destruction of already fragile life-worlds for the precarious.3 Yet for all its profound and frightening effects, I argue that neoliberal developments are sometimes weaker and more vulnerable than they may otherwise appear. When examined from macropolitical or global perspectives, their devastating power is undebatable, but when viewed from the intricacies of local structures, new details emerge: some neoliberal policies are inevitably at odds with others; others have no implementation power, are susceptible to attack, or just cannot securitize the social space they are tasked to control. Even in the most exploited urban spaces, neoliberal measures are inept and often fail, and people find unlikely resources for combatting them. Like a microscopic view of sand, which reveals not the bland tan color viewed from on high but riotous rainbow-hued particles, a microfocus on local city space offers a more varied and unruly vision of people’s negotiations with neoliberal power.
To examine the vulnerability of neoliberal policies and security powers, I turn to The Wire, the critically acclaimed television drama about urban life in Baltimore described by its producer as a series about “raw, unencumbered capitalism” (Simon “10 Questions”). The Wire is widely considered among the best television shows in US history, largely because it details with journalistic fidelity how neoliberal capital formations take hold of public institutions and poor black urban communities.4 From law enforcement to the drug trade, from impoverished minority neighborhoods to political elites, from legal to educational institutions, The Wire depicts the city of Baltimore and its inhabitants organized in large part by the governing provisions of neoliberalism. Yet the spread of these provisions in The Wire, while destructive, are in no way “unencumbered.” In the Baltimore of The Wire, state surveillance of social insecurity is often incompetent, legal and illegal attempts to smooth capital flows are obstructed by bloated public bureaucracies, and the moral codes of various actors refuse to cohere into an ideology that upholds [End Page 760] entrepreneurship and profit-making. Reading The Wire against the grain reveals the various ways that neoliberal provisions for securing social space and capital flows are obstructed...