The ways that co-ops are represented in TV, film, books and the media play a fundamental role in shaping how people view them. So, this is the start of a series of occasional blogs on co-ops in popular culture, based on something I wrote a month or so ago. I’m starting with the New Day Co-op in The Wire.
The Wire, for those who didn’t watch it originally, and haven’t watched it yet, was an award winning five series drama written by David Simon for HBO. It’s a fantastically nuanced series following the drugs business in Baltimore, with its intricate links to the police, politicians, business, unions and the media. Nobody comes out untouched, very few innocent. It’s an indictment of capitalist democracy in modern America.
In series three the main Baltimore dealers form a co-op under the charismatic leadership of Stringer Bell. Called the New Day Co-op, its aim was to maximise profits and minimise problems for the members by dividing up areas and bulk buying ‘product’ together.
The co-op was one member, one vote. The rival dealers met regularly to deal with issues. And, although driven purely by self-interest, the co-op proved remarkably sustainable, until it is effectively demutualised by the power-hungry young Marlo once Stringer is out of the way in the final series. It goes without saying that there’s something quite comical, too, about a bunch of dealers forming a co-op to work together.
“A cooperative movement started by Stringer Bell and Proposition Joe in HBO’s The Wire. The New Day Co-op is a loose coalition of drug dealers in Baltimore, MD, who share profits, protection, product, and turf. Stringer and Prop Joe realized that if the gangs stop killing each other over corners and drugs, there will be more money to go around for everyone with less bodies dropping, and thus less police attention.”
Here’s Stringer Bell proposing the formation of the co-op:
Here’s the members using the meeting to discuss business and issues around the supply of heroin:
And here’s Marlo effectively demutualisng the co-op:
What does the New Day Co-op say about co-ops? What kind of ideas do people get about co-ops from the Wire?
- Co-ops can endure. Despite everything – the police, the disagreements, the violence of the street – the co-op kept going. In seasons three to five the co-op plays a major role, reducing violent crime for a time and enabling Baltimore’s dealers to challenge incoming dealers from New York by working together. It’s only towards the end of the final season that Marlo destroys the co-op.
- Co-ops have charismatic leaders. There might be a dozen or so members of the co-op, but we only ever meet the charismatic and powerful leaders who sway it: its founder, Stringer Bell; Proposition Jo, whose skills is diplomacy and bringing people together; and Marlo, who originally tries to cross the co-op, joins when he sees the benefit and eventually destroys it for the same reason.
- Co-ops are based on self-interest. The New Day Co-op is formed entirely in order to help its members make more money from the exploitation of others whilst reducing the things that get in the members’ way. Anyone watching the show will come away with the view that co-ops are about no more than self-interest. There may be discussion and voting, but in the end the co-op is portrayed as a kind of democratic cartel serving just its members.
- Finally, and maybe unique to the Wire, co-ops are part of a more complex story of corruption, collusion and cartels. A major underlying theme in The Wire is that an intricate networks of politicians, the media, the police, dealers and business people are colluding to take the wealth from the people. There are always exceptions, but on the whole there are institutional structures through which the few benefit and most don’t. The New Day Co-op is just another of these.
So, in the end, what does The Wire tell people about co-ops: they can endure but are ultimately cartels driven by self-interest and charismatic leaders.