The Prince of Charming: a perspective on Sons of Anarchy [Season 1]

This post is “abandon-ware”, in that, I had this great idea, but over a long period now, I’ve not found time or brain space to do it properly. It’s too unconnected with most of the other things I’m thinking about or doing. So, I’ve rounded off the broad outline shape and I hope that remains interesting enough for someone else to do something with.

I was fascinated by Season 1 of Sons of Anarchy. I wouldn’t say I liked it so much as felt compelled by it. It was a crime drama that showed an inherently unstable situation, being held together by schemes and force of personality by the leader of a biker gang. What struck me about the show was the extent of Clay’s power – I can’t think of another criminal underworld figure who exerts as much overt power over the so-called legitimate authorities as Clay does. His goals extend well beyond the usual remit of a profiteering gang leader and into a strategic vision for the community he inhabits. I kept circling around the idea that Clay was to all intents and purposes the Prince of Charming.

Clay Morrow Sons Of Anarchy Wallpaper

One of the perennial models that grips almost any kind of underworld fiction is the idea of the Prince. Dashiell Hammett had two, one Chinese and one Greek. Mario Puzo had “The Godfather”. The Usual Suspects’ Keyser Söze fascinates all the characters in the narrative. Infernal Affairs and The Departed can easily be read as symmetric warfare between two prospective Princes of the city. A Prince ™ is not quite an inevitability, but the rule as summarized by Porter is that if you “go high enough and you always get to one man.” The decider. It’s a model of political organization that we simply can’t shake, and probably why we continue to ascribe semi-mythical powers of hope and change to the President of the US. As Alistair Cooke was fond of pointing out, the real power often lies with the Majority Leader of the Senate – but that’s just a different Prince. There is a scholar who is synonymous with the concept of The Prince – Niccolò Machiavelli, whose 1514 work, posthumously published, has been something of a standard text in the area for 500 years. What can Machiavelli tell us about modern-day stories of crime lords? How does Clay Morrow, Prince of Charming, shape up to Machiavelli’s requirements?

Sons of Anarchy charts the exploits, politics and troubles of a California biker gang, the eponymous sons. They control the small city of Charming, and their criminal enterprise is trafficking in guns. They sell their guns to the Niners, who are predominantly black, and to the Nords, who are white-supremists. Profit is colour blind. The Sons’ main rivals in Season 1 are the Mayans, who seem at first glance to be their Hispanic double. The Sons are lead by Clay Morrow, but the show is focused around the exploits of his nephew and adopted son, Jax. It is Clay and his principality that are the focus for this post, rather than the show as a whole at least partially because I found a lot of the show to be quite tough to watch, also one of the reasons this post is abandon-ware. There are some interesting characters and story-lines, but there is a thick vein of unreconstructed misogyny that exists on the level of the fiction in the behaviour of the characters and in several meta-fictional levels in terms of the fates and roles of women. I kept looking for an internal critique, but now that I’ve finished Season 1 I don’t believe it exists, and it’s sufficiently vicious that I won’t be watching Season 2.

By the time that Season 1 starts, Charming is an established Principality. It’s not newly conquered since most of the displayed instruments of civil authority are explicitly under his control, yet it is not yet a hereditary princedom. The intervention of Federal Law Enforcement in the form of the ATF and DEA means that Clay’s heirs will never be completely free from the risk of overthrow. In Machiavelli’s terms, it is fairly well a perpetually “New Princedom”, since it is beyond Clay’s power to completely eradicate either the federal authorities or his rivals, especially since his rivals are also essentially his financial support base. Most of the attacks on Clay are based on the idea that if he can be eliminated, control of the system will follow automatically, just as Machiavelli predicts when discussing “Conquered Kingdoms”. 

What is most interesting, however, is comparing Clay as a Prince to the ideals established in The Prince chapters 15 to 19. These are perhaps the more famous and quoted chapters because they speak to essential human nature, rather than political power structures in the way that the rest of the book does. I think human beings are inclined to think about human nature as essentially unchanging, a notion that helps to sustain interest in classical precedent and the continual popularity of ancient biographers like Plutarch. I’d hazard that Plutarch’s Lives are read far more widely than Herodotus’ Histories and for that reason.

I think the absolutely essential key to Machiavelli’s understanding of the Prince is that he must above all, be pragmatic:

Hence it is necessary for a prince wishing to hold his own to know how to do wrong, and to make use of it or not according to necessity. [Chapter 15]

Princes cannot always be moral, because the world is not moral. This speaks directly to the difficulties of running a criminal empire, and explains to some extent why Clay cannot be the kind of man that Jax would like to be. I think this also helps explain why Clay is not the main focus of the narrative. His necessary evil acts make him a less than sympathetic figure at times, acts which are not softened by dire necessity. Jax, on the other hand, is free to moralize, aided by extracts from his father’s diary. In some ways, the human drama of the show is driven by the audience coming to understand that if Jax wishes to succeed Clay, which everything in the show tells us is the expectation, he too will have to sacrifice his morality to some or other extent. The inexorable relinquishing of morality makes The Sons of Anarchy at least partially tragic, engendering pathos for poor Jax.

This leads us to Machiavelli’s most famous pronouncement on the reception of Princes, in Chapter 17: “Whether it is better to be loved than feared.” This always has particularly strong implications for criminal Princes like Clay or Tony Soprano, because of the nature of their organizations. Jax may have risen to the rank of Vice President of the club, but there is no question that Clay achieved the prominence of the club through historical turf warfare against other clubs, especially the Mayans. In the first instance, Machiavelli advises that

I say that every prince ought to desire to be considered clement and not cruel.

To achieve this end, Clay spends a lot of time justifying himself to his subordinates. He couches most of those explanations in terms of necessity, and the “good of the club”. This is one prime way in which I think he is differentiated from Tony Soprano, who has no attitude or appearance of communal good. The Mafia’s illegal activities are clear-eyed and honestly criminal. While there is a code of honour, there is no real question in the minds of the vast cast, but that they are all ultimately in the game for themselves and will ruthlessly obtain what they perceive is theirs. Illustrative examples of a total obliviousness to concepts of clemency abound, such as the fate of Ralph Cifaretto. Once Ralph acknowledges any sense of obligation to Tony over his horse-racing success, Tony moves in for all he can get like a shark. He pushes the issue until finally he is forced to kill Ralph over it. At any time, simply walking away from what was clearly a tenuous obligation enforced purely by political might and personal threat would have made Ralph more loyal, and probably been profitable in the long term. Soprano operates entirely in an individualistic world, while Clay can mask these kinds of rapacious decisions as necessities, and hence be considered clement, even as he fulfils Machiavelli’s key doctrine of pragmatism.

Machiavelli elaborates his notion of fear versus love by arguing

 because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.

Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred.

I think Clay is fairly much an exemplary Prince in this regard, and achieves this end through the strong sense of community he has inculcated inside the club. Each of his immediate circle recognises his ruthlessness, but while they believe that his actions are ultimately for the good of the club, they can fear crossing him without hating him. His is the greater love, in effect. Avon Barksdale from The Wire evades hatred by taking the opposite route, by making everything strictly business, he inspires the notion in his minions that all his necessary culls and strictures are impersonal. They should no more hate him than they should hate the basic activities of buying and selling. Tony Soprano largely avoids becoming hated through a measure of personal charm, but even then, but he falls afoul of Machiavelli’s injunction to “abstain[] from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women”. His rapaciousness means that he eventually falls afoul of, and hence must dispose of, a veritable host of mob captains and lieutenants – indeed, approximately 1 per season. By the end of Season 1, Clay remains both loved and feared.

I think that Machiavelli would generally approve of Clay as a Prince, ruling an area. I think he would probably consider Tony Soprano lucky to have lasted as long as he did.

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