The second half of The Sweet Science consists mainly of descriptions of major fights, but these stories, which would otherwise be largely uninteresting to general readers without a strong aptitude for sports, build on many of the themes hinted at through the first hundred pages of A. J. Liebling’s epic analysis of mid-century boxing. Essentially we are given a portrait of the rapid rise and fall essential to democratic capitalism.
I must point out at first that I am not a believer that “democratic capitalism” is what most people think of when they think of either democracy or capitalism. Nor do I think it is a a likely replacement of the brutal corporate-dominated system we sometimes call “late capitalism.” Rather, we can see it as a truly more democratic economic arrangement than corporate or institutional capitalism. Let’s simply define it as a participatory economy made up of individual producers whose success and failure are largely determined by their individual capacity. Of course, we can notice immediately that this has never existed (and as Liebling shows us, it is not a proper description of even the brutal equality of the ring). Yet, it is a useful exercise to read into the ring this ideal of the so-called anarcho-capitalists, and recognize its potential and failings.
In what ways does the “Sweet Science” parallel at least some aspects of the cutthroat American economy?
1. As Liebling’s use of Pierce Egan shows, it was a long-standing part of the American tradition going back to the early republic. If anything, it is in that period that the perfect model of boxing emerged. Like our myth of democratic capitalism, rooted in the revolutionary and the early republic, boxing had a past golden age that contemporary observers can always look back to, a time without the corruption of institutions.
2. No matter how corrupted by outside forces there is a certain brutal equality to the ring. Whether this existed at any moment (at least for white men) in American history, I will let historians decide, but I am certain that is is central to the mythology of the US economy. Our revolution was intended to destroy the inequality in conditions brought by birth, rank, title, or blood. It did that to a degree (certainly abolishing a formal aristocracy). Unfortunately, the ring can never replace real life. Even if two boxers, trained down to pure strength, can stand or fall on their individual merits, few of us in the real world can escape family, talents, psychology, and other things we have limited control over.
3. The ring also enforces a lack of entrenched power. Champions rise and fall with the seasons. Listen as he describes the end of the Moore-Marciano fight that ends his book. “Moore’s ‘game,’ as old Egan would have called his courage, was beyond reproach. He came out proudly for the ninth, and stood and fought back with all he had, but Marciano slugged him down, and he was counted out with his left arm hooked over the middle rope as he tried to rise. It was a crushing defeat for the higher faculties and a lesson in intellectual humility, but he made a hell of a fight.” (223) Such was the almost random fate of all great fights. And this is perhaps the best that democratic capitalism can offer us. Even the best vacuum salesman can fall due to a new model or the rise of a retail giant.
4. We can also see the eager participation of the entire community in the games. In many ways, this is the central point of The Sweet Science. Liebling, too fat and old to fight anymore, enjoys boxing like most us do, as a part of a mass audience fully invested in the battle. Setting aside the role of the audience as a democratic space in itself (with much more radical potential than the ring itself), it can be interpreted as a function of consumer society in which consumers get invested in the success or failure of their favorite products, television shows, or films. (Scan the Internet for five minutes if you do not believe this is true.)
Of course, this is not an ideal model for us to embrace. First, it only seems to suggest a more rapidly changing ruling class and provides some hope to those at the bottom of society. For those on the sidelines, there is only vicarious success. If equality of opportunity only creates a Darwinian world of brutal competition, social instability, and continual anxiety about self-worth caused by our failings or lack of success, we are not that much better off. It may only provide some benefits over institutional banality in that it is a bit more exciting.
We should, perhaps give up on the idea that capitalism can be reformed into something democratic and see it as best as a winner-take-all free-for-all, with brutal consequences for any losers and only fragile, material, and ultimately unsatisfying rewards for the victors. The democratic capitalism of the ring is no better than the brutal equality of the Roman gladiators. One of the great successes of the television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand was its ability to capture some of these same themes.