A. J. Liebling, “The Sweet Science” (Part 2)

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 forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

I forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

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.

Philip K. Dick, “Now Wait for Last Year” (1966): Commitment, Marriage, and Politics

Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait for Last Year puts in an Earth stuck involved in a Cold War like conflict between two superpowers. In this setting, however, the Earth is not one of the major powers. Instead the Earth is a vassal state of one of the major belligerents. This is, of course, the place millions of humans found themselves in between 1945 and 1990, forced to chose between two odious alternatives. Through this position, Dick explores the consequences and obligations of commitment at the geopolitical stage and in personal relationships.

Our hero is a surgeon named Eric Sweetscent. who constructs artificial organs and transplants them into patients, often old and rich people who can afford this expensive procedure. He works for Virgil Ackerman, the boss of the Tijuana Fur and Dye Company, which used to make consumer goods through a replication process using microorganisms that tend to copy nearby objects. The company has been recruited into serving the needs of the war. For, Earth has been recruited by the ‘Starman in their war against the non-humanoid reegs. The ‘Starmen, although fully authoritarian, seemed a better ally because they looked human. Eric’s estranged wife is a likely adulterer and certainly uses drugs. Her job is to create replicas of earlier times by collecting antiques. Consumerism has merged with nostalgia and Katherine Sweetscent is an expert.

nowwait1nowwait2

Soon, Eric is asked to work for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Gino Molinari (The Mole). His job is to keep him barely alive. The Mole is a laughable figure. Politically savvy enough to become the leader of humanity, but he presents himself as chronically ill and a fool. In fact, The Mole is an ideal figure to navigate the horrible position the Earth is in. The ‘Starmen want to fight to the last man and the Mole attempts to save as many lives as possible. In one humorous meeting, Molinari dies at a critical moment at a negotiation in order to avoid committing 1.5 million humans to almost certain death in the war effort. The context is horrific, but the only resistance is through absurdity. Perhaps there is some truth to this dilemma. We often try to resist our bosses and overlords but forget Melville’s lesson. “Now, as you well know, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours- watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straightway against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he had a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.” Like the slave feigning ignorance, Molinari evades human being made into a little heap of dust.

At the same time, Katherine become addicted to a new drug called JJ-180, which has the interesting effect of moving the user along the timeline, but often in parallel universes. It gives the user some predictive powers. Molinari uses it to help see the consequences of his political decisions as he tries to either get the Earth out of the war or switch sides without facing the wrath of the ‘Starmen. This drug is highly addictive and leaves its victims in a debilitated state with significant brain damage. Eric uses these to locate a cure for the addiction (which exists in the future) and gain information on the war effort. All of these political machinations fail, however. At the end of the novel, the ‘Starmen invade to prevent Earth from defecting to the reegs and the war changes to a struggle against occupation (although this long struggle is only foreshadowed).

The core of the novel is the struggle over two promises. Earth’s promise to the ‘Starmen and Eric’s promise to Katherine. Dick seems to think that one of these is illegitimate and the other is absolutely essential. The ‘Starmen acquired the help of the humans through some physiological manipulation and maintained their authority through brute power. They looked on humans as simple fodder for their war and were willing to use or break Earth law to get their way. In their view Molinari’s purpose was simply to stamp their policies on behalf of the humans, who are all but slaves. Dick argues that this type of relationship must be resisted. The promises made under these conditions are illegitimate. Eric’s embrace of the resistance against the invading ‘Starmen symbolizes Dicks support for opposition to authoritarian power and slavery.

Eric and Katherine’s relationship seems at first glance no less exploitive. Katherine makes more money than her husband but still overspend, depending on this salary. Katherine uses her sexuality to make her husband jealous. She uses drugs, breaks the law, and torments her husband at work. She is the typical PKD succubus. Yet, by the end of the novel, Katherine is completely dependent on Eric for basic survival. Eric resists an affair (again we see his insistence on serial monogamy) and almost kills himself. In the final, touching scene, Eric discusses his situation with an automotive cab. The cab (a robot) suggests he stay with his wife because “life is composed of reality configurations so constituted. To abandon her would be to say, I can’t endure reality as such. I have to have uniquely special easier conditions.”

However, we can ask, how is the relationship that different. Did Eric choose to be tormented by a psychological abusive woman, a wastrel for a wife? In the same way, Earth did not know they were entering in on the losing side of a war. Like Eric, they entered the abyss without all the information. Could not robot’s same logic apply to Earth? Yes, you want to switch side in this war now that the going is rough. By what right do you have to change reality to suit your needs? You should remain committed to your choices?

In truth, I am not satisfied that there is a huge difference here. But in the subtlety exists a thin but deep divided between these two situations. It is imprecise, but it makes all the difference. Eric’s commitment to his wife at the end has less to do with the vows he shared years before. Instead it is about the basic necessity of human solidarity. At the end, the cab does not call Eric a “good and loyal husband,” he calls him a “good man” for sacrificing himself for another person.