The 18th Brumaire of Arnold Schwarzenegger

One could laugh or cry about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political victory in California, but how can those who take Marxist dialectical analysis seriously look at an event at which much of the world has laughed - even though for Californians the 'Schwarzenegger administration' continues to be no laughing matter.

We might first ask where this Man with Barbells (a contemporary version of the 'Man on Horseback' comes from). First, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a man with dream, to make himself into a commodity and sell it on world markets. The son of an Austrian Nazi party member (a bona fide Nazi who joined the Nazis before Hitler annexed Austria) Arnold grew up in the 1950s in a neutral Austria governed by Social Democrats with an advanced welfare state. This welfare state, which would make life much better for the overwhelming majority of Californians today, he considered to be stifling socialism.

Against his father’s wishes Arnold became a weight-lifter and body builder (perhaps his father didn’t think there was much of a career for boys with Superman physiques after Hitler lost the war). Arnold’s exploits first reached an American audience in the fascinating documentary Pumping Iron (1976), which explored the competitive world of body builders. What set Arnold off from his fellow muscle men in Pumping Iron, in my opinion, was that he was shrewder and more manipulative than they were – able to package images and sell false impressions.

These skills and achievements led Arnold to Hollywood and to great riches as the star of both big budget escapist action adventure films (most importantly, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, with Wilt Chamberlain, and the three Terminator films) a number of science fiction epics (of which Total Recall, derived from Philip K. Dick’s novel, is perhaps the best) and slapstick comedies - Kindergarten Cop and as Danny Devito’s twin brother in Twins.

Arnold’s success and belief that he had fled socialism and found freedom when he left Austria led him to become active in Republican party campaigns and circles, where he hobnobbed with corporate leaders who could by him and sell him (no mean feat). In Hollywood, there were rumors from the 1990s on that he had state and/or national political ambitions, although not that many took him seriously. Privately, Arnold was often referred to in Hollywood as 'Conan the Republican.'

Like those who initially laughed at Ronald Reagan in 1966 ('remember, an actor shot Lincoln,' Democratic Governor Pat Brown quipped during the campaign), Arnold’s detractors had to eat their words, although as a candidate for governor, he was much more improbable than Reagan, who had long been politically active.

A materialist analysis rooted in Marxism can help us all understand how Schwarzenegger, with the active support of prominent ruling class figures, became governor of California and instituted a program of unprecedented borrowing to 'overcome' the fiscal crisis in the interests of the corporations and the wealthy.

In 2003, Californians were faced with an enormous deficit crisis created largely by Bush administration policies and by the multi-billion dollar Enron swindle. Electing any Republican, much less Schwarzenegger who was promising to do everything for business the way Calvin Coolidge said, 'The Business of America is Business' was literally an example of neurotic mass behavior, which capitalist politics regularly uses mass media to create.

Schwarzenegger is a perfect figure for neurotic mass politics. He is someone whom tens of millions of people have paid money to see films where he acts out violent juvenile fantasies as a Superman Barbarian or Superman Robot righteously slaughtering his enemies. They have also seen these films rerun endlessly on cable television, particularly in period of the recall election, where these reruns amounted to free advertising for Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger’s recall victory was essentially a plebiscite against Governor Gray Davis, who had little to do with California’s economic crisis, but whom no one would pay to see in an action adventure movie – a colorless organization man who pretty much was the way many people saw him. Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamente, a man of more progressive views and more appealing personality than Davis, was a Mexican American in a state where Anglo racism against people of Mexican background has been a major political force dating back to the US conquest of California during the Mexican-American War. The 132 other candidates, including a former comic child actor and a contemporary porn movie star, further trivialized the elections, acting as sideshows in an election which resembled a Disneyland size carnival.

But people did vote for Schwarzenegger in what was a large turnout, by US standards only, of the registered vote. How can Marxism help us understand that?

Karl Marx gave us a lot of insight into capitalist politics in turbulent times when he wrote The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, explaining how the ridiculous nephew of the great Napoleon won a plebiscite from French voters disillusioned with everyone; with the radicals who had sought to make a revolution in 1848; with the reactionaries who had terrorized them and denounced even the most moderate reforms as socialism; with both the old regime and the failed attempts at the new one.

Louis Napoleon pretended to be above politics, above right and left, which turned out to be very false as his made himself Emperor, established an anti-labor regime, and engaged in imperialist adventures which did great damage to France.

'Hegel,' Marx wrote, ' remarks somewhere that all great world-historic personages appear, so to speak, twice. But he forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce....Louis Blanc for Robespierre...the nephew for the make their own history but they do not make it as they please...the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living....And just when they seem preoccupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they conjure up spirits of the past...'

Ronald Reagan rose to power nationally as a Man on horseback on a fiscal crisis that capitalist corporations and their political servants, including former California governor Gerry Brown, who preached the doctrine of 'learning to do more with less,' while he masqueraded as a progressive on many issues, created. Reagan’s policies made conditions far worse as he forced the states to absorb draconian budget cuts and created spectacular federal deficits through tax cuts for the rich and unprecedented military spending increases.

Today the massive revival of Reaganomics by the Bush administration - spectacular increases in military spending, tax cuts for the corporations and the rich, federal deficits, and cutbacks to the states - has produced a fiscal crisis in a great many states that cannot be resolved under the present system without a radical reorganization of taxation in the United States. Schwarzenegger, the Man with Barbells, can only deepen that crisis and it is doubtful that his play acting will over time wear as well as Reagan’s or even Louis Napoleon’s, since he, unlike Bush, cannot start wars to distract citizens from their economic woes as governor of California, even though he has, unlike Reagan, worked with establishment California Democrats to combine social service cuts with massive new borrowing and has backed away from supporting the kind of right-wing social issues that Ronald Reagan developed in California in the 1960s and nationally in the 1980s.

While some 'moderate' political commentators have taken to calling Schwarzenegger a 'liberal Republican,' even suggesting that he may join the Democrats, one shouldn’t be confused about his consistent anti-labor positions and the enthusiastic support he has received from Warren Buffet and other prominent ruling class leaders, who see in his administration a chance to derail the influence of the California labor movement and progressive politics generally, which have grown significantly in the state in recent years (in the 1850s, for example, Louis Napoleon, to win sympathy for his Empire among workers, was reported to have said that he considered himself 'a socialist' at the same time that he was imprisoning labor leaders).

The Communist Manifesto, which Marx and Engels published during the revolutions of 1848, gives guidance about what to do in the struggle in California and political struggles generally. 'The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each the property question...they labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties...The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.'

A national system of public energy, the restoration of pre Reagan era progressive income and corporation taxes with the loopholes which previously existed closed, revenue redistribution similar to what exists in Canada and some other countries, which allow highly-developed states like California, who pay in federal taxes far more than they get back, to have much more money to fund social services without raising regressive state and local taxes, would constitute the immediate demands of the working class. All of these things have existed and do continue to a considerable extent to exist in other capitalist countries.

But as the experience of California, which once had the greatest free tuition public education system in the US, the advanced Kaiser-Permanente Health Care system which effectively covered millions, and other advanced policies and programs, has shown, these gains are also subject to 'recall' by capitalists and must be the center of intense struggle. Although our first priority is to build a broad united front in the 2004 elections to decisively defeat the Bush administration, the only possible long-term way to make basic human needs like employment, housing, health care and education, not the subject of an unending struggle, is to end capitalism as a system and replace it with socialism.

--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs.

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