Austrians Everywhere!

This post is by Carl Neville, author of Classless: Recent Essays on British Film and No More Heroes?: Steroids, Cocaine, Finance and Film in the 70s. He is writing Resolution Way for Repeater. — P.J.


Austrians Everywhere

In 1990 body-builder-turned-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, an ex Mr Olympia and probably the biggest box office star of the previous decade, gave an enthusiastic introduction to an updated edition of Milton Friedman’s highly influential 1980 TV series Free To Choose.

This what he said:

“Hi, I am Arnold Schwarzenegger. I would like a moment of your time because I wanted you to know something. I wanted you to know about Dr. Milton Friedman’s TV series, Free to Choose. I truly believe that the series has changed my life. When you have such a powerful experience as that, I think you shouldn’t keep it to yourself, I wanted to share it with you.

Being free to choose for me means being free to make your own decisions; free to live your own life; pursue your own goals; chase your own rainbow; without the government breathing down on your neck or standing on your shoes. For me that meant coming here to America. Because I came from a socialistic country in which the government controls the economy. It is a place where you can hear 18 year old kids already talking about their pension. But me, I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. Individualism like that is incompatible with socialism. So I felt I had to come to America. I had no money in my pocket, but here I had the freedom to get it. I have been able to parlay my big muscles into big business and a big movie career. Along the way I was able to save and invest and I watched America change and I noticed this, that the more the government interfered and intervened and inserted itself into the free market, the worse the country did. But when the government stepped back and let the free enterprise system do its work, then the better we did, the more robust our economy grew, the better I did, and the better my business grew, and the more I was able to hire and help others.

Okay. So there I was in Palm Springs, waiting for Maria to get ready so we could go out for a game of mixed doubles. I started flipping through the television dial and I caught a glimpse of Nobel Prize winner, Economist Dr. Milton Friedman. I recognized him from the studying of my own degree of economics in business, but I didn’t know I was watching Free to Choose, it knocked me out. Dr. Friedman expressed, validated and explained everything I ever thought or experienced or observed about the way the economy works. I guess I was really ready to hear it. He said, the economic race should not be arranged so that everyone ends at the finish line at the same time, but so that everyone starts at the starting line at the same time. Wow! I would like to write that one home to Austria. He said, that society that puts equality before freedom winds up with neither, but that society puts freedom before equality, we will end up with a great measure of both. Boy, if I would have come up with that one myself, I maybe wouldn’t have had to get into body building.

When I did beef up my body building, at business school, of course it started with what Thomas Jefferson believed and what Adam Smith thought, even what Milton Friedman had to say, I would be free to choose, it all came together. Their economic thought with my own personal experience, and in a way I felt that I had come home. I sought out Dr. Friedman and had great pleasure and privilege of meeting him and his economist wife, Rose, and we have all become friends, and now I call him Milton. Then I became a big pain in the neck about Free to Choose.

All my friends and acquaintances got the tapes and the books for Christmas after Christmas, all the way through the Reagan years when I was able to tell them all; you see, Milton is right. And I think it’s crucial that we all keep moving in the same direction, away from socialism and to its greater freedom and opportunity. That is why I am so excited that Milton Friedman is updating Free to Choose, bringing it into the 90’s by discussing how to deal with the drug disaster, the chabain phenomenon, and of course, the miserable failure of communism. By the way, there are plans now to translate Free to Choose into the languages of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. And you know, they really need it to guide them through it, to take the first walk toward freedom. But we need it too.

I commend to you the new television series Free to Choose and encourage you to walk into the 21st century in freedom, in opportunity and in success, with Dr. Milton Friedman.

Thanks for listening.”

Uncle Milt

In this introduction, Schwarzenegger’s borderline lunatic enthusiasm for Friedman shines through. Perhaps it’s the sheer relief of having escaped the hellish Gulag that is post-war Austria, still, due to the terrible depredations of Socialism, the country with the most even spread of wealth and the lowest crime rate in the world. What’s undoubtedly true is that a tiny country such as Austria would not prove conducive to an ego of world-historical proportions such as Schwarzenegger’s and that in many ways only the U.S.A. could fully allow his self-actualization. Schwarzenegger moved there, and possibly subsequently spent some time as an illegal immigrant, in 1968, immediately falling under the spell of the great thinker and statesman Richard Nixon during a televised Presidential debate and becoming a lifelong Republican.

It would perhaps seem contrived to try and link Schwarzenegger and Friedman’s lives too closely, after all the diminutive Jewish American professor and the hulking Austrian seem to have little in common, and to be an essentially comedic combination, somewhat along the lines of Schwarzenegger’s pairing with Danny De Vito in 1996’s Twins. Indeed it might be even more appropriate to conjure up the image of the good Doctor Friedmanstein throwing a switch and bringing Schwarzenegger juddering to life. If Milton is the visionary, Schwarzenegger is in many ways his vision of a New America made flesh, the living embodiment of the Neoliberal dream. Homo Neoliberalisimus!

Just a month before Schwarzenegger was born, in July 1946, Friedman attended the inaugural meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society under the auspices of F.A. Hayek, who would finally, after years of neglect, receive a Nobel prize for Economics in 1974. The Mont Pelerin Society was dedicated to combating the waves of Socialism, Communism and Keynesian economics about to engulf the globe over the next thirty or so years. In a sense Friedman is already working for Arnold even before his birth, dedicating his life to the promotion of the free market and that prosperous and free new America for which Arnold will become the oversized poster boy. Neoliberalism is not something that emerges out of necessity as a result of the manifest failings of the postwar settlement, it’s not a pragmatic response, the only possible reaction to the crisis of the Seventies, but is there at its inception, ideologically committed to its destruction from the start.

Both Friedman and Schwarzenegger share a heroic, rags-to-riches American immigrant-made-good narrative, which reinforces and re-iterates the sense that certain degrees of self-transcendence are only attainable within the unrestricted individualism of American life. Friedman was the child of uneducated Hungarians, whilst Arnold arrived in the US with nothing but the proverbial pocket full of dreams. Both also have an undeniable charisma, a twinkle in the eye, the common touch. Friedman’s avuncular charm is a huge part of what makes him such a good salesman for Neoliberalism. Opposed as one may be to his policies, Friedman is the kind of person it is almost impossible to dislike, a part of this is both his even-temperedness, his plain approachability, and the barely contained delight at the rightness of his own beliefs. Though it might sound odd to discuss a bald, borderline-midget sixty year old economist in such terms, Friedman is seductive, because history is on his side. So too is Schwarzenegger, for similar reasons.

In the documentary Total Rebuild, which revolves around Schwarzenegger’s return to the Mr Olympia competition after a five year absence from competitive body-building, just prior to his first starring role in John Milius’ Conan The Barbarian, the sense that Schwarzenegger will win purely through being who he is, that he is elect, is almost immediately evident despite Schwarzenegger’s own uncharacteristic humility. It’s hard not to sense something of the same momentum, the mandate of heaven settling on Friedman as he becomes the housewife’s favourite on the Phil Donahue Show.

For both Friedman and Schwarzenegger, the Seventies are the best of times, the worst of times. Friedman receives the Nobel prize for economics in ’76, just two years after his mentor Hayek is finally acknowledged and becomes the great, popular American Economist of the Seventies and Eighties, wresting the mantle from the patrician John Kenneth Galbraith who had made his own television series on the history of Capitalism upon the invitation of the BBC in 1976. Friedman’s Free to Choose was intended to rebut Galbraith’s pessimistic view of the socially divisive role of markets and his advocacy of strong governmental regulation in order to curb their worst excesses. Even a cursory viewing of the series that the two men made for television is revealing, Galbraith’s overview of Capitalism’s rise and wayward progress, The Age Of Uncertainty, from the oneiric credit sequence on is a stately and ironic affair, Galbraith a wry observer of History’s Folly. Friedman’s Free to Choose is a sprightly, optimistic call to arms: the enemy is of course Big Government.

Arnold is about to break out of the bodybuilding ghetto just as body building itself is about to shift from being a marginal concern to a multimillion pound industry, for which Schwarzenegger will largely be the figurehead. He is also about to appear in two movies, the documentary Pumping Iron and Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry.

Tomorrow belongs to them.