Schwarzenegger the Constructivist

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

I almost passed over this Associated Press article when I noticed the words, “Then the world’s best known action star, [then-incoming Governor Arnold] Schwarzenegger conveyed an image of invincibility, persuading Californians that anything was possible if only they had the right mindset.”1.

In California, we know what happened to that:

“I know how to sell something,” he said then.

As he would come to learn, selling a political idea is one thing. Delivering on it is quite another.2

Though I was appalled by the way that Schwarzenegger came into office, I actually don’t blame him for failing to deliver on his promise to balance the state’s budget. Given the super-majority requirement to pass a budget or to pass tax increases, and the absolute unwillingness of a Republican minority dedicated to “strangling the beast,” to contemplate any tax increases in a budget that was already cut to the bone, the result was inevitable.

But what caught my eye was the notion that with “the right mindset,” that is, thinking the right thoughts, “anything was possible.” For me, this is the link between constructionism and Calvinism.

It is important to be clear about Calvinism so we can be clear about what it aimed for and how it got perverted over the centuries:

The Protestant affirmation of moral discipline and the holy dignity of one’s work in the world seems to have combined with a peculiarity in the Calvinist belief in predestination, whereby the striving (and anxious) Christian, deprived of the Catholic’s recourse to sacramental justification, could find signs of his being among the elect if he could successfully and unceasingly apply himself to disciplined work and his worldly calling. Material productivity was often the fruit of such effort, which, compounded by the Puritan demand for ascetic renunciation of selfish pleasure and frivolous spending, readily lent itself to the accumulation of capital. . . .

Within a few generations, the Protestant work ethic, along with a continued emergence of an assertive and mobile individualism, had played a major role in encouraging the growth of an economically flourishing middle class tied to the rise of capitalism.3

This is, originally anyway, about who goes to heaven. Catholics believed that if you obeyed the hierarchy, you’d go to heaven. For Protestants, it isn’t so clear because each person is a moral agent who has a direct connection available to God through the “unalterable Word of God in the Bible”4 Richard Tarnas, whom I’ve been quoting here, points out how Protestant Reformation elevated the physical realm to the sacred and mastery of that realm to sacred duty.5

So if, in this doctrine, you work hard and you do what the Bible says and you prosper, it is because you are predestined to go to heaven. We can understand “going to heaven” as a form of merit; the rest of this reduces to hard work, faith, obedience, and prosperity. And it just isn’t that hard to see how this gets mixed up and sometimes secularized over a period of centuries to the form we see among conservatives today, which I call neo-Calvinism, where hard work, sometimes faith, obedience, and merit lead to prosperity and the predestination part gets lost entirely.

And that gets simplified further, to the point where Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein claims to the Sunday Times that he is “just a banker ‘doing God’s work’.”6

But there’s more, because the promise of prosperity for everyone who fulfills these terms means that anyone who is not prosperous has failed either to work hard, or to think the right way, or to obey, or in that they lack merit. In other words, anyone who fails does not deserve to succeed and does not deserve the sympathy of the rest of society.

Examined in this light, the conservative value system makes little sense. It assumes unlimited resources on a finite planet—God will provide, as Christians might say—but even in 1840, Proudhon was pointing out that a system of property inherently disenfranchises those who come late.7 So the notion of resource exhaustion was possible even before the U.S. Industrial Revolution, and with it, an awareness that this system asserts a privilege for elders that doomed future generations.

But where I think Tarnas misapprehends is that it isn’t the physical world that gets elevated to the sacred but rather the social, political, and economic systems in which it is even possible to recognize prosperity. These are all social constructions to which constructivists assign undue weight in their understanding of reality.8 And by doing this—at the expense of the physical world—they neglect the environment, just like most conservatives.

To be fair, Schwarzenegger is a little more environmentally conscious than most of his Republican colleagues. He strongly advocated California’s climate change law and defended it against an oil industry initiative to suspend it until unemployment dropped to a rarely seen 5.5 percent.9

But Schwarzenegger’s simplistic notion that the right mindset is all that is needed to solve intractable problems sounds very much like the expectation to think the right thoughts, to believe and to obey, that neo-Calvinism considers essential to prosperity, that allows today’s conservatives to blame the poor. That simplistic notion is also in line with the constructivist understanding that we make our socially constructed realities. And while the latter may be true at the group level, at the individual level and for what Pauline Marie Rosenau referred to as an “obviously existing reality,”10 it just isn’t so.

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