No one writes about the American culture like Barbara Ehrenreich. At the same time, Ehrenreich never lets anyone forgets that there is a socially stratified reality out there and that cultural trends are often ideological scaffolding supporting unequal and precarious systemic conditions for most of us. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is no exception.
In this book, Ehrenreich takes on the “positive thinking” industry, tracing its roots back as a reaction to the fire-and-brimstone Calvinism of 18th-19th century America and following the movement all the way to the corporate culture of magical thinking that got us where we are today, through the monumental success of garbage like The Secret, positive preaching of the likes of Joel Osteen and positive psychology.
As usual, Eherenreich’s style is a combination of sarcasm and bafflement as to how supposedly smart people can believe such nonsense along with constant reminders that this stuff is all well and good but there is a harsh reality out there that needs to be addressed, no matter how positive one’s outlook is, to the point of self-delusion.
Ehrenreich also relates her own experience with positive thinking when she got cancer dove into the world of support group along with, and there lies the problem, the whole “mind over matter” mentality underlying positive thinking: if you wish something strongly enough and positively enough, it will happen. Similarly, you can “beat” the cancer through positive thinking. And above all, cancer patients are enjoined to not see themselves as “victims”. Getting cancer is reformulated as an opportunity to reexamine one’s life.
Wait, where have we heard that before? Well, in a lot of corporate motivation stuff. Remember “who moved my cheese?” That is part of the same movement. You were laid off? Hey, that may be the best thing that ever happened to you because now, you can go look for new sources of “cheese”! Don’t waste time blaming your boss or the economy. Losers, whiners and pessimists with a victim’s complex do that. Positive thinkers create their own opportunities through a change in their attitudes!
All this is part of the individualizing trend that Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman discussed in the context of neoliberalism and globalization. No more salvation by society, Peter Drucker told us. It is every individual for hirself, with one’s own set of skills (to be managed like assets and periodically updated) AND the right attitude. But the bottom line is that every person is on their own, with their own cancer or medical condition or their own broken career and precarized future. All the positive thinking industry is dedicated to make people accept that without protesting against the structural conditions that promote such insecurities and risks (in Beck’s sense).
So, for all the support groups, online communities of cancer survivors (not patients or victims!), cancer becomes a private experience, a private battle:
“I’m not so sure, but without question there is a problem when positive thinking ‘fails’ and the cancer spreads or eludes treatment. Then the patient can only blame herself: she is not positive enough; possibly it was her negative attitude that brought on the disease in the first place. At this point, the exhortation to think positively is ‘an additional burden to an already devastated patient,’ as oncology nurse Cynthia Rittenberg has written.” (42)
After all, positive thinking can never fail, rather people fail at positive thinking.
Nothing better illustrates positive thinking as magical thinking than the best-selling, Oprah-certified piece of garbage that is The Secret. I cannot express how much I loathe the whole The Secret Thing. It is an insult to all people in the world in situation of misery, poverty, war, genocide or deprivation more generally. It is a childish justification for selfish greed and lack of concern for social issues. It is also a form of individualization of social conditions.
All this might feel like harmless “feel good” new agey nonsense but the injunction to cut oneself off from “negative people” (that is, anyone with a realistic grasp of the world) has normative implications that can be pretty nasty, from being ostracized to being laid off. This reminded me of my college where mediocre administrators make stupid decision with predictable negative consequences that we, faculty, are expected to fix. And when we mention they got us into this mess because they didn’t do the analysis or we did it for them but they ignored it, the response is always “well, are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?” or various injunctions to let go of the past and be future-oriented (because heaven forbid that we might learn from our mistakes). Actually, academia has become heavy on the administrative side imbued with the positive thinking corporate-think.
But what’s with the all the mystic stuff? According Ehrenreich,
“What attracts the coaching profession to these mystical powers? Well, there’s not much else for them to impart to their coachees. ‘Career coaches’ may teach their clients how to write resumés and deliver the self-advertisements known as ‘elevator speeches,’ but they don’t have anything else by way of concrete skills to offer.” (63)
Well yeah, because, again, once you take out the social context and some generic encouragement to go back to school for some skill upgrading (gotta keep the “me” brand up to snuff), there is nothing else, really.And the same goes for positive psychology (I confess that, as a sociologist, I always get a tingle of schadenfreude when psychology gets knocked around a bit as Ehrenreich does… but then, Ehrenreich is a frequent guest / keynote speaker at ASA meetings, and a very popular one too).
There is a nastier side to this though. The “be positive” mantra, in the context of the “lean and mean” global economy, means not just that people have to what Hochschild long ago called emotional work as part of the service economy. No, being positive is more about working harder for less in a forcibly cheerful manner for fear that the slightest hint of “negativity” (sin of sin in the positive thinking movement) might put one as number 1 on the list of next layoffs. So, the obligatory constant self-monitoring is no longer for any trace of sin (as the old Calvinist religion had it) but relentless persistent self-examination for any trace of pessimism.
“The work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likeable to employers, clients, co-workers, and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure of the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults.” (96)
In other words, employers can now bombard their employees with “motivational” literature and DVDs as a sort of emotional blackmail and social control in the workplace. Out with the old-fashioned clock watching, in with the “right attitude” as mode of Foucauldian discipline. And so, all of a sudden workplace walls are now filled with stupid motivational posters with their stupid clichéd pronouncements.
And of course, in the United States, there is no amount of nonsense that can’t be made more nonsensical by mixing it with dumb religion, hence the success of Osteens and others of their ilk. In this “theology”, one finds the usual “be positive, you’re not a victim” tripe along with “God wants you to be rich” or “God got you laid off so you would embrace all these wonderful opportunities (that have not materialized yet but don whine about that)”. Of course, this makes the pastorpreneurs very very wealthy.
Ehrenreich ends her exploration of the positive thinking movement by showing how it has influenced the corporate world: the housing bubble was never going to burst. House prices were always going to go up forever. The market would continue to grow and self-correct (remember Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God?). Ehrenreich shows how much the overlords of the corporate world, detached from reality as their wealth, lifestyle and power makes them ended up believing the mantras of positive thinking and “laws of attraction”. Heck, such magical beliefs were also held by Alan Greenspan.
Ultimately though, whether it is positive thinking, Christian science, positive psychology or whatever other new age, religious drivel du jour, this all boils down to ideological constructs that blame the victims of structural conditions that block their opportunities, and justify gross social inequalities.
“This victim-blaming approach meshed neatly with the prevailing economic conservatism of the last two decades. Welfare recipients were pushed out into the low-wage jobs, supposedly, in part to boost their self-esteem; laid-off and soon-to-be laid-off workers were subjected to motivational speakers and exercises. But the economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed. When and if the economy recovers we can never allow ourselves to forget how widespread our vulnerability is, how easy it is to spiral down towards destitution.” (206)
That’s nice but Ehrenreich forgets one thing- and that is the one GLARING omission of her book – Americans elected for President the ultimate motivation speaker, positive thinkers and religious charismatic. Not a system-changer, as we clearly know now (even though the signs were there before the election). The Hope-and-change theme made a lot of people feel good about themselves, about their ability to happily vote for a black man (“we nominated the black guy” exclaimed Chris Bowers after the Democratic nomination).
A lot of people patted themselves on the back for the positive feeling of being so enlightened and of participating in a collective experiment in positive thinking in action, without affecting the system one damn bit. Obama sold himself as a brand, very successfully. A lot of people embraced Obama, proudly proclaiming they contributed to changing the world (not the universe, mind you but close enough). And one can find in his speeches all the themes of positive thinking that Ehrenreich describes in her book. And yet, somehow, she missed that part.