On Politics of Positivity
A collective delusion of positive thinking is warping American society. Americans (and the rest of us who have bought into the myth) have been sold a series of lies based on flimsy quantum-physics and a bizarre brand of New Age entrepreneurialism. This is Barbara Ehrenreich’s argument in Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. Barbara Ehrenreich is not unhappy. But she does have a problem with happiness, or at least what she sees as a relentless culture of positivity in US society. Her book stems from her experience of breast cancer, and her frustration with those who told her to ‘stay positive’ in the face of seeming disaster. Instead of frankness about the physical and psychological devastations breast cancer can wreak on women, Ehrenreich found herself affronted by a cult of positivity, marked by pink ribbons, teddy bears, and stories of cancer making life worth living. She writes that “in the most extreme characterisation, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a ‘gift’, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude”.
Ehrenreich did not only feel infantilised by the experience, she thought that it reflected a deeper problem in American society. She takes the culture of optimism in her cancer support network, and applies it to the wider collective delusion-spinning in the economy and politics. She traces the rise of the new management and the motivation industry in the corporate world, pointing out that these coincided with the mass layoffs and flexible hiring policies that marked the 1980s shift to neoliberalism. Ehrenreich argues that the current trend of positive thinking acts as an ideological gloss to the underlying material austerities of neoliberal capitalism. She states that the negative underbelly of positive thinking is to leave us all too responsible for our own lives and their attendant difficulties, obstacles and dire fuck-ups. Lost your job? Well, think positively, perhaps this is an opportunity for further personal growth. A chirpy life coach may tell you that positive thoughts will bring you a new journey of self-actualisation and a brighter future, neatly slapping you in the face with the implication that if it all goes wrong then you only have yourselves to blame.
Positivity and the cult of the individual
Much of Ehrenreich’s argument revolves around her opposition to a particular neoliberal conception of individuality and its attendant responsibilities. As she points out, the retrenchment of the state in neoliberal orthodoxy is anchored to a ruthless notion of personal responsibility. The state will no longer provide a full safety net, goes this line of thinking, because this amounts to nannying people, and giving them what they should be able to gain by themselves. The attendant critique sounds a familiar left-wing refrain, and one that I intuitively sympathise with. Neoliberalism is individualising and atomising, forcing social or political analysis too far towards agency and away from the structures (capitalism, patriarchy, neoliberalism) holding us all back, creating inequality, and forcing us into petty conflicts at the expense of changing the world for the better.
I agree that neoliberalism has a web of ideological window-dressing that encourages introspection, self-analysis and loathing before a deeper structural critique of the current system and its many injustices. The current trend of positivity identified by Ehrenreich can be placed alongside the cults of beautification and body fascism and the narcissistic tendencies of social media’s endless hall of mirrors inviting us to constantly hold ourselves up to the light of others’ judgements. These postmodern accoutrements of Western societies lead us to look inwards and be self-critical, leading to an epidemic of anxiety and depression. Instead, we should be looking for solidarity with others, seeking our neighbours’ views on collective solutions, and viewing sceptically the claims of huge institutions – corporate, public and governmental – to be looking out for our best interests.
However, on one level, Ehrenreich’s thesis seems to ignore the needs of marginalised people for psychological support. Does positivity represent the ideological sop to neoliberalism’s materialist juggernaut of deepening cuts, austerity and marketisation? Or does the trend towards positive thinking show up the desperation of the lonely and the lost struggling to come to terms with and understand a world that is often confusing, and at times callous and unkind? Perhaps the cult of positive thinking is a natural and valuable response of those who feel left behind by a world bereft of meaning after the loss of many of our traditional support systems: God, the family, hierarchies. In Ehrenreich’s rush to disparage positivity through pointing out its systemic function, she seems to be writing off the, yes, positive effects it may have on people’s day-to-day ability to come to terms with material difficulties and the wider crisis of meaning in our lives. It is not positive thinking per se that should be interrogated, but its relationship with ideology and with power. Perhaps there is something in the individual empowerment programme of positive thinking that can be wrested back from the corporate world and used to support a progressive politics.
Individualism and a politics of hope
Not only does the cult of positivity help managers sell corporate downsizing to their former employees, but Ehrenreich argues that it has prevented people in powerful institutions from pointing out imminent dangers. In summer 2001, she argues, “there was simply no ability or inclination to imagine the worst”. Similarly with the massive risks accrued in the financial industries in the before the 2007 financial crash. So dazzled were managers and leaders by a falsely rosy view of the future that they crushed dissenting voices. Perhaps overweening optimism led the CIA to miss the dangers in 2001. Perhaps it was pure incompetence. However, what we have seen since 9/11 is the hegemonic success of a politics of fear and hate, not optimism. This has been predicated on anxiety towards difference and an apocalyptic concern with the imminent disasters of the near future. The MI5 chief this week has warned the British public that the terrorist threat to the UK is the greatest it has been since 9/11. Coincidentally, in the same week, the government called for more powers of surveillance to monitor web behaviour and communications. Well, now we are governed and ‘secured’ by a logic not even just of pessimism but of a deranged fear of impending catastrophe. And its effect has been to impose an Orwellian nightmare on all of us, hitting the most vulnerable and marginalised the hardest.
Fear of the Muslim other stalks Europe, at the same time as hundreds of thousands of refugees traipse their way towards our cold continent. Apocalyptic and existential fears are routinely invoked in debates on immigration and welfare, the deficit, the European debt crisis, Islamic State, killer robots and drones, and cyber-warfare. Citizens are told that in the face of such terrible threats and risks, the government will protect us, through an ever-strengthening and ever-complicated network of security institutions. Scared of the refugee invasion? Never fear, the combined strength of Frontex, G4S and reinforced fences will save us. The reaction of the Conservative Party spin machine to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is illustrative here. A video instructed people to be terrified that anti-war campaigner and life-long socialist Corbyn was a ‘threat to national security’. The clip closed with images of Islamic State superimposed over Corbyn’s foreign and defence policies. Fear, intimidation and logical fallacies win out in British politics.
The individualising effects of positive thinking that Ehrenreich is so dismissive of should not be thrown out with the capitalist bathwater. Western publics are often thought of as passive consumers, mindlessly absorbing the soap opera of politics and the hysterical tabloid press. It is with ordinary individuals, however, that the opposition to this politics of hate and fear peddled by political elites can be located. Working together, ordinary people have given time, money and sometimes their homes to help refugees across Europe. While some elites want to build bigger walls, citizens have pointed out that refugees are people, and they are welcome here. In this way, individuals thinking positively and openly can make a difference even in the face of powerful interests. A politics of hope would point out that opening European borders for refugees might not cause social catastrophe.
Progressive politics requires us to hold onto this notion of individual agency in which we are empowered to change things, and we can in fact improve our lives, not just for ourselves, but also for everyone. What we need, however, is to oppose the atomising tendencies of corporate individualism, and commit ourselves to a collective politics that does not erase or ignore individual voices. A politics of positivity could reinforce the notion that through listening to each other and working together we can achieve great things. In this way, as long as we don’t succumb to the discourse of fear and division, and we join together in collective endeavours and listen to each other, individuals can be extraordinarily powerful.
Susannah O'Sullivan is a writer and contributor to the newspaper Manchester Mule.
Lizzie Dearden in The Independent (Sept 17, 2015): UK terror threat is at the highest level in 30 years and growing, MI5 chief warns. www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-terror-threat-is-at-the-highest-level-in-30-years-and-growing-mi5-chief-warns-10505008.html
Daniel Thomas, Robert Cookson & Helen Warrell in the Financial Times (Sept 16, 2015): May seeks backing for surveillance laws. www.ft.com/cms/s/0/aafd9ba2-5c80-11e5-9846-de406ccb37f2.html#axzz3oFdDT1iO
Stephen Castle in The New York Times (May 13, 205): David Cameron Seeks New Powers to Combat Extremism in Britain.www.nytimes.com/2015/05/14/world/europe/david-cameron-combat-muslim-extremism-britain.html
Alan Travis in The Guardian (Sept 26, 2015): A third of Britons have helped refugees in some way, poll finds. www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/24/a-third-of-britons-have-helped-refugees-in-some-way-poll-finds
Balazs Koranyi on Reuters.com (Sept 23, 2015): Orban mobilizes Hungary's troops, prisoners, jobless to fence out migrants. www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/23/us-europe-migrants-hungary-fence-insight-idUSKCN0RN0FW20150923