Saturday, January 2, 2010

Barbara Ehrenreich - Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World (2009)

Place your hand on your heart and say…
‘I admire rich people!’
‘I bless rich people!’
‘I love rich people!’
‘And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!’

If you find this a chilling statement, you’re not alone. In her new work, Barbara Ehrenreich’s target is ‘positive thinking’ in the United States (although the situations she describes will be familiar, though in some cases somewhat less extreme, to those in other societies). In eviscerating this ideology she traces its inception from a rejection of Calvinist roots in the New Thought of the nineteenth century (here we might think particularly of Transcendentalism and Christian Science) – the first flower of American ‘alternative culture’ – simultaneously arguing that the Calvinist 'predestination' model in which failure is a demonstration of blameworthy unworthiness, and the psyche must be continually examined for signs of ‘sin’ (now under the guise of ‘negativity’) remains the basic form of this discourse. In the present day, positive thinking has become manifest in ‘self-help,’ motivational literature and speaking (both personal and economic), psychology, life coaching, and in relation to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Each of these are evaluated in turn – and, while Susan Sontag’s writing is more high-brow and more spare, the way in which she evaluated a particular ideology across a number of different spheres, pursuing ideas from one intellectual stratum to the next, is a good point of comparison for Ehrenreich’s work here.

Ehrenreich’s starting point is the application of ‘positive thinking’ to illness, and, particularly, cancer – her own experience with breast cancer leads her to question both an ideology which, while seeming helpful or at the least innocuous, in fact leads to the placing of a huge burden on the subject as well as a blame-the-victim mentality (on the part both of fellow subjects – in this case cancer-patients – and non-subjects, each in denial about their ultimate lack of power and control). She also takes this as a starting point to debunk the science of ‘positive thinking’ and demonstrate the way in which dodgy evidence has been spun into the present-day equivalent of unquestionable folk wisdom: ‘research demonstrates.’

But Ehrenreich is not content to leave the issue here. Her next target is the economic sphere, to the individualism of this discourse on the terms of which the poor may be blamed for their poverty (conveniently dovetailing with the Horatio Alger myth), in which circumstance and context are discounted as factors influencing outcomes, in which recklessness is encouraged (optimism can be dangerous, if it leads to underestimation of risk) and which means that, in the post-industrial age of downsizing and the super-CEO, the way to manage a mistreated, unmotivated workforce is not to improve their conditions, but to insist on ‘positivity’ as a necessary aspect of work, no matter how unjust the treatment dished out from above. Meanwhile, the spiritually-framed anti-intellectualism of this discourse (and here again the crossover with New Ageism is apparent) means that celebrity CEOs are encouraged to act, not think, with disastrous consequences for others – and a groupthink mentality is created in which the rule is to shoot the messenger, leading to unforeseen crises from the response of Iraqis to the invasion of their country, to the credit crisis. The capitalist, and, now, neo-liberal ideology of perpetual growth ties in neatly with the ‘positive’ maxim that one should never be satisfied with one’s present circumstances.

According to this hegemonic ideology, criticism of massive and growing economic inequality can be suppressed not externally but internally, as the individual comes to believe that such a view is damaging to their own success – and their optimism leads them to politically reject brakes on conspicuous wealth accumulation as they envisage themselves as the rich-in-waiting. In other words, positive thinking creates a false consciousness (though Ehrenreich doesn’t use the term) which demands the cheerful acceptance of economic subjugation, justifies inequality both for those who enact it and those who are subjected to it, and stymies any recognition of, and hence resistance to, this process.

Christianity, too – at least in some forms – is deeply implicated in this mess. The present-day mega-churches, founded on market principles of determining what the customer wants (not to be lectured about morality or punishment) have jettisoned Biblical theology in favour of a prosperity gospel which sees individual material rewards – right down to praying for a table to be free at a restaurant – as the inevitable outcome of a positive attitude. The connection between religion and commerce is clear here inasmuch as, on the one hand, mega-rich televangelists preach material success as the reward of faith, rather than any otherworldly salvation, while their churches provide ever-growing tithes – while worshippers are encouraged to reject plans for negative outcomes (plans such as saving), and to see gains which might otherwise be recognised as unwarranted or risky (such as loans on little credit) as the God-given result of their positive faith. Furthermore – and here Ehrenreich reveals an interesting divide within US Christianity on the part of those who oppose this popular style of religiosity - ‘God’ becomes a cipher figure whose role is to reward positivity, whereas the primary power to alter reality is put in the hands of the human individual – and although Ehrenreich doesn’t extrapolate this far, here we see a discourse in which the individual in fact becomes their own God, the centre of a universe which they materially alter to suit their own needs (The Secret is a particularly egregious example of this kind of thought, one which Ehrenreich rips into). The question of whether one’s own material success may necessarily be incompatible with another’s is one which does not arise.

Ehrenreich recognises that this discourse cuts across the political spectrum, but it would have been nice to see more connections drawn between positive thinking and the hippie beliefs of the 1960s and ‘70s, ideals which shaped many of the present generation of those in charge, even when they have rejected their political content. The belief in mentality as shaping reality, and in purposeful positivity and optimism as ends in themselves, seem deeply indebted to that era. Another cavil is that for all her debunking of the ‘science’ of positive thinking – junk new-ageism which is pushed by people including Martin Seligman as head of the American Psychological Association (and indeed research into ‘happiness’ and ‘positivity’ is demonstrated as perhaps the major growth area for the lucrative interface between psychologists and corporations, leading Ehrenreich to question as to the difference between a ‘life coach’ or ‘motivational speaker’ and a qualified psychologist) – Ehrenreich fails to address the question of how we actually define ‘happiness’ (or is it ‘success’?) and the concomitant question, vital for scientific empiricism, of whether we can regard experiments in which participants self-report their own ‘happiness’ as reliable, or whether holding ‘positive thinking’ as an ideology in itself means that subjects are unable or unwilling to admit to a lack of happiness, either to themselves or to others.

Throughout, Ehrenreich’s dry writing is a pleasure to read, and this book is one to be devoured over a day or two rather than one to plough through – but she also exercises a cutting insight and a finely honed intellect – more so, I think, than in her earlier works for which she’s best-known, Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Lack of positivity, she argues, need not mean pessimism and despair – rather, in the best Enlightenment tradition (and this is a work deeply premised on the exercise of reason in the ascertainment of empirical truth, a position with which I’m not always one hundred percent in sympathy, but which is absolutely appropriate as an heuristic here) she suggests that the best approach to life is a realism based on the gathering of knowledge and on critical thinking, one which recognises and plans for both best- and worst-case scenarios. Like her earlier works, Smile Or Die (released in the US as Bright-Sided) is both an expose in the finest American muckraking tradition, and a wake up call.

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