The Dark Side of the Bright Side

In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich traces the origins of contemporary optimism.

Anis Shivani

Journalist and author Barbara Ehrenreich. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

In her new book Bright-Sided: How the Relent­less Pro­mo­tion of Pos­i­tive Think­ing Has Under­mined Amer­i­ca (Metropolitan/​Holt, Octo­ber 2009), Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich traces the ori­gins of con­tem­po­rary opti­mism from nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry heal­ers to twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry push­ers of con­sumerism. She explores how that cul­ture of opti­mism pre­vents us from hold­ing to account both cor­po­rate heads and elect­ed officials.

If you want to have a compliant populace, what could be better than to say that everyone has to think positively and accept that anything that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault?

Man­u­fac­tured opti­mism has become a method to make the poor feel guilty for their pover­ty, the ill for their lack of health and the vic­tims of cor­po­rate lay­offs for their inabil­i­ty to find worth­while jobs. Megachurch­es preach the gospel of pros­per­i­ty,” exhort­ing poor peo­ple to visu­al­ize finan­cial suc­cess. Cor­po­ra­tions have aban­doned ratio­nal deci­sion-mak­ing in favor of charis­mat­ic leadership.

This mania for look­ing on the bright side has giv­en us the present finan­cial col­lapse; opti­mistic busi­ness lead­ers – assist­ed by rosy-eyed pol­i­cy­mak­ers – made very bad decisions.

In These Times recent­ly spoke with her about our pen­chant for fool­ish optimism.

Is pro­mot­ing opti­mism a mech­a­nism of social con­trol to keep the sys­tem in balance?

If you want to have a com­pli­ant pop­u­lace, what could be bet­ter than to say that every­one has to think pos­i­tive­ly and accept that any­thing that goes wrong in their lives is their own fault because they haven’t had a pos­i­tive enough atti­tude? How­ev­er, I don’t think that there is a cen­tral com­mit­tee that sits there say­ing, This is what we want to get peo­ple to believe.”

It took hold in the Unit­ed States because in the 80s and 90s it became a busi­ness. You could write a book like Who Moved My Cheese?, which is a clas­sic about accept­ing lay­offs with a pos­i­tive atti­tude. And then you could count on employ­ers to buy them up and dis­trib­ute them free to employees.

So this picks up more in the ear­ly 80s and even more so in the 90s when glob­al­iza­tion real­ly took off?

I was look­ing at the age of lay­offs, which begins in the 80s and accel­er­ates. How do you man­age a work­force when there is no job secu­ri­ty? When there is no reward for doing a good job? When you might be laid off and it might not have any­thing to do with per­for­mance? As that began to hap­pen, com­pa­nies began to hire moti­va­tion­al speak­ers to come in and speak to their people. 

Couldn’t this pos­i­tive think­ing be what cor­po­rate cul­ture wants every­one to believe, but at the top, peo­ple are still total­ly rational?

That is what I was assum­ing when I start­ed this research. I thought, It’s got to be ratio­nal at the top. Some­one has to keep an eye on the bot­tom line.” His­tor­i­cal­ly, the sci­ence of man­age­ment was that in a ratio­nal enter­prise, we have spread­sheets, we have deci­sion-trees and we base deci­sions on care­ful analysis.

But then all that was swept aside for a new notion of what man­age­ment is about. The word they use is lead­er­ship.” The CEO and the top peo­ple are not there so much to ana­lyze and plan but to inspire peo­ple. They claimed to have this uncan­ny abil­i­ty to sense oppor­tu­ni­ties. It was a shock, to find the extent to which cor­po­rate cul­ture has been infil­trat­ed not only by pos­i­tive think­ing, but by mys­ti­cism. The idea is that now things are mov­ing so fast in this era of glob­al­iza­tion, that there’s no time to think any­more. So you increas­ing­ly find CEOs gath­er­ing in sweat lodges or drum­ming cir­cles or going on vision quests” to get in touch with their inner-Genghis Khan or what­ev­er they were look­ing for.

The same things are hap­pen­ing in for­eign pol­i­cy. We’ve aban­doned a sense of real­ism. You had this with Bush and also with Oba­ma, although he is more real­is­tic. Is there a con­nec­tion between opti­mism and the growth of empire?

In the 80s, Rea­gan pro­mot­ed the idea that Amer­i­ca is spe­cial and that Amer­i­cans were God’s cho­sen peo­ple, des­tined to pros­per, much to the envy of every­body else in the world. Sim­i­lar­ly, Bush thought of him­self as the opti­mist-in-chief, as the cheer­leader – which had been his job once in col­lege. This is very sim­i­lar to how CEOs are com­ing to think of them­selves: as peo­ple whose job is to inspire oth­ers to work hard­er for less pay and no job security.

Would you say that Oba­ma is our cheerleader-in-chief?

I haven’t sort­ed it out. He talks a lot about hope. And as a cit­i­zen I’d rather not hear about hope,” I’d rather hear about plans.” Yet he does strike me as a ratio­nal per­son, who thinks through all pos­si­bil­i­ties and alternatives.

You write about the sci­ence of pos­i­tive think­ing hav­ing tak­en root at Ivy League uni­ver­si­ties. It’s amaz­ing to me that a course in hap­pi­ness at Har­vard would draw almost 900 students.

That was in 2006. And these cours­es have spread all over the coun­try – cours­es in pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy where you spend time writ­ing let­ters of grat­i­tude to peo­ple in your fam­i­ly, let­ters of for­give­ness (whether or not you send them doesn’t mat­ter), get­ting in touch with your hap­py feel­ings, and I don’t think that’s what high­er edu­ca­tion should be about. Peo­ple go to uni­ver­si­ties to learn crit­i­cal think­ing, and pos­i­tive think­ing is anti­thet­i­cal to crit­i­cal thinking.

You have writ­ten a lot about Calvin­ism. Is it cor­rect to say you have a deep prob­lem with Calvinism?

In explor­ing why Amer­i­ca became the birth­place of pos­i­tive think­ing, I come up with an expla­na­tion that is quite sym­pa­thet­ic to the ear­ly pos­i­tive thinkers. Pos­i­tive think­ing ini­tial­ly rep­re­sent­ed a revolt against the dom­i­nant Calvin­ist stream of Protes­tantism in Amer­i­ca in the late 18th and ear­ly 19th cen­turies. That kind of Calvin­ism was dri­ving peo­ple crazy, lit­er­al­ly. To think that you were a sin­ner, that your entire exis­tence for all eter­ni­ty would be one of tor­ment in hell. It caused depres­sion. It caused phys­i­cal ail­ments. It was a night­mare. So you got some peo­ple in the ear­ly- and mid- 19th cen­tu­ry that said, Wait a minute, things aren’t so bad.” Ralph Wal­do Emer­son would prob­a­bly be the best known example.

Couldn’t you go back far­ther to the Enlight­en­ment – the ulti­mate opti­mistic phi­los­o­phy? Our found­ing fathers were very informed by that. Is that a kind of opti­mism that you endorse? And ulti­mate­ly what’s dif­fer­ent between the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of opti­mism and the cur­rent opti­mism that you’re talk­ing about?

When the found­ing fathers under­took the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, they didn’t say, We are going to win because we are visu­al­iz­ing vic­to­ry.” They knew per­fect­ly well that they could lose and be hanged as trai­tors. It took exis­ten­tial courage to say: We are going to under­take this strug­gle with­out know­ing whether we will win, but we’re just going to damn well die trying.” 

So, where does this shift come from? 

The shift had a lot to do with down-siz­ing, when cor­po­ra­tions grabbed onto it as a means of sooth­ing their dis­grun­tled work­force. The alter­na­tive is real­ism. Let’s think about what’s actu­al­ly going on: let’s get all the data we can; see what our options are; and fig­ure out how to solve this prob­lem. It sounds so trite and sim­ple-mind­ed, but that’s not how the think­ing has been.

Is the pro­gres­sive move­ment infect­ed by bright-sidedness?

Pro­gres­sives are not immune to this. I remem­ber Mike Har­ring­ton [a founder of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca] as a pub­lic speak­er and he always, always end­ed on an upbeat note. No mat­ter what was going on, he would end by say­ing there was a huge open­ing for the left. Today, I don’t know if we can do it. But we have no choice but to try.

You mean we need to have opti­mism, but ground­ed in reality?

I don’t call it opti­mism. I call it deter­mi­na­tion. One of the things I’ve devot­ed so much time to has had to do with pover­ty, class and inequal­i­ty. Those things are not going to go away in my life­time, but it won’t be for my lack of try­ing. And that’s a dif­fer­ent kind of spir­it than optimism.

Some will say your approach is ratio­nal, incre­men­tal and just not excit­ing. How would you respond to that?

I don’t think mine is an arid, over­ly intel­lec­tu­al approach. Con­sid­er what we’re up against on the eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal front. Huge num­bers of peo­ple are not get­ting by. There are the eco­log­i­cal threats to the human species. Let’s do some­thing about it. What could be more irre­spon­si­ble than to say, If we just think it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright.” 

Anis Shiv­ani is writ­ing a book called Amer­i­can Fic­tion in Decline: Pub­lish­ing in an Age of Anx­i­ety. His book Ana­to­lia and Oth­er Sto­ries is being pub­lished by Black Lawrence Press in October.
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