Five Minutes With
Barbara Ehrenreich has a history of exploring subjects that rarely get a fair hearing in mainstream political dialogues. Her lifelong commitment to activism and journalism stems from her commitment to social justice. Her work has also inspired contentious debates over poverty and populism.
The neglected topic of class is the centerpiece of her most well-known book, Nickel and Dimed (2001), an exposé of low-income life at the turn of the century.
Inklings of Ehrenreich’s latest book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, are seen in Bait and Switch, a 2005 text where the author went undercover and discovered various corporate gurus dedicated to teaching a philosophy of über optimism to employees. In her most recent book, she expands upon the theme, extending her analysis to the financial meltdown and beyond.
Campus Progress talked with Ehrenreich about the implications of Bright-sided and the historical context behind the obsession with looking on the bright side of life.
Let’s start with your new book. In some ways, the argument in Bright-sided sounds like the old leftist notion of religion as a force to keep working people in their place. You seem to be saying that this relentless effort to look at things positively keeps us from seeing what is wrong in the world, and inhibits us from trying to fix it.
It does function like a religion. It’s not a fad though. It goes back to about the middle of the 19th century. But I certainly do see it as something that can suppress dissent or social movements. It’s the idea that anyone who complains is ‘just a whiner,” a negative person you don’t want to be around….The core idea [historically] was that you could control the world with your mind. You certainly see that with Mary Baker Eddy [the founder of Christian Science]. She did not believe there was an empirical world. Everything is mind, so if anything is going wrong it’s because you aren’t thinking right.
That reminds me of what impoverished and unemployed people have been told since the 19th century: If you are poor it isn’t a result of complex structural and economic forces. It must be your own fault.
By the 20th century, with the rise of scientific medicine, positive thinking, originally [championed for its medicinal qualities], was no longer used as a healing technique. Instead, increasingly, the prosthelytizers talk about wealth, prosperity and success.
One of the other things that struck me is how difficult it would be to reverse this ideological narrative. There isn’t an institutional focus; you can’t storm the Winter Palace of positive thought.
It’s a business really: it’s motivational speakers bought by corporations to whip up enthusiasm, books DVDs, and inspirational posters. There is a whole industry for marketing this stuff.
That is all pretty diffuse. What can be done to counteract this ideology?
All I can think to do is to discredit it. It’s an interesting contrast. The Soviet Union was a bastion of positive thought. I never knew that. I always thought of it as not a very cheerful place. But you had to be optimistic and anyone who wasn’t was a defeatist, and that could mean serious trouble. That could mean a labor camp. But the source of it was clearly the state, through the schools and so on. Here it is much more diffuse because it is a business, although if you are a corporate employee you probably don’t have an alternative.
What really made it take off as a business was the 1980s. We entered the age of downsizing in the corporate world. Corporations began to heavily utilize all these speakers and products to get people to accept their new disposability, so laid off people would get sent to the outplacement firm and pumped up with “it’s all in you,” “it’s your attitude,” “this is really an opportunity.” And the survivors would have to work twice as hard, so you’d bring in the motivational speakers all the time to pump them up too.
A recent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle on Bright-sided stated that you consider yourself a “realist”, but you have also called yourself a “socialist,” part of a belief system that most mainstream American political figures would deride as hopelessly utopian. How do you reconcile the two?
I would say that the magical thinking has been on the other side. Market fundamentalism is a sort of positive thinking carried to an extreme. “We don’t have to do anything about inequalities and injustices because it will all work out.” What Bill [Fletcher Jr.] and I were saying [in their Nation forum on socialism] is that you can’t even pretend anymore that it is working like that. It is time to start thinking about how we can take our destiny into our own hands.
You both said at the forum that we [the left] have to wake-up and find alternatives to the way we’ve been running the country. But it seems that the only widespread movement to emerge from the crisis has been on the right.
Oh God, I know.
Why has the right been able to capitalize on this moment in a way the left hasn’t?
My analysis is rather simple. You have the combination of the worst economic times since the Great Depression and the first black president. I did a lot of research for an article on the so-called 9/12-ers, and there is a lot of anxiety. I think the element of race here is overwhelming. I wrote a series of articles over the summer about the recession’s impact on the poor and I thought my culminating one would be about the resistance. And then when the resistance turned out to be the right wingers, well, it was kind of heartbreaking.
Jake Blumgart is a staff writer for Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter.
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