“Optimism is the Opiate of the People”

(from The Joke by Milan Kundera, quoted in Smile or Die by Barbara Ehrenreich)

I am not on the cutting edge of anything, which is why two important books that came out in the last year are suddenly on my mind now after a recent afternoon at The Strand: The Adventures of Unemployed Man by Erich Origen & Gan Golan and Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich. I first came across The Adventures of Unemployed Man in the August 2011 issue of The Clarion, the newsletter of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress. Ironically enough, I picked up the newspaper to occupy my mind as I waited to be interviewed for a job I desperately wanted and needed. As it turns out, I didn’t interview for a position that actually existed, but for a position that hypothetically could exist someday, should the funding somehow be appropriated and channeled in a particular direction. Ehrenreich’s critique of the positive thinking movement first appeared to me a few months ago in an RSA Animate video which distilled the thesis of her book into a 10-minute lecture/animation. I reposted it on Facebook, but didn’t give it much more thought until I passed Smile or Die (the UK-published title) while trying to overcome my bad mood by shopping for cheap books.

Both of these books resonated with me because (1) I tend to be a skeptical, if not critical, person, (2) the things that frustrate me personally (un/underemployment, the economy, etc.) are not unique experiences, and (3) I firmly believe that if I look at my situation as a personal failing of positivity, I am ignoring the wider context and opportunity for collective action to change the concrete realities that led to the current economic situation. I don’t see myself as negative. Negative people give up. When I found myself surrounded by thousands of hope-filled realists at the US Social Forum proclaiming that “Another World Is Possible” – a world that values humanity, the environment, and true democracy above profit – I hardly felt as if I was looking on the dark side of life.

Before Unemployed Man, “champion of all those who’ve lost their jobs,” found his calling, he was Ultimatum, “The Dark Night of Self-Help,” keeper of the American boot-strapper mythology. He fought for self-reliance, the primacy of working hard and playing by the rules, and above all else a POSITIVE ATTITUDE. With his armory of self-help books, Ultimatum represented the flip side of the cult of positive thinking – unemployment and downward mobility were the fault of the negative thinking individual, not the economy or any preexisting structural inequalities. Ehrenreich locates a similar trend toward personal responsibility in the positive thinking pep rallies of corporate America and the achievement narrative that pervades our culture:

…if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgement: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner”.

Sound familiar? I have been showered with well-meaning positive thinking advice since I graduated college in late 2007. My sister, a big fan of The Secret, showed me her “visioning board” filled with pictures of all the luxuries and adventures she hoped to achieve by just “putting [her] energy out there.” I even started this blog from a place of “positivity”, thinking I too could change reality with my thoughts (I just need to think more like an entrepreneur, to welcome wealth into my life through will!). The danger in all of this self-directed navel-gazing is that is alienates us from what is really going on. Thinking happy thoughts might be easier than trying to understand the economic crisis, but it does nothing to address it.

I don’t want to spoil these books for you in case you haven’t read them, but Ultimatum gets fired and meets up with other disenfranchised superheroes who band together to fight the Invisible Hand, while Ehrenreich digs into the self-help movement, elucidating the connections between positive psychology, “prosperity gospel”, and the economic crash of 2007. The bottom line is that depression and misanthropy are debilitating, but happy delusion is even worse. If we can use the righteous anger of our own experiences as fuel for the collective fire of resistance, we might just be able to change the world – together.

To that end I am endlessly plugging the Occupy Wall Street actions that are slated to begin on September 17th in NYC or any other actions that might be going on in your region. Do not fall victim to the positive thinking rhetoric that removes responsibility from the hands of the bankers and politicians that created this crisis and puts it on your shoulders. We are in this together and that at least is a little comforting.


Originally posted at recoveringhipster.blogspot.com.