Barbara Ehrenreich: Our Maniacal Optimism Is Ruining the World
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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.
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.
Anis Shivani: Is promoting optimism a mechanism of social control to keep the system in balance?
Barbara Ehrenreich: 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.
AS: So this picks up more in the early ’80s and even more so in the ’90s when globalization really took off?
BE: 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.
AS: Couldn’t this positive thinking be what corporate culture wants everyone to believe, but at the top, people are still totally rational?
BE: 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.