Smile, capitalism wants your soul

Issue 

Smile or Die, How Positive Thinking Fooled America & the World
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Granta Books, 2009
235 pages., $29.99

In 1963, campaigning US Communist writer Jessica Mitford wrote a searing investigation of the US funeral industry, The American Way of Death, which sparked the hilarious book (and film) The Loved One.

What Mitford did for the exploiters of US cadavers Barbara Ehrenreich does for those who peddle positive thinking for profit. Any decent satirical writer could use this material to withering effect.

Ehrenreich came face to face with the tyranny of positive thinking during a bout of breast cancer. In the changing room where she prepared for a mammogram she was confronted by a sea of pink, fluffy sentimentality that introduced her to what she calls "Cancerland", a place where it is considered bad taste to feel or express anger about the disease.

Breast cancer sufferers' websites and supportive books avoid asking questions about why breast cancer prevalence is growing. "Cancer gives my life meaning" is the message.

A whole language has been constructed in which "patient" and "victim" have disappeared. People in treatment are "battling" or "fighting" and for those who die of cancer there is no term, they are said to have "lost their battle."

All of this is surrounded by a sea of pink teddy bear merchandising and a drum beat of "positive attitude". The injunction to believe that thinking positive thoughts will help cure cancer — for which there is no scientific proof — is so pervasive that patients approaching death feel guilt-ridden that they failed to root out those pesky, fearful emotions.

The guilt-tripping of breast cancer sufferers is just one small aspect of the huge positive thinking industry that Ehrenreich decided to investigate. She traces its history from 19th century revolts against Calvinist doom-laden theology, through to today's corporate board rooms and "coaches" helping workers cope with downsizing.

It also took her into the heart of fundamentalist mega-churches, preaching "prosperity gospel". These citadels of cynicism, presided over by crass preachers dripping with expensive consumer bling, approach Christianity in the manner of a marketing campaign.

They survey communities to find what aspects of Christianity people prefer and tailor everything to that format. Entertainment is the product.
So, out go the hard pews and in come comfortable theatre seats. Uplifting sermons promising easy money are interspersed with driving music. Crucifixes are relegated to the gift store through which you exit.

Parishioners are now "seekers" and church premises are a performing arts centre crossed with a corporate headquarters. The intention, Ehrenreich says, is to allow the "seeker" to feel that they have "not stumbled into a spiritual dimension different from that occupied by the standard bank or office building".

More important are the social support services these churches incorporate, like child care and job seeking. "The kind of services that might, in more generous nations, be provided by the secular welfare state", notes Ehrenreich.

And what do "seekers" hear? During the rise of the US sub-prime loan market poor "seekers" were told that those easy home loans were a gift from God, not a rope around their necks.

One preacher counsels "seekers" that employers prefer "excited" employees. And to those who don't get paid enough to feel excited he says: "You won't be blessed, with that kind of attitude."

Similar bunkum is promoted by the American Psychological Association under the guise of "positive psychology", which examines things like optimism, happiness, fulfilment and "flow" — funded by a flow of money from far-right US foundations.

What is truly weird, however, is that Ehrenreich shows the belief that manipulating your thoughts to allow the "universal law of attraction" to "manifest" material plenty in your life pervades US corporations to the highest levels.

"Divinely inspired [American CEOs] pumped up by paid motivators [have] abandoned the dreary rationality of professional management for the emotional thrills of mysticism, charisma, and sudden intuitions", she writes.

Lehman Brothers, now a by-word in corporate stupidity, was headed by "Mr Instinct" Joe Gregory, who believed in playing his hunches even when all rational evidence advised the opposite.

That worked in a bubble economy, and any nay-sayers, those who pointed out reality, were sacked — because positive thinking requires getting rid of negative influences!

Ehrenreich interviewed Eric Dezenhall, a Washington "crisis manager", someone called in by corporations when things go completely wrong. He told her that belief in the "law of attraction" is "viral" in US corporations. "They believe this stuff," he said. "Corporations can be ruthless about making money, but when it comes to being realistic…"

Ehrenreich has highlighted a vitally important aspect of 21st century capitalism: its absolute irrationality.

So, what is the real source of human happiness? Ehrenreich believes that the world's problems "can be vanquished only be shaking off self-absorption and taking action". Even if success is uncertain, "we can have a good time trying."

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