[Marxism] Down with positive thinking

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 2 09:51:52 MDT 2009

Sept/Oct/Nov 2009
Positively Delusional
John Summers

Positive thinking should never be the same after Barbara Ehrenreich’s 
Bright-Sided. But as Ehrenreich herself shows in a sketch of the 
movement’s history, its theorists, hucksters, and practitioners have 
thumbed their noses at reason ever since Mary Baker Eddy popularized New 
Thought with the mind-over-matter healing doctrine of Christian Science. 
Led by preacher Joel Osteen, motivational guru Tony Robbins, and 
academic psychologist Martin Seligman, among many others, the national 
cult of uplift abounding has lately generated subprime mortgages, 
megachurches, and a “pink-ribbon culture” that promotes a 
mind-cure-style approach to treating breast cancer: Maintaining a 
positive outlook, Ehrenreich learned firsthand, is supposed to boost the 
victim’s immune system.

Ehrenreich is a sharp and reliable student of the divided middle class, 
as good as the American left can boast. In attacking the thick 
irrationality of our public lives, Bright-Sided homes in on a 
particularly salient line of argument—that positive thinking is not only 
preposterous but pernicious: “The effort of positive ‘thought control,’ 
which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a 
potentially deadly weight—obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital 
information. Sometimes we need to heed our fears and negative thoughts, 
and at all times we need to be alert to the world outside ourselves, 
even when that includes absorbing bad news and entertaining the views of 
‘negative’ people. As we should have learned by now, it is dangerous not 
to.” Positive thinking, the stepchild of Emersonian self-reliance, “has 
undermined America.”

The thesis contains a paradox. Why should a movement committed in 
advance to the notion that prosperity is largely a matter of 
self-confidence flourish in times of institutional failure? Doesn’t 
preaching a doctrine of attitude adjustment insult one’s intelligence in 
a contracting labor market? In fact, Americans have always been great 
dreamers. The 1930s, the heyday of success manuals, made best-selling 
authors of idiots savants like Dale Carnegie, Walter Pitkin, Dorothea 
Brande, Napoleon Hill, and other fools for good news and easy money. Let 
Your Mind Alone!, cried James Thurber, in a 1937 collection of salvos 
aimed at these writers’ contempt for social ethics. Then Norman Vincent 
Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, and all was lost.

The briskness and lucidity of the prose Ehrenreich deploys in reviving 
the struggle for national sobriety might make it easy to miss her 
erudition. Bright-Sided draws from a genre of radical social thought 
that tries to understand the eclipse of the Protestant ethic and the 
pursuit of wealth divested of morality. Ehrenreich nods to Donald 
Meyer’s The Positive Thinkers (1965), still the best study of the 
subject. But her argument also summons a number of other classic 
examinations of the dubiously rational American character, such as the 
portrait of “cheerful robots” climbing the corporate ladder in C. Wright 
Mills’s White Collar (1951).

Ehrenreich shows how rationality has lost out in corporate management 
since Mills’s day—but like him, she explains the ongoing appeal of 
positive thinking as a consequence of alienation. Positive thinking, she 
argues in fine left-wing fashion, is an ideology that sustains economic 
inequality by isolating individuals from brute facts. For all its 
nostrums, it has not made Americans any happier. Behind that tight smile 
lies the despair of helplessness. Her antidote remains much the same as 
the cure prescribed in the 1950s: “anxious vigilance,” “a certain level 
of negativity and suspicion,” and “a relentless commitment to hard-nosed 

These admonitions are not likely to enlist already committed positive 
thinkers, and Ehrenreich acknowledges the intrinsic difficulty of 
reaching them: “It remains the responsibility of each individual to sift 
through the received wisdom . . . and decide what’s worth holding on to. 
This can require the courage of a Galileo, the iconoclasm of a Darwin or 
Freud, the diligence of a homicide detective.” Certainly, given all that 
is required, rationalists would do well to cultivate an empirically 
grounded belief in the actual efficacy of “critical thinking.” Yet 
Bright-Sided says nothing about politics. The hard form of positive 
thinking is junk science, to be sure. The soft form, though, may offer 
Americans a chance to participate vicariously in the national sport of 

Looking plainly at the environmental sources of breast cancer or the 
scourge of global warming—“to always keep in view the specter of 
injustice,”as Ehrenreich advises—is to raise the possibility that there 
is nothing to be done by the powerless many, and much that will never be 
done by the powerful few. To embrace critical thinking under the 
illusion that it will make you happier is only to prepare for 
disappointment. The positive-thinking movement appears to be held 
together by deluded, isolated servants of the status quo. Meanwhile, the 
status quo’s permanent opposition on the left knows its own 
psychopathologies as resentment, anger, and moral vanity. Critical 
thinking, no less than the positive kind, can hurt your brain.

John Summers is the author of Every Fury on Earth (The Davies Group, 2008).

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