[A] much admired habit of mind should get its share of the blame [for the financial crisis]: the delusional optimism of mainstream, all-American, positive thinking.
[P]romoted by Oprah Winfrey… megachurch pastors and an endless flow of self-help best sellers, the idea is to firmly believe that you will get what you want… actually makes it happen. You will be able to pay that adjustable-rate mortgage or, at the other end of the transaction, turn thousands of bad mortgages into giga-profits if only you believe that you can.
Positive thinking is endemic to American culture -— from weight loss programs to cancer support groups -— and in the last two decades it has put down deep roots in the corporate world as well. Everyone knows that you won't get a job paying more than $15 an hour unless you're a "positive person," and no one becomes a chief executive by issuing warnings of possible disaster...
[B]usiness sections warn against "negativity" and advise the reader to be at all times upbeat, optimistic, brimming with confidence. It's a message companies relentlessly reinforced -- treating their white-collar employees to manic motivational speakers and revival-like motivational events, while sending the top guys off to exotic locales to get pumped by the likes of Tony Robbins and other success gurus. Those who failed to get with the program would be subjected to personal "coaching" or shown the door….
The once-sober finance industry was not immune…. [And w]ith the rise in executive compensation, bosses could have almost anything they wanted, just by expressing the desire. No one was psychologically prepared for hard times when they hit, because, according to the tenets of positive thinking, even to think of trouble is to bring it on….
When it comes to how we think, "negative" is not the only alternative to "positive." As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism —- seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. We ought to give it a try.
I would go even further and say that "positivity" is often a self-congratulatory gloss on a complacency tinged with outright cruelty, and enables a refusal to take any kind of responsibility for the consequences to others of one's actions.
To return by way of conclusion to the would-be thinkers I have regularly derided here as the Futurological Congress, I want to point out that "positive thinking" in the reckless heartless mode Ehrenreich nicely punctures in her piece seems to me to achieve something like its apotheosis in the go-getter fanaticism of superlative technocentricity, those curious pep rally sub(cult)ures of science-fiction and pop-futurist enthusiasm that cohere through a shared identification with the fantasized finale of technodevelopmental "transcension" into cyborg omni-predication, not to mention their no less shared sociopathic dis-identification with the diversity of actually existing human lifeways in the world they share and the stakeholder politics arising out of that diversity here and now. (Hence all the creepy libertopian and eugenicist politics that pop up so regularly among them to the embarrassment of the Robot Cult's marginally more PR savvy leadership cadre.)
It's interesting to note, for example, that Extropian Transhumanism's notorious (when anybody notices them at all) hell-yeah! brutalist assurance that its oddly Ayn Raelian "movement" (yes, they think of it as a "movement," poor things) would smash both death and taxes through sheer fanboy moxie has scarcely been dimmed by the apocalyptic dot.bomb that eviscerated the irrationally exuberant energy that birthed them in the 90s, nor by the serial catastrophes shepherded through to poisonous fruition by means of incessant free-marketeer handwaving by the Killer Clown Administration's mobster mouthpieces in nice suits, not to mention by the serial technodevelopmental disappointments on the immortality-pill, immersive virtual reality, thinking computers, nanobot cornucopia, shiny robot replacement bodies, colonizing the asteroid belt, and, hell, why not, flying car fronts. Still, they lecture "economic-illiterates" on the good sense of Milton Friedman (or his even more stridently anarcho-capitalist son) and Atlas Shrugged and The Bell Curve, or the like, and assure us that the Singularity is right around the corner, partying for Crypto-Anarchy like it's nineteen-ninety-nine.
If the current shit sandwich of neoliberal chickens coming to roost (Iraq Reconstruction, Katrina Reconstruction, Financial Meltdown) fails to puncture their shiny-eyed True Belief in market "spontaneous order" and supergeek-CEOs one suspects nothing ever will and that it might be kinder just to pat their heads and nod sweetly when they go on about "No Limits, Man!" and corral them away from sharp objects.
As usual, one is left thinking that the "anti-negativity types" who repudiate the very idea of limits are simply folks who want to party out of bounds and who feel sure there will always be other people around to clean up their messes for them.