On Optimism, Capitalism, and Passivity

Photo by Koushik Chowdavarapu

I have a particular grudge against certain buzzwords, outlooks and trends. Terms like “the power of positive thinking” and sayings like, “Smile more. It will make you feel good”, and “Good vibes only” set me off like nothing else. This is all the more arresting when you consider that the act of resenting admonitions to engage in performative happiness is itself a form of “negativity” (i.e. blasphemy). Yet it is unsatisfactory to explain my reluctance by claiming that it’s all bullshit (indeed, this will only lead to more concern-policing about my internalized “negativity”, I have found), but I rarely find the space in a conversation to expand upon the issue of why I dislike “optimism” so much without getting into a whole anti-capitalist exposition, to which an audience might respond with the dreaded, “You must be fun at parties”. Questioning a religion, worldview, or truism, however, requires one to make an elaborate case filled with potential holes in logic and missing or misinterpreted evidence. Reaffirming such accepted beliefs puts no such onus on a person.

Optimism as a modern religion has its roots in Anglo-American culture, in the great expansions of industries led by trailblazing entrepreneurs, of the pursuit of Manifest Destiny as white Americans spread across the Great Plains, as the outside world felt the beckoning of an “empty” and fertile land where no kings ruled and any rugged individual could tame the elements to become master of their domain (although this writer traces it back even farther, linking it to a general “bourgeois” trend of Western history). The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries formed the golden age of the American Dream, where the Statue of Liberty called out to the “poor and huddled masses” and moral-policing Christian sects spread like wildfire. Of the negative aspects of this period, only slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow are prominent in the popular imagination. The massive labour unrest, the police massacres of workers and anarchists, the horrors of child labour, the robber barons who made a killing off land stolen through genocide against indigenous peoples — this is largely forgotten in favour of promoting a select few “entrepreneurs” such as Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford as larger-than-life heroes of the American Dream. Never mind the unsavoury histories of these men — and the mainstream heroes of this period are largely men — the very fact of their success is affirmation of the self-helping American maverick ideal.

And speaking of self-help, I would be remiss if I did not touch on the $10 billion dollar industry surrounding it. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg story: which came first and gave birth to the other, self-help as we understand it or the industry itself? Perhaps it does not matter, but self-help would not be what it is today without the 1936 publication of self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie doled out some points of advice that we could all certainly stand to follow to: listen to other people and take a genuine interest in their points of view, and be willing to accept when we are wrong. There have been times in my life where I needed to learn a little humility and accept that I am not right about everything (or potentially anything), and it is doubly-difficult to learn humility when you grow up as a straight white male who doesn’t know the first thing about anyone else’s experiences. Yet Carnegie took things a step farther by commanding readers to never criticize, condemn, or complain, to constantly smile, to avoid arguments, and to never say “you’re wrong” to someone with an opposing viewpoint — in short, to do the sorts of things necessary to flatter others and win them to your agenda while maintaining the façade of an eternally cheerful, agreeable cog in the machine with no particularly strong viewpoints or willingness to question anything beyond superficial characteristics of their own behaviour. Carnegie wasn’t the first self-help guru, but arguably could be described as the granddaddy of an industry in which, allegedly, 80 percent of customers are repeat customers, as “supply increases the demand” of addicted readers for more tenets pronounced by the snake-oil salesmen of the self-help and actualization movement (SHAM).

It is no coincidence, either, that positive psychology only became a legitimate branch of psychology as an academic discipline when self-help author Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association. Positive psychology perhaps served as a course correction to the field’s focus on maladaptive behaviour and mental “illness” (full disclaimer: I have no academic background in psychology so I am unaware of what sort of paradigm wars have been waged within the discipline over the decades), and certainly the realm of happiness as it relates to wellbeing and resiliency is a topic worthy of research (second disclosure: I am currently employed in the social work sector, which increasingly draws upon research conducted on wellbeing and resiliency). Yet, interestingly, research into positive psychology has demonstrated a correlation of high positivity with positive illusion and distortion of reality.

Let’s unpack this admittedly surface-level review of the field from another perspective, a class-based analysis. Participating in North American society specifically — and increasingly, all capitalist societies that pride themselves on their “dynamism” — demands one to channel limitless amounts of “positive energy” and “good vibes”. We are a “can-do” culture where “attitude determines altitude”, where minimum wage, debt-crushed retail and restaurant workers provide “service with a smile”, where we look to role models in “self-motivated” contractors who happily devote their every waking hour to “going above and beyond” for their clients, and shy away from uncomfortable issues of poverty, racial oppression and homelessness because only “entitled whiners” ever complain. Or worse: deviating from the standard practice of optimism can lead to accusations of negativity, with the implication that such a disposition is as dangerous to the wellbeing of society as confessing atheism in the company of evangelicals.

Is there a place for pessimism in contemporary society, then? I would argue yes and no: the current socioeconomic system, which has been sold to us as fixed and irreplaceable, requires both unceasing optimism about one’s role as a worker and a careerist (e.g. “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps”) and pessimism about the likelihood or desirability of changing the status quo (e.g. “don’t rock the boat” and “that’s just the way things are”). Yet I would argue that this is the exact opposite of what is required to strive toward a more equitable and just society: pessimism about the viability and ethicality of the current system and optimism about the potential for progressive or even radical change. Thus, the restrained degree of pessimism that is tolerated in contemporary society can even lead to a nihilistic outlook on the part of those whose positivity repeatedly gets them nowhere in any meaningful fashion. On a more immediate note, there is some research to suggest that a culture of forced positivity has negative consequences for many of its participants, made all the more damaging by the reluctance of most individuals to actually discuss pessimistic views with friends, family and coworkers, and its toxic insistence that external circumstances have little to do with happiness (i.e. look to yourself if you are unhappy and forget about politics).

Thus, there is a case to be made that the religion of optimism breeds a certain kind of passivity, an unwillingness to challenge an unjust system. We can find analogues to this phenomenon in other societies as well — the most salient example is Japan, where overworked workers (most famously the “salarymen”, but it extends to everyone) negate thoughts of suicide and the potential shame of disappointing one’s social superiors by indulging in kawaii culture and maid cafes — in Japan, everything is bright, colourful, and in-your-face CUTE! Obviously, I’m painting with a broad brush here (probably not many would admit to going to a maid café), but for all that Japanese culture may strike Western observers for its distinctiveness, what I find most remarkable about its own expressions of optimism and happiness serve the same performative function as Western ones do: encouraging individual-focused conformity through socially-acceptable outlets. Outside observers of the Japanese political system have long noted the almost uninterrupted rule of the Liberal Democratic Party since 1955 and have associated it with the Japanese predilection for order and stability and apparent fear of change, yet is this any different from Americans, who oscillate between voting for what Noam Chomsky once called the two political wings of the same business party? And is it not more pernicious in North American society, where our particular strain of cheerfulness feeds our competitiveness with one another, where financial or career setbacks are attributed to some sort of failure of spirit, when instead we could be directing our energy to working with one another for the betterment of society as a whole?

For all that anti-communist propaganda has brainwashed us into thinking that anyone with a remotely leftist view is an entitled complainer who doesn’t understand the value of hard work, the great leftist thinkers and doers have all been self-motivated optimists in their own fashion. One needs only consider the spectrum and history of what we consider to be the “left”. By American standards (but not much so elsewhere), Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are radicals famed for their tireless energy and genuine enthusiasm. Chomsky (who, depending on who you ask, is either anti-establishment or mainstream left) believes wholeheartedly in the fundamentally decent and intelligent nature of human beings; indeed, he holds that most people tend to oppose the policies of the dominant American parties. Although not explicitly a left-wing or anti-capitalist example, Greta Thunberg has engendered a particularly strong reaction, positive and negative for being willing to call a spade a spade and by pursuing her mission with a drive and conviction that’s inspiring millions. Moving to historical thinkers, anarchists such as Rudolf Rocker and Pyotr Kropotkin focused on the capacity, and perhaps limitless potential, of ordinary humans to construct egalitarian, just societies of cooperation best suited to fulfill their needs.

And Karl Marx, of course, is the grand example of leftist optimism. What’s more telling is that it was his sweeping, scientific criticisms of the contradictions of capitalist society that fed his optimism in the inevitability of a better world constructed by the proletariat on the ashes of the old. Indeed, Marx sought “to find the new world through the criticism of the old”. While he did not know what form this new world might ultimately take, his willingness, and the willingness of countless others, to envision a different world and to refuse to acknowledge and submit to the permanency of the current world through performative passivity could better serve as a model for us all than the self-involved conformism peddled by the “good vibes only” paradigm.

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Anarchist fiction and non-fiction.

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writings on anarchism

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Anarchist fiction and non-fiction.

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