negative affirmations: on the critique of positive thinking.

The Prophet Oprah

Using a recent article critical of positive thinking this short and ranty response looks at a general trends in left discourse to make this critique while concealing its own operation as a form of positive thinking. Originally written on the day the article, '"Positive Attitude" Bullshit' went live.

Submitted by sometimes explode on July 12, 2015

It's fucking depressing shit like this even needs said. The "positive thinking", positive psychology (cf. Martin Seligman), stuff is obviously all terrible, stupid and harmful. That said though, the idea that one can simply take up an oppositional stance and think that resistance itself is somehow going to make your shit life less shit (sorry, it'll probably make it worse a lot of the time) is also vapid and terrible advice.

What's missing in the critiques of self-help and the presence of gurus is the *need* that is being expressed by people who reproduce the self-help industry and the gurus.

Our gurus, like our Fuhrers, belong to us: we propel them to the positions that they are in. They lie and distort and hook-wink? Yes, obviously, but why is that even possible? Because we want the answers they give, or at least we want a version of those answers.

The article also features some worrying super-egoic injunctions that are fairly typical of the contemporary left. For instance: "No amount of “positive thinking” can fill the bellies of the 280,000 children living in poverty in this country". Oh right, thanks for that reminder of all that suffering and my impotence to actually fill those bellies and for putting the responsibility of filling those bellies squarely on my shoulders- now I feel so much better about things I don't need to reach for the self-help book at all.

This current wave of leftism seems to be getting weirdly... idiotic. I don't mean the people writing or acting are idiots, far from it, but that there is some kind of idiocy going on when you miss the point of the need for self-help and for gurus.

A commenter talks about the 'commodification of spirituality' and gets somewhere nearer to the mark, and in doing so leaves the terrain of the article behind. In our generalised depressive, anxious, post-traumatic psychoaffective condition the idea that things can be reduced to 'adapt or disrupt' is immensely unhelpful. Hey you! Suffering a depression? Taking panic attacks? Fuck you join a union! That is not how this shit works.

Of course that's the message of so many cognitive psychological therapies and motivational interviewing and solution focussed therapy and positive psychology and their pop-version "positive thinking" (btw, you'll see "the power of negative thinking" just as much these days). But to assume that people receive the message and absorb it without any critical interaction and without the strategic re-purposings and re-deployments is to rely on a very much outmoded model of how people interact with the media environment.
I'm not suggesting that toxic media signals need to be disrupted or interfered with, or that somewhere in our unconscious these things wear away at us and insinuate themselves, but to suppose that people don't already question these messages is to suppose they are utterly passive.

The weirdest thing is the author acknowledges all this:

You simply have to manifest what you want. Drink a couple of litres of soda pop, add diamantes to your manicure, wear a fake moustache all day long (as Gala really has suggested as a remedy for the blues), put on a nice pink dress and smile a bit more then BOOM! That suicidal depression over the stresses of life such as being unable to buy food because you are on minimum wage, working depressing precarious jobs, and/or the debilitating anxiety over whether your welfare will be cut this week will suddenly melt away.

It's not that the snark in this isn't well deserved, and it isn't that I disagree with it, but I feel like those who agree will agree and those who don't won't. That is, those people who feel the need to follow the radical self-love are looking for something that may not be readily supplied by the left. These movements can't be written off because some of the people drawn in are middle class. In other places these are the kind of people who are snapped up by groups like ISIS or neo-nazi cults or other religious reactionaries.

The problem here isn't just oppression and it isn't just alienation. It is anomie. A normless life. The nihilism of neoliberalism and of the age of catastrophe (the sixth extinction; impending climate crises; precarity and austerity; depression and anxiety; a generalised post-traumatic condition). Whether or not it (or they) ultimately exist, people want meaning. They want happiness. They want to feel like they can get up in the morning tomorrow without the hollow pit in their stomach or the tight ball in their chest or the heavy weight of having to achieve one more pointless day... or, if they're lucky, they get buy happily with only a few flashes of the irrelevance of existence disturbing their enjoyment.

In that sense the message that disruption and mutiny can be used to overcome that suicidal depression is a good message. If ISIS can say "jihad is the cure for depression" then why aren't leftists and anarchists saying the same thing? Probably because we can't. In the end there is a million light years from disruption and mutiny to jihad (spiritual warfare).

This isn't a call to reproduce the mantras of self-help. Anyone acquainted with me on social media will know that I am close to pessimism, depressive realism, and nihilism. In fact the problem is that too much of the time leftists and anarchists reproduce the self-help and positivity mantras with the reality of struggle and the promise of revolution and postcapitalism standing in for self-actualisation or happiness.

Closer to the mark is a new post-SWP left formation that has declared that today "hope is precious: it must be rationed". Hope is precious, like some dwindling subterranean resource, imperceptible but certainly down there, compacted, compressed like diamonds in the darkness of the bowels of the Earth. A wartime resource, something essential, as if we had ration books for affects and temporal orientations like the 1940s rationed food; for the leftist hope *is* food, and she devours the future greedily, like an anorexic who devours the idea of food without ever taking a bite, throwing reality up in favour of some hallucinatory vision of a full meal.

Still, we all have to eat- at least while we're alive. The task is to see the dialectical interplay of misery and hope, to be aware of our own affective desolations and the bipolarity of common garden delusions; to become conscious of our own psychoses, needs and coping mechanisms.

The rhetorical strategy of talking about post-scarcity anarchism and fully automated luxury communism has overcome the vapid demands for sacrifice and the crassness of Wester-bourgeois "materialism". We require a similar rhetorical and strategic shift on the plane of psychoaffectivity. As a pessimist I am all for the critique of self-help banalities; as a communist I am all for the critique of the pathetic regulation of our emotional lives and the strategy of compulsory positivity; but the radical need expressed in the attachment to self-help movements can't be as easily written off.

If the left and the anarchists can't offer the core of what Oprah offers- if we can't outdo her and her ilk- what exactly do we have to offer?


Connor Owens

9 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Connor Owens on July 14, 2015

"Hey you! Suffering a depression? Having panic attacks? Fuck you, join a union!"

Haha. That's pretty much the attitude on much of the (workerist) left alright. All personal problems must be pushed to one side until the class struggle has achieved full communism.

And the extra-parliamentary left doesn't even seem to have a good idea of how we're supposed to get from here to there other than vague declarations of needing more class consciousness.

Their strategy seems to go like this:

1. Get everyone to join a union and start doing Union stuff.
2. ????????
3. Libertarian communism

This didn't used to be the case. Classical and mid twentieth century anarchists tried to integrate social struggle with personal self-fulfilment (as any worthwhile social anarchism today must).

Emma Goldman wrote of synchronising the individual and collective instincts through horizontal cooperation. Murray Bookchin's 60s and 70s writings spoke all the time of developing a new kind of selfhood, rejecting the productivist work ethic, and how the highest form of class consciousness was self-consciousness. Paul Goodman even co-developed gestalt therapy (which more anarchists should really look into) and practiced as a psychotherapist for ten years.

There are anarchists today who focus on personal problems and overcoming alienation, but sadly they tend to be lifestylists who put social struggle to one side.

Workerist anarchists have the opposite problem of focusing only on social struggle and dismissing out of hand issues of personal psychology as "bourgeois".


9 years ago

In reply to by

Submitted by wrk_wrk on July 15, 2015

The '2. ????????' is part of what I was hoping to find on sites like libcom.
Mostly what find is organise / join union / protest something and well thats it.


8 years 12 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by armillaria on July 23, 2015

hi s.e.....
"that toxic media signals need to be disrupted or interfered with, or that somewhere in our unconscious these things wear away at us and insinuate themselves..."

i feel this a lot right now. i think, for most of my life, i was pretty good at deflecting oppressive values/messages. but i've been noticing that the positive-thinking stuff seems to be wearing on me more lately. like when i was hitchhiking around the country, and i got to this farm where i stayed and worked for a couple weeks. and the woman who owned the place suggested that i could "attract" safe rides to myself by being confident, and that people who met violence while traveling had brought it on themselves by "expecting danger."

(incidentally, all this bullshit about hitchhiking being dangerous for women is nonsense. if people were really concerned for my safety, they would warn me against such far-more statistically-dangerous activities as heterosexuality, or working for male bosses. but nobody ever tells me to "stay safe" by practicing lesbianism or working for a women's cooperative, sooooo......)

oh! also! me and some friends made a zine called ghost lightning, and included an excerpt from your "rhythms" essay! i'd really like to mail you a copy! any way i can do that? message me if there's somewhere i can mail one - or an email address where i can send a ready-to-print pdf version!


8 years 11 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by moy on August 3, 2015

I think Institute for a Precarious Consciousness addressed the problem what the author of the above article calls "our generalised depressive, anxious, post-traumatic psychoaffective condition" in their text We Are All Very Anxious. They say "each phase of capitalism has its own dominant reactive affect", and the dominant affect of late capitalism is anxiety. Their proposed solution is forming affinity groups with the goal of "precarity-focused consciousness raising", kinda similar to the feminist consciousness raising of the 70s. So, basically they say folks should form groups and share their feelings and stories and relate to them in a way your social worker or psychiatrist doesn't want you to. They also published an invitation to such a group.


8 years 11 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Oldflame on August 3, 2015

".....leftists and anarchists reproduce the self-help and positivity mantras with the reality of struggle and the promise of revolution and postcapitalism standing in for self-actualisation or happiness."

It maybe stating the obvious.....but is the need many have for "gurus" and saviours rooted ( subconsciously?) in the formative years of many in religions that promise a saviour to deliver salvation and eternal life
( and also fairy tales that promise princes or princesses to live happy-ever-after )

And also the need to avoid the reality of death , as put here by James Baldwin.....

"Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives,
will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations,
in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have.
It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death - ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life."