In Favour of Strife: Two Reviews

Apologies to all for the delays.

To begin with, two reviews. On the chopping board this week are Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World and A Very British Strike: 3rd May – 12th May 1926 by Ann Perkins. While I didn’t expect it, both books contain interesting lessons for radicals in contemporary Britain.

Ehrenreich, for those of you unfamiliar with her work, has been a consistent voice of sanity in a disintegrating United States. You may know her from Nickel and Dimed, a book in which she went undercover to find out that living on the American minimum wage is more or less impossible and low-paid jobs involve incredibly hard work (who knew?).

In Smile or Die, called Bright-Sided in the U.S., Ehrenreich dissects the science of positive thinking, in all it’s gaudy incoherence, that she first discovered while being treated for breast cancer. The approach, “… that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate” (44) is at the base of a vast network of books, self-help tapes, pamphlets, speaking tours and research. Whether it’s ill-health, unemployment, disappointment or anomie, the advocates of  positivity are eager to help out, provided that the price is right. With allegedly verified methods, such as visualizing success, repeating positive maxims and culling negative people from your life, the prophets of dogmatic happiness insist that success is only a few fake smiles away.

Is compelling research that has inspired such a furore? Seemingly not, as Ehrenreich ably demonstrates, rebuffing the contested and unreliable research at the movements foundation. As to the – believe it or not – claim that positivity is productive because it effects things on a quantum level, Ehrenreich is similarly robust.

If not science, then what? Here, Ehrenreich’s answer is two fold. Firstly, the positive thinking movement has roots in the American religious experience. As she shows in the opening chapters, believers and church elders moved away from the harsh Calvinist system to a more amorphous ideology – backed by influential figures like William James – called “New Thought”. The details of this philosophy, with it’s emphasis on ‘energy’ and ‘well-being’ are very much evident in the positive thinking mantra today, albeit with a scientific glass.

Secondly, it can be seen as response to the shortcomings of our economic system.  As huge numbers of Americans, along with those in the rest of the world, are trapped in downwards spirals of poverty by factors they cannot control, the positive thinking industry addresses fills the gap that might otherwise manifest in radicalism or despair (although probably not in that order).

Is positive thinking such a bad thing? Eichenreich’s answer here is largely “yes”. Noting that, unsurprisingly, wealth is a primary driver of happiness, Eichenreich argues that shifting the blame to the victims of inequality not only exploits their unhappiness, but ignores the possibility of change. What’s more, as Eichenreich argues in the closing chapter, sustained rejection of naysayers has bad results, most obviously seen in the recent financial crisis.

The book is concise, smart and entertaining. What’s more, while this is not Eichenreich’s stated goal, it’s useful in bringing to light an obstacle to critical thought, as noted above. The self-centred positive mantra is bad for radicals in two senses. The first is that encourages an individualistic view. It suggests that we should disown collective enterprises and focus only on ourselves. It suggests that we should resign ourselves to the current order of things and focus on our own pleasures, becoming Nietszche’s ‘last men’, believing in nothing beyond ourselves. Crucially, it  encourages us to believe that history is at an end.  Secondly, in a related sense, by narrowing down our focus to our individual lives, in lieu of greater collective struggles, it amputates any real possibility of overcoming the objective problems we confront (whether it’s climate change, economic dominance, etc, etc) by ignoring the possibility that they might be overcome. To put it in Alain Badiou’s terms, it celebrates life without an Idea.

And what of Ann Perkins book? A Very British Strike recounts Britain’s 1926 strike during which around 2 million workers downed tools in solidarity with miners confronting a pay dispute. Despite the strike’s unprecedented scale, it failed after only 9 days when the TUC gave in. When the upcoming Strike planned for the 30th of November is described as the largest since the General Strike, it is to this that they are referring, making it all the more relevant that we understand why itfailed.  While Perkins book considers a number of things, it’s the reasons for this failure that I’m going to focus on, with a quick disclaimer.

While the topic is doubtlessly interesting and Perkins book is stylistically coherent, the book itself is rather thin. The main sources are Ministerial statements, newspapers and the diaries of engaged parties, and it’s hard to read  without feeling like a lot is being ignored. There is no clear methodology and with the exception of the miners, who get a rather brief treatment, the conditions and politics of the striking workers are primarily undisclosed. Also, the book focused far too much on London and the Communists, when discussed, come across more as pantomime villians than anything else. In short, the book leaves much to be desired.

What’s interesting, however, is the picture Perkins paints of the general British public. Throughout, ‘radicalism’ is set up against gradualism and compromise, in which radicalism is inevitably unattractive and un-British. So we get a lot of sections like this:

“The non-striking workers, however, were not redundant. They were the invaluable extras in the portrayal at home and abroad of this extraordinary national event…What made them such quintessential embodiments of the virtues that had made England great was their endurance, their stoicism, their capacity to soldier on, the uncomplaining victims of a hardship they could not change.” (195)

This endurance and stoicism, or what I would prefer to call submissiveness on the part of the British public, is portrayed here as an attribute. We are told fondly of the hordes who took over the jobs of striking workers or volunteered as police constables, and the ostrich like celebrity worship that characterizes British society remaining strong:

“The respectful acceptance of social inequality that remained a powerful strand of Englishness threaded its silken, diamond studded way through the newspaper coverage. On the outside pages, the threat of revolution over a few shillings a week for the miners; inside, the doings of the five hundred families who by birth and inherited wealth made up English Society.” (196)

On this reading, the public reaction was one that primarily sought to avoid confrontation, opposing the nodes of ‘normality’ and ‘strife’ as opposed  ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’. As Perkins writes, without critique, it was this unwillingness to escalate things and demand concessions from the government that ultimately sunk the strike. The TUC, who saw the strike as a negotiating tool rather than a weapon, capitulated when it became clear that their demands were non-negotiable.

Which brings us back to the point about obstacle to radicalism. As there is no credible political (in the sense of parliamentary political) solution to the current disembowelment of the UK’s public sector, it’s clear that the population must develop solutions themselves without the comforting possibility of an Obama-style opt out. All over the country this is already happening, as evidenced in the various demonstrations, occupations, marches and, of course, the planned strike. Still, we must be wary going forward. Beyond baton charges and riot police, the emerging movement may well be sunk if positive thinking replaces honest critique or polite disengagement undermines an engaged sense of justice.

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