In recent years, I, like many others, have noticed that criticism and critical intellectuals have been steadily pathologised as unduly negative and hence in need of therapy and psychological intervention. It’s a very effective way of silencing the critique of institutions and social conditions.
It remains to be seen how this trend will play out in a post Covid world. A number of governments, politicians and social institutions are now engaging in what I would call head in the sand and wishful-thinking governance. If we pretend the problems surrounding Covid are not there, they will magically go away and we will return to the morally and socially bankrupt reign of neo-liberalism that worked well for the proponents of this wishful thinking strategy. If we think positively we can have everything back! But this kind of thinking is premised on the idea that the old status quo worked for everyone. Many have no wish to return to the strictures of a ‘2019 normal’.
I am currently re-reading Svend Brinkmann’s excellent 2014 manifesto (2017 in English): Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement craze. He proposes a number of principles loosely derived from Stoic philosophy to counter the endless incitements towards self-development, self entrepreneurship and a no holds barred positivity. He notes:
‘Barbara Held posits an alternative to coercive positivity -namely complaining…. Life is hard … but this isn’t our real problem. The real problem is that we are forced to pretend that life isn’t hard…. The freedom to grumble comes from the ability to face reality and accept it as it is. It endows you with a type of human dignity, in stark contrast with the terminally positive individual who zealously insists that there’s no such thing as bad weather (just inappropriate clothing). Well actually, Mr. Happy, bad weather is real – and when it’s real it’s nice to be able to complain from the warmth of the pub.” (p. 39)
He makes the very important point that complaint focuses on what is external to us – weather, oppressive work practices, the cost of living and so on, whereas the philosophy of blanket positivity is directed inwards. It’s not the weather that’s bad, it’s that we’re not dressed properly for it. Underpaid at work? Think positively, work harder, get promoted, change your job, change your attitude. One can of course list numerous other examples.
The idea, of course, is not to indulge in a maudlin gloom fest but to recognise real external constraints and act with dignity and integrity – two words that recur in Brinkmann’s book – in solidarity with other humans to better external conditions where possible and adapt where not. Positive thinking and the ‘law of attraction’ are the illusion of an infinitely powerful self and self-will. Covid-19 and its endless variants (Deltacron anyone?) and environmental degradation are a pointed reminder of the limitations of the human will in making itself centre and arbiter of all existence.