Coercion and Comic Sans: How “Positive Thinking” Became Capital’s Latest Weapon

by John Brissenden

If you think your workplace, benefits office, or workfare scheme is turning into some kind of cult, that's probably because it is.

First published: 13 July, 2012 | Category: Activism, Corporate power, Employment & Welfare

As the attack on workers and the unemployed - and its horrendous human consequences - gathers pace, so the plunge into what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the post-rational[1] accelerates with it. The brutality of 21st-century capitalism, like the movie bankrobber in a clown mask, wears the rictus grin of malevolent good cheer.

Think of it as a massive experiment in mind control. “Reality sucks,” a computer scientist with a master’s degree who can find only short-term, benefit-free contract jobs told me. But you can’t change reality, at least not in any easy and obvious way. You could join a social movement working to create an adequate safety net or to bring about more humane corporate policies, but those efforts might take a lifetime. For now, you can only change your perception of reality, from negative and bitter to positive and accepting. This was the corporate world’s great gift to its laid-off employees and the overworked survivors—positive thinking.[2]

These days it's simply not enough to turn up, to sell your labour or to prostrate yourself before the beneficence of the implacable 'taxpayer'. Like a reality TV contestant, you've got to Really Want It. You've got to get with the programme; if you’re employed, you've got to sign up to The Vision and align yourself with The Values; if you’re unemployed, you’ve got to subject yourself to the loopy indignities of Neurolinguistic Programming or any other flavour of touchy-feely, happy-clappy bullshit they throw at you.

Boycott Workfare activist Izzy Koksal gave a vivid glimpse last April of just how the positive thinking religion is being used to bully people looking for work. The mantra at the “Finding and Getting a Job” course, run by the notorious workfare profiteer A4e, was familiar: don’t waste time trying to address the reasons why you’re having trouble finding a job in a double-dip recession, all you can do is be more positive! The same message was rammed home in the leaflet (PDF) Koksal, and the other people coerced into attending the course, were given.

It starts off by patronising the reader with A4e’s view of her typical day: “Watching television, surfing the net and sleeping in late will probably not find you a job”. Then, under headings like “Surround Yourself With Positive People”, “Employers Want People Who Believe in Themselves”, “Self Improvement”, “Watch Your Self-Talk”, and the puzzling, unfinished “Do Not Take Negative Responses, No Response or Rejections to”, the lucky reader is treated to a potted summary of the whole positive thinking creed, with all its self-contradictions (‘don’t take rejection to heart’ vs ‘YOU are responsible for the success of your job search’ vs ‘it is not about you as a person, but rather about the business of demand and supply’). As a parting shot, the A4e millionaires cut job seekers a break: “It is unrealistic to think you will be 100% positive each moment of every day. The real trick is to set a time limit to allow any “negative” thoughts. We suggest you give yourself 30 minutes.

To understand how we got here, we must go back to the early- and mid-20th century, to the birth of what we now call human resources (HR), but was then called the “human relations” school. Beginning with the highly influential but deeply flawed Hawthorne studies from 1927-32, a succession of ill-conceived research projects set out to arm the executives of the new monopoly capital firms with the evidence they needed to fob workers off with superficial forms of “participation”, rather than material improvements in pay and conditions:

Any management which wants its employees to be management-minded must take steps to provide the opportunity for and to encourage active participation by workers in arriving at decisions pertaining to the work process and the work situation...

(Viteles, 1954: 453-4)[3]

Alex Carey, in his examination[4] of the historical and academic record, stressed that it is important to understand the “human relations” shift - and its descendants in today’s HR departments and the A4e-style “training” racket - as fundamentally propagandistic. He notes three characteristics of particular interest in the human relations/HR tradition:

1.       It has endlessly produced theories and ‘evidence’ which are alleged to show that the motivation and behaviour of industrial workers are more importantly influenced by something other than monetary and material reward (by, for example, social satisfactions, ego satisfactions, ‘creative’ or ‘self-actualizing’ satisfactions and so on).

2.       The studies or experiments which are claimed to have substantiated these conclusions about the relative unimportance of economic reward for workers have commonly become ‘classics’ and gained fame and influence in industry and in academia.

3.       The actual evidence produced in the classic studies of this tradition is consistently found, on examination, to have failed to support, and even to have contradicted, the now-famous conclusions drawn from the studies. (143) 

As Carey adds, this track record “raises questions about what purposes, other than scientific, this work (wittingly or unwittingly) might serve”. He goes on to show how it was part of the massive, and highly successful, mid-century drive to align workers’ attitudes to the interests of capital.

Fast-forward now, through the collapse of Fordism, to the neoliberal period beginning in the late 1970s. By this time, distinct but related trends were combining: a shift to jobs that were reliant as much on social skills as technical or physical; and the collapse, along with the collapse in profits of leading industrial economies, of the generosity of public opinion toward business generated by the mid-century propaganda effort.[5] It is here that a new focus on “leadership”, and in particular transformational leadership (TL) emerged, as Western capital sought to draw lessons from the success of the Japanese economy during the 1960s and 1970s. The leadership school sees the organisation less as a machine-like system, and more as a cognitive, cultural system of “beliefs, behaviour, knowledge, sanctions, values and goals”[6] In their history and critique of the TL approach, Tourish and Pinnington explore how its influence has led almost inevitably to the current incarnation of the capitalist organisation as one that shares fundamental characteristics with the religious cult.

For example, they share the following features: charismatic leadershipa compelling visionintellectual stimulation (transforming the goals of followers “so that they are subsumed into a new, collectivist objective on the part of the whole organization”);[7] individual consideration (“ a feeling that the followers’ interests are being attended to, and perhaps that they are in some way important to the charismatic leader”);[8] and promotion of a common culture.

TL requires that power accrues to the leader and thus creates a self-perpetuating process by which those of lower status come, like the Hawthorne subjects, to internalise this dynamic and seek to conform to cultural norms, and ingratiate themselves with the leadership, to an ever greater extent, even when such norms may be destructive to them as individuals and/or collectively to the organisation.

The transformational leader is assumed to posses [sic] and energetically communicate ‘a vision’ for the organization…The vision (again, in the most optimistic rendition of the process) performs an integrative role, combining the members into a collective whole with a shared set of aspirations capable of guiding (or moulding) their everyday behaviour. The act of communicating such a vision is highly dynamic, requires intense charisma, and transforms relational dynamics throughout the workplace.[9]

A further consequence of this is that dissent and feedback - contrary to claims of “empowerment” and “participation” - become seen as resistance which must be overcome. This leads to the development of strategies by which the path to The Vision can be cleared of such obstacles: “In such circumstances, corporate paranoia, frenetic activity and cultic norms that penalize open discussion may rapidly take root.”[10]

Anyone with current experience of employment, training or the benefits system will be familiar with the creepily upbeat demeanour of those gauleiter with direct responsibility for enforcing these cultic norms. Cults are notorious for the ‘love bombing’ recruitment techniques they employ:

…cult leaders and other members go out of their way to praise the potential recruit’s contributions in group meetings. Points of similarity with the group (such as dress codes, positive statements about aspects of the sacred belief system, a concern for the welfare of the underprivileged, attendance at meetings or participation in demonstrations) are celebrated and encouraged. This could be defined as ‘individual consideration’. It certainly represents an enormous amount of individual attention. However, we think it more appropriate to define it as manipulation.[11]

This could be dismissed as hyperbole. After all, surely it’s good to take an interest in people? The crucial distinction Tourish & Pinnington draw is between relationships among equals, and those subject to differentials in power - like that between boss and worker, or between A4e “trainer” and claimant. In such relationships, they argue, it is assumed that the leader knows best, that all change must come from the top, that the leader must have a compelling vision and communicate it energetically, and that there must be a unifying culture. Other commentators have made similar observations:

In a coercive environment with totalistic overtones, ‘. . . tremendous overt and covert pressure is brought to bear on everyone to conform publicly, to participate actively, and to work hard, while a facade is maintained that such conformity and dedication is entirely voluntary or the product of successful ideological persuasion’.[12]

This pressure, compounded by the positive thinkers’ exhortation to avoid “negative people”, of course creates a highly charged, often punitive divide between the true believers and those - otherwise dismissed as “negative” - who may be of a more critical persuasion. Another further consequence is that the true believers come to inhabit a closed, self-affirming world of positivity, wilfully blind to the destructive results of their crusade, and hostile to outsiders.

How to respond? After all, the fluffy demeanour of the love-bombers, those pretty posters all in Comic Sans, are merely the façade for brutal coercion - job cuts, withdrawal of benefits, workfare. It is tempting either to roll the eyes and dismiss all this as harmless, if deluded; or to join the true believers. But Comic Sans and coercion go hand in hand. They are a weapon in the latest wave of the attack by capital on labour, with deep roots going back far into the last century. They highlight the significance of the workplace, and the training centre, as a continuing site of struggle, and, crucially, they depend on you and me surrendering any sense of our own agency within it.

In the closing paragraphs of her excellent book on the subject, Barbara Ehrenreich reminds us of the power of “negative” thinking; the ability to use our critical faculties to change our circumstances:

The economic meltdown should have undone, once and for all, the idea of poverty as a personal shortcoming or dysfunctional state of mind. The lines at unemployment offices and churches offering free food include strivers as well as slackers, habitual optimists as well as the chronically depressed…Happiness is not, of course, guaranteed even to those who are affluent, successful, and well loved. But that happiness is not the inevitable outcome of happy circumstances does not mean we can find it by journeying inward to revise our thoughts and feelings. The threats we face are real and can be vanquished only by shaking off self-absorption and taking action in the world. We will not succeed at all these things, certainly not all at once, but—if I may end with my own personal secret of happiness—we can have a good time trying.[13]

The author is grateful to Izzy Koksal, whose blog post about her experiences at an A4e training course inspired this article.


[1] Ehrenreich, B (2009) Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. London: Granta Books, p121

[2] Ibid.: 116

[3] Carey, A (1997) Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. Chicago: University of Illinois Press: p.150

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.: 145

[6] Hawkins, P. (1997) Organizational culture: Sailing between evangelism and complexity.Human Relations, 1997, 50, 417–40, cited in

[7] Ibid.: 156

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.: 151

[10] Ibid.: 154

[11] Ibid.: 159

[12] Schein, E. (with Schneier, I. & Barker, C.) (1961) Coercive persuasion. New York: Norton.

[13] Ehrenreich, B (2009) Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. London: Granta Books,p

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