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

by John Brissenden

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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First published: 13 July, 2012

Category: Activism, Corporate power, Employment & Welfare

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

By Wes G, on 13 July 2012 - 08:56 |

Read the introduction to the second edition of “Brave new world” - huxley ...

Then read “The contemporary giddens” - bryant and jary (palgrave)


Personally after reading as much as i can on the subject i think  “positive thinking” ie the positivist approach first speculated and philosophised by Comte and the ensuing empiricist movements, all of which were incorporated into what is contemporary capitalism is at the heart of this machine like existence we have carved out for ourselves, we shouldn’t lay blame on the positivity in the thinking nor the people who are positive in their outlook, buuuut, if it starts to interfere with the living standards of people then we have to question the motives behind such thinking, and ask our selves where it might lead us. Clearly the positivist approach has its negative sides.

By Seb B, on 13 July 2012 - 13:39 |

There are aspects of this article that border on conspiratorial madness, but in my view the analysis is flawed from a single identifiable perspective: the view that ‘positive thinking’, ‘empowerment’ and ‘participation’ are all ruses to promote malleability and conformity in the workforce at the behest of cultish management. At best, it is surely more of an incidental parallel (rather than an actual link) between the workforce-management and the member-cult leader relationships in the particular aspects the author discusses (HR meetings and, presumably, appraisals). But then these are actually just examples of something else: bad, aimless leadership that seeks to fulfil performance criteria with no particularly conscious view of what they as leaders seek to achieve with their colleagues. There are very many examples of this in the workplace, including in the A4e examples themselves; surely these demonstrate their own ineptness rather than evidence of broader trends in the labour market?

I don’t deny that there is no shortage of patronising advice to ‘the unemployed’, but A4e have been exposed as a sham, so citing them as indicative of something broader is flawed from the outset. Moreover, the article seems to believe that all corporations behave in the same or similar ways, and that conformity and obedience are deemed the only acceptable demeanours. I can think of some examples that would superficially fit this model, but a better view would be that it was something only expected by sub-standard managers. Overall, away from the mundane world of retail, active, critical - and, yes, productively negative - opinion is encouraged. Consequently, I respectively submit that the main argument here is fundamentally flawed.

By TD, on 13 July 2012 - 13:40 |

I think you should be careful not to confuse positive with positivist, as these are two entirely different terms, despite their names.

By TherealSeb, on 13 July 2012 - 17:26 |

Seb B,

I have some feedback for you.
I find your argument to be self-contradictory. You are actually supporting the argument you claim to oppose. You said:

“these are actually just examples of something else: bad, aimless leadership that seeks to fulfil performance criteria with no particularly conscious view of what they as leaders seek to achieve “

By making this declaration you are confirming the existence of the dogma/cult that the article had identified, the belief that management should be driven by a “vision” imposed through charismatic leadership. Straight from the horses mouth, you have provided further evidence of that which you wished to deny. Your argument is worse then flawed, it’s actually counter-productive to your all too obvious agenda. These managers share your doctrine about vision and culture. Madness is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.
A bit more self awareness would have been helpful. Your comment has made it seem to me you have been indoctrinated. You may see yourself as an objective commentator, others see you as a subjective specimen. A specimen which helpfully reinforces the article.
Casually waving aside the retail sector was another howler. The retail/service sector is a major sector, you cannot merely dismiss it just because it undermines your position. Admitting that the article was right about such a significant group of organisations once again contradicts your own argument.
As if that wasn’t enough, your references to A4e pretty much finish off any credible argument. This time you are contradicted not by yourself but by reality. A4e is a sham, this is true, but it is still very much in business, much like neo-liberalism itself. The personnel who staff A4e have significant connections to other corporations. They are not a one off case. The equivalent of the rogue reporter argument will not work here. Even if they did decide not to carry on in their current guise, all they would do is junk the company only to resurface under another name with the same crew. Or as was the case with Enron, the egregious will be scattered amongst many corporations where they will no doubt fit right in, spreading the rot.
You have set yourself the task of finding an exception to the rule expressed in the article. So far you have failed. Do not say the financial sector, or I will die laughing (especially after I can clearly remember a quote from Bob Diamond about how he believed culture was more important than competence, which chimes well with this article and the current imbroglio). Do not use anecdotes either, these are useless from an anonymous source.
Do not get hung up on the negative feedback. Thanks to this article we all know what your reaction will be, I advise you not to make the mistake of unwittingly reinforcing it again. You have shown an inability to step outside of your culture. Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m merely trying to help you out of your Potemkin village.

By Simon Hardy, on 14 July 2012 - 09:07 |

Really interesting article..

You are right that the growth of psyschological manipulation of the workforce under western capitalism was a real trend even in the 1950s with the growth of administrative meaningless white collar jobs which had to be disciplined and regimented not just through the productive labour but through enforced corporate loyalty. This was a conscious anti-communist campaign designed to innocluate the workforce against economic realities, class solidarity and politics.

When I was working in a call centre in Sheffield the other call centre across the road (which we could see from our building) organised weekly rooftop physical and feel-good exercises where people had to high five each other over their sales and collectively praise the worker with the highest sales achievements that week. I thought at the time how horrific it is that you force workers to feel something about their job when most of them are probably just there to pay the rent.

All the psychological manipulation that goes on in corporations really makes me think of Henry Ford’s educational classes in his factory and his attempts to create the “new industrial man”, today it is the “new post-industrial corporate minion” - at least Ford provided English education classes.

Also the production of “feelings” and “moods” is a key part of immaterial labour under advanced capitalism (not that I totally agree with Hardt and Negri’s use of the term, but I think the concept has some limited applications). After all isn’t A4e providing “labor that produces or manipulates affects such as a feeling of ease, well-being, satisfaction, excitement
or passion”, just in the context of unemployment? What does it say about advanced capitalism that the reproduction of social life is increasingly based on bull-shit ‘feel good’ exercises?

By Seb B, on 14 July 2012 - 12:14 |


Your response is a case study in illogic and bias. And since you raise it, madness can also be defined as a disordered train of thought: your comments re managerial vision, madness, self-awareness, and indoctrination in successive sentences demonstrate this quite well.

My argument was that, at best, the workforce-management and member-cult relationships are superficial “incidental parallel[s] (rather than an actual link)” and only certain specific cases (e.g. bad appraisals). To clarify: the “performance criteria” refer to the standardised HR meetings and appraisals in the previous sentence (“going through the motions”, if you will); the ‘view’ or ‘vision’ refers simply to business plans and the like. They do not refer respectively to any cultish agenda as you see it but its very absence: surely “bad, aimless leadership” will have either no or a very ill-defined plan of action rather than a clearly conceived one. Accordingly, allow me to return the accusation of illogic: instead of reading “bad, aimless leadership” as the absence of a plan, you have taken this to mean its presence (the “vision”); instead of empty, generic, impersonal rhetoric or ‘management speak’ (as in bad appraisals), you see an argument for cultish “charismatic leadership”. Good management should listen as much as possible to its employees in developing its business model, so if conducted properly will be a society of equals without resorting to stale routines; bad management without a plan carries on regardless – *this*, at an absolute push, is where you are much more likely to get the pseudo-cultish behaviour described.

To address to the world of retail: this referred to the fact that employees on the shop floor are often expected to be mere functionaries rather than contributing, thinking individuals. (To be as fair as possible, this wasn’t explicitly made clear, but then I didn’t anticipate such a bizarre reading of it.) It wasn’t a dismissive swipe, but simply a recognition of the fact that this, sadly, is often just their job. But to jump from this to seeing such employees as pawns in a managerial cult is desperate, a bias that runs throughout your response and much of the article. It doesn’t prove the article is right; it just shows how biased your view is.

A4e: the fact that it is a sham means it is difficult to use it to support any broader argument other than, er, “A4e’s a sham and here the proof”. By contrast, you seem to see this as making it all the more relevant to the article’s argument because it all fits apparently so neatly into The Conspiracy. This is not objective; it’s only persuasive if you start off from the outset accepting the belief and then let confirmation bias do the rest. 

It’s quite extraordinary to read my original post as defending manipulative management, let alone being an unwitting cultish apostle. You argue that I “have set [myself] the task of finding an exception to the rule expressed in the article.” Bias again – I have done no such thing. Any article set itself the task of proving itself right; others scrutinise it – in my case, arguing how the evidence it cites can be explained in much more straightforward terms. Switching the burden of proof on to me or someone else is plainly false. How you cannot see this while claiming the logical high-ground is staggering.

By dan lambert, on 14 July 2012 - 14:45 |

Hi Seb
In commodity society we working humans are seen by those who
controll the means of the reproduction of daily life as a means to an end, profit, and not as an end in ourselves.
We are bought and sold on the “labour market” seen therefore essentialy as things to be be taken up when useful (profitable), discarded when not.
It is a case of mistake identy, because it is impossible to exploit, oppress, coerse or abuse in any way those that we identify with.
The means of reproducing daily life have been socialy, collectivly developed throughout our history by all humans, so in my opinion, and we’re all entitled to one of those, should be socialy, collectively owned and controlled.
Me, I identfy myself as a member of the human family, so, as who you believe yourself to be determinds what you want, I want a family life, from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

By Michael Barker, on 15 July 2012 - 08:28 |

great article. I wrote a similar piece a few years ago drawing upon Carey’s excellent work and tracing the rise of the human relations movement.

Liberal Elites and the Pacification of Workers

By George, on 15 July 2012 - 10:21 |

Hello Seb

First off, although Marx’s view was certainly not a mere “conspiracy theory”, this is not to deny that there are such things as conspiracies and that they can serve capital. Indeed every government and every business in the world can be considered a conspiracy in the sense that it consists of individuals meeting in private to determine plans that involve others who don’t know about it.


“To address to the world of retail: this referred to the fact that employees on the shop floor are often expected to be mere functionaries rather than contributing, thinking individuals.”

This is beside the point. Even if the employees were to be considered as “contributing, thinking individuals” it would only be in so far as they could contribute to the business plan of making a profit i.e. of serving the law of capital accumulation. And “to jump from this to seeing such employees as pawns in a managerial cult” is actually a legitimate jump provided you see it, not as a managerial cult, but as part of the cult of capital – for which the managers are themselves pawns.

Also – it has been clear, ever since the bank bailout, that the government is working entirely in the interests of business. It is therefore their intention to chip away incessantly at any organization (e.g. the various public services) that interferes with business. We can therefore expect them to encourage outfits like a4e to reduce public spending in any way they can. Next time it won’t be “a4e” but someone else who will provide the same function.

These ARE conspiracies. They are conspiracies that serve capital.

By Martin Watson, on 15 July 2012 - 21:50 |

‘Post-rational’ is right. The positions capital takes today are as absurd as they are deadly.

By Seb B, on 16 July 2012 - 14:48 |

To those who are able to exchange views without resorting to bizarre passive-aggression:

@Dan Lambert: not sure where you’re going with that in relation to this article – sorry.

@George: firstly, thank you for your manners! May I reassure you that I wasn’t dismissing Marxism as such a theory; my comments were directed at the article and ‘TherealSeb’‘s remarks (neither of which directly mentioned Marxism either). May I further suggest that your provisional definition of ‘conspiracy’ broadens the meaning to such a degree as to be unhelpful: a conspiracy between government and a particular corporation, for instance, would be a better example because it linked forces (normally opposed) that find themselves with a sudden mutual interest; but a democratically elected government is formed by the people, not conspirators.

Concerning retail: it’s unclear whether you accept the article’s view of a cult or whether you’re using the term more generally (that is, benignly). It is an unjustified jump because it doesn’t have to be made at all. The article discusses ‘love bombing’ of cult members, which is compared with its neo-liberal equivalents to ensure “surrendering any sense of our own agency within it.” To reiterate: those on the shop floor often receive either bad or no line management – there is an absence of any ‘agenda’. Of course people get depressed and terribly disillusioned with even their own lives under these conditions, but this is not because of an agenda or even because of its absence; it’s simply because it’s a completely functional and unrewarding job, nothing else – you don’t need this conspiracy theory to explain it. @Simon Hardy’s experiences in the Sheffield call centre strike me as either a well-intentioned or completely misconceived attempt at livening things up – that’s all. No less infuriating or even potentially harmful (forcing someone to cheer up can be dangerous or provocative), but evidence of managerial ‘love bombing’? Please!

Finally, businesses that campaign for cuts in public spending probably have two immediate things in mind: reducing public spending should lead to cuts in business taxes, thereby increasing profits by reducing costs; and decreasing the national deficit to attract investment. This shouldn’t be seen as a conspiracy; these are companies lobbying in their own self-interest.

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