The Books Interview: Barbara Ehrenreich

Why do so many people buy into what you call "the cult of positive thinking"?
In the United States, and to an extent in the UK, a "positive attitude" is mandatory in the workplace. You can be fired just for having a so-called "bad attitude". Which is a new level of psychological intimacy on the part of the employer. So for some people, it's like, "OK, how am I going to get ahead in life? I've got to learn to be more positive." The second thing, which is more of a carrot than a stick, is the idea that you can control the world with your thoughts. It's a sort of myth of infinite personal power.

Do you think the likes of Oprah Winfrey, who promote these ideas, are deluded, or just cashing in?
I think Oprah's quite sincere. I don't know about all of them, but I've been on her show, and I think this is what she believes. It's not uncommon among multimillionaires, because it's a very self-flattering view. If you can attribute your success entirely to your own mental effort, to your own attitude, to some spiritual essence that you have that is better than other people's, then that must feel pretty good.

In your new book, you talk about Wall Street. Are bankers really positive thinkers?
For the longest time, I held on to the notion that capitalism is really rational - ultimately, it's focused on numbers. But I kept asking insiders, do you think the guys at the top believe any of this? "Absolutely," was the answer. What management meant began to change quite decisively in the Nineties - from the idea that you really knew the business, to the idea that you're a leader because you exude some kind of confidence that inspires other people. Which comes back to the sense that positive thinking is a cult. I asked one very successful Wall Street guy, "Do these people really believe that they can attract anything with their thoughts?" He said, "Absolutely." If you've got $500m, you actually sort of can.

When you started writing about it, were you surprised how deep the trend goes?
Yeah! At first I thought it was peculiar to breast cancer - the pink ribbon culture, the exhortations to be positive all the time. But a few years later, I began to encounter people who had been told, when they were laid off, that this was not misfortune, it was actually a wonderful opportunity, and anything that happened to them was because of their own attitude. And then it clicked - that's the line they give cancer victims.

How specific is this cult to America? Is sceptical Europe safe at all?
It is a distinctly American phenomenon, in its origins. But at this point, Australia has caught up. They're exporting this stuff, too - the author of the 2006 bestseller The Secret is Australian. In the UK, you have quite a lot of motivational speakers and you can get a life coach. And the corporate culture that the US still dominates in many ways is universal. Actually, China is now a big market for some of these motivational cults and speakers.

You talk about the way "pink ribbon culture" infantilises women with breast cancer.
Well, the first thing that clued me in to the fact that there was something really scary about breast cancer, way beyond the thought of dying, was coming across an ad in the newspaper for pink breast cancer teddy bears. I am not that afraid of dying, but I am terrified of dying with a pink
teddy bear tucked under my arm. Shoot me, please, before that.

You call for a return to critical thinking. How can naysayers promote a more sceptical approach?
To me, it's politically very important. How can you understand the relative acquiescence of Americans, or British people, for that matter, to all the economic insults and injuries of the past decade? Our middle class has eroded, inequality in both societies has grown drastically, and yet nothing happens. Now there are many explanations. One of them is that self-blaming ideology. Let's make it possible for people to look, to see some systemic things that are shaping their lives, and get the really positive idea - if I can appropriate the term - that we can make social changes that would change the odds a lot more in people's favour.

Barbara Ehrenreich's "Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World" is published by Granta (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven