The cult of cheerfulness

When Barbara Ehrenreich set out to investigate corporate culture in America, she found a sinister,

"Right now," notes Barbara Ehrenreich, "America is in the grip of a cult of cheerfulness, which I first became aware of five years ago when I was being treated for breast cancer. I was launched into this pink-riven culture back then. There is this sense that if you just have a positive attitude you can control your circumstances entirely, which is an idea that has no scientific basis at all: there is no evidence that positive people are more likely to survive cancer, for instance. And, in this culture, you can never be angry. Even if something terrible has happened, you have to put on a smiley face."

One of America's foremost left-wing voices, Ehrenreich explores this attitude in her new book, Bait and Switch. This chronicles her nine-month "immersion" in the corporate world, taking on a new identity (she became an out-of-work PR executive, "Barbara Alexander") and trying to land a job.

Despite a carefully crafted CV, though, and a willingness to "go anywhere for a job or even an interview", none was forthcoming. Instead, Ehrenreich spent the entire period searching, finding herself in a netherworld of life coaches, idiotic self-help speak ("there are four ways to find a job: networking, networking, networking and networking"), shady Christian meetings and image consultants.

One example of the madness: she was advised to come up with a memorised, 30-second "elevator speech", a self-advertisement that her life coach suggested should start with the line: "Hi, I'm Barbara Alexander, and I'm a crackerjack PR person!"

It would have helped too, it seems, to have been a true believer. One of the most interesting aspects of Ehrenreich's book is the extent to which American business has become "Christianised" ("although I would hate to insult any actual Christians by referring to it in that way", she says).

"There are many companies now," she continues, "that have a little fish logo on their labels, just so you know that they're a good Christian company." In her book, Ehrenreich also notes that in 1990, "there were 50 coalitions of workplace ministries . . . now there are thousands", and describes Christian networking sessions at which people testify to having asked God to deliver a job by a certain date, and having had their prayers answered. ("God is really very detail-minded," she quips.)

One of the most insidious effects of this culture is the extent to which it loads shame and self-loathing on the individual. With its teaching that any failures are simply the result of having the wrong attitude (nothing to do with economic downturn, say, or corporate restructuring), it offers an obvious recipe for self-hatred. In this atmosphere, the "Christian" view of failure is similarly individualist. If you don't land a job, says Ehrenreich, "you haven't prayed hard enough. God is now just a sort of personal career coach."

Apart from the Christian aspect, perhaps, this is a world of outsourced advice and deference to authority that will also be familiar to even the most casual observer of British culture. The self-help ideology is now fully ingrained, assisted by the armies of upper-class Trinnys and Susannahs who remonstrate with the lower orders for "letting yourselves go". Life coaches are ten a penny, with their own TV shows and columns (and Carole Caplin as their pulchritudinous leader), while the deference intrinsic to corporate life is a key element of shows such as The Apprentice, featuring the multimillionaire entrepreneur Alan Sugar (in which 14 contestants happily trill "yes, Sir Alan" to his every utterance).

In this culture, Ehrenreich realises, skills and experience have been entirely devalued (she was told to wipe all but the last ten years of her career off her CV, so that she'd appear younger), replaced by a vague notion of "personality". "I was surprised," she says, "by how unrational this corporate culture is. There's a huge reliance on scientifically useless personality tests."

She was so disturbed by this state of affairs that she decided to take action. With her publishers, Ehrenreich has set up a website, BarbaraEhrenreich.com, which includes a forum where people can tell their stories and vent their anger. "Beyond that," she continues, "I have some money from one of the trade unions to start an organisation called United Professionals, which launches at the end of April. It is aimed at the very broad demographic of the unemployed, the under-employed and the anxiously employed. As far as I'm concerned, too, it's blue-, pink- and white-collar: 'collar-blind', as a friend of mine put it! I just want to give people some space to say, 'Well, this happened to me. I was laid off, and it was terrible.'"

One of the most prominent socialist voices in the US, Ehrenreich began her activist career with protests against the Vietnam war in 1966, and she's been annoying right-wing America ever since. Not that this is hard to do.

"Just coming out as a non-believer is controversial in America right now." Bait and Switch has the potential to rile the Bible Belt at least as much as her last immersion project, the bestselling Nickel and Dimed, which whipped up a storm. Nickel and Dimed, published in 2001, chronicled Ehrenreich's year as a blue-collar worker (toiling as a waitress, house cleaner and Wal-Mart assistant) and was widely picked up for college reading lists.

This was fine until 2003, when it was assigned for incoming students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On seeing the book, a group of conservative students publi- shed a full-page ad in the local newspaper denouncing Ehrenreich as "a Marxist, a socialist, an atheist, and a dedicated enemy of the American family" (the last is "just code for 'feminist'", she explains), while her book was derided as a work of "anti-Christian bigotry".

Ehrenreich concluded that this referred to her description of Jesus as a "precocious socialist", which she went on to retract. She replaced it with the observation that Jesus "was a little to the left of [socialism], judging from his instruction to the rich man to sell all he had and give to the poor".

I suggest that the rise of the American Christian right wing - with its encroachment on abortion rights, for instance, and teaching of creationism - seems cyclical, that we are being led steadily back to the moral landscape of the 1930s, or 1950s. Ehrenreich contends that the situation is much worse than that. "We may actually be going back into a Dark Age,"she says. She compares the present situation to "the end of the Roman empire when there was the gradual extinction of all these schools of philosophy and scholarship".

Given that she has now excavated both the blue-collar and the white-collar worlds, and found both of them wanting (Nickel and Dimed was the more enjoyable experience, she says, "because there was more camaraderie and more casual forms of defiance"), I ask what's next. The obvious answer, she concedes, is the world of the very rich, "but I can't figure out how to do it, given all the contacts you'd need". The other problem "is that a woman of my age would have to have a lot of plastic surgery", which is certainly off-putting.

Although, perhaps if she just adopted a little pair of horns it might satisfy some of her biggest critics.