Cruel optimism: how Boris Johnson's cabinet weaponised positive thinking

The belief that optimism is a panacea for our political crisis reflects a dystopian type of doublethink. 

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Something I have thought about a lot since our current Prime Minister was elected are those motivational quotes that appear on fridge magnets and Instagram. “Flow with whatever may happen”; “Stop being afraid of what could go Wrong, and Start being Excited about what could go RIGHT”; “When you change your thoughts you open yourself up to a whole new reality”.

These hollow, syrupy messages are a fitting backdrop to Johnson’s ascendance. In his first speech outside No 10, the new Prime Minister criticised the “doubters, the doomsters, the gloomsters”, decrying their lack of optimism, and the “pessimists at home and abroad”. And he is far from alone. When Jeremy Hunt was asked to name his leadership rival’s greatest quality, he cited Johnson’s optimism. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, has prescribed “optimism on steroids” for the new Conservative leader.

Positive thinking is a slippery balm, a surface that repels criticism. Johnson’s declarations of boundless optimism were a recurrent feature of his campaign for the Conservative leadership, during which he praised Britain’s “can-do spirit” and promised to rescue the country from its “hamster wheel of doom”, effectively rebranding an epic crisis as a tantalising opportunity. This optimistic reverie has since crystallised into a promise — often repeated by the cabinet — to “turbocharge” all manner of things — no-deal preparations, the North, Brexit — as if a change in mindset were all it took to fundamentally alter reality.

Optimism looks different to different people. The positive rhetoric of Johnson’s cabinet reflects its utopian vision of creative destruction and shows why it’s impossible to disentangle optimism from class. This first became clear to me while at university, when I came into contact with people who seemed unaffected by the anxiety that good fortune is fragile and fleeting. While I worked in a dull panic, looking over my shoulder and wondering when my luck would run out, other students seemed untouched by this fear – for them, failure wouldn’t necessarily close doors. They could fail into a flat in London, a summer job at an auction house, an internship with a parent’s friend. Social scientists recognise that a positive disposition is in part a product of life experiences; people who live through an economic downturn are more likely to be pessimistic and risk averse in the future, while those who grow up in poorer homes tend to avoid growth investment

But the optimism of Johnson’s cabinet isn’t merely a symptom of their privilege (64 per cent of his cabinet are privately educated, compared to just 30 per cent of Theresa May’s). The belief that positive thinking is a panacea for our political crisis reflects a particularly dystopian type of doublethink. A government document recently unearthed by Sky News showed that on the first day of a no-deal Brexit, UK nationals in European countries may lose access to residence rights. Over the first fortnight, currency and financial markets will become volatile, food shortages will prompt consumer panic and serious organised crime could surge. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, will face potential “law and order challenges” in the first month. The disparity between the buoyant rhetoric of Johnson’s cabinet and the debilitating reality of no deal makes clear the kinks in this thinking.

To be dogmatically positive is, in part, to deny or ignore material problems. Rather than acknowledge how a no-deal Brexit will make the already poor poorer, Johnson’s cabinet cast political conflicts as feelings that can be resolved through the efforts of the amygdala. According to this logic, a dearth of positive thinking becomes part of the problem — if you’re thinking negatively, you’re failing. If you’re dubious about the country accelerating off a cliff, you’re doing down “global Britain”. The flipside is that negativity and depression become pathologies. “Remove the negative people in your life”; “The only person who can change your life is you”; “Don’t feel guilty for doing what’s best for you,” reads a wall of inspirational internet quotes. Underneath these slushy aphorisms lurks a darker message: ultimately, you’re responsible for your own fate. 

It’s unsurprising, then, that the prevailing logic among Johnson voters — who are famously older, richer, whiter and maler than the rest of the population — is one of pulling up the drawbridge. These people can afford to be optimistic: they’re at a point in life where they have paid their mortgages and live off the proceeds of previous investments and property portfolios. They decry kids these days for having it too easy, and think national service should be reinstated  — despite never having lived through the Second World War. They enjoyed the benefits of the post-1945 boom, free higher education, affordable housing and asset price inflation, yet probably think they advanced through graft alone. These are people for whom the real economy means little; they don’t rely on salaried jobs, but rather the rentier economy of petty landlordism and offshore pension fund investments. They’re ignorant of the low-paid insecurity that has become a generalised condition for people who are poorer, younger, and less able to feel positive about the future.

There's a painful distance between Johnson’s chipper narrative and the lived experience of those who will be worst affected by a no-deal Brexit. And yet there are many who belong to this category — who may feel precarious, and harbour a grumbling suspicion that hard work and “playing by the rules” now count for little — who will nonetheless warm to Johnson’s rhetoric. 

A similar contradiction prompted US cultural theorist Lauren Berlant to write Cruel Optimism (2011), a meditation on why we desire things we know to be harmful. Read only on the basis of its title, the book could appear as a cynical critique of people who knowingly do what is bad for them. In fact, Berlant was keen to distance herself from “the ease with which intellectuals shit on people who hold a dream”.

Wishful thinking within a broken system, Berlant suggests, defines “cruel optimism” — a condition “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing”. We overeat when we’re sad, we scroll through better looking and more talented people, we believe in unreliable promises. 

In other words, we calibrate our emotional states around inherently unstable goods. These feelings can be a substitute for everyday lives that are saturated with disappointment — a sensation that we cling to, which defies our supposedly rational interests. “No one wants to be a bad or compromised kind of force in the world,” Berlant once wrote. It explains why — after all that has happened, and the likelihood that worse is to come — optimism is still an enduring source of hope. 

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy