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Evading the twins traps of "positive thinking" and nihilistic despair

Writing at The Baffler website, Laurie Penny denounces the ideology of “wellness” for disguising systemic social problems as individual maladies that can be cured by healthy eating, regular exercise, and “positive thinking.” At the same time, she critiques the understandable but ultimately self-defeating pessimism that left-wing radicals too often succumb to. Quoting poet and activist Audre Lorde, Penny asserts that “self-care ‘is not self-indulgence—it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’” Here’s an excerpt from Penny’s wise and indispensable piece:

The well-being ideology is a symptom of a broader political disease. The rigors of both work and worklessness, the colonization of every public space by private money, the precarity of daily living, and the growing impossibility of building any sort of community maroon each of us in our lonely struggle to survive. We are supposed to believe that we can only work to improve our lives on that same individual level. Chris Maisano concludes that while “the appeal of individualistic and therapeutic approaches to the problems of our time is not difficult to apprehend . . . it is only through the creation of solidarities that rebuild confidence in our collective capacity to change the world that their grip can be broken.”

The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are.

Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice. That’s the logic exposed by personal productivity gurus like Mark Fritz, who tells us, in The Truth About Getting Things Done, that:

The biggest barrier to achieving the success you have defined for your life is never anyone else or the circumstances you encounter. Your biggest barrier is almost always you. . . . Dr Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho-Cybernetics [ETA: sounds legit to me!], put it best when he said, “Within you right now is the power to do things you never dreamed possible. This power becomes available to you as soon as you can change your beliefs.

This, of course, is a cyclopean lie—but it’s a seductive one nonetheless. It would be nice to believe that all it takes to change your life is to repeat some affirmations and buy a planner, just as it was once comforting for many of us to trust that the hardships of this plane of existence would be rewarded by an eternity of bliss in heaven. There is a reason that the rituals of well-being and self-care are followed with the precision of a cult (do this and you will be saved; do this and you will be safe): It is a practice of faith. It’s worth remembering that Marx’s description of religion as the opiate of the masses is often misinterpreted—opium, at the time when Marx was writing, was not just known as an addictive drug, but as a painkiller, a solace when the work of survival became unbearable.

Image via The Baffler.