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The Myth of the “Happy Worker” (continued)

by Paul Kesler

Of course, those harboring beliefs and values divergent from those in power are the least likely to come across as optimists. Not that positive personalities are nonexistent among the lower classes, but it goes without saying that those who are not beneficiaries of a given system are unlikely to display high levels of cheerfulness. This, in fact, is one of the recognized paradoxes of those on the political left: while hope at some level is necessary for the flowering of activism, a cheerful persona too often signifies contentment to those marginalized by the status quo, and alienates the very people who might otherwise rally to a given cause. By contrast, those who most strenuously advocate optimism are those who already have the best reasons to be optimistic.

Naturally, the rejoinder to all this is that the powerful have “earned” their privileges, but the reality argues otherwise. Most of the wealthy and powerful have inherited their status, and class stratification has been a permanent part of societies from the dawn of history. But the facile diagnosis of poverty and oppression which places all blame on "willpower" and “perception” is eternally trotted out as an escape route for those intent on domination. Optimism in this context adds insult to injury, as if those in positions of subservience need only to resort to “positive thinking” and everything will improve. This “whistle while you work” mentality, like optimism itself, can be a spontaneous expression of personality, or it can it be divorced from personality. If the latter, it frequently becomes a subject for writers of managerial textbooks, who advocate optimism as a varnish for economic servitude. The myth of the “happy worker” is a fiction that lends itself to commercialization by PR experts, even if workers themselves are the last ones to internalize it.

We might bear in mind that the attacks on “character” and “negativity” which so often accompany political conservatism represent a strategy of evasion. They are ways of diverting attention from the causes of dissent from institutional authorities to individual persons. And the attacks are basically insular in that they treat the individual as divorced from the environment of which he or she is a part. This is because conservatism is founded on the premise that success is a consequence of individual rather than collective action, a premise which not only separates individuals from one another but which allows the strategies of the ruling class to operate without collective sanction by the masses. Ergo, when people do not “succeed,” it can only be due to individual failure, not policy.

By its very nature, of course, dissent is not “cheerful,” and does not partake of optimism. Since it arises from frustration, anger, or other emotions which elites do not want to confront, the attack on “negativity” (which naturally accompanies the advocacy of optimism) becomes a handy device for diverting attention from patricians to proletarians. But it’s equally obvious that the attempt to ascribe failure to personality often confuses effects with causes, and assumes that “character” is an invariable determinant of failure, rather than one of its consequences.

But let’s be plain: when “optimism” degenerates to a posture, when it signifies deference to an oppressive system, when it can be put on and taken off like a suit of clothes, then it’s time to realize that a kind of alienation has set in, which has been duly exploited by the system. This is a world where personality has been divorced from personhood, thenceforth to be treated as an objectified “resource,” empty of meaning and “marketed” beyond authenticity.

This, after all, is why the myth of the “happy worker” was created in the first place.

(Paul Kesler is a free lance writer of political articles and popular song parodies, now living in Bridgeport, PA.)