The third horseman of neoliberalism: The Neo-Pentecostals (Part 1)
We’ve identified four horsemen galloping through Central America in these terrible neoliberal times. They cause change, development and new identities. We’ve already looked at drug traffickers and NGOs; now it’s the Neo-Pentecostal evangelical churches. But before following them on their wild crusade, we need to reflect on the syncretism they’ve built. It’s based on two harmful nutrients: management culture and positive thinking.
José Luis Rocha
The radio announcer’s persuasive voice seductively whispers, “Need a miracle? Come and ask Jesus for
your miracle.” An energetic masculine voice then adds, “This young woman was suffering from kidney failure,” followed by a remorseful female one: “My skin started to regenerate...” Pastor Cash Luna, leader of the House of God in Guatemala, offered miracles on the nights of September 17 and 18, 2011, in the Dallas-Fort Worth American Airlines Center in Texas. Jesus Christ did the inviting and those blessed with enough good fortune paid for it.
Miracles and miracle workers aren’t the post-modern novelty; that’s provided by the forms currently adopted in Central America by the big gurus who oil the system’s cogs and ensure that the wealth flows, depositing fortunes for their own plump bellies and the dilated pockets of the big companies. They appeal to the same mechanism as the secular versions: the psychotic desire to see reality spiced up. The secular exploitation of this appetite appears daily on television screens: “Will this be the love of your life? Do you want to be sure before taking this great step? Send WEDDING to 2525.”
Send GRIM REAPER to know when and how you’re going to die. Send LUCK to obtain the winning lottery number. How many take the bait? Abracadabra: the anxieties and uncertainties of post-modernity can be dissolved by magic words, by prophetic advice sent to your cell phone or by a visit to a famous conference room or church. The one sure result is millions in the pockets of the telephone companies, swindlers, airlines, hotels and other “indirect beneficiaries.” Both the religious and secular versions of positive thinking have expanded their influence and accentuated their role as accelerator of Christian capitalism and its mega-businesses.
The power of the Neo-PentecostalsIn this article, I’m using the term “Neo-Pentecostals” for those political actors who are the fruit of syncretism, who were formed and propagate by feeding off of and disseminating positive thinking and the secular cult of management. Although not all of their groups and leaders are involved in “Politics” with a capital P, they are political actors because they send out guidelines on how to act in society and how to behave in relation to the State. Their pastors are an extreme case of organic intellectuals: they not only disseminate a kind of common sense and a way of being citizens, but do so penetrating right down to the ins and outs of the most intimate elements that remain out of reach of schools and the state apparatus and increasingly elude the once-omnipresent Catholic Church—even molding sexual behavior and family configuration.
After drug traffickers and NGOs, they are the third horsemen that deserves attention, due not to their large albeit not yet massive numbers, but rather to their influence and efficacy, their social impact and their capacity to leave their mark on the new map of power in early 21st century Central America.
Religious syncretism digests bothAre the Neo-Pentecostals syncretic? Syncretism is part of the vital process of all religions, including the big ones, which are the result of a vast process of syncretism. As Brazilian Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff put it in his book Church: Charism and Power, “Catholicity as the synonym of universality is only possible and attainable through the process of syncretism from which catholicity itself results.”
nutritious and unswallowable foods
There are different modalities of syncretism. The syncretic expressions I will look at correspond to the modality Boff defines as “syncretism as adaptation: A religion first is exposed to different religious expressions and then assimilates them, interprets them and recasts them according to its own identity.” For Boff, this historical process is a decisive factor that allows the basic “ethos” of the dominant religion to “digest” the outside elements and make them its own. It’s a vital and organic process, similar to the one involving food, which, no matter how diverse it may be, is injected and absorbed into the system of human life. But harmful foods are also ingested as are others that produce excreta.
Christianity became RomanAlthough Boff’s definitions concentrate on the syncretism of two or more religious traditions, his examples address the syncretism of the Roman tradition of Christianity, in which the religious component is just one among others.
Christianity absorbed the norms, rites, policies, nomenclature and language of the Roman culture. It was inevitable: the administrative and legal imbrication led to a doctrinal fusion and the absorption of institutions. The Christianity-Empire symbiosis was perfect: the Roman monarchical tradition that sought subterfuges in tetrarchies and diarchies received the supernatural underpinnings of the Christian monarchy. The emperor gave the Christians certain official buildings (basilicas) and then, trying out the recently-acquired title of the “new David,” he called councils.
In 315 AD, Christ’s monogram and other Christian signs appeared on coins (what was Cesar’s was finally rendered unto God!) in a measure of the utmost importance because they amounted to—and still do—an almost global propaganda instrument. The ecclesiastical courts acquired civil jurisdiction and bishops were put on the same power level as governors. Tax exemption then reinforced the accumulation and the happy marriage.
Later, the State became the Church’s fiscal arm and the Church adopted “dioceses”—conglomerates of the empire’s provinces invented by Emperor Diocletian (244-311)—as its administrative units. To improve tax collection, Diocletian doubled the number of Roman provinces from 50 to almost 100 and grouped them into 12 dioceses, each governed by an official called a “vicarius,” another thing Christianity inherited from the Romans.
Christianity broke with its Judaic rootsIn 325 AD, Constantine convened the First Council of Nicaea, which he directed through a bishop and imperial commissaries designated for that purpose. He turned the Council’s resolutions into state laws and assimilated the Church’s organization into that of his empire. From then on, the ecclesiastical provinces coincided with the imperial dioceses and provinces. The Church broke with its Judaic roots and developed a Christian anti-Semitism built on an already existing anti-Judaism. The army and civil administration soon acted as secular arms of the orthodox imperial Church against heretics. Monophysites, Arians and Donatists all suffered repression from the new Roman-Christian empire.
Historian Leopold von Ranke tells us that “on those spots where the Olympian gods were worshipped, amidst the very pillars which had supported their temples, arose shrines in memory of those who had scorned their worship and had resisted unto death.” This facilitated the fusion with the old state religion. That early Christianity also incorporated pagan customs, such as the cult of relics and the belief in miracles, which were very extensive in barbarian, grassroots rural areas.
The success of Christianity lay in the fact that it contained elements capable of satisfying all tastes, having incorporated rites, protocols and customs from multiple religious and secular traditions, not as mere syncretism but truly assimilating and fusing them. The rites that commemorated Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection recalled the mystery religions. The figure of Mary, mother of Jesus, provided a softening female touch that evoked the female deities of the Greek and Roman pantheons. And the Christians’ austere customs coincided with those of the Stoics. Christianity was open to all, including slaves. The Pauline slogan of being “all things to all men” had been applied effectively and gave generous fruits.
Syncretism is both a risk and a needAs Boff warns, this Christian syncretism implied the assimilation of both harmful foods and excreta. The integration into local contexts pushed towards barbarization, which was taken to the extreme of incorporating practices incompatible with the original Christianity: the Church’s participation in violence, ordeals and rituals of penitence. Divine justice and earthly justice became confused in the same savagery. And the peaceful Jesus of Nazareth was represented by a Roman military uniform.
The Roman cocktail was swarming with anti-Christian bacteria. But some church hierarchs felt so comfortable with the Roman institutions that they rescued some that had fallen into honorable disuse: Pope Leo I (440-461) took the title Pontifex Maximus after it had been renounced almost a century earlier by Emperor Gratian the Young, who considered it incompatible with Christianity. The fact is that once having taken the bull by the horns, Christianity was not so loyal to the legacy of Jesus, leaving three basic structures of Roman economic life unscathed: respect for private property, compliance with contracts and the legitimacy of profits.
Although it involves dangers, syncretism is a dynamic that characterizes a religion’s openness and vitality. From a theological perspective, the Christian religion seeks mediations to transmit Christ’s saving message. It has to do so because religion sinks its roots into the concrete world in which people and the community are inserted. Faith is expressed in a sociological dimension, drawing on the instruments it finds in the culture, society and class status. Faith becomes visible, audible and tangible in the corporeality of rites and symbols, dogmas and norms, institutions and behaviors. The key to true syncretism lies in a religion’s incarnation in the most diverse cultures without losing its identity.
How to distinguish betweenBoff establishes criteria for distinguishing between true and false syncretism. The true kind translates the Christian identity; the false kind deteriorates and destroys it. One of the main pathologies of syncretism is the betrayal of the essence of Christianity: a syncretism will be Christian if the basic core of the Christian faith takes form in the symbolic framework of another culture. For Boff, this supposes a conversion in the culture’s nucleus, to the point of ceasing to be what it was and becoming instead an expression of the Christian faith, which is impossible without conversion. If the contrary takes place, the Christian identity will have been corrupted and absorbed by the identity of the culture with which it has come into contact.
healthy and harmful syncretisms?
If, as appears to have happened in Brazil with the Yoruba religion, the other cultural tradition produces a syncretism using elements of the Christian tradition, then we have a Yoruba syncretism, not a Christian one. This criterion presents us with a very tough landscape because there’s not a single Christian church. Even within Catholicism, despite the existence of dogmas and an official doctrine, there’s no unanimity over the definition of what is “essentially Christian.”
So how do we know if a syncretism is healthy or harmful from the perspective of the Christian tradition and its strategy of permanence? Even without completely clearing up this unknown factor, the criterion of “the betrayal of the essence of Christianity” has the value of signaling that each process of syncretism can go in at least as many directions as there are intervening cultural tendencies. And contrary to popular belief and plain intuition, the shark doesn’t always swallow the sardine: the most callow, emotional and minority religious tradition can win the day over the most ancient, wise and massive one.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening with the new syncretisms taking place in the Central American countries, because such processes aren’t a thing of the past. In a way that’s just as dramatic and gradual as in ancient Rome, they are happening today in the new Rome—the United States—and in the peripheral provinces that we Central American Thumbelinas represent.
Managerialism is the new religionThe Neo-Pentecostal syncretism I’ve identified digests two nutrients: managerialism and positive thinking. Mana¬gerialism is an obsession that has turned into common sense. It propagates as imperceptibly as pollen, but without producing any allergies or stinging sensation. Its conceptual heritage and panoply of resources have managed to achieve the rank of unquestionable instruments, located somewhere beyond good and bad: they are science, so hands up!
Managerialism is the name I give—for want of another—to the empowerment of language and methods coined in the management cubicles—lairs would be a better word—and then disseminated to the four points of the compass. It’s the proof that the language of managers has become the lingua franca of the “professional” discourse of development cooperation, the organization and accreditation of universi¬ties, reflection on politics and also—the most novel of novelties—religious discourse.
I’ve taken the term from an Anglo-Saxon source. In an article on NGOs, British anthropologist David Lewis referred to “managerialism” when denouncing the strong emphasis on merely management issues in the form of “managerialist language.” He revealed the concentration of issues such as organizational strengthening, capacity building, strategic planning and best practices based on a language that pays no attention to theoretical density applied to the management science of NGOs and aimed at doing things in the cheapest, best and quickest way possible, just like any business. Lewis stresses the influence of managerialism in the literature on and by NGOs.
Entrepreneurism is the new cultManagerialism implies, of course, a veneration of entrepre¬neurism. The fallacy that there is a need to promote “productive use”—business investment—of the remittances sent home from other countries by migrants is one expression of the cult of the entrepreneur. That fallacy is based on the assumption that all receivers of remittances have something of the businessperson in them and can therefore prosper with a corner shop, a bread basket, a car shop or a big pot of nacatamales with a bit of help from NGOs, the State or the World Bank.
For managerialists, the heroes of the movie are big, medium, small or micro managers/businesspeople. Managerialism therefore presents itself as a professionalization of the virtues of the Protestant work ethic: knowing how to administer, audit, invest; being an expert in calculating cost-benefit. The virtues become techniques that can be acquired through training. Following this thread leads to the ball of yarn that is the funding of strategies. In this sense, the problems and solutions of society and the economy find their most polished expression in the financial world’s objects, concepts and methods. If there’s corruption, the solution lies in the famous concept of “accountability.”
On the field of play, that reductionism means that proposals must be formulated in terms that are mathematizable, quantifiable money-wise, procedural and/or expressible in a plan with objectives, activities, goals and success indicators. The managers—often business administration professionals—are strategists who design roadmaps, advise the disoriented and, like Don Quijote, roam the world, setting wrongs right, redressing injuries and protecting maiden businesses.
Audits are the new ritualsThe auditing industry is a sub-world and instrument of this managerial culture. Fifteen years ago, Michael Power published The Audit Society, in which he analyzed the rituals of verification as a fever that had been spreading in Great Britain and the United States since the early eighties, causing a genuine audit explosion: “In addition to financial audits we now hear of environmental audits, value for money audits, management audits, quality audits, forensic audits, data audits, intellectual property audits, medical audits, and many others besides.” Power was an accountant, auditor, professor of accounting at the London School of Economics, a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and an associate scholar of the European Institute of Advanced Studies in Manage¬ment, and was therefore someone who lived in—and off of—the belly of the monster.
Power sustained that the avalanche of audits originates from a political desire to control and acquire legitimacy. In a context in which the State and society have declined as sources of legitimacy, power—which remains unauditable—legitimizes itself through rituals of control. The Audit Society stresses the dysfunctional consequences that audits generate among the bodies audited, due to their limited possibilities and the reductionism that perverts them. This is perceptible when, for example, evaluations—which should assess the relationship between the changes observed and what was programmed—are reduced to audits, which are incapable of assessing all the changes and often concentrate on dogma-like rules and procedures that imitate rituals.
British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern argued that while the practice of audits tends to appear as an inevitable element of bureaucratic processes, looking at it in perspective shows us its “contours as a distinct cultural artifact” and its character as an instrument of neoliberalism. An old name is used for a new phenomenon: accountability. It doesn’t matter what accountability used to be: there’s a new consensus about what constitute good practices and the need to achieve economic efficiency. Only a determined set of procedures—which Power and Strathern refer to as rituals—can measure that efficiency and adaptation of practices. Only certain operations count.
“This is how the financial and the moral meet in one turn of the century rendering of accountability,” says Strathern, in a process that’s molding culture: there’s an emergence—and predominance—of socially plausible ways and modes of assessing the processes. In this favorable context, the concept of auditing leaped from the level of finances to all of the stages and is now synonymous with all evaluations and measures.
Both professionals and the uninitiated are becoming devotees of implementation. And the language of the managers is talked and listened to on the left, right and center of the political spectrum as the language of standardization and organization. These practices and that language determine the flow of resources and appear crucial to business credibility.
Managers are the new priestly castWe find ourselves standing—with arms crossed? dazzled?—before the imperialism of a discipline. It was lawyers who officiated throughout the 20th century, absolving or condemning, brandishing the labels “legitimate” or “illegitimate.” Their monuments—many in an accelerated state of oxidation—are the United Nations, the European Union’s bureaucratic agreements and procedures, the now decadent state bureaucracies and other legal constructs. Their scholasticism built a virtual reality in which the formal events preceded, produced, compensated for or replaced the real events. Face value was superimposed over real value.
Now, however, managers are the new priestly class—and accountants their acolytes—that divides businesses, people and countries into solvent and insolvent, deficit-making and surplus-creating, precarious or consolidated, profitable or impoundable, efficient or supernumerary. Their verification rituals can redeem or excommunicate. If the only things that exist for the legal pen-pushers are what can be classified and regulated, all that counts for the managers is what can be counted.
An ideology disguised as scienceThrough procedures very similar to those of the pettifoggers, managerialism has also created its scholastics and its metaphysical entities. In his book Technology and Science as Ideology, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas denounced “an attitude that naively correlates theoretical propositions with matters of fact. This attitude presumes that the relations between empirical variables represented in theoretical propositions are self-existent. At the same time, it suppresses the transcendental framework that is the precondition of the meaning of the validity of such propositions. As soon as these statements are understood in relation to the prior frame of reference to which they are affixed, the objectivist illusion dissolves and makes visible a knowledge-constitutive interest.”
But managerialism is often impenetrable to that analysis, as its variables and highly reduced reservoir of categories present a deliciously simple reality malleable to mental manipulation. The fact is that, like many other fairy godmothers of capital, managerialism is an ideology disguised as science.
Ineffable proposals emerge from it, such as auditing ethics in small and medium businesses, or advanced mathematics such as the equation brought to us by a World Bank official that breaks down components and proportions of corruption.
The world of life escapes managerialismUnder these scientificist proposals is hidden a desire for control and technocratic dominion, as interest guides knowledge. In its desire to legitimize itself as a scientific authority, a managerial technocracy that concerns itself with essentially social matters reduces experiences to mere digits, statements, variables and other abstractions from which the world of life escapes. Experiences aren’t a matter for measurement because, as philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer pointed out, “The primary data, to which the interpretation of historical objects goes back, are not data of experiment and measurement but unities of meaning.” If we don’t attend to the world of meanings, to the production of meaning and therefore to experiences as the essence of what is human, social constructions are incomprehensible.
In managerial analyses, human events and slip-ups lack any meaning. They are errors of calculation, accidents, collateral damage… They end up in the black boxes of accountancy. Migrations, while experienced by millions of Central Americans, were negligible as a social event for the macro-economists who calculate the national accounts. For years they tossed migrants’ remittances into the category of “errors and omissions.” That was until the “error” grew to such an extent that it exceeded the main export categories, foreign investment, international finance institution loans and international donations.
The world of experiences has to guide the administrative space, not the other way round. The administrative arena is a fragment of the world of experiences, yet there is no space for that world of experiences in the—intended—manage¬ment universe, save—in a caricature-like way—in the millions of recipe books on business leadership and personnel management, which is an area where managerialism and positive thinking intersect.
There are no great discourses to transmit in managerial literature. It’s nothing more than a host of recipes. Technology has been converted into doctrine. Apparently there is no imago figurata other than the calculation protocols, the formats, the sequence of steps, the formulas. The dogmas are procedures. But for the same reason, this new modality of indoctrination is more penetrating and persistent; the concealed catechesis makes inroads with unprepared subjects. The field is free of scrub, clean for inoculating value systems. No school of cadres has had such effective prior recruiting work, such customary training sessions, such a-critical students or so many pro bono multipliers. But then, what criticism could be made if there are no theories to refute?
There’s no longer a search for meaning,Philosopher Max Horkheimer observed that the triumph of instrumental reason meant the reduction of reason to its operational dimension: calculating probabilities and determining the right means for achieving a given end. From the point of view of this kind of reason, it doesn’t make sense to discuss the rational preeminence of one end over another. The original task of reason, before being reduced to mediating between means and ends, was precisely to understand and determine the ends.
just logical frameworks and SWOTs
Bourgeois tolerance, an extremely ambiguous concept, assumes freedom from dogmatic authority, but also a neutral attitude toward any spiritual content, which is thus surrendered to relativism. Formalized reason, the intermediary between ends and means, is profoundly relativist. Having its autonomy taken away, reason degenerates into a mere instrument. Its unrelatedness to content is played up and its operational value is lauded: “Its operational value, its role in the domination of men and nature, has been made the sole criterion,” explained Horkheimer. Any use transcending auxiliary, technical summarization of factual data has been eliminated as a last trace of superstition. Concepts have become ‘streamlined,’ rationalized, labor-saving devices. It is as if thinking itself had been reduced to the level of industrial processes, subjected to a close schedule—in short, made part and parcel of production.”
When this current was becoming alarmingly massive but still atypical, Horkheimer considered that the search for sense was disappearing in the administered world—we’d call it “managed” today. Philosophy and rigorous reflection were tending to disappear and could come to be considered things for children. In the new instrumental/managerial thinking the instrument becomes the goal; technology and procedures replace doctrine; and the preacher/manager replaces the preacher/theologian and philosopher in the task of explaining the world and texts. The manager supplants the lawyer, the accountant the sociologist, and the businessperson the knight errant. Logical frameworks and SWOT (Successes, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analyses have replaced current, structural, semiotic, historical and folkloric analyses or any other label that got slapped on analyses before the management era.
The priests who talked of social justice in the eighties are now up to date and preaching the gospel of social management. Those who embodied the preferential option for the poor now “negotiate” business social responsibility. Sermons, which once aimed to produce a hermeneutical exercise to penetrate and illuminate the meaning of life, history and the scriptures, cede to “motivational talks” their indisputable millenarian first place in the top ten of introjectors of norms and values. The institutions of Christian inspiration—including parishes and other pastoral bodies—no longer analyze reality or conduct see-judge-act exercises. Almost all do strategic planning following the guidelines of some business school from the North.
A suicidal change of direction, The owners of the money impose the method and categories with which organizations must evaluate themselves and plan. And those methods and categories are clearly managerial. They emerge untainted, free of any leftwing ideological blemish that may want to contaminate them. The managers and their emulators don’t worry about debating concepts; in fact they try to avoid ideologizing discussions.
a spiritual impoverishment
When words aren’t being used to weigh up technically relevant probabilities, they are suspected of being nothing more than mere charlatanry because knowledge and production of meaning stopped being ends in themselves. Why question the predominant focus of citizens’ security? Why reflect on the meaning of violence in society if the managerial panoply—with its logical frameworks, indicators and scenario technologies—can tell us where, when and how much we can invest in projects to reduce that violence?
Mathematics—the extreme example of the formalization of thinking—renounces thinking about what is at stake. The mental economics of mathematics might be good for industry, but not for reasoning about institutions, development, justice, equality, happiness: “…the statement that justice and freedom are better in themselves than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless,” complained Horkheimer, for whom the result of this suicidal change of direction in reason is a spiritual impoverishment, a constant dumbing down.
Parodying Horkheimer, we could say that the management culture is one of those perversions of reason that degenerates against it. But it is a perversion that became the norm. The management culture has penetrated universities (with its audit culture), NGOs and development cooperation (with its SWOTs, logical frameworks, strategic planning…) and international finance institutions (with its accountability as a panacea). Certain religious tendencies are also assimilating it. That absorption is perceptible in what’s known as “Ignacian social management” in the Catholic Church and in the “theology of prosperity” and the business and leadership schools in the Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal churches.
You attract what you think aboutReligion is perishing not at the hands of science, as Horkheimer predicted, but rather at the hands of a superstition, a new magic: the power of the mind to materialize desires. Positive thinking is the new element religion has syncretized with in our countries.
After achieving great success exposing the impossibility of surviving on a worker’s wages in Nickel and Dimed, US writer and activist Barbara Ehrenreich turned her energies to Smile or die: How positive thinking fooled America and the World. It is the most complete and penetrating study of the science?/industry?/religion? of positive thinking.
Is positive thinking a science? The Secret by Australian TV producer Rhonda Byrne, which has become the Bible and Koran of positive spirits, claims without hesitation that it is. The book reveals that the law of attraction, the most powerful law in the universe, is the principle and foundation of success: “Everything that’s coming into your life you are attracting into your life. And it’s attracted to you by virtue of the images you’re holding in your mind. It’s what you’re thinking. Whatever is going on in your mind you are attracting to you.”
According to Byrne, Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Victor Hugo, Beethoven, Lincoln, Emerson, Edison and Einstein all knew the secret. The book quotes John Assaraf, presented as a street child turned businessman and expert in the art of making money: “We can have whatever it is that we choose. I don’t care how big it is.… What kind of house do you want to live in? Do you want to be a millionaire? What kind of business do you want to have? Do you want more success? What do you really want?”
The Secret offers good news: “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, the law of attraction is forming your entire life experience, and this all-powerful law is doing that through your thoughts. You are the one who calls the law of attraction into action, and you do it through your thoughts.”
The Secret lavishes pieces of advice that its millions of readers blindly believe: To attract money, focus on wealth. It’s impossible to bring more money into your life when you focus on your lack of it. • It’s helpful to use your imagination and make believe you already have the money you want. • Make it your intention to look at everything you like and say to yourself, “I can afford that. I can buy that.” You will shift your thinking and begin to feel better about money. • Give money to bring more of it into your life. When you are generous with money and feel good about sharing it, you are saying, “I have plenty.” • Visualize checks in the mail...
The roots lie in Christian ScienceThe infallibility of the law of attraction is explained by the placebo effect: “When a patient really believes the tablet represents a cure, he receives what he believes and is cured.” So all those who persuade themselves they are happy end up being so. The thinking creates the reality, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where “Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth.” It’s from here that many business administrators, international lecturers, life coaches and also former Nicaraguan President Bolaños took the slogan: the secret is attitude. A positive attitude gets you everything, even if the literature on the topic is markedly financial.
Byrne is convinced that “People who have drawn wealth into their lives used the secret, whether consciously or unconsciously. They think thoughts of abundance and wealth, and they do not allow any contradictory thoughts to take root in their minds. Their predominant thoughts are of wealth. They only know wealth, and nothing else exists in their minds. Whether they are aware of it or not, their predominant thoughts of wealth are what brought wealth to them. It is the law of attraction in action.”
Digging around to discover the roots of positive thinking, Ehrenreich takes us back to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. The father of the New Thought movement and grandfather of positive thinking, he discovered that Calvinist doctrine was producing a growing number of psychosomatic illnesses among its followers; they were frequently plagued by feelings of guilt or terrified by the idea of their inevitable and eternal sentence. Quimby became famous developing therapeutic talks aimed at convincing his patients that the universe was fundamentally benevolent, that they formed a single unit with the “Mind” from which they were constituted and that they could cure their illnesses with the power of their minds. In 1863, Mary Baker Eddy, a 42-year-old invalid who had been widowed by her first husband and abandoned by her second, became his patient and disciple and benefitted from a miraculous healing.
As a prolific writer and charismatic teacher, Eddy disseminated the focus of the new thinking so successfully that she turned it into a religion, known as Christian Science. The core of its doctrine is that there is no material world, only Thought, Mind, Spirit, Goodness and Love, or, using the economic term she tended to employ, Supply. Therefore, illness and maladies do not exist except as temporary delirium.
Many applauded the advent of Christian Science and New Thought. From an eminently pragmatic point of view, William James recognized that an academically trained mind resists admitting its postulates, but has to recognize and accept its results. Christian Science cured legions of that illness called Calvinism, which was responsible for neurasthenia and associated with the outdated theology of hell.
“Positive thinking”: A conceptFearing that unless they were reigned in, Christian Scientists would form a majority in the US Congress in 1930, Mark Twain dedicated one of his most caustic books—Christian Science—to them, in which he crowned Mary Baker Eddy as “queen of frauds and hypocrites.” Eddy’s magnum opus and the Christian scientists’ bible, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, inspired this and other visceral paragraphs by Twain: “For of all the strange and frantic and incomprehensible and uninterpretable books which the imagination of man has created, surely this one is the prize sample. It is written with a limitless confidence and complacency, and with a dash and stir and earnestness which often compel the effects of eloquence, even when the words do not seem to have any traceable meaning… When you read it you seem to be listening to a lively and aggressive and oracular speech delivered in an unknown tongue, a speech whose spirit you get but not the particulars…”
popularized some 60 years ago
The core of both Christian Science and positive thinking is the unshakable faith in the power of the mind to create and mold the world. Only what the mind produces exists. Reality lacks autonomy. In the most concessive of cases, the external world is a pale reflection of the mental production.
There were other followers of this kind of unbridled Platonism; blessed beings who inhabited the world of ideas. In the mid-20th century, Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993) popularized the expression “positive thinking.” Peale was even more prolific and widely read than Eddy, producing a monumental pile of best sellers: The Power of Positive Thinking, You Can If You Think You Can, Six Attitudes for Winners, The Positive Power of Jesus Christ, and so on almost to the point of abuse.
Napoleon Hill (1883-1970) provides the link between Eddy’s time and Peale’s. An advisor to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hill achieved celebrity with The Law of Success in 16 Lessons, Think and Grow Rich, The Master-Key to Riches and Your Right to be Rich. Nowadays there is such a host of positive thinkers that if their mental emanations were put down in writing and posted on the web it could cause even the most powerful servers to collapse.
Positive thinking enters Although the religion-positive thinking link is perceptible at its roots, and that connection was obviously solidified with Peale and other authors, positive thinking has had a secular development for winning over more followers, or at least one not tinged with any ecclesiastical color. Its development in non-religious arenas is palpable in the doctors who prescribe positive thinking, adducing its supposedly beneficial effects on health. It is even found in academia, which has created departments of “positive psychology” and “science of happiness”; and above all, of course, in the world of business, full of lecturers and talks on motivation. There it is located in the significant crossover—or crossovers—between positive thinking and the management culture, with its cult of entrepreneurism and obsession with wealth.
the world of management
Although at first glance it would appear that positive thinking and managerialism are to be found at opposing poles—one in delirious irrationality and the other in rationalism taken to its extreme—there are multiple crossovers between positive thinking and the management culture. Let’s start by mentioning that, according to Marketdata Enterprises, the motivation industry—saturated by positivity—brought in some US$9.6 billion in CDs, DVDs, books and coaches’ fees in 2005. The International Coach Federation calculated that estimated global annual revenue for the profession was close to $1.5 billion in 2007. Its clients tend to be businesses that are eager to produce highly motivated employees, the best known of which include Sprint, Albertsons, Allstate, Caterpillar, Exxon Mobil and American Airlines.
The pioneers of New Thought and Christian Science did not get to see just how lucrative their findings could be if applied directly to the world of business, where their techniques could offer employers greater control over their workers and their productivity. The first to perceive that source were the editors of Norman Vincent Peale’s Power of Positive Thinking, when they printed an ad with the following eye-catching notice: “EXECUTIVES: Give this book to employees. It pays dividends!”
Positive thinkers and There are other obvious links between positive thinkers and managers. In the commercial sphere, the best seller is convinced of the benefits of his or her merchandise. The techniques of positive thinking are placed at the service of that conviction and are similar to the “hypnopædia,” or sleep-teaching, of Brave New World: repetitions, signs with slogans and photographs to reach the subconscious, so that the person assimilates without judging what is being assimilated.
managers in the world of work
In human resource management, the best personnel administrator will be the one who can best persuade the employees and manipulate their craziest expectations. The most successful CEOs cultivate an image of charismatic leaders who make snap decisions based on the impulse of positive hunches. It doesn’t matter if the manager isn’t very knowledgeable about accounting or a conscientious student of stock market fluctuations. It’s enough to know certain SWOT rudiments, say “critical path” in each paragraph and launch encouraging speeches. The image of the CEO has changed from being a responsible administrator to being a motivating leader; more similar, in fact, to a motivational speaker or a life coach.
An era in which many have predicted that the spiritual world would be out of place in the rationality of business has seen the emergence of guru managers and shamanistic administrators. Magic has been technified in positive thinking strategies and management has been magicized to respond to a changing world in which all that needs be done is to administrate the chaos of the global casino, its flight capital and its volatile work posts.
Hand in hand, birds of a feather sticking together through many fights, positive thinking and managerialism have united to deal a crushing blow to wage work. Ehrenreich hit the nail on the head when she defined the role of positive thinking in the world of wage work as follows: “With ‘motivation’ as the whip, positive thinking became the hallmark of the compliant employee.” The whip has a structural extension: today’s employers censure and fire workers who file complaints and demands. It also has a social extension: employees run from and censure their “negative” colleagues just as the pious previously anathematized sinners. Even with the squeezes brought on by the crisis and job contraction, if there’s unemployment, underemployment or bad working conditions, the problem is attitude… of the bad workers, of course.
Positive thinking on the psychoanalyst’s couch Although positive thinking dresses up as science, the element of magic remains. The core of its proposal gives it away: it’s enough to fervently desire an object or situation to produce it. This is s pretty unsophisticated formulation of the ancient faith in the omnipotence of ideas, one of the phenomena most studied by psychoanalytic theory. In Totem and Taboo, Freud defined it as a process in which man attributes unquestionable efficacy to something intensely thought and emotionally represented. Just like members of tribes with magic cults, positive thinkers believe it’s possible to transform the outside world with the power of their ideas alone.
Freud sustained that it’s possible to trace that omnipotence of ideas in human childhood. The first phases of infancy are characterized by geocentricism, in which the pleasure principle is everything. Maturing consists of the principle of conservation, to guarantee the individual’s survival, replacing the pleasure principle with the reality principle. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud stated that “we know that the pleasure principle is proper to a primary method of working on the part of the mental apparatus, but that, from the point of view of the self-preservation of the organism among the difficulties of the external world, it is from the very outset inefficient and even highly dangerous.”
In psychologies governed by the pleasure principle, the infant psychology of the first years, “The antithesis between subjective and objective does not exist from the first…. The first and immediate aim, therefore, of reality-testing is, not to find an object in real perception which corresponds to the one presented, but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there.” In other words, people clinging to the pleasure principle build a reality that is satisfactory for them.
In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud explained how this mechanism works: “One can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him.” Those who persist in banging their heads against reality, or rather denying and substituting it, fall into psychosis. The psychosis creates a new reality exempt from the motives of dissatisfaction provided by the surrounding reality. The psychotic person does not let him or herself be dominated—convinced or held back—by reality.
In its most innocuous version, positive thinking takes narcissism to its extreme: the actions—and even positive thoughts—of others cannot upset the realization of one’s own desires. The others are no more than extras or puppets in the long Hollywood movie in which each positive thinker plays the lead. They are like the set of The Truman Show, there to satisfy the desires of the positive thinker.
Positive thinking is the opiate of our timesThe extreme of positive thinking—it’s most alarming version—is to provide oneself with the perceptions that correspond to the desired reality through hallucination. Without always reaching the pathological extreme of hallucination, positive thinking ends up producing the same as psychosis: the loss and substitution of reality. From this perspective we can say that positive thinking is the mixture of militant hedonism with the impossibility of satisfying expectations. That’s why it arises in a time of inflated expectations with only unrealistic possibilities of realizing them.
Positive thinking emerges as a fantasy concealing the unpalatable reality that we wage workers are falling down the social pyramid with nothing to grab onto save the innermost imaginative capacity to create hanging gardens from rough crags. Positive thinking emerges where the conflictive elements of social life are repressed or denied. It denies the violation of rights, the blocking of success, the decline of the world of wage labor.…
Positive thinking keeps discontent, tensions and conflicts repressed. Rather than a whip, it’s an opiate in the classic Marxist sense. What was previously obtained from a God whose favor was won through prayer and magical formulas is now materialized through the sheer force of desire.
Witchcraft was responsible for obtaining the illusion that positive thinking produces. Its non-primitive version has produced a kind of “technification” of magical thinking, more in line with the supposed managerial rationalism, in which the old witchcraft has to rename its ancient resources so as not to be out of sync. It thus talks in terms of laws (the law of attraction, among others), self-persuasion tactics (no more than ritual repetitions), life coaching courses (rites of passage) and the six attitudes for winners—behaviors that keep away bad spirits?—and “master-keys” for getting rich.
Positive thinkers also connect with the traditional religions. Ehrenreich demonstrated that the point of contact between the old Calvinist religion and positive thinking is their obsession with self-monitoring: Calvinists sought to extirpate sinful thinking and laxity, while positive thinking wants to eradicate negative thinking.
The poor are poor becauseThe most delirious fantasies of positive thinking are not a mere curiosity rooted in the marginalized wing of some eccentric museum. They are acting here and now, in postwar Central America. Their ideological creatures and their deification of desiderative faculties would be innocuous were it not for their impact on the transformation that Central America has suffered thanks to their adoption by powerful political actors.
they don’t think positively
Their power has an inequality-consecrating bias inscribed in its corollary. Positive thinking builds a non-conflictive reality that denies inequalities, structural conditionings and the barriers to the social ascent of the disinherited, non-connected and castoffs of today and always. In its idyllic vision, poverty and the existence of “losers” simply reflect a lack of positivity. This means that the individual is totally responsible for his or her social position and achievements. There are no oppressive structures to identify and dismantle.
There’s a novel turn in the inculpation of individuals, as the wretched of the earth are no longer blamed for their misery because they’re lazy, ignorant or sinners, but rather just because they are negative thinkers. This world is forcefully unequal because the distribution of positivity and knowledge of the “secret” is unequal, as Bob Proctor stresses in one of the quotes that buttress The Secret: “Why do you think that 1 percent of the population earns around 96 percent of all the money that’s being earned? Do you think that’s an accident? It’s designed that way. They understand something. They understand The Secret, and now you are being introduced to The Secret.”
Let’s be like those miceAmong the most successful promoters of blindness to conflicts elevated to the rank of cardinal virtue is Spencer Johnson, author of books with titles as promising as The One Minute $ales Person and The One Minute Mother. His masterpiece, Who Moved My Cheese?, sold millions of copies. It was a Trojan Horse that many bosses gave to their employees.
Emblematic in its promotion of terse thinking, removed from conflicts, it uses the form of an allegorical children’s tale to tell the story of two mice called Sniff and Scurry and two “littlepeople” (beings as small as mice but who looked and acted a lot like people today) called Hem and Haw who one day arrived at Cheese Center “C,” where they normally got their cheese supplies, only to discover there was no cheese. While the littlepeople ranted and raved at the injustice of it all, the two mice chose not to complicate their lives and simply looked for alternative cheese sources: “The mice did not overanalyze things. And they were not burdened with many complex beliefs. To the mice, the problem and the answer were both simple. The situation at Cheese Station C had changed. So, Sniff and Scurry decided to change.”
Humans are invited to be like mice, which do not “overanalyze or overcomplicate things.” The book’s subtitle announces part of its proposal: “An amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life.” The “amazing way” consists of not complicating things: if your boss and the system turn you into just another victim of the contraction of jobs, you urgently need to avoid the pernicious human tendency to overanalyze and complain. When you lose your job, the best thing to do is to look for another. There will be some delicious morsel of cheese waiting for you some place. Protected in this blissfully serene cosmovision, employers have replaced the odious terms “labor cuts” or “dismissals” with more amiable phrases such as “alleviation of resources” and “career change opportunities.”
Complaining was also frowned upon in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Nonconformity was dangerous. In response to the slightest nonconformity, the inhabitants of that futuristic anti-utopia took drugs that produced a sense of wellbeing.
The Central America of the seventies and eighties offered the disobedient exile and burial. Today’s Central America offers generous doses of positive thinking. Immersed in a syncretic process, the Neo-Pentecostal and other Christian churches are absorbing and promoting the techniques and values of positive thinking and managerial ways of acting. Their pastors are the organic intellectuals of those tendencies of thinking.
In the next edition of envío, we will look at how managerialism and positive thinking converge in the religious arena to convince us that it is God’s will that we be rich. Hallelujah!
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.