It is becoming increasingly clear that the fuel in the engine of late capitalist society is motivational philosophy. It is this, rather than nationalism or organized religion, that serves as the new opium of the people. In this essay I will describe the main (pseudo religious) characteristics and layers of what I consider to be part of the same individualistic culture of aspiration, before critically questioning them. Motivation is vital to any societal project, and while the immediate effects of the culture of self-help books and aspirational thinking can be positive, they are not without danger.
By ‘aspirational thinking’ or ‘motivational philosophy’ I refer to that often inconsistent collage of ideas, books and expressions that emerged as the identity-forming or spiritual counterpart of neoliberalism. At the core is the idea that the meaning of life is getting to the top, combined with the assurance that we all can and should get there. Motivation is found in mentally focusing in one’s own aspirations, which are to be reached through a ‘can do’ competitive attitude on the one hand, and avoiding or ignoring social drama on the other. Perceive, believe, achieve. The most clear material manifestation of this ideology are the scores of best-selling motivational philosophy and self-help books that emanate from the United states, with success-novels by billionaires and celebrities in their slip stream. A closer look at this body of ideas reveals why it is such a useful counterpart to the neoliberal project of installing the market as the main organizing principle of society.
Let us first look at the undeniable metaphysical basis of motivational philosophy, which resolves around variations of what one would call ‘karma’: the idea that our negative or positive actions are somehow bounced back to us by ‘the universe’. The best example of this is the philosophy of the ‘Law of attraction’, which dates back to occultist 19th century thinkers but was most popularized in books like The Secret. Two remarks. First, let us be clear that this is magical thinking. I can appreciate the practical truth in this thought relating to social relations (if I’m always angry, people will like me less), but this is based on far reaching assumptions about reality: it assumes both immanent justice and a sentient universe (not a god in our image) that interacts with us personally. Second, this perfectly fits in the with broader loss of consistency in religious thought. One advantage of the established religions such as Catholicism, is that they offer a complete and consistent worldview. Yet postmodern culture has done away with the need for consistency (1), and thus convenient belief in Karma is perfectly consistent with freeing oneself of other religious restrictions and imperatives. As Slavoi Zizek remarked years ago, by borrowing from Buddhism, neoliberalism has finally found a spiritual mask to cover its nihilist core.
Socially, the consequences are more tangible. The common denominator is the encouragement of striving for individual success, immediately followed by the dogma that everybody can reach this regardless of their circumstances. Not only does capitalism provide such opportunities, as we saw the universe itself rewards effort. See you at the top! Notice two consequences: first, it justifies our hyper-unequal social order. It is the last in a long list of discourses that helps stigmatize poverty, but interestingly it justifies the rich, villains in traditional Catholic thought. The new saints of society are billionaires-who-preach, such as Elon Musk, Richard Brandson and Jack Ma. The second consequence is that it censors complaints against this social order. Complaining or criticizing after all sends out negative energy into the universe (yikes!), and mindfulness teaches non-judgmental awareness. Don’t hate, appreciate. The result of both, as many authors before me have remarked, is that the struggle becomes internalized, at the cost of considering societal or political action to change our structural circumstances.
SO WHAT? – you might think. What if I like to play this game, and the soundtrack that goes with it? Do you think you are cool, pinches hater, by exposing another cultural imperialist plot of the gringo’s? Pues si, but I also understand the need for motivation. My concerns are not with the immediate effects of these thoughts (they are not so different from what came before), but how they long term interact with our identity.
First I wonder how they relate to the insecurities and anxiety epidemic of the new generations – obvious to anybody who daily deals with young people. They are certainly not the first generation who is told that they can (read: should) achieve anything they want if they try hard enough, but they do stand more alone in doing so than ever before. The path to social progress does not lead through unionized struggle for higher wages or rights, but through competition with their own friends. This hits the middle class especially hard, since they must at a minimum recreate or preferably surpass the success of their parents. From a sociologist point of view, we must acknowledge that motivational philosophy sets people up for failure. Social mobility in Mexico is terrible low, the obstacles are many, the road unclear and the ground to cover between classes is vast. But on a more fundamental level we cannot all reach the top even if the fiction of social mobility was true, because society is structured as a pyramid. While everybody might have a theoretical chance, reaching the top comes at the cost of others. Those ignorant of this will be disappointed, those aware of it will have a hard time making real friends.
Second, and most importantly, aspirational thinking is an obstacle to class consciousness and collective action. The problem goes deeper than the now almost cliché critique of individualizing problems. What aspirational thinking does to society on a deeper level, is making people disassociate with their current (class) conditions and identify with their aspirational selves. Many people think, talk, act and vote in the interest of their aspirational selves, not their actual selves. The problem is not only that we don’t look down, we don’t look around us either. We look up, and sympathize. Although large parts of the Mexican working class seem to have (re)found their political voice, many poor and lower-middle class people in North-America consider themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires (2). Ironically, siding with the interests of elites can decrease the actual chances of joining them.
Lastly, I fear that aspirational thinking might make us more vulnerable to manipulation. The culture of aspiration make us used to two things: 1) evaluating options and risks based on aspiration, 2) belief in improbable outcomes. Broadly it can make us naive to accepting the promises of for example technological change as long as they are sufficiently associated with a path to the top. Certain developments such as artificial intelligence, can have obvious social risks (replacement of labor), but when coated in aspirational imaginary we can perceive them as advantageous to us or only affecting others. Because you choose to be an optimist, right? We don’t need to be corrupted by tangible benefits anymore, the perceived benefit is sufficient for the conditioned aspirer. More narrowly, advertisement has always been about selling us imaginary qualities, but aspirational thought allows for a bigger disconnect. Notice how you are daily targeted by advertisement imagery of happy families (usually in parks, usually white) or exciting rooftop/pool parties, that are totally unrelated to the product. It is not about us, but who we aspire to be. Don’t worry, you can pay with credit: your future self is rich after all.
Enough. It is awkward at best to argue against motivation. The reality individuals have to face is so confusing, hard and cold, one either needs to be motived or not care at all. I will personally take the aspirational capitalism over the nihilist variant any day of the week. Increasing willpower is appreciated, taking (your share of) responsibility is appreciated, ambition is appreciated. All (successful) societal and political projects depend on some mechanism of motivation, whether it is reward in the afterlife in Feudal society, or the glorification of contribution in communism. In this text we analyzed the blind spots of one such systems. It is important to weigh it versus other truths: such as the sociological fact that societal structure does matter. Such as the reality that in this society, people come up by stepping on others. Such as the fact that real change comes from collective action. Such as the fact that justice is a social construct, a gift from one person to the other, rather than a cosmic force. Such as the fact that happiness is social. Now be a good yes-man and share this essay, it will send out positive energy into the universe.
(1) For example many of my students will say they are not really religious, but do believe in ghosts. Yes, you.