Tuesday September 28, 2021

The pathology of ‘motivational’ speakers

September 13, 2021

The last decade has seen a tremendous rise in the number of motivational speakers around the globe. This is not to say that before the last decade motivational speakers did not exist, or were not popular, lest we forget Zig Ziglar’s famous ‘life-changing’ speeches or Adolf Hitler’s racist ‘motivational’ tirades.

But this peculiar brand of speakers which have burgeoned in recent times, and which is fast becoming ubiquitous to online spaces, certainly warrant some attention and dissection. According to rough estimates, the motivational speaking industry in the US annually generates around $2 billion, and by 2025, it is expected to reach close to $3 billion. India and China, the two emerging neoliberal giants, are fast catching up with their American counterparts.

In Pakistan, the industry has grown immensely in the last five years, and some of its most prominent members, including the one whose scandalous images circulated over the internet a few weeks back, have more followers on YouTube than Tony Robbins – America’s most cherished motivational speaker. The prodigious following of these individuals is a testament to their rising popularity and permeation into the social milieu of Pakistan, which seems to be quite responsive to this motivational content, in a bid to resolve individual quandaries of their presumed ‘unhappy’ lives.

But what explains this upsurge of motivational industry in the last decade and its enormous penetration, internationally and locally?

Capitalism’s unbridled expansion in the form of neoliberalism from the 1970s onwards was hugely jolted by the 2008 financial crisis. To many heterodox economists, this historic monetary crisis provided an opportunity for a paradigm shift towards a more egalitarian future. But instead, we witnessed the same old: a new wave of anti-tax, anti-labour, increased privatisation-oriented policies, couched in an emancipatory jargon by the right-wing populists who dominated the political spaces in the last decade.

But one thing became clear: that the system certainly lacks legitimacy and authority which once made it so indispensable, and which forced Mark Fisher to state in ‘Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?’ that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”. This receding legitimacy and authority of the economic system which was once considered to be the only viable economic system, could be seen through the way alternative progressive forces have gained prominence in recent times – in the US in the form of a historic campaign launched by Bernie Sanders, and in the UK, by Jeremy Corbyn – not to discredit equally important recent electoral victories of progressive forces in Kerala, India and Latin America.

However, despite the repeated financial setbacks, the crises of legitimacy, and the meagre rejuvenation of alternative forces, it is difficult to imagine the complete dismantling of capitalism in the near future; it is currently in its ‘zombie phase’ – dead but still walking. Yanis Varoufakis claims that we no longer live under capitalism but under ‘techno-feudalism’. He elaborates that capitalism has gone through several transmutations and intermittent failures (‘Great Depression, Great Recession and the post-2009 long stagnation’), but it is the metamorphosing capability of the system which still keeps it running, with newer incarnations and makeups, seeking newer forms of legitimacy.

We can argue that this particular ascent of motivational speakers in recent times and their acolytes in the form of self-help writers, coaches, executive wellness gurus, is the latest neoliberal tactic to seek legitimacy for a system which is fast losing its social control. William Davies’ ‘The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being’ provides an insightful understanding on how the American state and big businesses in recent years have so zealously disseminated discourse around the ‘well-being’ of individuals, through positive psychologists, neuroscientists and motivational speakers. This is being done through quantifying happiness in algorithmic forms by subjectifying social anxieties, telling individuals that their happiness is their ‘personal choice’ on which they have perfect control, and by reducing ethical and political questions to numerical calculations. The target of such exercises as Davies elaborates is “the entangling of hope and joy within infrastructures of measurement, surveillance and government”.

Davies sees the global eruption of the science of happiness as a capitalist stunt to dissuade the chances of rising anger of exploited individuals turning into a unified political movement, one which can shatter the existing exploitative economic order that is currently serving only a tiny elite. Therefore, the problem is repeatedly turned ‘inwards’ – towards the individual who is struggling – evading larger political and economic problems.

The late Marxist anthropologist, David Graeber, called this process ‘ideological naturalisation’ – deliberate ‘internalisation of hierarchy and domination’, where a changeable ‘social convention’ is deemed an ‘immutable order of being’, something which the followers of Social Darwinism will espouse to; where ‘survival of the fittest’ is seen as a ‘natural universal order’ rather than an ideology, serving the interests of a certain political and economic system.

Turning to Pakistan, a quick gleaning into the content shared on YouTube by one of the most famous motivational speakers in the country, one finds that the topical realm of these motivational videos myopically ranges from ‘how to live a happy life’ to ‘tips to become a valuable person’ to ‘how can we change our destiny’ to ‘how to become famous’, among other similar traverses, which completely ignore the macro forces at play and their role in creating conditions, making people unhappy.

Through further excavation, one finds that, while the broader coordinates of the motivational (happiness) industry in Pakistan is emblematic of its global counterparts, the discourse is well cognisant of local values, idioms and needs, and therefore is tailored accordingly to be marketable. The metanarrative, just like the industry in general, centres around taking the attention away from social malignancies and their role in making people unhappy to disproportionately blaming the individuals, who presumably should be in ‘full control’ of their lives.

Since religion is so intrinsic to the national and social consciousness of the country, it is carefully used to gain legitimacy among the people. A perfect coalescence of spiritual exhortation and capitalist stoicism in operation creates the end product. Furthermore, a dichotomous and conspiratorial worldview is sporadically encouraged, which sees the Western model of democracy and development at antagonism with Eastern ‘values’.

This article in no way means to undermine the pain of those suffering from chronic unhappiness, anxiety and depression, and many young people who might find some ephemeral solace in these videos, but rather to be critical of the efficacy of such content in the long run – in a country marred with structural political, sociological and economic problems. All the major indicators suggest that Pakistan is one of the few countries where a large youth bulge has been consistently out of the workforce; where inequality is on a momentous rise; where social mobility is practically non-existent; where women and children are going through an epidemic of rape and violence; and where those in ethnic peripheries continue to live precarious lives.

In a society crippled with all these epochal issues, to rhapsodise about ‘inward-looking’, self-help exercises in an obscure vocabulary which overtly individualises these larger structural issues and encourages ahistorical and apolitical tropes – in a bid to create docile and ‘disciplined’ subjects – is nothing more than an intellectually and morally vacuous exercise, reinforcing the degenerating social order with all its malaises.

The writer, who is a graduate from LUMS, is currently teaching at the Institute of Liberal Arts, UMT.

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