In praise of demotivation or: why do something rather than nothing?

By Guillaume Paoli
Translated from French by Isaac Cronin
Ed. by Samara Hayley Steele

Motivated, Motivated
We must be motivated.
—Neo-Trotskyist refrain

If people need to be constantly motivated it is because they are constantly demotivated. In the employment sector, all the indicators (i.e., the statistics as well as the police reports) point to a decreased “investment” of workers in their jobs. This is not only the case among poorly paid workers, but also among middle management and top executives. Within the consumer sector, the major markets are seeing a growing dissatisfaction among shoppers, and this is connected to a saturation effect caused by decreased interest in making purchases, rather than the fabled decline in purchasing power.

The more the market needs motivation from the people, the more they seem to lack it.

At the very moment when global capital seems to have removed all external obstacles that formerly impeded its development, an internal factor threatens it: the growing dissatisfaction of its human resources without which the system is nothing. This is the soft underbelly of the colossus. Contrary to what Marx believed, in the end the limit to World Trade, Inc. might not be objective, but subjective—the increasing cost of motivation.

In this situation, it isn’t really accurate to say we are in a traffic jam; the bitter truth is that we are the traffic jam. 

Of all the factors that contribute to this state of affairs, the traffic jam plays a special role. The situation is known well. Each consumer buys a car that promises individual freedom, speed, and power only to find temself stuck in traffic with other motorists who, driven by the same motives, did the same thing. In this situation, it isn’t really accurate to say we are in a traffic jam; the bitter truth is that we are the traffic jam. As congestion spreads from one part of the market to the next, the life span of each so-called “reason to drive” decreases. The immediate tactic is to create new motives quickly, but the likely result is that they will end up simply creating a new motive-jam. And it is not just that people overwhelmed with offers don’t know where to turn, but also, as everyone gets caught in traffic, companies are unable to reach increasingly unavailable customers. Also, getting caught in traffic makes the workday longer, and results in lower pay per hour. It is logical: the more the markets become global, the less is the role of each person in creating wealth, the more e becomes an interchangeable unit. Everyone is now subject to a double bind: expect a lower salary and consume more. Be creative and admit that there is no alternative; be loyal and remember that you are replaceable; be a unique individual and submit to the needs of the team; be egotistical and be ashamed to defend your interests; orgasm and at the same time practice abstinence. If you obey one demand you will disobey the other.

Just try and be motivated, under such conditions!

Many people have pointed out the crisis of demotivation in order to condemn it. I believe, rather, that we should welcome this situation as an opportunity. If capitalism has as an essential precondition the motivation of its collaborators, it is logical for the opponents and victims of its development to treat demotivation as a necessary stage.

…capitalism has as an essential precondition the motivation of its collaborators…

When I told my circle that I planned to write this elegy, my friends either disapproved or didn’t understand what I was doing. I get it: as if we aren’t demotivated enough as it is! But isn’t the problem rather that the ideas, the general objectives, the dreams, the reasons to act that animated previous generations have disappeared from the surface of the social field? Today’s motives look more like a “cemetery of uniforms and tanks,” as Duchamp put it.

The difference between ancient society, modernism, and post-modernism is this: the ancients knew that they believed, the modernists believed that they knew, and the post-modernists believe that they don’t believe in anything. It is precisely this latter belief that we need to dismantle. The thing we need to criticize in the disabused pose of those who have walked away from everything without having been anywhere, is not their giving up of illusions. Rather, all of the illusions they weave about a world which they describe as “rational,” but which is in fact filled with spells, magical rituals and sacred cows. If the ancient idols have been thrown to the bonfire of vanities, it is in the name of this ever more voracious monotheism that mystification remains a social force. If this new brand of nihilism isn’t noticed, it is because it is everywhere, presenting itself as the only truth, naked and undeniable. Everything has been deconstructed, demystified, discredited, smashed, superseded, decomposed, dissected in slices, digested, defecated. Everything? No. Nobody touches the market. It’s taboo. It proliferates like an algae that takes over all the space around it eliminating other species. It is the religion of World Trade, Inc. Yet, just as Christianity did not completely eliminate the pagan gods, but instead integrated them into its universe, then the monotheism of the market has not completely destroyed real motives that populate this world. It simply monopolizes these motives, denaturing them. It reforms them so that they conform to its ends, to the point of making them unrecognizable. Assuming that motivation is lacking in this world is to misunderstand the mutant forms through which it expresses itself.

The objective of practicing demotivation—and this treaty is only a modest step in that direction—would be to divest oneself from the mechanisms that are used to lead all of us, and to methodically dismantle the mechanisms that ensure, despite everything, that the market continues.

Today the bureaucrats want nothing less than to make every employee a Situationist, imploring them to be spontaneous, creative, autonomous, freewheeling, unattached, and greeting the precariousness of their lives with open arms.

You could say this is not enough. That you have to give people a reason to fight, motivate them to seek a better world, offer them visions of well-being, beauty, of justice. Not really. I do not hold the view that this is the role of critical theory. If one opposes how our energies are channeled by the market, it is not in order to suggest instead behaviors and goals deemed “more radical.” One has already seen plenty of these utopias that ridicule the current norms in order to replace them with even more tyrannical ones. In the end, the history of the 20th century has abundantly demonstrated that the attempts to oppose World Trade, Inc. with radical models of subversion have provided our enemy with its best weapons. Today the bureaucrats want nothing less than to make every employee a Situationist, imploring them to be spontaneous, creative, autonomous, freewheeling, unattached, and greeting the precariousness of their lives with open arms. Our approach, in which we limit the critique to the domain of the negative without a specific goal, demonstrates our optimism stemming from this hypothesis (obviously unproven) that most people have within them all the energy necessary for their own autonomy, without which they would simply be add-ons to the power of others.

Lichtenberg once wrote, “Nothing is more unfathomable than the system of motivation behind our actions.” One can hope that the unfathomable recaptures its rights.

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This text was originally published in French in 2009 as part of the first chapter of the book Eloge De La Demotivation.  UPDATE: In  Autumn of 2013, a full translation of this text has been released by Little Black Cart under the name Demotivational Training (full PDF)(buy the book).

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In this edit, gender neutral Spivak pronouns (e, es, eself and tey, tem, ter, temself) have been used to replace the gendered pronouns of the original text. A 1980 study by Donald G. MacKay showed that readers were less likely to misinterpret the Spivak pronouns, whereas the use of one pronoun mislead some readers into believing that only one gender was being referred to (American Psychologist, vol 35).