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The Case of the YouTube Motivational Speakers as Hustlers: The Privatization of Hope in Neoliberal India

Theory & ResearchIn the contemporary era, motivational speaking is just another job, another category in the long line of work one can incorporate into the hustle culture. The creative entrepreneurs deal with the aspiration currency of the present: information

The 2022 Oxford Economics report on the video-sharing platform YouTube highlights how the platform contributed more than USD 81 million and supported over 68,000 jobs in India during 2021 (Oxford Economics 2022). The platform exercises a framework within which YouTubers monetize their work. One recognizes the value of Indian YouTubers as they constitute its largest subscriber base. Online content creators in the country are increasingly targeting non-English speakers through personal development channels and finance content on YouTube (Vora 2022). According to the Oxford report, a “creative entrepreneur” is a YouTuber whose earnings either come directly from the platform and/or are helped by their YouTube presence. Author and critic William Deresiewicz used the term “creative entrepreneurs” to refer to the fundamental shift in our understanding of art and artists in the age of Big Tech. He observes how “entrepreneurialism is being sold to us as an opportunity” but increasingly turns into a necessity since “nobody can count on a job” (Deresiewicz 2015). I extend these definitions of the creative entrepreneur in my article to refer to the content creators on YouTube as an emergent new class whose presence underlines the precarization of life and work enabled by neoliberalism worldwide. Their increasing presence bears witness to the challenges resulting from the merging of formal and informal — as well as aspirational and entrepreneurial — labour. 

In the contemporary era, content creation is a lucrative career; especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, motivational videos on YouTube were a top category among the kind of content consumed (Mehrotra 2021). Motivational speakers on YouTube and personal development gurus: such performative identities constitute these creative entrepreneurs and have become key figures of the contemporary neoliberal state. In the contemporary era, motivational speaking is just another job, another category in the long line of work one can incorporate into the hustle culture (Sharma 2017). The creative entrepreneurs deal with the aspiration currency of the present: information. YouTube started as an altruistic way of sharing information online (Scholz 2009), however, at present, it is increasingly posited as an economic saviour in a world dealing with unemployment, rising inflation, and overall economic precarity. In this scenario, all notion of such altruism is erased, and content creators adopt the platform as its recruiters, and their contributions as a survival necessity. 

The political right arrived in India in 2014 with Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP hereafter). His rule has been marked as an innovative combination of “Hindutva and development” (Kaul 2017). On 12 May 2020, amid the pandemic, Modi announced the initiation of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan (Self-Reliant India Mission) (News on Air 2021). The self-reliant refrain took over as an economic philosophy, extending to individuals as well. Entrepreneurs thus had a special place in this idiom. Addressing the necessity of skill development in enabling an Atmanirbhar Bharat, Modi emphasizes the need for self-confidence in the Indian youth (Mint 2021). Despite this, according to data, India’s jobless rate remains among the highest among emerging economies (ET Online 2023).

It is within these contexts that I am studying the rise of motivational speakers in India, and in this particular case, in Assam. Assam is one of the eight states of the region grouped together and referred to as North East India. The region is seen as tethered to the “mainland” both literally and figuratively. It is a fracture which is cultural, economic, psychological, and emotional (Baruah 2005) and something attributed to the colonists, who limited the mingling of the hills and the plains (Phukon 1996). The region had a long history of political and social unrest including insurgency and separatist movements, ethnic and tribal conflicts, and border disputes. The BJP came to power in India in 2014, while it first formed a government in Assam in 2016, and it continues to be the ruling party both there and nationally. A 2014 Planning Commission report on Transport Development in the Northeast acknowledges that the “economic and human potential of India’s North East region (NER) is severely constrained due to its transport infrastructure deficiency” (NTDPC 2014, 481). This “deficiency” also contributes to the general perception of the region being remote and backward which fuels its politics of difference, enabling it to stand out. Hence, during the era of PM Narendra Modi, the arrival of his party, BJP, in Assam coincided with the completion of major infrastructure projects and billion-dollar investment in infrastructural development in the region. At present, Assam is among the top-ten poorest states in India (NITI Aayog 2021). Besides, in July 2022, the state had the third-highest unemployment rate in India which continues to remain a major challenge for the state, though it also remains one of the top five states in the country for literacy (Census 2023; CMIE, n.d.). It is within these economic, cultural, and socio-political ironies that I am reading into the state’s motivational speakers.

Krishna Kanta Sinha (henceforth KKS), a nondescript individual from a town in Assam, tried his hand at multiple jobs before finally finding a place on YouTube. There is a reason why such personalities are increasingly emerging from places like small-town India. He is a character who is also often not accommodated within the traditional job markets, which necessitates the need to broaden his employability avenues. Hence, in the last decade, YouTube has amassed a similar horde of motivational speakers across the world, more so from non-English speaking pockets. Neoliberalism is legitimized through characters such as KKS emerging from local areas, configuring the aspirational currency firmly as a survival strategy. 

In other words, the platform enables the privatization of aspiration, using hope as a panacea for overcoming institutionalized biases and political problems that arise owing to it. This is evidenced by the fragmentation of the online creator, in this case, the motivational speaker, who also doubles up as a local news provider. To feed his aspiration, he diversifies his expertise like any good business. In the process, it breeds the formation of personalities, for example, in this paper the motivational speakers stand in as messiahs of inspirational emptiness.

This article addresses these claims in two ways: First, it outlines the role of motivational speakers as the mouthpiece of aspiration and hope, and how YouTube as a platform works as a medium for selling this aspiration. I also argue that this production of hope, in turn, signals the states’ production of despair. Second, it focuses on the production of personalities who are stand-ins themselves for the increasing precarity, and how they exist as an apt example of the nexus of the platform, and practice in an increasingly authoritarian Indian state which itself has been busy producing authoritarian personalities to mobilize its own politics. 

Privatizing Aspiration: Hope, the Redeemer

The region started witnessing active engagement online through mobile data in 2016 after Reliance Jio, the mobile network provider, launched 4G services offering free data for over six months (Mudgill 2016). The pandemic was another active period, specifically for YouTubers, a lot of whom launched their channels during this period, while those forced to stay home during COVID-19 lockdowns presented the creators with new audiences. YouTube is a popular hotspot for all kinds of content creators, one to which motivational speakers have also successfully migrated. For KKS, the motivational speaker from Silchar, Assam [1] (Sinha n.d.), Facebook has been a primary platform to promote his YouTube channels. He also positions himself as a local news provider through his other YouTube channel, the Silchar News Network.

KKS belongs to the Bishnupriya community, a minority Hindu community in Silchar. He has an entrepreneurial streak which extends to his YouTube work. He uses the channel as a provider of local news and, in between his news telecast, also features ads from local enterprises and businesses, which he often reads aloud in the middle of the segment or provides as a graphic overlay on one side of the screen. During my conversation with him in October 2023, I found out more about KKS’s life as a hustler. Belonging to a lower-middle-class family in a village in the Cachar district, he was the youngest of his five siblings. He studied long-distance until his graduation and tried (in his own words) his hand at more than 20 jobs, including wedding server and doing home deliveries of fermented dry fish. He is also an avid consumer of self-help literature. While talking to me, he showed me his copy of the Hindi version of the book Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda which was on his desk. He exclaimed, “this is the book which sealed my faith in God”. 

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Talking to him, I could sense that he was aware of how he came across to me. But despite the self-help verbiage he spouted, two things became very apparent: first, his drive to become rich; and second, his capacity to work hard. He was also an expert when it came to evading questions he did not feel like responding to. Before meeting him, I was wary of the multi-level marketer aspect of his persona. One of the jobs where he excelled was as an agent for Amway, a global multi-level marketing organization. He acknowledged that it was during that phase that he started his motivational channel on YouTube, sharing what he learned at the workshop organized by Amway for its employees. He had no qualms in admitting that it was being rich that drives him, and with social media — on YouTube — he found a certain kind of success. Currently, apart from earning through his channel and ads, his primary earnings come from promoting local businesses on this news channel. For every business covered, he charges between USD 180–320. He manages multiple YouTube channels with 16 full-time employees working for him. He still has a debt of around USD 21,000 from one of his previous failed businesses, which he is hopeful he will pay back soon.

In the Global South, precarious work is a way of being (Pettit 2019). In the neoliberal spirit, precarity is espoused as something not systemic and thus can be overcome with hard work. Harry Pettit’s work on the topic of call centre employees in Cairo observes how “individualised hope” through meritocracy and routine consumptive distraction eliminates the neoliberal structural fallacies which result in the precarity (ibid.). Meanwhile, in areas such as North East England, “hope labour”, low-paying or non-paying jobs which become more enticing through eliciting hope for improved prospects, is used to mask the power inequalities while making that labour meaningful to cultural workers (Mackenzie and McKinlay 2021). In the context of far-right politics, Julian Göpffarth (2021) recognizes the effectiveness of “anxious hope” based on nostalgia, heralding “an alternative far-right future”. Hope, in many ways, fuels the existence of neoliberalism; it is that which makes the unpalatable bearable, or even pleasant. Motivation or self-help thus becomes one of the primary ways of initiating that hope. However, Henry Giroux recognizes the subversive potential of “critical and educated hope” which allows for differences to thrive and diversifies political authority, thus fostering social change (2013). Almost every motivational speaker these days caters to the corporate offices which, through the motivational gurus, try to inspire their overworked workforce through this “corporate spirituality”, while also ticking boxes to underscore their contribution in alleviating the ailment which they themselves generate.

YouTube produces what Nicholas-Brie Guarriello (2019) terms “the personalized media economy”. According to Guarriello, in this economy, the content creators use and expand their “intimate space” to “predict and build their own futures”. In other words, they capitalize on both their labour and life events. The YouTube Partner Programme (YPP) is the most common way to earn revenue. As part of YPP, content creators agree to display automated distributed advertisements in their channel and share 55 percent of the ad revenues with YouTube. As Mingyi Hou explains, the crucial feature in this kind of monetization is the “cost per mille” (CPM), or cost per thousand views, an amount which is fixed by YouTube’s advertising market (Hou 2019). Many other things also affect these prices, including the popularity of keywords (search terms) owing to which YouTubers need to supplement the content and metadata of their videos to ensure that high-CPM ads appear in their channels. When I asked KKS why he transitioned to being a news provider from a motivational speaker, he narrated how initially he wanted to do it altruistically, providing news in his mother tongue, Bishnupriya, since there is no media specially addressed to this community. It did not become successful, nor did he expect it to. However, people saw this and pushed him to create news in the local Bengali language. He explained that this was not easy since he was criticized for having a news channel in a language which is not his first. It was his news coverage during the pandemic which helped him to attract more subscribers. Thus, the platform gives the impression that if their creators are passionate, innovative, and hardworking, YouTube can help them earn money. Thus information ends up becoming an aspirational currency in the context of a state that is literate, albeit poor with high unemployment. 

Neoliberalism in turn allows for the privatization of aspiration particularly through platforms such as YouTube which recognizes information as an aspirational currency. Therefore, hope in authoritarian neoliberalism turns dialectically into an intricate weapon which — while cultivating more confident creators — also mines their deep-rooted insecurities both to fuel the capitalist platforms as well as the repressive economy. In the case of Assam, a troubled, contested, poor territory with high unemployment, with the arrival of the right-wing government in recent times and the “anxious hope” sold to the local population, the platform gives them hope: if they worked hard this time, perhaps they would win, and the platform will assist them in this. Motivational speakers in turn emerge as the perfect mouthpiece of this phenomenon, legitimizing this purported belief and making it feel a little truer. This also harks back to the creation of (social) media personalities, a parallel to the formation of authoritarian figures, because most of these YouTubers, through their practice and with the help of the platform, work through their precarity not just through hope but also through creating their own personalities as a form of social media branding. 

Production of Personalities, Precarization, Practices, and Platforms

Metrics is at the core of this new platform-based economy. You amplify your employability as you fragment yourself. It is similar to having multiple versions of yourself employed. Similarly, you magnify your chances of getting more likes, and shares (and hopefully more work) through this endless ordeal. Motivational speaking thus emerges as a newfound job because it aspires to produce one of the basic ingredients of this era, the charismatic commodified self. It makes sense as precarity and privatization increase, self-employment becomes a buzzword, and more people, burnt out from this relentless tribulation, need all the motivation they can from all possible sources[2]. YouTube, with its intrinsic educational potential, becomes a preferred — or rather the default — platform offering such motivation. As evangelists were in a previous era, now motivational speakers are replacing them or rather providing a complement to them.

To articulate this instance, I find David Beer’s concept of metric power useful. He writes how metrics “have had an ordering role in the social world for quite some time” (Beer 2016). As society becomes more performance-based, so does the reliance on metrics. When we compare the gradation of the YouTubers’ personalities we can see that the comparison with the metric logic is certainly not too far-fetched. Beer observes the intensification of such “systems of measurement” with what he calls the “rise of new data assemblages and their integration into the very fabric of our lives” (ibid.).

KKS is an interesting example because one look at his diversified personality reveals how he tries his best to maximize his opportunities, which in his case means further gradation of his personality. From a motivational speaker, primarily focusing on training other prospective multi-level marketers, he moves to being a news provider. In doing so, he transforms himself and his methods of approaching two disparate topics. The local news scenario makes him visit the sites of news events and incidents and interact directly with people (and perhaps with prospective clients). From what I have observed, he also tries to keep both his personalities separate. In the case of KKS, he has a fascination with a certain sense of professionalization which he uses in both his channels, but while he allows his insight to overlap in his news channel (particularly noticed during the reporting on the 2022 floods), for his motivational speaker personality he keeps himself distinct — this is also witnessed in the change in languages, settings, and topics etc. He focuses on being a “greater” entity with a (possibility of a) wider reach. This is evidenced by his endeavours to visit other states in India as part of his motivational practices. 


In this article, I outline that the precarization of life and work in a neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian society has led to the creation of this new class of creative entrepreneurs: the YouTube motivational speakers. This is aided both by the country’s economic philosophy (which increasingly speaks of self-reliance and self-confidence) as well as the monetized platform which posits itself as an appealing alternative. The selling that ultimately takes place is that of the aspiration currency, which in the process privatizes our hope. Through the figure of the motivational personality, we also witness the enculturing of an inspirational messiah who peddles that hope from themselves to the audience. In the process, we see such figures exhibiting an increasing fragmentation of personalities as they expand their potential both as a person and as a commodified self.



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  1. 1

     Silchar is also my hometown, and is located in the Barak Valley region of Assam.

  2. 2

     It is not surprising that one of the topics KKS covers in his network marketing videos is “how to stop people from leaving (the job)?” (Sinha 2019).

  3. 3

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