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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

MLMs, Magical Thinking, and Parasites

Quite apart from being the sure road to losing money quickly, MLMs are also dangerous for philosophical and moral reasons. They encourage magical thinking: the belief that the all-important thing for success is optimism, drive, and "being a go-getter", and that this is more important and will overcome all stubborn facts.

What's more, contrary to their claims that they are "independent" and "businessmen" unlike those nasty ol' Just-Over-Broke losers, in reality MLMers are parasites: they exploit natural feelings of friendship, kinship and trust for monetary gain (which is usually nonexistent in any case). They use their family's and friends' trust in them to sell them worthless stuff at high prices and get them into their "downline", and if any when they ever make it into the top, they make money mostly from the abuse of the trust of the people in their "downline": promising them that if only they keep giving them money, they will eventually "make it".

The magical thinking aspect of the MLM cults, their worship of 'success', has never been better exposed than in G. K. Chesterton's 'The Fallacy of Success' (in All Things Considered). The fallacy is that there is no such thing as 'success' in general: there is only success in some particular thing, from chess to carpentry. Those -- MLMers in particular -- who worship 'success' and go to workshops about how to be 'successful' always fail, since they never learn how to be successful in anything in particular, and are only there to learn how to act like people who are successful in something act. As Chesterton says (he was a very entertaining writer, so worth quoting in length):
These writers profess to tell the ordinary man how he may succeed in his trade or speculation—how, if he is a builder, he may succeed as a builder; how, if he is a stockbroker, he may succeed as a stockbroker. They profess to show him how, if he is a grocer, he may become a sporting yachtsman; how, if he is a tenth-rate journalist, he may become a peer; and how, if he is a German Jew, he may become an Anglo-Saxon. This is a definite and business-like proposal, and I really think that the people who buy these books (if any people do buy them) have a moral, if not a legal, right to ask for their money back.

If you are in for the high jump, either jump higher than any one else, or manage somehow to pretend that you have done so. If you want to succeed at whist, either be a good whist-player, or play with marked cards. You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. Especially you cannot want a book about Success such as those which you can now find scattered by the hundred about the book-market.

You may want to jump or to play cards; but you do not want to read wandering statements to the effect that jumping is jumping, or that games are won by winners. If these writers, for instance, said anything about success in jumping it would be something like this: "The jumper must have a clear aim before him. He must desire definitely to jump higher than the other men who are in for the same competition. He must let no feeble feelings of mercy (sneaked from the sickening Little Englanders and Pro-Boers) prevent him from trying to do his best. He must remember that a competition in jumping is distinctly competitive, and that, as Darwin has gloriously demonstrated, THE WEAKEST GO TO THE WALL."
Quite true. What these books do -- and what MLM or other 'success seminars' do -- is, as Chesterton says:
In such strange utterances we see quite clearly what is really at the bottom of all these articles and books. It is not mere business; it is not even mere cynicism. It is mysticism; the horrible mysticism of money. The writer of that passage did not really have the remotest notion of how Vanderbilt made his money, or of how anybody else is to make his. He does, indeed, conclude his remarks by advocating some scheme; but it has nothing in the world to do with Vanderbilt. He merely wished to prostrate himself before the mystery of a millionaire.
Indeed so. Anybody who had ever been to one of those seminars can tells us how they are all about worshiping success -- either of the "big pin" in Amway or of a similar person -- not because those people tell them anything worthwhile about how to make money, but merely because those people made money.

Never mind that, as in the case of most such authors, the author himself made the money not in business, but in selling books and ridiculously overpriced "training programs" about success; never mind that the books and seminars are worthless, giving nothing more than rah-rah positive thinking and trite advice (like in the book above); all that matters is to attach oneself in some way to the millionaire, the "big pin", the "top upline", etc., out of the belief that if you try to act like them, you'll be like them -- a belief on par with the primitive tribesman's belief that if they eat lion's meat, they will be as strong as a lion.

As for the parasitic, trust-destroying nature of MLMs, their raising of selfishness to a positive good, their looking-out-for-number-one attitude, Andrew Oldenquist noted, in his book The non-Suicidal Society:
Running through most of these books is the idea that there is a quick and simple secret to success, a psychological gimmick that will bring you affection, sex, the esteem of others, and power over them. They are books for failures, for mice who would be supermen, and who want to be respected, obeted, and caressed without having to posses the character that makes one worthy of respect, obedience, or caresses. They parallel, in the realm of psychology and the spirit, the books whose gimmick for financial success is optimism, selling from your home, or buying a Cadillac for image before making your first detergent sale.

If everyone were to try to follow the advice in these books our society could not existed. A life wholly dedicated to dissimulation or manipulation can only exist within an environment in which the rest of us most of the time believe what we are earnestly told, act on principle and from group loyalties, and try to do our fair share... The manipulator must be carried on a sea of people who themselves to not lead that kind of life. The advice of the selfishness manuals is like a pyramid club or chain letter scheme in which only those who get in early are able to profit.
For MLMers, like for used-car salesmen, honesty, caring, and trust are merely instrumental, all sacrificed to the moloch of non-existent 'success'. It is better, if one is an MLMer, to appear honest, fair and non-exploitive than to actually be honest, fair, and non-exploitive. Hence, notes Oldenquist, the frenzied attempt in 'success' seminars and MLMs about marketing yourself, public relations, 'dressing for success', appearing to be making money as one loses one's shirt (so that it is easier to "sponsor" potential victims), and so on.

There is nothing new here, of course. 2500 years ago, there were already men who thought this way:
For what men say is that, if I am really just and am not also thought just, profit there is none, but the pain and loss on the other hand are umistakakable. But if, though unjust, I acquire the rputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised to me. Since then, as philosophers prove, appearance tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, to appearances I must devote myself. I will describe around me a picture and shadow of virtue to be the vestibule and exterior of my house; bnehind I will trail [like] the subtle and crafty fox...
This is Adeimantus, in his challenge to Socrates in Plato's Republic.

Does this not describe perfectly the average MLM "big pin" and "go-getter" -- speaking of virtue, success, "family", etc., while demanding the downline miss another car payment as they go broke fast to enrich him?

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At February 10, 2010 2:20 PM , Blogger Thomas said...

Excellent! For every con-artist scheme, there should be a counter con-artist educational message. Government is overwhelmed with the obvious frauds. It is often hard to avoid cynical judgment when trying to decide what advice to follow when there are large stakes involved. Let's hope more people will consult "Quatloos" and other sites as they seek to ascertain the credibility of a given business or other opportunity.

At February 11, 2010 10:14 AM , Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

Thank you... as Voltaire (I think) said, my job here is to say what I think.


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