|Image credit: "How they Change your Mind" web site.|
Are MLMs cults? We have the idea of cults as nutty folks who believe in the end of the world, UFOs, the end of the world by UFOs, and similar things. But in reality what makes a cult a cult is not so much what it believes, but its social structure and the interplay between members and leaders.
"Weird" beliefs alone are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a group a cult. E.g., Christian dogma might seem extremely odd to (say) Zen Buddhists and vice versa, but that in itself doesn't mean either Christianity or Buddhism are cults. On the other hand, groups that have core beliefs that are, in themselves, not necessarily odd, are sometimes cultic.
One often-ignore field of cultic behavior is that of economic cults. As a very informative web site notes, Amway in particular (and many MLMs) are cultic. The include thought control, dividing the world into "us" (in the MLM) and "them (all those who are not part of the MLM world), special jargon, etc. The point is to seperate the member from the world, so that he can be better exploited by the cult's leaders, in this case, the upline.
An example of what can happens when MLMs become a cult, as they often do, is found in the article "Shaking the Money Tree" by Amy Mills.
To be fair, certainly not all MLMs are cults; e.g., Avon or Tupperware are not, as -- however silly they might be as a way to make money -- they at least concentrate on actually selling products and do not require the seller to turn over their lives to the corporation. But it is a significant risk one should consider before one joins an MLM, in addition to the economic unfeasability of it.