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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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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wingnuts on the Air

Listening to online talk radio is like trying to navigate the Los Angeles freeway system at the peak of rush hour while hitting your forehead repeatedly with a hammer. Even if you make it to your final destination without shooting anyone, you worry that you'll emerge from the car just a little bit dumber than when you climbed in.

The typical right-wing extremist show goes something like this: The host introduces himself and describes in titillating detail his most recent victimization at the hands of the evil feds - the US government apparently has an endless supply of silent, black helicopters and wastes billions of dollar annually bugging the homes and phones of small-time radio hosts - all because he's determined to share "The Truth" with his vast army of listeners. His fans, all 42 of them, are thrilled to think that they're in on some secret truthiness, and are therefore more than happy to overlook the obvious lies and exaggerations the show host slips in next. Just when you think the fibs about the topic du jour are so outrageous that the listeners will have to slap their knees and admit that the whoppers being told are truly funny stinkers, the show breaks for commercials.

And for pure entertainment value, there's nothing better than the advertisers who peddle their goods on the extremist talk show circuit.

Worried about the impending apocalypse? Just buy gold coins, freeze-dried food, and a few dozen cases of ammunition from us and you'll be the king of your county when the world economy collapses. Have the Jews rigged the Federal Reserve to ensure your financial failure? Here's a $3,000 debt elimination package that guarantees you'll never have to pay off your mortgage and credit card debt to those evil Jew bankers again. Cash only, please. Feeling like you're coming down with the flu? A little colloidal silver in your water will make you right as rain again. Just because your skin turns permanently blue, it's a small price to pay for thwarting the government's plan to kill you with those sinister flu vaccinations. Angry with Uncle Sam for taking 191.4% of your hard-earned money each week? Quick, buy our detax toolkit and you can be a tax-free hero, just like the founding fathers, Ross Perot, and the Kennedy clan. Call now and we'll throw in an offshore Ponzi scheme for free!

After the break, the host continues his lengthy rant on whatever news event or paranoid fantasy pissed him off that day, punctuated with occasional calls from supporters who tell him that he is obviously correct because they can't find anything on the topic in the Illuminati-controlled, mainstream media.

The show invariably ends with an impassioned request for donations. Taking on the entire US government ain't cheap, you know.

The topics may be racist and hate-filled, and the medical and financial advice may land the listener in a god-awful mess, but in general, most online talk radio shows are relatively harmless. Few of the hosts openly advocate violence, and even fewer have more than a couple dozen scattered listeners, many of whom are too paranoid to leave their homes because the black helicopters are hovering in the shadows and the airplanes overhead are spreading mind-control chemicals through their condensation trails. A host's success is measured in terms of donations with the ultimate goal of having enough money come in to avoid that depressing get-a-real-job alternative.

After all, it's easier to collect unemployment or disability if you don't have an employer reporting your earnings to those jack-booted thugs at the IRS.

But then there are the rare birds - the hosts that manage to gain a significant following measured in the thousands rather than dozens - who believe that the only solution to their paranoid problems is to hunt and kill the perceived enemy. Primary targets may include Jews, blacks, immigrants, UFOs cleverly disguised as famous people, gays, state and federal employees, and even strategic government buildings.

While gathering donations is still a fundamental objective, these gurus have an ultimate goal of inciting others to do their dirty wet work for them, for free.

They're not as funny as the other guys.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

The Madness of Crowds

This book is a classic, but still deserves a plug. Perhaps the best book ever about economic hysteria -- the .com bubble, the housing bubble, the Madoff bubble, the "MLMs are sweeping America!" bubble, etc., etc., -- is still Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Not only is it extremely informative, it is fun to read.

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