Ari Amala

MLMs and Lotus-pyramids

A lotus pyramid

A recent episode of the Conspirituality podcast called, ‘Elena Brower could Stop Selling doTERRA,’ is a brilliant investigative report on Brower’s toxic mash-up of girl boss life coaching, yoga courses, and Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) schemes.

However, the podcast also paints a picture that’s far bigger than Elena Brower. Matthew Remski elucidates the trend of these schemes being sold under the guise of, “a pseudo-feminism that pretends to uplift women while actually spiritualising the worst aspects of predatory capitalism.”

When I first heard that sentence, I skipped back so I could listen to it again because it hit me so hard. It made me reflect on every MLM I’ve been invited to join. It made me think of the invitations to join women’s gifting circles, blessing looms, and lotuses – all of which are pyramid schemes in new age language.

The invitations would vary but there were similar themes around offering a supportive like-minded community, the opportunity to make money or be your own boss. There would often be fempowerment stuff in there like, ‘Gifting circles are a way for women to support one another’s dreams. Everyone gives a gift which they will get back manifold’ or ‘Come along to this conference/essential oils night, there will be so many passionate boss babes.’

Thankfully, I didn’t join any – and not always because I was wise to the fact that they were pyramid schemes. In my younger years, I just didn’t have disposable income to sign up to doTERRA or to enter the outer petals of a lotus-pyramid.

The only real difference between MLMs and pyramid schemes is that MLMs have a product or service and adhere to ‘regulations’ that OG MLMs, like Amway, invented themselves. They essentially invented these rules to stop people from calling them pyramid schemes and to make it harder for the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on them. In both MLMs and pyramid schemes the majority of income comes from recruiting people to the system rather than from selling to outside consumers.

Meme about MLMs and pyramid schemes being the same thing

I have no doubt that the people who invited me to join MLMs or pyramid schemes had good intentions. I think they fully believed in the dream that was being sold by the people who recruited them. The combination of making more money and more friends is pretty attractive to most people, but it can be especially tempting to people who are particularly lonely or vulnerable. If someone is struggling to adjust to being a parent or struggling due to financial stress, they are looking and hoping for a solution. These are the people MLMs tend to target. New mums and people who are already in debt.

The cruel reality is that 99% of MLM recruits lose money and many wind up becoming isolated from friends and family members (see infographic below.) This is because MLMs condition people to look at everyone they know, and everyone they meet as potential recruits. It feels really icky to be on the receiving end of this. In my experience, it often comes in the form of an acquaintance not-so-randomly getting in touch and barely saying hello before making their pitch. Other sales techniques are designed to rapidly manufacture connection with potential recruits. The salesperson might start by making supportive comments on your social media posts and then slide into your DMs asking questions about your work, family, and hobbies – and no matter what you say, eventually they will respond by saying that you’re the perfect fit for a ‘business opportunity.’ If the pitch is targeted towards a woman, often the pseudo-feminism stuff slips in there too. Like, ‘Hey Queen, I thought of you when I joined this group because you’re a full-power woman.’

MLM infographic

To me, one of the saddest parts of MLMs is the way they teach people to dehumanise their friends and family. Everyone becomes a means to the end of increasing their downline. It’s depressing as fuck. There was a trend a few years ago where people in conscious/self-development businesses would say, ‘sales are love’ or ‘selling is an act of love.’ I don’t know where these ditties first came from, but I hate them. They are internalised capitalism to the nth degree. Even if we have the privilege of selling a product or service that we believe will enhance someone’s life, selling is not an act of love. For most people, it’s an act of survival. If anything, the constant need to sell shit to one another is what erodes trust within communities. Relationships are diminished as we see each other as competitors, consumers, commodities, or recruits.

pyramid scheme meme

In many self-development businesses and MLMs, people’s monthly income and their capacity to sell is directly tied to their self-worth. If you’re not making bank, it’s because you don’t believe you’re worthy of it. If we follow that logic to the top, it would mean that Jeff Bezos has the highest sense of self-worth out of everyone in the world. But there’s something about Bezos having enough money for over 45 000 lifetimes and continuing to hoard more that doesn’t quite translate into the image of someone who believes they are enough. The trope of equating self-worth and income is intentionally reinforced again and again to the people at the bottom of MLMs to keep them self-flagellating and distract them from thinking critically about the pyramid structure they find themselves in.

Pyramid schemes and MLMs function by transferring money from late joiners to early joiners. The 1% of people who are early joiners can and do make a lucrative income from their downline. This is the carrot that is dangled in front of potential recruits, “Look there are people doing this who are successful! She’s created a $50k a month fempire from home, and you can too!” But within MLMs, if someone is succeeding it doesn’t mean you can succeed too. In fact, it mathematically increases your likelihood of failure.

In this way, MLMs are a trojan horse for neoliberal values. They tout the philosophy that anyone can succeed if they are willing to work hard and believe harder. If you talk about statistics or question the system, your upline or ‘mentor’ will tell you that you need to change your mindset. But you can’t think your way out of being in a pyramid scheme. Well, new agers will flatten it out and call it a lotus, but it still functions the same way. MLMs set you up to fail and then berate your character when you inevitably do. It’s at this point your mentor, who is financially rewarded by your ongoing membership, will tell you to read another self-help book or attend another conference for another thousand dollars. It’s the same old capitalist bullshit that conditions individuals to take responsibility for structural problems.

This brings me to the heart of why I’m so triggered by MLMs. They are a microcosm of the rapacious, exploitative, ‘American dream’ pyramid scheme that is capitalism. We can work and dream as hard as we want, but the majority of wealth will remain in the clammy hands of the 1%.

We are all participating in a non-consensual pyramid scheme that will continue to rely on exploitation and reproduce inequality. That’s the fundamental structure of capitalism, and just like the late joiners of MLMs, we can’t hustle or believe our way out of that reality. Exiting the pyramid will require political struggle. It will require nothing less than the reorganisation of our economic system into a structure that truly is in service of the majority.

Exiting the pyramid will require the willingness to examine the values and actions that capitalism incentivises, and the conviction to say, this isn’t fucking love.

Awesome Anti-MLM Resources:

The Dream Podcast

The Anti-MLM Coalition 

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