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Jacobin - October 23, 2021

The problem is that, under capitalism, this archetypal story of personal success will always be unreachable to the vast majority regardless of their work ethic or talent. Markets are not ultimately even terrains of competing entrepreneurs where rewards are distributed based on hard work and social value. By design, they are quite literally pyramids in which a small few at the top dominate the vast majority at the bottom — a fact that is no less the case when the purchase or sale of goods and labor occurs free of outright deception or fraud. The system isn’t built such that everyone can become a boss, owner, or entrepreneur, and plenty will spend their working lives toiling mainly to enrich someone else.

Back in high school, a friend of mine somehow got looped into attending a seminar concerned with spreading the good word about an exciting — though notably nonspecific — job opportunity. In retrospect, everything about the initial experience was less a series of red flags than it was a proverbial flotilla of giant crimson banners emblazoned with the words “obvious scam.” Adding to the aforementioned lack of specificity (just what the hell was this “opportunity”?), the event itself was to be held in a bleak-looking conference room at an airport motel — the kind of vaguely sinister and transitory location one associates with ugly carpets, mandatory office retreats, marital infidelity, and small-time hucksterism.

In retrospect, I don’t think the actual nature of the gig (such as even existed) was ever really made clear. From what I gathered at the time, attendees were shown a series of peppy, Tim and Eric–esque videos featuring would-be salt-of-the-earth types who had supposedly transformed their lives overnight using the One Weird Trick bequeathed to them by whatever shady LLC was hosting the affair. (My friend, to their credit, left after ten or fifteen minutes.) Were I a betting man, though, I’d put all my chips down on saying this was a multilevel marketing (MLM) scheme of one kind or another — perhaps a notch or two away from being downright illegal, but doubtless powered by a mix of sleaze, credulity, and human desperation.

I’ve had MLMs on the brain since I watched the recent documentary LuLaRich, which chronicles the rise and (at least partial) fall of LuLaRoe: a company that successfully ensnared tens of thousands of Americans by peddling a seductive tale of economic independence and personal empowerment. On a basic level, there’s nothing to particularly distinguish LuLaRoe from other schemes leveraging the same rhetoric and business model. In this case, the schtick was mainly directed at women, who were sold on the prospect of selling custom apparel from home and making big bucks while doing it. ...
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