- Three Ethnographies of Escape via Pyramid Schemes
Anthropologists have long considered it our duty to explain and defend people who are culturally different from us. This agenda has not been treated kindly by the pace of capitalist transformation. Increasingly, we find ourselves in the position of studying, explaining, and defending people who want to be like us—or at least who want to run around in the same expensive gear that we do. Similar to ourselves, such folk do not wish to be captive to their own cultural traditions. Similar to ourselves, they regard their progenitors as old-fashioned. Worse, their model of improvement is usually the kind of mass consumerism pioneered by North America and Europe. They seem less interested in reproducing their cultural heritage than escaping it. They wish to join the festival of borrowing and splurging which, via global warming, is cooking us off the planet. But they are less worried than we are because they have been captured by hopeful [End Page 277] narratives about how they will be rescued by God, the US, or health food.
Such people…is it still our anthropological duty to defend them? Or in their desire to imitate our own privileged selves, have they just become the latest crop of opportunists? With such questions in mind, let us turn to three ethnographies which carry on the professional credo against mounting odds, but not at the cost of candor. First, the redemptive power of health food—in particular, vitamins. The idea that people can improve their health by consuming large amounts of vitamins dates to 19th century Anglo-Protestant America and its firm belief in science, salesmanship, and self-improvement. Nowadays such nostrums find their most enthusiastic welcome in Mexico where they are propagated by an enterprise called Omnilife Vitamins. And they give good results, for some people at least. In the city of Morelia, an Omnilife wholesaler named Luisa has a higher monthly income than the anthropologist telling her story in Direct Sales and Direct Faith in Latin America (Cahn 2011).
Peter Cahn is a student of religion who lately has been applying himself to the religion of capitalism. As he once remarked to me, “capitalism is always magic,” and nowhere is this more evident than in multi-level marketing, the legal version of a pyramid scheme. The genius of multi-level marketing is that the sales force receives a commission, not just for each unit sold, but also for the “downline”—the new tiers of sellers whom the sales force recruits and from whom they also receive a commission for every unit sold. And so the founders of these schemes become evangelists for the boundless possibilities of exponential growth: “The beauty of this system,” Cahn quotes an Amway distributor, “is that you could run hickory nuts through it and it would still work” (2011:51).
In loving detail, Cahn chronicles how Omnilife has become one of the most visible multi-level marketing schemes in Mexico. Its products include a brain supplement called Optimus which treats epilepsy and boosts children’s scholastic performance; Tequilife which helps alcoholics overcome addiction; Fem which removes cysts; and OmniPlus which helps HIV+ victims fight off AIDS. Such claims go unchallenged in Mexico, and just about everywhere else, because lobbyists have persuaded governments that vitamins should be classified as nutritional supplements rather than medicines. In a nutritional evaluation of 500 vitamin supplements, Cahn notes, Omni IV came in dead last.
Most Omnilife products come in the form of powders which purchasers mix in water and consume in whatever strength, combination, and [End Page 278] frequency strikes their fancy. Some shoot the conconctions into their veins. Omnilife distributors tell stories of miraculous cures in which their elixirs disgorge tumors through body openings. The company argues that its supplements always make you healthier because, if you...