Dangerous speculation

The appeal of pyramid schemes in rural Siberia

in Focaal
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  • 1 University of Cambridge leonie.schiffauer@gmx.de

Abstract

The people of Aga, a small district in southeastern Siberia, have in recent years become managers, missionaries, and victims of a wave of pyramid and Ponzi schemes. The schemes come with the promise to make people rich. In reality, they benefit only a small minority of investors while increasing financial difficulties for the majority of participants and causing severe social conflict. This article deals with the local manifestation of these economic forms. Based on the ethnographic investigation of a pyramid scheme, I discuss techniques of make-believe in order to show how ordinary people become involved in a financial hoax. My discussion provides insights into the ways in which speculative thinking shapes imaginative horizons, pervades social logics, and impacts economic realities in a post-Soviet environment.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, a wave of pyramid and Ponzi schemes swept over formerly socialist territory. Get-rich-quick schemes were proliferating in several newly capitalist countries such as Romania, Albania, and Russia. The promise of wealth appealed to millions of people who paid money into the schemes hoping that these investments would make them rich. Prominent politicians supported pyramid and Ponzi schemes in various places, claiming that they would help people manage their precarious situation in the economic tumult that followed the end of state socialism. Sooner or later, however, as is bound to happen with financial pyramids, all the schemes collapsed. Whereas a small minority of people at the top of the pyramids had made money, the majority of participants lost their investments.

Some of the schemes that proliferated during the 1990s were huge in scale. Caritas, a scheme launched in 1992, touched at least every fifth household in Romania and involved sums that came close to the country’s gross domestic product (Verdery 1996: 174). In Russia, it was a Ponzi scheme called MMM that became hugely popular and spread across the entire country. The scheme was initiated by the mathematician Sergei Mavrodi and developed between 1992 and 1994 into one of the largest financial scams on formerly socialist territory. Massive advertisements in public spaces and on television promised 50 percent interest on investments. Investors, however, were paid with the money of subsequent investors. After six months, 15 million people had paid money into the pyramid. When it collapsed, those who had come first made a profit, but masses of people lost their money and several investors committed suicide as a result (Borenstein 1999; Smirnova 2012).

Because of their proliferation during the period of post-Soviet transformation, it can be assumed that the schemes’ popularity must be understood in the broader context of social and economic change. The heavy economic crisis, which characterized the economic situation in the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, certainly contributed to the appeal of moneymaking schemes. Like in other parts of the world, high inflation, a drastic drop in income, and problematic access to money drove the proliferation of speculative schemes (Verdery 1996). The new significance of money in the newly capitalist economy was not merely because of the economic crisis, however. The former Soviet citizens’ relation to money changed fundamentally with the transition to capitalism. Whereas personal connections had often been more important than money when it came to getting access to desired commodities, these relations became increasingly monetized in post-Soviet Russia (Ledeneva 1998; Pesmen 2000; Rogers 2005). Money was no longer the medium of exchange that it had been during Soviet times, but it became an object of constant concern as much as of great fascination (Lemon 1998). Moneymaking schemes encouraged people to dream of a better future, and they promised new hope in a destitute economic environment.

Before moving on, it is worth briefly pointing out the striking parallels between pyramid schemes and Pentecostal Christian movements: both have proliferated globally in recent decades and flourished in postsocialist societies; both create networks of enthusiastic devotees spanning national borders; and both promise health and wealth. The appeal of charismatic Christianity in formerly socialist countries has been seen as being linked to the disturbances, chaos, and problems caused by the fall of the Soviet state and the confrontation with the free market (Pelkmans 2009). Under conditions of uncertainty, disorientation, and a struggle for survival, the new vision of the future and new forms of meaning offered by these religious movements proved attractive. Pyramid schemes may be appealing to people for the very same reasons in such a context. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (2001), for example, understand religious resurgence and the widespread appearance of “occult economies” as being linked to the culture of neoliberalism. Especially in societies that have recently been subject to significant economic change, disrupted lives and increasing inequalities make people feel left out of global prosperity. Comaroff and Comaroff see both money magic such as pyramid schemes and the rise of Pentecostal Christianity as responses to the experience of an enigmatic capitalism that express an attempt to come to terms with the puzzlement resulting from new forms of wealth.

When the economic situation began to improve after the turn of the millennium, the Russian people’s concerns over money shifted to a new sphere: debt. Whereas borrowing money in the Soviet system had been highly regulated and therefore largely devoid of risk (Rona-Tas and Guseva 2014: 33), in Russia’s new neoliberal economy banks started offering consumer loans with high rates of interest that quickly became a problem for borrowers. In 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned Russia regarding its increasing household debt burden. Unsecured loans on consumer purchases were growing at a rate of up to 60 percent. Loan growth in banks was outpacing deposits, which the IMF evaluated as being a threat to the financial stability of banks (Reuters 2013). This situation provided fertile ground for moneymaking schemes that attracted investors by promising to relieve them of their debt burden. Recent schemes do not reach the scale of those in the 1990s, but some of them manage to draw in considerable numbers of people. According to the Russian Ministry of the Interior, more than 160 Ponzi and pyramid schemes were operated in the country in 2014 and resulted in a loss of $46 million for their victims (Zamakhina 2015). Until 2016, there was no clear legislation with regard to pyramid schemes in Russia. Only after the collapse of these schemes, when the scam had become obvious, could initiators of said schemes be legally persecuted (Eremina and Biianova 2015). In 2016, in an attempt to fight the problem of pyramid schemes more effectively, a new law was released that declared them illegal.

In 2011, Mavrodi relaunched his MMM Ponzi scheme, claiming to offer a system of mutual help. In Aga, a small district in southeastern Siberia with high levels of household indebtedness, the scheme became hugely popular before it collapsed in 2012. Although people remembered the MMM scheme of the 1990s, they were nevertheless ready to risk large sums of money, hoping to be among the scheme’s winners. Around the same time, several smaller pyramid schemes emerged, pretending to be “companies” (kompanii) and to run serious business projects. The representatives of these schemes were either selling services such as insurance and legal advice, or they were selling products, claiming to be multilevel marketing companies. What they really offered, however, was the opportunity to earn quick money by recruiting further participants who all had to make considerable investments to join the schemes. The sale of products or services served to mask the pyramid structure and to make the schemes resemble business models used in the multilevel marketing industry.

In this article, I discuss how one of these pyramid scams, a scheme called WIC Holding, manifested itself in the Siberian province of Aga. WIC Holding was among the schemes that were most popular during the time I had spent in Aga between the summers of 2014 and 2015, and it belonged to the category of schemes that claim to be multilevel marketing companies and thus part of a global industry that has developed successfully in Russia. This article explores how people are attracted to pyramid schemes in order to better understand the nature of speculation. I am interested in how hopes and dreams, theories regarding the hidden mechanisms of the capitalist system, and ideas about the “capitalist elsewhere” are promoted through speculative schemes and how they impact local economic realities.

My discussion is based on one year of ethnographic field research conducted in Aga’s district center Aginskoe in 2014–2015. The fieldwork I carried out included participant observation in offices from where pyramid schemes were operated and at business seminars that were held regularly to promote the schemes and motivate investors. Moreover, my findings are based on numerous interviews and informal conversations with pyramid scheme participants and their families, as well as with people who had invested money in Ponzi schemes or who were involved in multilevel marketing. However, I will first discuss in more detail what type of economic phenomenon we are dealing with before I move on to my ethnographic case study.

Gambling or business?

When risky financial investment takes place outside the spheres of what is perceived as professional finance, it is commonly associated with gambling. In contrast to finance, gambling is understood as an unprofessional and somewhat disreputable leisure activity. What takes place in the sphere of business or finance, on the other hand, is accepted by most people as professional and legitimate. This distinction, of course, is constructed. Marieke de Goede (2005), for example, shows how during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the notion of finance was separated from that of gambling as part of the proliferation of the capitalist market logic.

Anthropologists of finance have challenged with their studies the widespread view on finance as a set of entirely rational economic practices. It has been shown that emotive structures such as hope shape life in financial markets (Miyazaki 2013), that affect plays a major role in techniques of financial prediction (Zaloom 2009), and that speculation is a crucial logic in contemporary capitalism (Bear 2015). Thus, the literature suggests the gamelike, intuitive, and emotional nature of various economic practices and makes apparent their similarity to the practices of gambling.

Anthropologists concerned with gambling, on the other hand, have shown the calculative spirit that people may display in order to make the best bet (Hart 2013: 17; Puri 2015: 466). Moreover, it has been shown that gambling may well be perceived as a form of work and as a job, rather than as an instance of speculative accumulation (Krige 2011: 5). These studies add further evidence that points to the fluidity between the categories of business or finance and gambling. The similarities between gambling and finance become even more apparent when we consider practices such as weather trading and spread betting (Loussouarn 2013; Randalls 2013).

Pyramid schemes are a particularly interesting case because they can be seen as a practice that is situated somewhere in between the common understandings of gambling and business. They are highly controversial economic phenomena and are certainly seen as disreputable and illegitimate by many people. Participants are mostly nonprofessionals, that is, people who have not received an education in economics and have little or no experience with complicated financial products and transactions. Although they pay money into the scheme in the hope of getting rich quickly, pyramid scheme participants do not understand their activity to be gambling but rather see it as work. Indeed, the profitability of their investment depends on their success in recruiting further participants, which is what they conceive of as their job. They go about their activities not in demarcated zones of gambling such as race courses or casinos but in office spaces. Moreover, participants are striving to become professional businesspeople. They begin dressing like businesspeople, thinking like businesspeople, and acting like businesspeople. Some of them do so quite successfully and indeed professionalize in their field, which may increase their reputation among colleagues and enable them to increase their profit.

A few words on the distinction between different moneymaking schemes may help to clarify the nature of pyramid schemes. Both pyramid and Ponzi schemes recruit unsuspecting investors with the promise of high returns. Operators claim to run successful business projects, but in fact early investors are paid with the money collected from later investors. Essentially, we are dealing with money-transfer schemes that benefit a small number of people at the top of the pyramid and result in an eventual loss of money for most investors. Pyramid and Ponzi schemes may survive for several years, but sooner or later, when growth stagnates, they will collapse. In contrast to participants in Ponzi schemes,1 participants in pyramid schemes are usually aware that their income is dependent on the recruitment of new investors and that they themselves must recruit additional investors, who will themselves recruit new investors, and so on. This may at first sight seem to be an insignificant detail, but it is important for two reasons: first, participation in a pyramid scheme requires people to become its marketing agents and representatives (in contrast to Ponzi schemes that only require an investment). And second, the multilevel structure resulting from the recruitment strategy of pyramid schemes makes them difficult to distinguish from a business strategy that is legal in most parts of the world: multilevel marketing (MLM).

Because of the structural similarity between MLM and pyramid schemes, MLM companies such as Amway and Herbalife are frequently accused of operating pyramid schemes (Keep and Vander Nat 2014; Nocera 2015). Likewise, pyramid scheme operators often claim to be running perfectly legal MLM enterprises (SEC 2013). As I have indicated above, several of the pyramid schemes I investigated in Russia were offering similar products as MLM companies, such as household appliances and personal care items, in order to enhance the impression that they were legitimate forms of business. Moreover, the multilayered pyramid structure, their promises, their methods of recruitment, and the logics with which MLM companies and pyramid schemes operate appear very similar, which makes it difficult to distinguish them from each other. As has been observed also in South Africa (Krige 2012: 71), the same people may be involved in both types of activity.

The comparison between pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes, and MLM reveals with particular clarity the instability of categories such as business and gambling: whereas Ponzi schemes resemble what most people would describe as gambling (if defined as wagering money at high risk with no or little agency regarding the profitability of the investment), MLM is recognized in most kinds of legislation as a form of business that is based on a particular marketing strategy. Pyramid schemes are remarkable socioeconomic phenomena because they are similar to both MLM and Ponzi schemes. The fact that pyramid schemes involve a hoax makes it even more difficult to discuss them either in terms of business or in terms of gambling. They pretend to be stable enterprises that market certain goods or services while veiling the fact that they are high-risk investment schemes that may collapse at any time. Participants try to establish them as systems that offer acceptable financial products, sometimes pretending that the scheme is some sort of alternative bank that is able to offer people very high percentages on their money. Thus, an investigation of pyramid schemes enables us to see how ordinary people preach the logic of finance, the advantage of investment, and the benefits of speculation in rural Siberia. The following ethnography will show how participants attempt to make themselves into businesspeople and how they try to lend legitimacy to a financial system that they have been persuaded to believe in.

A pyramid scheme in Aga

WIC Holding is a pyramid scheme headed by a charismatic man called Arakadii Sharov. On his personal homepage, Sharov presents himself as a professional businessman and an expert in multilevel marketing (setevoi biznes). According to his own account, he worked for many companies and cooperated with various important businesspeople (none of whom he names) before developing WIC Holding. In 2007, he was asked by one of his acquaintances, a “successful businessman,” to consult him in founding a multilevel marketing project of “a new kind.” As he writes on his homepage, this project was “a big capital group of the closed type, which for the first time in the history of multilevel marketing decided to invest money in the foundation of a multilevel marketing company. The investors explained their decision in terms of the great profitability and glorious future of such a project.” Sharov accepted his acquaintance’s proposal and helped to set up the project that would become WIC Holding. Sharov’s homepage includes several pictures of himself in business suits and in office environments, a depiction of his luxurious lifestyle, and a list of tips for people who wish to become as successful as he is.

WIC Holding has offices across Russia, from where the scheme is operated. Its representatives—the people who work in these offices—claim that the holding is made up of several companies that operate a number of profitable business projects, among them a Christmas market in Germany, a nightclub on Cyprus, an underwear sales business, and the sale of health- and beauty-related products. Their claims are based on the information they receive from Sharov and several other top operators online through an internal section of the WIC Holding homepage, through educational videos distributed by WIC Holding, via Skype, or at the business seminars that WIC Holding organizes in several Russian cities or on Cyprus, where its headquarters are located.

Everyone who wishes to do so can become a representative of WIC Holding. Neither a particular educational background nor a certain kind of professional experience is required. People of every age, ethnicity, and gender are welcome. The scheme works inclusively because it grows through everyone who joins it and because everyone’s attempt to recruit more people benefits its proliferation. In order to participate in the scheme, people have to become its “partners” (partnery) and to buy shares for a minimum amount of 60,000 rubles ($962). Investors are promised enormous returns on their payment, the amount of which depends on the number of investors they are then able to recruit.2 WIC Holding also claims to be selling products that resemble those of most MLM companies: nutritional supplements, cleaning materials, and cosmetic articles. Partners receive a box of these products in return for their initial payment that appears to be worth no more than 1,000 rubles ($16). WIC Holding suggests that this gives them the opportunity not only to make money through their investment but also to profit from the sale of these products.

WIC Holding was introduced to Aginskoe in 2010 by a woman now in her fifties, Ianzhima, and after about a year it was actively supported also by her sister Tsyregma. Both Ianzhima and Tsyregma are locals who grew up in the countryside near Aginskoe. Hundreds of people in the town and the surrounding district have paid money into the scheme, but apart from the two sisters and a few other people who joined early, none of the partners have received a significant amount of money. WIC Holding blames the delay in payment on the economic crisis following the sanctions imposed on Russia after its military intervention in Ukraine or on the fact that people have not been working hard enough to recruit more participants. Some of the partners whom I met during the time of my research had given up the hope that they would ever see the invested money again; others were still hoping that they would receive the expected profit, and those working actively fervently defended the opportunities that they believed WIC Holding to be offering.

After the initial investment, there is a spectrum of possible involvement with WIC Holding. Partners become representatives of the scheme as soon as they start advertising WIC Holding actively, but in many cases they stop inviting further investors after an initial surge of enthusiasm. Either they cannot find new investors, or they realize how damaging their activity is to their relations with friends and relatives. Some start having doubts about the scheme’s integrity and its promises after a while and do not want to be responsible for attracting further people to the scheme. Thus, by far not all investors become its long-term representatives. Mostly, only those partners who manage to recruit people with some success keep actively recruiting further investors, and it is only these partners who perceive their involvement as a profession.

There was a lot of criticism surrounding the scheme, and angry investors kept calling and seeing those who had recruited them into the scheme, demanding their investment to be returned. This was impossible, of course, as the latter were not in control of the money, which had been paid directly to WIC Holding. On the other hand, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the scheme, and many people were not sure what to think of it. Everyone knew several people who had lost money in this scheme or in previous pyramid and Ponzi schemes, but there were also a few people who had made money or at least claimed to have made money.3 As most people in Aginskoe were highly skeptical of the schemes, recruitment had become very difficult for WIC Holding representatives at the time of my research.

The WIC Holding office in Aginskoe is located in the town’s center, on the top floor of one of its few two-story buildings, which has the character of a market, as most of its space is rented by traders selling shoes and clothes that they import from China or from Russian cities. The building’s office space was also rented by Amway, an MLM company. The WIC Holding office is equipped with four small desks, a few chairs grouped around the desks, a big television screen, and a shelf on which the cosmetic articles, nutritional supplements, and cleaners it pretends to be marketing are displayed. The walls are decorated with pictures of Arkadii Sharov and of partners from other parts of Russia smiling under a shower of golden confetti. There are also pictures with local partners and their “sponsors”—the people who recruited them into the scheme and whom they accept as their teachers and supporters.

The office was set up on Ianzhima’s initiative and is now headed by Tsyregma. Ianzhima has moved to Chita, a city two hundred kilometers northwest of Aginskoe, and is working from the WIC Holding office located at the city’s outskirts. The partners who come to the office in Aginskoe are mainly Buryat women aged between 30 and 60.4 Some of them had been working for WIC Holding for two or three years in 2014, while others had joined in only recently. Two of them had given up their jobs in the local administration in order to devote all of their time to WIC Holding, while others were pensioners or mothers who wished to earn a bit of extra money to support their families.

These women and the three men who frequented the office believed, or at least they pretended to do so quite successfully, that they were involved in MLM, an entirely legal activity, and, like the representatives of MLM companies, they called themselves seteviki (networkers). Several of them had been working for Amway before they joined WIC Holding. Thus, they had learned the narratives and techniques of MLM through this American multinational company that uses a direct selling approach to market its cleaning, personal care, and health-related products. None of them managed to successfully earn money as Amway distributors and thus decided to move on to a new project where, so they thought, involvement would be more profitable. These individuals exemplify the conflation of business and gambling with particular clarity. Because of their frustration with a business project that did not work out for them, they decided to engage in a similar but more risky enterprise that promised to earn them the money they were hoping for.

By becoming representatives of WIC Holding, they immersed themselves deeper into their fantasies of the good life, increasingly disregarding the flaws of the scheme. Thus, they began clinging on to something that was actually an obstacle to their well-being—a condition that Lauren Berlant (2011) has described as “cruel optimism.” Berlant reminds us that sentiments that project the future in a positive light may actually be quite destructive in their effect. Caught in fantasy, we might be trapped in practices that lead away from what we are longing for. That we do so is not irrational or erroneous, because we may find comfort within these emotions. By maintaining their attachment to the fantasy of the good life, most WIC Holding partners were drawn deeper into debt along with the people whom they encouraged to register and thus counteracted their own material interest while finding comfort in their vision.

Staging success

WIC Holding promotes two main ways of outreach to the public for the purpose of recruitment. First, there is the organization of seminars by local teams of active partners, and second there are personal meetings with potentially interested investors. I will focus on these outreach techniques in order. The seminars are remarkable spectacles that are performed to create the impression that a lot of money can be made through the scheme. Anna Tsing (2005) argues that drama is essential in speculative enterprise. Her argument is based on the case of a major gold mining scandal triggered by a Canadian company that announced the discovery of gold in the Indonesian rainforest. Using this example, Tsing shows that charismatic performance and the conjuring of mystery were crucial for the attraction of international finance capital. Essentially, drama allowed for the creation of what she calls an “economy of appearance.” Interestingly, in the case of pyramid schemes, drama is enacted in an almost literal sense as the companies rent venues with stages for their performances such as theaters and music halls.

Let me now describe the procedure of one of the WIC Holding seminars that I attended in August 2014 in Aga, in order to give an impression of their dramaturgy. On the stage of a local school’s auditorium, a table with WIC Holding products had been set up: nutritional supplements, cleaning materials, cosmetic articles, and tea, all arranged with great care. A big screen and a projector had been installed to show WIC Holding’s statistics, pictures, and videos. The partners had all gotten dressed up, wearing suits and elegant dresses. Around 20 guests were present, and they consisted mainly of the partners’ female acquaintances and relatives, who, in their majority, were clearly more skeptical than enthusiastic. In several cases, as I learned later, their attendance was a favor to the person who had invited them to the seminar, rather than a demonstration of serious interest in the scheme. Some reported that their relatives had exerted considerable pressure to make them attend the seminar.

The seven partners who had organized the event took turns presenting WIC Holding and its alleged opportunities. Their performance was well rehearsed, but they clearly had various levels of experience. Three of the speakers had worked for WIC Holding for several years or had previously been involved in MLM and had already practiced similar performances. For the others, it was their first time speaking in front of an audience, and they were more insecure than their colleagues. Every new speaker was introduced by the previous one and praised for their professional and personal qualities. Their walk onto stage was accompanied by loud applause from the other partners, supported by pop music, and, occasionally, reluctant applause from the audience.

The first speaker, one of the experienced partners, gave a ceremonial introductory speech, confidently claiming that WIC Holding was part of a rapidly growing MLM industry that was already more important than both the oil and gas industry and the telecommunications industry. The second speaker, an inexperienced partner who had joined the scheme a few months before the event, had the task of providing some basic facts about WIC Holding, which she herself had only learned recently. Having put a great deal of emphasis on the fact that she was representing an “international company,” she continued with explanations about the nature of the scheme:

Why is it a holding? Because we are dealing with several subsidiaries and the company was founded as a hypermarket. What is a hypermarket? It is this: you come to a shop and you buy bread and chocolates and fruits and even tableware, socks and so on in one place. You go to one shop and buy it all. This is very comfortable and profitable. So our company is a holding.

The third speaker presented the products. It was a woman in her mid-thirties who, like the previous speaker, was a newcomer to the scheme. From time to time, she forgot what she wanted to say next and had to be reminded by her colleagues. Her objective was to emphasize the extraordinary and almost magical qualities of the products. The tea, so she claimed, was made according to the recipe of a renowned healer, and it had been proven to cure all possible illnesses. The washing paste was widely consumed because, in contrast to washing powder, it was suited also for people suffering from allergies and it would remove all stains without any effort. And the sale of underwear would certainly flourish in the future for the evident reason that, as everyone wears it, underwear is a highly demanded product.

The demonstration of the products was followed by a presentation of the marketing plan, which was argued to be much better than that of other MLM companies because it would lead to greater riches. The speaker, one of the two male partners present at the event, showed slides with the income that some of the successful partners in other parts of Russia earned every year, and pointed to Ianzhima’s and Tsyregma’s “salaries,” asking the audience where else in Aginskoe such money could be made. People would be skeptical about WIC Holding just because they were not capable of imagining that they themselves could become rich. In the future, however, they would be grateful to the partners for making them understand the opportunities of the scheme—just like one of the most successful partners from the region:

Zhargalma Iurevna, one of Buriatiia’s celebrities, a woman who worked all her life trading meat on the market, today earns an average of one million seven hundred a month. … She told us how her sponsors, Marina and Boris, chased her in the street and caught her in order to make her understand the advantages of the company and the opportunities it offers. Today, she is grateful to them because they really made her grasp the advantages of working with our company.

The seminar was closed with the screening of short videos of the WIC Holding summit on Cyprus in order to leave people with a powerful impression of the glamorous corporate culture: Arkadii Sharov arriving in a Mercedes, partners sipping cocktails at a swimming pool or having fun onboard a motorboat, and top partners proudly displaying the awards they received for their success.

WIC Holding and other pyramid schemes use performance in order to make people believe in the profitability of their business proposal. Staging success is crucial for giving the schemes the appearance of profitable enterprises. Notably, the partners who are representing WIC Holding on stage play the roles of the businesspeople whom they are trying to emulate in every regard: they dress like them, represent what they believe to be a legitimate company, advertise products, promote financial products, and calculate potential gains. Through their performance, they cultivate entrepreneurial dispositions that they have learned by watching the performance of others, either online or at the seminars they have attended. However, it is important to note that they do not understand themselves as actors. For them, it is neither a show nor a fantasy they are staging, but reality.

The seminar I have described here is an event of outreach, but at the same time it is an important confession of faith and adherence to a certain set of ideas. By reaching out with the aim of converting others, the scheme’s representatives publicly demonstrate their belonging to the scheme and repeat their convictions in a ritualized manner, as the seminars always contain the same elements and information. This can be seen as a form of proselytizing, the significance of which lies not only in its outcome (i.e., whether or not more people can be convinced to join the scheme) but also in the practice itself (cf. Coleman 2003: 17). The performance can be seen as an important way of confirming belief by acting as part of a new community and by preaching what they have accepted as truth. This underlines the important fact that it is not merely calculative reason and the desire for big money that draws people into pyramid schemes, but so does the prospect of becoming part of a spiritual community (cf. Cahn 2011, who made the same point with regard to MLM companies).

Imagining wealth

Speculation, Laura Bear and colleagues (2015) argue, must be distinguished from calculative reason because it “conjures value and channels the invisible and unknowable.” As speculation implies the anticipation of uncertain futures, imagination lies at its heart (cf. Appadurai 2012). Above, we have seen that narratives about possible wealth are a key part of WIC Holding’s performances. The audience is invited to identify with representatives of the scheme who have managed to lift themselves out of poverty and is encouraged to dream about a better future. In what follows, I want to take a closer look at the everyday work of WIC Holding partners in order to explore the role and the nature of their imagination in greater depth.

WIC Holding partners are encouraged by their sponsors and uplines5 to work according to a structured daily office routine, the main objective of which is to make further people invest money into the scheme. The morning is reserved for making phone calls. These calls are made with the purpose of finding people who will agree to come to the office and to listen to their offer. This is as difficult as finding people willing to come and listen to the seminars. People know about the scheme, they have been to the office and to the seminars organized by WIC Holding, and they have either already registered or turned down the offer. Therefore, the partners also travel to other parts of the district and beyond in order to recruit more people. WIC Holding advises organizing meetings only in the office, as any other approach would make an unprofessional impression on potential recruits. In the afternoon, the “rendezvous” (randevu) should take place. This is the meeting with those whom the partners have managed to persuade to come to the office. An exact plan exists for how guests and potential investors should be greeted, where they should be seated, and in what order the information about WIC Holding should be communicated to them. Ideally, such a meeting should end with the guest’s registration and a payment into the scheme.

The information given during the rendezvous is essentially the same as the information given during the seminars: rags-to-riches narratives, a presentation of the products, and a demonstration of the marketing plan. In order for the rendezvous to be successful—that is, to literally establish the basis for a love relationship between the potential partner and the scheme—the partners must encourage their guests to imagine possible rewards and possible futures. The marketing plan, an alleged instrument of calculation, is used as a key device for this purpose and thought of as a tool for demonstrating the opportunities that the scheme offers.

Tsyregma, the most experienced among the WIC Holding partners who were actively pushing the scheme during the time of my research, told me that she could not understand why people were so reluctant to work for the “company.” They had debt but did nothing to improve their situation. According to her rationale, people simply did not understand the great opportunities that investments offered them. She attributed this ignorance to the fact that people in Aga had little financial literacy. Explaining the marketing plan, in her opinion, leaves no doubt about the wealth that an investment guarantees, and she understood her jobs as a way of helping people to deal with their financial concerns.

Whenever she managed to attract guests to the office, Tsyregma first encouraged them to imagine what they would buy if they had a lot of money. Then she started making opaque calculations on a small calculator and on a piece of paper in order to demonstrate how this money could be earned. Her calculations were confusing even to herself. She spoke about numbers of people who could be recruited, sums that needed to be invested, percentages on these sums that would be paid back after a certain amount of time, and WIC Holding’s bonus program. She added and multiplied numbers, calculated percentages, converted sums from euros into rubles and back until she ended somewhere with the conclusion that the figure she had before her was the amount of money that could be earned, exclaiming with shining eyes: “Imagine, how much money …”

The marketing plan is used to lend an aura of scientific rationality to a narrative that sounds like a fairy tale. It is used as a tool designed to represent calculative reason as much as it is used as a tool to trigger people’s fantasies and lead them into a world of imagination. Speculation has been compared to divination and prophecy because all these practices aim at dealing with future uncertainty (Bear et al. 2015). The crucial difference that scholars see, however, is that speculation always exists alongside the “formal knowledge practices of modernity” (388) such as calculation and risk assessment. Pyramid schemes such as WIC Holding show this very clearly: while making calculations, Tsyregma increasingly left behind the realm of the probable (“if you manage to find three people and earn a certain provision”) and entered the realm of the possible (“as soon as your three recruits will each have recruited another three people, you will earn the first bonus payments”), thereby increasingly disregarding social realities. The more speculative her account became, the further behind she left the realm of business and the more she got into the realm of gambling.

Narratives of future wealth and calculative devices such as marketing plans show that temporal imagination features prominently in pyramid schemes. I want to emphasize, however, that spatial imagination, which contains ideas about how global capitalism works and how places are interconnected through financial transactions, is equally important. Spatial imagination serves to lend power to the idea that investment will indeed pay off.

WIC Holding, like all other pyramid schemes I encountered in Aga, emphasizes its internationality during all of its outreach activities. The partners in Aga frequently highlighted the fact that their “company” is registered in Europe, that it was about to expand into the Chinese market, and that some of its business operations, such as the Christmas markets, are conducted in wealthy Western countries. The names of WIC Holding’s product lines are mostly English (e.g., WIC Beauty or EasyLife), and calculations are made in euros. Thus, the emphasis on global connections is part of the marketing strategy of the schemes. Here lies an interesting parallel to the world of professional finance. As Karen Ho has shown, global imaginations are highly prevalent in Wall Street investment bankers’ discourses. Claims of the internationality of business are a key marketing tool through which capitalist power is expressed and perpetuated, and they are “integral to the normative process of conducting business in an investment bank” (2005: 74). For WIC Holding representatives in Aga, the global speak is not merely a marketing strategy or a way of lending authority to the information they distribute; it is also important as a means of engaging with, understanding, and connecting to capitalism. With particular clarity, this emerges from a story that Tsyregma once told me:

There is a group of capitalists, very rich and very powerful, who are in control of the world’s capital. No one knows exactly who they are, but what is known is that they have their headquarters on Cyprus [this is also where WIC Holding is registered and where seminars for the top leaders take place]. This group is called the closed group of capital (zakrytaia gruppa kapitala). The capitalists who make up the group employ several experts to work for them. Among these experts are administration staff, technicians, economists, and also seteviki. One of the seteviki working for the group is Arkadii Sharov. And do you know why WIC is a Russian company? Because Arkadii Sharov is Russian.

After the financial crisis in 2008, she went on to explain, the group of capitalists understood that multilevel marketing (setevoi biznes) would be the business of the future. The crisis had shown that the “traditional business” (traditsionnyi biznes) was no longer profitable. In contrast, MLM companies were proliferating even during the crisis and therefore proved that the network business model was a promising one.

According to this narrative, the secret source of capital can be accessed by ordinary people through the pyramid scheme. WIC Holding’s charismatic front figure is imagined as a middleman between the people in Aga and the powerful people running the capitalist economy. The scheme is imagined as an immediate and direct point of access to the sources of capitalist wealth. Ideas about spatial connections between pyramid schemes and powerful centers of global finance are not particular to WIC Holding, but a comparison to other studies shows that they are a prominent feature of pyramid schemes more generally. John Cox, for example, discusses a pyramid scheme on Papua New Guinea that invokes the London Stock Exchange and the World Bank, that is, places where many local people imagine great wealth to originate. Like in Aga, this scheme spread narratives that “positioned the scam as a mediator between PNG investors and international institutions” (2016: 69). Thus, pyramid schemes connect private hopes to the imagination of new spatial connections that link various parts of the world to the centers of global financial power.

Conclusion

WIC Holding managed to turn hundreds of people across Russia into its representatives and to attract considerable investments from thousands.6 This was achieved by using techniques of make-believe aimed at encouraging speculative thinking. By fueling hopes of a better future, WIC Holding drew people into highly contested economic activities that, for the vast majority, did not lead to the fulfillment of their dreams but instead increased the financial difficulties they faced.

Performance, as I have shown, is important when conjuring ideas of wealth. The stage provides an opportunity to present WIC Holding as a modern capitalist enterprise and as a system that enables people in rural Siberia to rise from rags to riches. The idea that it is possible for everyone to join the scheme, and thereby escape poverty, is compelling to people—especially if they are experiencing or have experienced financial difficulties. Rags-to-riches narratives are presented in order to emphasize that other people have achieved precisely what is promised by WIC Holding. And the way of getting there seems easy: people need to take a bank loan, pay the money into the scheme, and find others who will do the same. By providing a recipe for success, pyramid schemes not only conjure dreamworlds but also conceptually bridge the gap between present and future, reality and dream. Performance, I have argued, is crucial both in order to make people believe in the scheme and in order to reinforce their belief by communicating the scheme’s core ideas to others.

The idea of a better future does not remain an abstract goal; the imaginative space created by the dream of wealth is filled with specific ideas. Potential recruits are asked to imagine what exactly they will buy with the money they will earn, whether it will be a house, a car, or a journey. They are asked to think about their dreams in every detail, for example, what type of car they want, which brand, and what color. Calculations are made that aim to demonstrate with scientific rationality what will happen in the future. Numbers are used to support the idea that wealth is actually achievable and that it is achievable within a few months. Imagination, I have argued, is important to WIC Holding’s mythmaking project both in a temporal and in a spatial sense. Ideas about capitalism’s hidden mechanisms link the pyramid scheme to sources of financial power, which encourages the idea that the desired money can become accessible by establishing transnational connections to financial centers. Thus, attention is diverted from where the money really comes from (the investor’s friends and relatives), and the pyramid scheme is rendered a moral enterprise.

Pyramid schemes can successfully claim that they are a legal and legitimate type of business, rather than a form of gambling, by emulating capitalist aesthetics, using capitalist rhetoric, and, of course, pretending to be a form of MLM. My research suggests that their advocates’ strategies of making people believe in the profitability of investment work particularly well in recently capitalist environments where people have little experience with financial products, speculative thinking, and individualist-aspirational ambitions, but where they see the need to adapt to new capitalist realities and wish to participate in capitalist modernity.

Pyramid schemes are fascinating social phenomena because they reflect the capitalist logic that systemic growth is indefinite. The latter concept works as an illusion that is necessary to sustain the idea that all participants can profit from the system. In fact, growth is limited, which means that anyone can be successful but not everyone will be successful. Therefore, in order to fuel the proliferation of the schemes, and capitalism more generally, the idea that growth is limited must be concealed. The belief in the system needs to be strengthened by the rhetoric of possibility while the logic of probability is dangerous to the success of the scheme. Like in capitalism, the cultivation of hopes and dreams is crucial to the proliferation of the schemes because every attempt to aspire to the good life sustains the system.

Acknowledgments

I want to thank Matteo Benussi, Elizabeth Turk, and Caroline Humphrey for numerous discussions on the topic and for their valuable comments on this article. Moreover, I wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers of Focaal for their very helpful suggestions.

Notes
1.

The term “Ponzi scheme” goes back to Charles Ponzi, who in 1919 initiated a fraudulent scheme in the United States by promising investors that they would make massive profits by purchasing international reply coupons and redeeming them in the United States for postage stamps. Ponzi managed to deceive his investors by paying early ones with the money he collected from later ones while pocketing millions of dollars himself before his scheme collapsed.

2.

Profit depends on recruiting participants into the scheme. This, however, is not always made entirely clear when participants advertise the scheme. They sometimes make people believe that they can simply invest money and then wait for their interest to accrue.

3.

I noticed repeatedly that active representatives of the scheme made it sound as if they were earning a lot of money (in order to convince others to join the scheme), although this was not the case.

4.

The Buryats are an ethnic minority who, in their majority, inhabit the regions around Lake Baikal. Aga is a formerly autonomous Buryat district with a mixed Buryat and Russian population. About 70 percent of the inhabitants of the town of Aginskoe are Buryat.

5.

All those who are above a representative’s genealogy, including their sponsor.

6.

As there are no official numbers, these are estimations based on my informants’ accounts about the size of seminars they went to, videos of seminars from different parts of Russia and Cyprus, and the sizes of WIC Holding social media communities.

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Contributor Notes

Leonie Schiffauer holds a master’s degree in anthropology and Slavic studies from the University of Heidelberg and recently completed her PhD in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her main research interests include Siberia, economic anthropology, globalization, and the anthropology of finance. E-mail: leonie.schiffauer@gmx.de

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Appadurai, Arjun. 2012. “The spirit of calculation”. Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 30 (1): 317.

  • Bear, Laura. 2015. “Capitalist divination: Popularist speculators and technologies of imagination on the Hooghly River”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35 (3): 408423.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bear, Laura, Ritu Birla, and Stine Puri. 2015. “Speculation: Futures and capitalism in India.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35 (3): 387391.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Berlant, Lauren. 2011. Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Borenstein, Eliot 1999. “Public offerings: MMM and the marketing of melodrama.” In Consuming Russia: Popular culture, sex, and society since Gorbachev, ed. Adele M. Barker, 4975. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cahn, Peter S. 2011. Direct sales and direct faith in Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Cassidy, Rebecca, Andrea Pisac, and Claire Loussouarn, eds. 2013. Qualitative research in gambling: Exploring the production and consumption of risk. New York: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Coleman, Simon 2003. “Continuous conversion? The rhetoric, practice, and rhetorical practice of charismatic Protestant conversion.” In The anthropology of religious conversion, ed. Andrew Buckser and Stephen D. Glazier, 1528. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff 2001. “Millennial capitalism: First thoughts on a second coming.” In Millennial capitalism and the culture of neoliberalism, ed. Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, 156. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cox, John 2016. “Value and the art of deception: Public morality in a Papua New Guinean Ponzi scheme.” In Anthropologies of value: Cultures of accumulation across the Global North and South, ed. Fernando Angosto-Ferrandez and Geir H. Presterudstuen, 5174. London: Pluto Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Goede, Marieke. 2005. Virtue, fortune and faith: A genealogy of finance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Eremina, Anna, and Nataliia Biianova. 2015. “Sergei Mavrodi snova predlagaet rossiianam fantasticheskie protsenty” [Sergei Mavrodi again offers Russians a fantastic interest]. Vedomosti, 10 February.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hart, Keith 2013. “Making money with money: Reflections of a betting man.” In Cassidy et al. 2013: 1527.

  • Ho, Karen 2005. “Situating global capitalisms: A view from Wall Street investment banks”. Cultural Anthropology 20 (1): 6896.

  • Keep, William, and Peter Vander Nat. 2014. “Multilevel marketing and pyramid schemes in the United States”. Journal of Historical Research in Marketing 6 (2): 188210.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krige, Detlev. 2011. “‘We are running for a living’: Work, leisure and speculative accumulation in an underground numbers lottery in Johannesburg”. African Studies 70 (1): 324.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Krige, Detlev. 2012. “Fields of dreams, fields of schemes: Ponzi finance and multi-level marketing in South Africa”. Africa 82 (1): 6992.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ledeneva, Alena V. 1998. Russia’s economy of favours: Blat, networking, and informal exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Lemon, Alaina. 1998. “‘Your eyes are green like dollars’: Counterfeit cash, national substance, and currency apartheid in 1990s Russia”. Cultural Anthropology 13 (1): 2255.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Loussouarn, Claire 2013. “Spread betting and the City of London”. In Cassidy et al. 2013: 233250.

  • Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2013. Arbitraging Japan: Dreams of capitalism at the end of finance. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Nocera, Joe. 2015. “The pyramid scheme problem”. New York Times, 15 September.

  • Pelkmans, Mathijs 2009. “Introduction: Post-Soviet space and the unexpected turns of religious life.” In Conversion after socialism: Disruptions, modernisms, and the technologies of faith, ed. Mathijs Pelkmans, 116. New York: Berghahn Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Pesmen, Dale. 2000. Russia and soul: An exploration. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Puri, Stine S. 2015. “Betting on performed futures: Predictive procedures at Delhi Racecourse”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 35 (3): 466480.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Randalls, Samuel 2013. “Weather trading in London: Distinguishing finance from gambling.” In Cassidy et al. 2013: 187201.

  • Reuters. 2013. “IMF warns Russia on increasing household debt burden.” 22 October. https://www.reuters.com/article/russia-imf-banking/imf-warns-russia-on-increasing-household-debt-burden-idUSL5N0IC2GB20131022.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rogers, Douglas. 2005. “Moonshine, money, and the politics of liquidity in rural Russia”. American Ethnologist 32 (1): 6381.

  • Rona-Tas, Akos, and Alya Guseva. 2014. Plastic money: Constructing markets for credit cards in eight postcommunist countries. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • SEC (US Securities and Exchange Commission). 2013. “Beware of pyramid schemes posing as multi-level marketing programs.” 1 October. https://www.sec.gov/oiea/investor-alerts-bulletins/investor-alerts-ia_pyramidhtm.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smirnova, Julia. 2012. “Dreistes Comeback des Finanzpyramiden-Moguls” [Brilliant comeback of the financial pyramid mogul]. Die Welt, 25 April.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Tsing, Anna L. 2005. Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Verdery, Katherine 1996. “Faith, hope and Caritas in the land of the pyramids, Romania, 1990–1994.” In What was socialism, and what comes next? ed. Katherine Verdery, 168203. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zaloom, Caitlin. 2009. “How to read the future? The yield curve, affect, and financial prediction”. Public Culture 21 (2): 245268.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zamakhina, Tat’iana. 2015. “Za sozdanie finansovoi piramidy oshtrafuiut na million” [For the creation of a financial pyramid will be fined one million]. Rossiskaia Gazeta, 2 December.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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