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Fields of dreams, fields of schemes: ponzi finance and multi-level marketing in South Africa

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The structural conditions associated with increased inequality amidst rapid change brought about by growing financialization and efforts to get the ‘unbanked’ sections of society into the formal financial system have created the conditions under which illegal pyramid and ponzi schemes, fake investment schemes, and legal multi-level marketing companies have been able to flourish. In contemporary Johannesburg and Soweto the originators of money multiplication schemes and the agents who ‘work’ to recruit new members position themselves in this context as financial entrepreneurs and brokers who embody a range of seemingly contradictory discourses, drawing on discourses of ‘empowerment’, ‘self-help’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘religiously sanctioned wealth and prosperity’ in the course of their risk taking in the field of finance. Based on a series of case studies of female agents of ‘push-push’ schemes, the article shows how many of these discourses reflect some of the conditions of contemporary capitalism: citizens are expected to be active investors, active entrepreneurs and hard workers who are able to work from home and without a boss. Moreover, the schemes use sophisticated technologies, marketing strategies and other practices which simulate formality, legality and sincerity – echoing religious practices and discourses. At the same time a set of cultural values and social logics that are not necessarily produced by neo-liberal capitalism and financialization, but are certainly activated by them, makes it hard for citizens to recognize or admit the forms of deception involved, unless deception is seen to be central to the operation of the modern state or the present ‘get-rich-quick’ culture. Risk taking, and pursuit of social mobility, originate in dual economy legacies, with their unfulfilled expectations, wealth disparities and frustrated class aspiration. Participants in pyramid schemes have ideologies combining ‘progress’ with ‘imminent doom’, entrepreneurship with greed: contradictory attitudes reflective of financialization in the broader world.

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