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FIELDS OF DREAMS, FIELDS OF SCHEMES: PONZI FINANCE AND MULTI-LEVEL MARKETING IN SOUTH AFRICA

Abstract
ABSTRACT

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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RÉSUMÉ

Les conditions structurelles associées à l'accroissement des inégalités en période de mutation rapide résultant d'une financialisation et d'efforts croissants déployés pour intégrer les « sans compte » (bancaire) de la société dans le système financier formel ont créé les conditions favorables à l'essor de systèmes illégaux de placement pyramidal, programmes d'investissement frauduleux et entreprises de commercialisation à paliers multiples. De nos jours à Johannesburg et Soweto, les initiateurs de phénomènes de multiplication d'argent et les agents qui « œuvrent » au recrutement de nouveaux membres se positionnent dans ce contexte en tant qu'entrepreneurs financiers et courtiers qui incarnent un éventail de discours en apparence contradictoires, s'inspirant des discours d’« autonomisation », d’« entraide », d’« entrepreneuriat » et de « prospérité sanctionnée par la religion » au cours de leur prise de risque dans le domaine de la finance. S'appuyant sur une série d’études de cas de femmes agentes de systèmes « push-push », l'article montre en quoi ces discours reflètent certaines conditions du capitalisme contemporain : les citoyens sont censés être des investisseurs actifs et des entrepreneurs actifs, prêts à travailler dur à domicile et sans patron. De plus, ces systèmes utilisent des technologies sophistiquées, des stratégies marketing et d'autres pratiques qui simulent la formalité, la légalité et la sincérité, en écho aux pratiques et discours religieux. Dans le même temps, un ensemble de valeurs culturelles et de logiques sociales non nécessairement produites par le capitalisme néolibéral et la financialisation, mais indéniablement activées par ces derniers, rend difficile la tâche des citoyens de reconnaître ou d'admettre les formes de tromperie en jeu, à moins que la tromperie ne soit perçue comme l’élément central du fonctionnement de l’état moderne ou de la culture actuelle du « s'enrichir rapidement ». La prise de risque et la quête de mobilité sociale émanent de l'héritage d'une double économie, avec ses attentes assouvies, ses écarts de richesse et des classes frustrées dans leurs aspirations. Ceux qui participent aux systèmes de placement pyramidal ont des idéologies qui conjuguent « progrès » et « menace imminente », entrepreneuriat et avidité : des attitudes contradictoires qui reflètent la financialisation plus largement.

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Africa
  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
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