I’ve always been bad at selling myself. I like to tell myself it’s because I lack the shamelessness required to be a good salesman, but that explanation is only half-accurate. After all, I’m not hawking “Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About”; if I’m selling myself, the product is reputable. The truth is that I lack the confidence and charisma to be a salesman; I have a fear of inserting myself into new social situations and speaking fluently about my merits to people I don’t know. It’s why I am always the one who gravitates towards the corner of the room at parties, and who leaves conference knowing as many people as when I arrived. Arguably, it is this personality defect, if you could call it that, that prevented me from becoming a successful academic: I never excelled at the hobnobbing and gladhanding (with peers and professors and grant managers) that would have provided me entree into academia and eased my passage through it.
I’ve always had the slightly self-serving belief that salesmanship is vaguely anti-meritocratic. In a meritocracy, one is judged on one’s talents and performance. Salesmanship seems extraneous, or, even worse, a way to disguise lack of talent and poor performance using the tricks of rhetoric and emotional appeal. My intelligence and abilities speak for themselves — if everyone else doesn’t recognize that, that’s their fault, not mine.
The society we actually live in is decidedly un-meritocratic, though, and changes to the economy have only served to make salesmanship a more valuable skill. Journalists must not only pump out articles but also cultivate a witty social media presence. Artists must attract attention and followers on Instagram. Stars in the various white collar sectors are known as such not just for their work, but also (and perhaps to a greater extent) for their overall “presence”: attending meetups, providing mentorship, and giving talks at conferences. The rise of services like Uber and Handy, with their employee (err, “independent contractor”) rating systems, means that workers in the most precarious economic positions must also be the most affable and courteous. Doing your job isn’t enough any more, or, rather, the scope of that job is not the same as it once was. It’s no longer simply a matter of driving people from point A to point B. Instead, you must do so with a smile, and an intelligently constructed playlist, and while showing respect and courtesy to any drunken asshole who opens the door.
In the case of Uber, the fundamental act of buying and selling takes place within the app. The ratings of drivers and riders seem unnecessary and irrelevant to the entire transaction, and the driver does not have to sell the rider on the concept of a taxi service. But there are whole sectors of the economy where, without this persuasion, the marketplace would collapse.
There’s an article from The Baffler that I love, which was written than 20 years ago. It’s about Amway, a multilevel marketing (MLM) company. In case you’re not familiar with how MLMs work, here’s the premise:
Imagine that you’ve struck a deal with a company to give you discounts for buying in bulk: If you buy $100 worth of stuff, they’ll send you a 3 percent rebate. For $300 or more, it goes up to 6 percent, $600 or more, 9 percent, and so on up to $7,500 and 25 percent. Now, let’s say you’re unable to spend more than $100 a month, but manage to get seventy-four other people to go in with you. Together, you spend $7,500 and divide up the 25 percent rebate. Everyone saves money, and the rebate is shared equally. That’s the idea behind a consumer co-op or wholesale buying club.
Now, let’s say you get the 25 percent rebate from the company but tell the other seventy-four participants, “Look, you’ve each spent only $100, so you’ll get only a 3 percent rebate.” Not only would you save 25 percent on your purchases, but you make a 22 percent profit on everyone else’s. That’s the idea behind Amway.
At Amway, or any multilevel marketing company, you make more money when your “downline” — the people you’ve recruited to the company, and the people they’ve recruited, ad infinitum — sells more product. (In the author’s example, the downline comprises the other 74 participants.) You also make money when you sell product directly yourself, but the lion’s share of revenue, at least for the top earners, comes from the downline.
Amway and other MLMs sell themselves as an escape from traditional capitalism. Here’s a distributor from one MLM, Youngevity (taken from John Oliver’s excellent piece on MLMs)
In two years, this is what’s gonna happen to you. You are gonna drive to your work, you’re gonna walk into your boss’s office, you’re gonna sit down, and you’re gonna quit your job. [Claps and screaming.] You’re gonna explain that that little “pyramid scheme thing” that you almost got terminated for last year, you’re now an entrepreneur and you’re gonna be doing that full time.
Amway’s pitch is similar:
WHAT IS YOUR DREAM? demanded a booming voice. The ballroom went dark and the audience settled in for a fifteen minute video catalogue of the stuff dreams are made of: a blur of luxury cars, sprawling mansions, frolicking children, pristine beaches, hot-dogging jet-skiers, private helipads, and zooming jets—all set to caffeinated, John-Teshy instrumental music. The voice returned: “It’s about family!” (A shot of kids collapsing on an oceanic lawn, love-tackled by Dad.) “It’s about security!” (A shot of a palatial house.) “It’s about you!” (A close-up of toes, gently lapped by the incoming tide, wriggling in white sand.)
If MLMs try to embody one value, it is freedom. Freedom from want, freedom from the boring 9-to-5, or working for the man, and the freedom to buy a house, a car (a silver Mercedes, if you believe the Youngevity pitchwoman), and all of the other trappings of the American Dream that we were promised when we became citizens.
The author, as part of his investigation, allows himself to be recruited by an Amway couple, Josh and Jean. He finds out that their existence is far less romantic than Amway would have you believe:
To get the full Amway experience, I started buying my groceries through The Business….To make my “pick-up” at Josh and Jean’s apartment…required an hour-long el ride and arrangements with a friend to haul the stuff back home, all scheduled only during those brief windows of opportunity when Josh and Jean could be there to meet me.
And these inconveniences pale beside the emotional shock of entering Josh and Jean’s apartment. Not big to begin with, its thorough occupation by Amway Corporation made it positively claustrophobic. The living room was dominated by huge metal cabinets displaying Amway cleaning and food products; shelves along the wall were devoted to toiletries; boxes of cereal lined the top of the couch. Next to the window was an eraser board listing upcoming World Wide Dreambuilders meetings; free wall space and the outside of cabinets were decorated with motivational slogans (“I AM A WINNER!”) drawn in crayon.
[Amway] has tragic consequences for people like Josh and Jean. Perfectly capable of leading enjoyable lives, they nonetheless surround themselves with Amway propaganda, subsist on Amway food, immerse themselves in Amway culture, think in Amway jargon, and siphon their income to Greg Duncan in the hopes of learning the “secret” of his wealth.
The dreams of sprawling mansions have been replaced by the reality of a tiny apartment jam-packed with Amway shit, and the prospect of telling your boss to fuck off by the realization that your money will be siphoned to another boss (“upliner”). Josh and Jean’s lifestyle seems decidedly un-free to me: they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to get rich, which entails pitching the Amway lifestyle to anyone who enters their social circle.
After a year in The Business, Josh and Jean were scarcely able to devote eight hours a week to distributing goods and showing The Plan—activities that required a good supply of prospects, customers, and downlines. They were desperate for new leads, also a scarce resource, and regularly alarmed me with proposals that we all go to some public place and mingle. Of course, that would have required overcoming shyness and other gag responses, impediments that Josh, Jean, and Sherri never really overcame (most of their leads seemed either to be family or, like me, coworkers.) They would, on the other hand, devote entire weekends to “recharging their batteries” at First and Second Looks, Seminars, Rallies, and Major Functions (Dream Night, Leadership Weekend, Family Reunion, Free Enterprise Day); meetings that required only insecurity and neediness, which all three had in spades.
It all reminds of a recent and great essay by Corey Robin in the New York Times Opinion section. Here’s the thesis:
Under capitalism, we’re forced to enter the market just to live. The libertarian sees the market as synonymous with freedom. But socialists hear “the market” and think of the anxious parent, desperate not to offend the insurance representative on the phone, lest he decree that the policy she paid for doesn’t cover her child’s appendectomy. Under capitalism, we’re forced to submit to the boss. Terrified of getting on his bad side, we bow and scrape, flatter and flirt, or worse — just to get that raise or make sure we don’t get fired.
The socialist argument against capitalism isn’t that it makes us poor. It’s that it makes us unfree. When my well-being depends upon your whim, when the basic needs of life compel submission to the market and subjugation at work, we live not in freedom but in domination. Socialists want to end that domination: to establish freedom from rule by the boss, from the need to smile for the sake of a sale, from the obligation to sell for the sake of survival.
What’s interesting to me is that both Amwayers and democratic socialists recognize that American capitalism is deeply rotten, and for similar reasons: the unfair power that bosses have, the precariousness of living paycheck-to-paycheck, and the feeling that rising rents and tuition and insurance costs are impoverishing normal people. The Amway critique of corporate capitalism actually strikes me as being fairly radical — an economy built on small businesses and entrepreneurship and direct selling would certainly look very different from the one we have today. But what the rapt Amway listeners fail to understand is that any economic system based on “the obligation to sell for the sake of survival” is doomed to reproduce the problems they complain about. Amway promises freedom but cannot deliver it, for this precise reason.
I think, again, back to my graduate school experience. In academia, the quality of my work never seemed to matter much. My papers were cited if they had the right set of collaborators, if my advisor disseminated them to his network of colleagues, if I, by some miracle, had the right person attend my conference talk. What I find freeing, and positively delightful, about my current job is that I don’t have to sell much at all. I don’t have to “bow and scrape” for grant money, I don’t have to attend conferences to popularize my work, and I don’t have to justify my existence. The co-founders of my company have to do these things, but I can be perfectly content as a mere cog in the machine. The problem with “Always Be Closing”, with Amway, and with academia, is that being an entrepreneur (which is what professors are), is a job that is not suitable for everyone. We need an economy that is built for both entrepreneurs and mere cogs. And we need an economy that addresses the dual failings, economic and philosophical, of our current treatment of cogs, in academia, Amway, and at large: not only that they are so woefully paid, but also that having no desire to advance above cog-dom is viewed as a personal failure. What excites me about democratic socialism is that it provides a vision for such a future.