Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico

Inline_omnilife
"Omnilife." August 2008 via Peter S. Cahn.

Abstract

Since the 1980s, Mexican leaders have followed other Latin American countries in pursuing neoliberal economic policies designed to stimulate foreign investment, reduce public spending, and promote free trade. Recent studies of indigenous movements and popular protests challenge the idea that these market-based economic reforms enjoy a broad consensus and suggest that elites impose them by force. By turning the focus to middle-class Mexicans, I argue that some nonelite sectors of society avidly welcome the reign of the free market. Although they do not profit directly from unregulated capitalism, the middle class looks to neoliberalism to ensure access to the material markers of class status. The rising popularity of multilevel marketing companies in Mexico, which glorify consumption and celebrate the possibilities of entrepreneurship, demonstrates the appeal of neoliberalism to citizens fearful of diminished purchasing power. By tying consumption to globalized free markets, neoliberalism does not need coercion to win acceptance.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of essays on Mexico, which also address issues of political economy: Ana Maria Alonso’s “Conforming Disconformity: ‘Mestizaje,’ Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism” (2004, Alejandro Lugo’s “Cultural Production and Reproduction in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico” (1990), James H. McDonald’s “Whose History? Whose Voice? Myth and Resistance in the Rise of the New Left in Mexico” (1993), and Laura A. Lewis’ “Of Ships and Saints: History, Memory, and Place in the Making of Moreno Mexican Identity” (2001).

Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays on “the middle class” in a range of national contexts, including Neeraj Vedwan’s “Pesticides in Coca-Cola and Pepsi: Consumerism, Brand Image, and Public Interest in a Globalizing India” (2007), Susan A. Reed’s “Performing Respectability: The Berav, Middle-Class Nationalism, and the Classicization of Kandyan Dance in Sri Lanka” (2002), and Mark Liechty’s “Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu” (2005).

About the Author

As of August 2008, Peter Cahn is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma.

Author's current webpage

Editorial Overview

Multilevel marketing – in which salespeople are rewarded both for the products they sell, often door to door, and for enrolling new salespeople – has enjoyed extraordinary success in developing countries in recent years, drawing in millions invested in the values and potential wealth of entrepreneurialism. Peter Cahn explores this phenomenon in an essay in the August 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, focusing on the figure of Esperanza, one of the three million distributors of Omnilife nutritional supplements in Mexico. Kahn describes the growth of multilevel marketing within neoliberal restructuring, and how it has provided opportunities for people struggling to maintain middle class incomes and status even as the middle class job sector withers away.

This vital essay introduces an important caveat to literature on global economic restructuring that foregrounds the ways elites have forcefully imposed market based reforms, and non-elites have resisted. Focusing on middle class Mexicans, Cahn draws out another angle, showing how neoliberal capitalism holds out the promise of increased purchasing power to upwardly mobile citizens who dedicate themselves to playing by market rules. “As long as they are motivated by the need to reach their desired level of consumption,” Cahn writes, “neoliberalism needs no violent push to win acceptance”. Far from resisting neoliberal reform, figures like Esperanza invest their hopes in it.

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