Losing friends and failing to influence people #392: “Activism as a Ponzi scheme”

Here’s another post destined to lose me friends/supporters/followers/ears. Perhaps. (IDGAF)

It came to me recently, at a [description removed on advice of career coach].

Most of the “activism” I see is a Ponzi Scheme.

In case you don’t know it, a Ponzi scheme is named after an Italian conman, Ponzi. He advertised a glorious future for all who would pay him – steady, high returns on investment.  What he did was use the money he was getting to

  1. Pay dividends/returns to those joining in
  2. Living a lavish life/salting it away for the day he would have to do a runner.

As more people were attracted, and gave him money, he had more money to pay out as “interest” but of course, had more people to make payments to.

This is fine for a while, but ultimately not “sustainable” – you have to find more and more people willing not to ask too many awkward questions about the future and the mechanics of the scheme. You can only fob off folks with nonsense about a “split strike conversion strategy” for so long.

That said, most of the “business press” is lazy, underfunded, ready to reprint press releases. Investigative work costs time, money, and the push back can be ferocious (see the Financial Times and Wirecard pushback).

You live in fear, too, of someone wanting to withdraw a good chunk of their investment. You start sweating, and thinking about getting out before it all collapses.  Maybe you do, maybe you don’t.

So, activism is like this in the following way.

You set up an organisation. It promises a bright future, a different and better future. You attract loads of people (if you get your timing right).  The exact details of your scheme – its theory of change – are murky, but that doesn’t matter for most folks. And those who are asking too many questions can be disregarded as a buzzkill, as just not getting it, or being professionally hard to please, or jealous.  You don’t need their investment anyway, not for the scheme to “work”.

Loads of people “join”.  There is an electric buzz. The emotional returns are magnificent. The “business press” is in this case the activist/alternative press. Rather than wanting to sound notes of caution and be accused of being a buzzkill, or cynical, or jealous, or whatever, they instead publish relatively uncritical and un-informed hagiography (which is both easier and what is expected, anyway).  This brings in more followers, and the hype feeds on itself. The movement grows, and makes plans to stage more events with an even-greater return on investment for those who have invested.

But the main problem is – as for an actual Ponzi scheme – there is a finite number of new people who can be inveigled to become involved.

And when numbers peak, let alone start to drop, then it’s hard to make the payments that were keeping everyone involved.

And if people start to demand their investment is repaid, pretty soon you can get yourself into a death spiral situation…

But, but
Of course, this will be grossly offensive to those well-meaning people who were early involved, or even originated a scheme. They will, with justification, protest that they are not, were not, conmen and conwomen. They were not trying to extract money/hope under false pretences.

The rebuttal, could I be bothered to engage, would be “sure, but you were wanting attention, hope, a following. And you were careless to the point of criminal negligence about the long term viability of your scheme. If you’re going to start something, you have a responsibility to think about its sustainability.”

Then that will draw accusations of elitism, snobbery, fatalism.

Then I would respond by saying “not at all, I just expect you to be grown-up, and to try to learn from the past, and take what you do seriously.”

And then they …

And then I lose the will to live…

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