Cargo Cults, Ponzi Schemes, and Cooperatives by Tadit Anderson July 11, 2009

What became known as “cargo cults” were the result of the invasion by European colonial forces and later by US and Allied forces of the cultures of southeast Pacific. These invasions caused islanders and isolated tribes to experience a cultural overload as a result of the huge mass of equipment and goods, literally “cargo” appearing from a world so beyond their experience that it seemed like the result of the magical intervention of ancestors, gods, ghosts, demi-gods, or the attribution of “brains and personality.” When World War II was “won” by the Allied forces, those supporting bases and supplies were generally just abandoned to decay, corrosion, sun, and weather.

    The response to the military abandonment by some of the islanders was to “re-open” these bases as holy sites with imitated equipment such as bamboo antenna, piers, models of airplanes made from grass, control towers, flags, and cleared landing strips. The annual holy days included rituals that had natives dressed in imitations of US uniforms. The goal was to entice the airplanes now flying over and ships now passing those islands by to come again and deposit their cargo. Under certain circumstance this could be described as a marketing plan. In some situations the cargo cults were a religion based upon a faith that if proper rituals and prayers were conducted then the miracle of commodity wealth would return. This vision was based upon an expectation of the return of the commodity wealth once briefly experienced by these cultures. It was also based upon an economics of spiritual and social parity common to those cultures. In other ways there is little difference between them and naively held religion or the recently defrocked delusions of financialized economics.

    Most of the examples of this specific type of cargo cult have vanished, but it provides a model to understand the wide spread patterns of colonial economics within the rest of the “modern” world. Cooperatives, as a frequent focus for reactionary politics, often will attempt under the pretense of re-invention to operate the associated business without an adequate level of financial literacy or transparency. They quickly become very much like the cargo cults waiting for the rewards of faithful loyalty and divine intervention, or more simply a pseudo liberal version of exactly the authoritarian ideology and greed they claim to reject. The pattern is also quite like the econo-theology much revered by the acolytes of Free Market economics, which also seem conveniently isolated from the history and the accumulated effects of those economic policies upon the full community. The larger scale of world commerce and the reasoning of well acknowledged good business practices seem to be beyond the very narrow experience of these sub-cultures. The immediate mystery here is that anyone could rationally presume that they could operate a business or evaluate management based upon a few choruses of Kumbaiya, the repetition of the words “community” and cooperative” and a lot of wishful thinking.

  There is also a second version of the cargo cults that are socially progressive by nature and are an expression of local values and cosmology. These examples tend to be less about cargo and more about millenial renewal or toward restoring a cultural balance. This form has been used to restore indigenous customs interrupted by Christian missionaries with a different prophecy of return and promise of rewards for the faithful. This indigenous form of cosmological parity is considered to be a threat to centralized power and thereby wealth extraction. Another attraction to these alternative forms is that they often advocate the heresy of racial equality. The difference seems to be mostly a matter of morality and social interests. The emphasis here will be on the negative patterns. The “modern” versions of the anti-social cargo cultures can be found within every sector of “modern” civilization and support a certain colonialism or corporatism of consciousness.

     The more cargo oriented cultures invest in the patterns of uninformed reasoning, both by inversions and reversals, and typically operate within a partitioned set of social values and experience. In the so called civilized world this is accomplished by subcultures of closed social groups, specialization and indulgences obtained by bribery and other desirables. These reversals and inversions reduce the processes and possibilities of history and class structure into terms that are familiar and flattering for the comfortable and for those that aspire to those comforts at the expense of others.

One example stands out, the manager hired or promoted on the basis of political loyalty or cronyism rather than on actual performance, both past and present. In wishing to maintain the benefits of stratification and self interest sometimes conformity to certain articles of faith seem necessary. One result is a suppression of critical thinking, of conflicting information, and of a sense of civility to outsiders and other lesser life forms.

     Under the rule of the sandbox jungle the voices and examples of inverted and reversed reason tend to multiply. Faith in comfort provides for the comforts of faith. Ignorance is innocence, certainty and faith are strengths, doubt is weakness, and popular beliefs are assumed to be true. Causality is taken to be a result of choosing so that the end is justified by the convenience of the supposed means. Success is attainable by mimicking people who are imagined to be successful by them occupying positions of corporate authority. If your decision making doesn't produce the desired result, then it is someone else's fault or it demonstrates reason to avoid decision making. If it is good for you, then it must be good for everyone. An ugly image or message requires that the mirror or messenger be blamed. The declaration of good intentions is all that is necessary to justify any decision, no matter how poorly informed or actually harmful. There are evil people and institutions, and surely one of them is more responsible than you are. Bad consequences are never the result of your actions or inactions. There will be justice and only bad people will be punished, you will be forgiven. To the extent that personal feelings of comfort are the focus, the whole process is open to misdirection and extortion. Whether it is by unreason or ransom the missing aspects of social partnership and community as an open process and the requirements of real time production will cause the process to collapse. The application of the violence of unreason and irresponsibility is simply a right of position. 

   Do any of these inversions and reversals sound familiar? They should, because these patterns define much of what is put forward in the way of anti-social political, economic, and cultural assumptions. They also define the source of many interpersonal dys-functions. Faith in a system of unreason and indulgence is hard to shift as long as the cargo of comforts and material blessings are delivered. Those who do not benefit from the reigning distribution of rewards are considered to be by definition unworthy.

  When a non-profit association is established to advocate for the remedying of some particular social injustice, there is often a major reversal that occurs as the organization morphs toward wider social acceptance and support by conventional leaderships. Organizations which once advocated for the needs of the homeless become part of an institutional process designed to control the needs of the homeless to prevent the disruption of the comforts of conformity.

    Churches seem to often become havens for those who are the most morally challenged and socially narrow. Cooperative leadership without transparency, accountability, and self awareness are prone to deliberate ignorance and the imitation of the conventions of the comfortable as blessed by corporate conformity. If the same patterns as are often found in churchs are reproduced elsewhere, then Banks will be the places where fraud will be mostly likely found. This proves the rule that the easiest way to rob a bank is to own one. We should also then expect that the "cooperative" organizations will likely be dominated by people resistant to transparency and democratic values, and much more likely to mimic the anti-social cargo cult patterns of conformity, celebrity leadership, and magical thinking.

Buried within this process is also the lack of understanding or respect for what it takes to produce something on an industrial or productive basis under real conditions. Because the culture of this “modern” society is focused upon leisure and consumption people have forgotten how to work and relate on the physical plane. Under the premise of bargain hunting for cargo they will beggar their neighbor without a second thought. When critical thinking is treated as something to be avoided, then the immovable logic and physics of real time limitations will “suddenly” appear as obstructions to cargo access.

   Ponzi schemes have a similar process. Typically the bait has been the expectation of larger than normal returns on investments by persons wanting to magically and rapidly increase their wealth, their cargo of consumer goods, and their trophies of success. Ponzi schemes seem to operate most often within relatively closed groups sharing trust based on some ethnic, class, or other cultural identification. The instability of the scheme is wired into the process, though the criminal intention is not evident until the amount of money disappearing either through mismangement or by theft becomes greater than the amount of money being “invested.” When magical returns on investment are promised as a future reward, then the uninformed greed of the investors will fuel the process. Among Ponzi schemes and possible Ponzi schemes there are different degrees of criminality ranging from fully deliberate and criminal schemes on to schemes that collapse into Ponzi fraud by a lack of connection to the real world. It is unlikely that an objection to an organization or a sub-culture that is patterned on these cargo cult like logics is going to have much of a positive impact. If the financial system is transparently known to require some level of balancing of inputs and outputs, Ponzi operations can be legitimate. One example is when the administration of a public process of taxation and redistribution of funds is involved, though this is explicitly not expected to perform as a business. Policies of trickle down economics which really only raise the yachts of the few, are a political fraud and are perpetrated by magical thinking.

Cargo cult patterns can be positive as communities of faith and principle. They can also be outright abusive when they involve criminal levels of fraud or affect the political process by reducing the nature of the democratic process or to perpetuate a elitist social structure. Anti-social cargo cult like reversals seem to be scattered throughout our culture. To the extent that the reversals are used to engage in relationships under false pretenses, partnerships and selectively "open" processes, they are not likely to be sustainable. Transparency, accountability, education, and an open process of deliberation are about the only ways that the influence of closed cargo cult like patterns can be marginalized.


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