A cargo cult in the imperial core

Published on 2024-01-23

I've been finding myself invoking this idea a lot in my art and writing. I wanted to use today's entry as an opportunity to explore it a bit more meta-analytically, because if I'm being honest then I'd have to admit that I know very little about the original context in which the phrase "cargo cult" was used, and that has certain ramifications.

When I talk about a "cargo cult in the imperial core," there's a few aspects of cargo cults that I want to pull forward in particular.

I'm not an anthropologist, but based on my limited understanding, "cargo cult" is a somewhat derogatory term used to refer to certain religions that emerged in the 20th century that religified the arrival of "cargo" from Western nations. People who followed cargo cults were seen by European anthropologists as not being smart enough to understand the systems that produce them. It's a weird term, because the emergence of cargo cults are obviously a result of Western colonialism, and ascribing cargo cult status to these religions and spiritual traditions as if it were a bad thing is kind of like pushing someone over and then kicking them for the crime of falling on the ground.

It seems like the phrase "cargo cult" isn't as popular among anthropologists today when talking about indigenous Melanesians--the people who were its original target, for more or less this reason. Obviously indigenous Melanesians are real people with a complex and nuanced history, and to paint over all that with such a broad stroke is insulting.

More abstractly, if we take "cargo cult" to mean a religion that makes Western systems of production the object of religious worship, I do really like them as a concept because they feel like an incredibly honest reaction to the world we live in today.

Cargo cults are generally characterized as being an artifact of the "imperial periphery." I think that's unfair.

All of my professors use Windows, unsurprisingly. I don't know if this is something they take it upon themselves to enable or if it's just the default behaviour in the latest version of Windows, but more often than not I'll see a little stock ticker in the bottom left corner of the screen, indicating the TSX, or the Dow Jones, or the NYSE or whatever is green or red or orange on that particular day.

Every day gets a colour: red, green or orange. Green means immanent prosperity and good fortune. Red means decline, loss, misfortune. I truly do not believe that those tickers mean anything more than that to most people. It certainly doesn't to me. The day to day activity of the stock market is at best a divination tool, like tarot cards or the pattern of the coffee grounds at the bottom of your mug.

That doesn't necessarily make it a bad thing.

Manifestation is useful, whether or not it's real

It's just that it doesn't continually probe for a deeper understanding. It's a religion. More specifically, it's a cargo cult.

I compare science to religion a lot.

Scientific apostasy

I do think there is a meaningful difference in science and most religions as I've experienced them. In my experience, religion will do things that work because they've been demonstrated to work, and often beyond the time they ceased working. Spiritual leaders will explain why these things work the way they do through the act of storytelling. Science, at least in a perfect world, will constantly seek to explain why those things work the way they do using tools like probability and connections to other physical events. In fact, it'll keep doing this forever, or at least until it runs up against events that literally cannot be observed. The way most people interact with science, this will amount to more or less the same thing. Pluto is a planet because our grade school teachers told us so, and people will get upset if the scientific community changes its mind. But there's still a push from our scientific priests--the good ones, anyway--to replace old scientific traditions with ones justified by newly generated knowledge. Religious knowledge tends to be more settled, whereas scientific knowledge is (supposed to be) constantly changing.

The way we engage with the Western economic system is not at all scientific. The economists try and constantly fail. I'd argue that most of us generally have about as much of an understanding of Western systems of production as European anthropologists thought the indigenous Melanesians did. The difference is, we don't generally use the language of religion. Sometimes we'll use religion to justify it (see The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber), but we don't talk about the economy as if it were the object of religious worship; after all, that would be pagan!

I remember a while back I was staying with a friend at their parents' place. They let me sleep in their old office room. On the wall hung a massive poster of the growth in the indexes of a number of significant stock markets in the United States and Canada, overlayed in a single line chart spanning around 50 years. It was fascinating to look at. It was a testament to the triumph of the American economy, that infinite growth was not only possible but upon us. It felt like...


Stock market indexes are such an abstract description of human experience. Day-to-day changes in those indexes even more so. I'm cautious about people who seriously invest themselves in the stock market, not because I think it makes you an intrinsically bad person who is deserving of my caution (it actually makes you a quite normal person, all things considered), but again, because it feels dishonest. I'd probably trust a stock market person more if they chose to synthesize their understanding of the economy with some other spiritual framework, like astrology, or even Christianity.

The synthesis of spirituality and American capitalism is an aesthetic I really like to explore in my work. That's what I like to think of as the cargo cult in the imperial core.

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