Overtures to the White Cargo Cults, 2007-2011

“Before [Nietzsche], no one knew the tempo of history,” said Spengler. “Nietzsche lived, felt, and thought by ear.” He had no teacher to explain to him how the music rose and fell. Still today, this music has never been rendered a perfect science, but remains an intuition among those few, noble historians who can trace a path from tapestry to skyscraper. How shall the 21st century be seen to the players of the Glass Bead Game? How shall its world-rhythms be felt in the hearts of the psychohistorians?

The peak oilist John Michael Greer, who obsesses over sanctifying skills that will be needed in our grandchildren’s time, possesses a strong historical awareness, and has predicted the appearance of cargo cult movements in America. It is interesting to note the influence of American culture on the examples supplied by him and others of revitalization movements: cargo cults, Ghost Dances, UFO prophecies, Great Awakenings. All of these have the indelible imprint of American culture — the belief that man can shape his own destiny, and that the failure of a well-intentioned ritual comes only from a lack of sincerity or numbers. Germany, where the Will to Power means something more than the feeling experienced when a ritual is performed, will not have cargo cults. England, currently 80 years into a humiliating decline (Japan surpassed their GDP in 1963!), does not have any. Most of the West suffers material decline with grace.  But in America, the slightest material losses of the 1970s led to the Faustian bargain of 1980, which brought us Reagan-Bush-Clinton; and now that the devil has shown signs of wanting to reap his side of the bargain, the obvious predecessors to cargo cults are manifesting themselves.

I will not become hyperbolic, as political writers so often do, and claim the cults are already among us. Yes, there are the get-rich-quick schemes of the day, and strange beliefs about money appearing on doorsteps through positive thinking. These omnipresent American superstitions, which have always entranced white and black, young and old alike, have not yet become linked with institutions of power. Nor will I accept politics up until now as the product of a cult. Yes, Reagan-Bush-Clinton promised a prosperity that will not last. Yes, the election of Obama had a weird mass superstition around it, something about using the Presidential post to complete the work of the civil rights movement, as if slavery and racism were not an indelible aspect of our history but a curse placed on us by an evil wizard, which was the only thing standing between us and success, and which we could make a clean break from by chanting the right spell at the ballot box. These things are slightly irrational, but they are readily understood, and politics has never been a rational sport.

No, the cargo cults which are to come will not be born directly from either of these currents, although they may adopt some of their traits. Rather, their direct ancestor shall be the unique flavor of political protests which have spilled into America’s cities since 2007. The basic flavor of these protests is the centuries-old battle of left versus right, but some odd new elements have appeared. The protests are not “about” a single issue, nor are they even about “raising awareness” of an issue which does not personally affect the protesters. Rather, they aim to express a feeling of unease generally, gaining relief in the knowledge that they are not the only ones with this odd malaise. The primary complaint is that the government (to the Tea Party) or the corporations (to the Occupy movement) do not represent them, i.e. that these powers are not stitched from the same cloth as the “ordinary folk” protesting. The message of the protesters is not that America together can be made better, but that Americans are losing control of themselves to an outside force which also resides in America.

Neither side discriminates on the basis of race, for they are true Americans. But it should not be too surprising that the people who subscribe to this narrative of losing control are overwhelmingly white.

This alienation from power contains the seeds of defeat. To be sure, both sides may win temporary victories. But the feeling of protest will continue, even if the protests themselves end. Both sides must remain on guard against an enemy that manifests itself in a far more insidious way that mere policies. Therefore, engagement in a political party is not helpful to the protesters, and may in fact be against their principles, since both political parties are agents of the Enemy.
Lacking any strong idea of what they are there to protest besides the Enemy Himself, the protests lack direct confrontation with anyone. Sure, there is the counterprotester and the occasional annoyed policeman. But there is no attempt to move the group beyond the feeling of protest. Soaking in the vibes of shared discontent is good enough, and thus these are not protests but Be-Ins. Both sides are allergic to political action or organization of any sort that might attract the Enemy to their movement, to the extent that the population of both movements is primarily on people who have physically shown up at a be-in, and secondarily those who sympathize with the be-ins, and they wish they had attended. Not for anything they could have achieved, you see, but because it would have felt nice.

The protest of 2007-2011 does not lead to any further action, but it is meant to make things change merely through its own impact, and its failure comes only from lack of numbers. The protest cannot be concentrated at any single place and time, for the Enemy is everywhere. Instead, like the Ghost Dance, protests appear throughout the country, all performing the same ritual, repeatedly over a span of months. Most of the elements of revitalization movements are already here. All that is missing is the actual revelation, that is to say, a clearly marked strategy to defeat the Enemy and save the country, one that has nothing to do with how the world actually works, but is just crazy enough for Americans to try. We are not yet ready for the revelation, because we are not helpless enough. But economic decline will do that to you. At some point in the next 50 years, the protests will transform into a full-fledged cargo cult, attempting to regain lost prosperity through the repetition in every major city of a completely irrational and bizarre ritual that vaguely resembles a political protest.

Naturally, this will be a secular revelation. The prophet will not be a religious figure, but rather, like Rick Santelli, Alessio Rastani, Glenn Beck, Michael Moore, or Howard Beale, a news commentator. Perhaps it will come in the form of a new economic or political theory. It will be, in essence, an American revelation for a very American response to imperial decline.

Appendix: Differences to be resolved

The left and right cannot unite their protests as they currently stand. There is the obvious disagreement between government and corporations. One of these two huge groups must accept all the blame for doing everything wrong ever, and the other is the only way out of this horrible situation. This is what leads the Tea Party to hold up signs reading “government hands off my Medicare”, and what leads the Occupy movement to write convoluted sentences such as:

Corporate forces of the world … have participated in a directly racist action by accepting the contract from the State of Georgia to murder Troy Davis.

The only way to reconcile this conflict is if the protesters agree that they have both been betrayed by both forces of evil, and that the one they thought would solve their problems also failed them. Obviously, the Occupy movement has been betrayed by Obama, whom many of them must have placed their hopes in. With the economic climate, more betrayals are certainly on the way.

Appendix: The force of conviction

A Yale opinion poll recently generated some news for claiming that Tea Partiers deny global climate change. In fact, it shows that their opinions are divided 55-35, certainly out of step with mainstream political groups, but nothing like a unanimous consensus. Where the Tea Party does excel is in its firmness of belief. This does not mean they possess a religious commitment to climate change denial; presented with some imaginary shocking new evidence, they claim they could change their minds about as easily as Democrats. But 52% of them need no more information to reach a firm conclusion on global warming; their minds are completely made up (compared to 17-22% of other political groups interviewed). 50% have absolutely no concerns about the issue.

They possess conviction, in a country where conviction was outlawed decades ago, and was already unusual in 1860, as G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Exactly what gives its real dignity to the figure of Lincoln is that he stands invoking a primitive first principle of the age of innocence, and holding up the tables of an ancient law, against the trend of the nineteenth century; repeating, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, etc.,’ to a generation that was more and more disposed to say something like this: ‘We hold these truths to be probable enough for pragmatists; that all things looking like men were evolved somehow, being endowed by heredity and environment with no equal rights, but very unequal wrongs,’ and so on. I do not believe that creed, left to itself, would ever have founded a state; and I am pretty certain that, left to itself, it would never have overthrown a slave state.

UPDATE: Lee Harris on “fantasy ideologies”.

My friend did not disagree with me as to the likely counterproductive effects of such a demonstration. Instead, he argued that this simply did not matter. His answer was that even if it was counterproductive, even if it turned people against war protesters, indeed even if it made them more likely to support the continuation of the war, he would still participate in the demonstration and he would do so for one simple reason — because it was, in his words, good for his soul.

What I saw as a political act was not, for my friend, any such thing. It was not aimed at altering the minds of other people or persuading them to act differently. Its whole point was what it did for him.

Posted: October 1st, 2011 | Kultur, Politics 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “Overtures to the White Cargo Cults, 2007-2011”

  1. 1 Justin Patrick Moore said at 5:18 pm on October 6th, 2011:

    A nice post.
    I touched on something similar in my contribution to JMG’s anthology contest, a kind of melding of “prosperity consciousness” with a wistfullness for the past… could develop into a kind of cargo cult. And the story involves a protest as well, though I hadn’t really been thinking of cargo cults when I wrote it.
    The story is available as a PDF here:


    I’m still sorting out the “cognitive dissonance” of all this in my own head: Of the “Occupy” movement, it’s potentials and dangers. Looking on a “potential” side pagan activist Starhawk wrote an interesting piece yesterday about why she is going to D.C.:


    In any case, thanks for giving me further thinking on cults and cargo and cargo cults.

  2. 2 Avery said at 10:45 pm on October 6th, 2011:

    Justin, I’m glad to see I’m not the only person thinking about this issue. And Starhawk’s post is very agreeable, while at the same time striking an interesting chord: she’s there as a leader of the pagan community, and hopes that the act of protesting will itself be an act of transformation. I’ve seen many people participating describe themselves as “neo-shamans” or have an interest in Shamanism on Facebook.

    My post may have sounded negative, but as a religion student I think it’s pretty cool for neo-shamans to get together and do something.

  3. 3 Gabe Ruth said at 12:53 am on October 13th, 2011:

    Comments at UR and quotes Chesterton? I will stick around.

  4. 4 Avery said at 1:54 pm on November 5th, 2011:

    “A new Rasmussen poll has found that 58 percent of White Americans believe that America’s best days are in the past. At the same time, 58 percent of blacks say that America’s best days are in the future.”