Imagine tribespeople in the South Pacific. Sure, lots of trading, and contact with Europeans (good and bad). But what happened in 1942 and 1943 must have blown their minds. Giant white men who could fly arrived in big metal birds, with chewing gum and coca cola. And then, as quickly as they came (with the war won), they left.
How to bring them back? How to achieve something so far out your own experience, your own cosmology? Well, if you clear runways, and make bamboo representations of the big metal birds, perhaps this display of faith and begging would be enough to convince the gods to send back the coca-cola and the gum…
And anthropologists call these cargo cults.
Imagine ‘advanced’ people, with literacy, indoor plumbing and other markers of civilisation in, oh, England. Sure, lots of reading, and contact with the idea of ‘sustainability.’ But what was called upon them to do in 2018 and 2019 must have blown their minds. A giant need for immediate and fundamental change in not just their big metal birds, but their big metal factories, their small metal vehicles, the food on their plates, the visions of the good life (more of everything, all the time).
How to bring it about? How to achieve something so far out of experience or cosmology? Well, cast your mind back, rifle through the accepted images. Social movements … What images? What folk tales? Ah, the “I have a dream” speech, the march on Washington in 1963. (Forget – or never know- that it was contested as a time-and-energy-suck, as an ego-driven distraction by those struggling on the ground in the South, and indeed the North).)
Perhaps if we repeat this display of faith and begging, this march, it will be enough for the magical transition (or transformation – it’s a live debate), perhaps it will convince the gods to send back harmony and balance (that never really was).
And social movement scholars (okay, me) call this a cargo cult.
We are, individually and on our good days, away from the groupthink that degrades us, smarter than this. Or most of us are, or can be, at least some of the time. But rather than be better, think through what is actually required, we seem to want to cling to incantations of ridiculous precision (3.5 per cent? Really? Really??).
We seem hell-bent (interesting phrase) to be seen building ever bigger bamboo planes – that is to say, our rallies, our sages on the stages, our redolent and indolent blockades and barricades which we then recreate once “back home” (and so then alienate hundreds of potential supporters). And the smugosphere thickens, and the emotacycle rolls on…
We need to accelerate the socio-technical (or socio-material, if you will) transitions/transformations. We really do. And the evidence (from my own life, from the literature, much of it quite interesting), is that the state usually has a role to play (tough luck, anarchist dogmatists). And the power of the state (however you understand it) is probably best leveraged via decent social movements, movements that can stick around, not get co-opted, repressed, bored into oblivion. Movements that grow, learn, organise, win, grow, learn, organise….
The tl:dr – We need to act as we never have before, NOT precisely as we always have. That requires honesty, and guts. I am not hopeful, because I am not an idiot (subs, please check). But on my good days, with courageous friends, I have courage.
“Although most anthropologists have abandoned ‘cargo cult’ as misleading, and even embarrassing (although, see Otto 2009 and Tabani 2013, who defend the label’s merits), the term enjoys a post-ethnographic afterlife and continues to pop up frequently in popular commentary and critique.” https://www.anthroencyclopedia.com/entry/cargo-cults