Yesterday I drew an analogy between Keynesian economics and the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific. Naturally, that raises the question of what, exactly, a "Cargo Cult" is, and why I think that Keynesian economics may be a form of it.
According to the Wikipedia and what I remember about Dream Park (1981) a science fiction novel about a futuristic amusement park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes, the Cargo Cult phenomenon beats any fictional religion hands down for surreal weirdness. The earliest form of it seems to have surfaced in Papua New Guinea in 1871 to explain the trade goods brought by some Russians to the island and distributed by missionaries, creating an entitlement mentality. Cargo Cultism reached its highest development following World War II in the New Hebrides, the Vanuatu Island group, having started there in the early 20th century in response to the French and British colonization and the efforts of missionaries to uplift the natives.
Viewing this as oppression, a leader who called himself "John From" (also "Frum" and "Fram") arose. His full title was "John From Jesus Christ," i.e., a reincarnation of John the Baptist. He is still worshipped as a deity on Tanna Island, where February 15th is celebrated as "John Frum Day." A large number of natives joined "John Frum" and moved inland to escape the missionaries and restore the old way of life, their kastam (customs).
For the first thirty years or so of its history, the movement on Tanna Island resembled the "Ghost Dance" of the American Indians. Before World War II it was called "Vailala Madness," from an anthropological study done in the 1920s of the village of Vailala in Papua New Guinea. It acquired the name "Cargo Cult" when the Americans arrived at the formerly isolated islands in World War II. Natives were recruited to help build airstrips and bases, as well as act as guides, and were paid in kind, with strangely packaged and wonderful new foods such as Hershey Bars, Spam and Coca Cola.
The movement immediately transformed from a millennielist religion that promised a future golden age by restoring a past that never existed if the white man would just go away, to one that promised the good life here and now if the white man would only return — as long as the airplanes and vessels carrying the cargo that the American soldiers were so willing to share kept on coming.
Being intelligent as well as observant, adherents noticed the presence of black soldiers along with white soldiers. Obviously these had to be descendants of natives that island lore insisted had been kidnapped earlier by Europeans to eat or breed as slaves. "John Frum" (the original of which seems to have died or disappeared by this time) shifted from being portrayed as a Caucasian European, to a Black American soldier. John From Jesus Christ became John From America.
When the war ended, the Americans abandoned their facilities and left the islands. This dried up the flow of cargo, and the inhabitants of Tanna Island no longer had the canned (and bottled) goods, or the medicines and other consumer items they had enjoyed during the war.
All was not lost, however. The people of Tanna had put their intelligence and powers of observation to good use, and had carefully noted the arcane rituals the Americans employed to summon cargo from God's Cargo Workshops. They built their own airstrips and warehouses, duplicating in wood, straw and bamboo the control towers and radio shacks and the equipment they contained — sometimes even the personnel — so that they could receive the messages John Frum would send to his faithful followers to signal the day and hour when he would climb out of the volcano known as Yasur (God) and restart the flood of cargo.
These facilities duplicated (at least in outward form without the substance) the technology the natives had seen the Americans use. The simulacra were staffed, and natives went through the proper rituals of signaling so that cargo-carrying planes would land. They built docks to attract cargo vessels and adopted the red cross seen on ambulances and hospitals as their chief religious symbol. Small red crosses surrounded by picket fences dot the island to this day.
The idea is that by duplicating outward forms and anticipated results you can bring about the desired ends. This confusion of cause and effect is a type of "magical" thinking, the "law of similarity" whereby if a thing looks the same, it is the same. Cargo Cultists confused all the things that accompanied the shipments of goods — landing strips, docks, control towers, radio shacks, and so on — and assumed that instead of being effects of the shipments, they were the cause of them.
The rationale is that if the outward forms are duplicated with sufficient accuracy, the cargo will reappear. Americans and Europeans who try to explain the fallacies in the paradigm are treated with pity and condescension at best, with suspicion and hatred at worst. It is useless to point out that the same effort put into productive activities would have made the islanders wealthier than their ephemeral dreams of cargo.
The holy men of the John Frum sect of the Cargo Cults — "messengers" — announced that, if the rituals were followed accurately, John Frum would return from the dead out of the island's volcano, accompanied by ships and airplanes carrying cargo. At that time money would be abolished, livestock slaughtered, and the land left uncultivated because John Frum would provide for all material wants and needs.
Nor is Vanuatu the only location of Cargo Cults. Missionaries in Papua New Guinea made few converts to Christianity until one day they suddenly came in droves — having decided that the best way to learn the secret rituals for summoning cargo was to pretend to join the fake religion the Europeans had set up to hoodwink them.
In 1968 a new cult arose on the island of New Hanover in the belief that the true secret of cargo was held by only one man: President Lyndon Baines Johnson of the United States, word of whose "Great Society" that promised prosperity for all without work must have reached the inhabitants. They rejected the governance of Australia, collected $75,000, and sent a letter to President Johnson offering to buy him if he would move to New Hanover and be their king.
One group restated the story of Adam and Eve to tell of a god named Anus who delivered a cargo of Spam, metal tools, rice and matches to the earthly paradise. When Adam and Eve discovered sex, Anus threw the couple out of the Garden and sent a flood to destroy our first parents.
As Anna Russell would say, I'm not making this up, you know.
In 1974, Prince Phillip, consort of Queen Elizabeth II, paid a visit to a village on Tanna Island. This was the inspiration of another new cult that claimed the prince had originally come from Tanna in another form, and that he will eventually return to rule over them . . . bringing cargo, of course.
In 2006 the Prophet Fred arose, having resurrected his dead wife earlier in the year. Fred's version of the Cargo Cult moves closer to traditional Christianity. This has resulted in violent exchanges with the orthodox followers of John Frum. To this day on Tanna Island, every February 15th natives paint their bodies to resemble World War II USMC uniforms, shoulder wooden sticks as rifles, raise the flag, and perform close order drill in the hope of bringing back unending cargos of Spam and Coke.