Resist the Allure of Hard-Right Cargo Cults

One of the most entertaining and tragic topics fresher anthropology undergraduates are likely to hear about is cargo cults. These movements, emerging in newly colonised lands, were created after locals saw wondrous goods and flying machines appearing from the sky for colonialists — and suddenly felt impoverished.

Cargo cult leaders were those locals who could convince followers of a special insight into the origins of the cargo and, importantly, how to get some of that precious and exotic stuff. This often involved copying the behaviour of the strange interlopers — for example marching up and down like colonialist troops to attract the generosity of the entities that dropped bounty from the heavens.

As well as getting some of the newly observed treasures, cargo cults were often focused on getting rid of the strange newcomers so that life could return to how it was — albeit with the cherished heavenly objects.

The bright anthropology student — or reader — will recognise that information about cults that sprung up in Melanesia and New Guinea from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century has wider implications. Rather than being used to mock less technologically advanced societies, acting with desperation in the face of sudden change, they can help us examine aspects of movements that have sprung up in our ‘advanced’ nations.

A community of people mobilised by charismatic leaders who promise that followers will be made richer, the clock can be turned back, and foreigners driven back — this model could cover a great many groups. From far-right nativists to devotees who attend Trump’s rallies chanting his slogans and wearing the magical ‘MAGA’ cap, to UKIP, and to Brexiteers more generally. And, yes, there are links between such groups.

As we try to peer ahead into the murkiness of 2019, the blurry mess on the horizon for the UK is Brexit-induced instability. Christmas comes but once a year but Brexmas never seems to end. Promises were made by pie-in-the-sky cargo cultish campaigns and, due to that, many people were hopeful that Brexit would be a better and easier experience.

Not only is Brexit likely to come with a cost to the UK and the individual, the dream of Brexit sold by the charismatic cultists has faded and all many of us can see at the moment are hazardous hurdles and ridiculous risks.

For some, that’s not a problem — for them the cargo itself is Brexit. They’ve seen a crate with Brexit on it, they don’t know what’s in it, but they want it anyway. They, as they often tell me on Twitter, “won”, so they are entitled to their mysterious crate marked Brexit. For such adherents, it appears to have become the manifestation of an ideology or cherished principle. This, I would argue, is a cultish outlook.

Others are more suspicious. They think the crate has been tampered with, and though it still says Brexit on the side, they don’t think the crate being unloaded is Brexit as they imagined it to be.

Given that nobody knew what on earth Brexit was a few years ago (in fact, we still don’t), one must wonder where the beliefs about what Brexit would bring came from. Why of course, it was the Brexit cargo cult leaders — like former commodities trader Nigel Farage and hedge fund multimillionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg. And we mustn’t forget the early leaders of the Brexit cargo cult — people like former stockbroker Peter Lilley and John Redwood, who has had a lucrative career in finance and is currently Chief Global Strategist for an investment management firm. These are the people I see most often on BBC news shows, speaking with greater and greater desperation each time it looks as though a hard Brexit might be scuppered.

Given that business tends to be opposed to hard Brexit, which might be rather an understatement, it can seem odd that these hard Brexit cult leaders are wealthy money-men. However, it isn’t unusual in charismatic cults for the leaders to be of higher status than their followers — perhaps the distance affords them magical allure, like Trump appears to radiate to those with a minuscule fraction of his wealth.

We could marvel forever about what makes a man like Jacob Rees-Mogg alluring to vastly poorer citizens, but maybe then we would be falling for the cargo cult mystique. I think better questions are: What motivates them? Why do they get so alarmed when their plan looks like it’s being thwarted? How can the risk to the UK be worth it to them? Could they somehow expect to profit from hard Brexit? How? I suggest it’s more valuable to focus on these questions than on ‘treasure’ beyond the clouds.

As the UK stumbles, like drugged lemmings or herded zombies, to a jagged Brexit cliff-edge, it’s critical to focus sharply on the cultish [correct spelling] Pied Piper figures and what they have to gain from the imminent splat onto the rocks of hard cold reality. If they have anything at all to gain, then they are exactly the wrong people to be listening to. There IS time to turn back.




Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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Will Black

Will Black

Will is an anthropologist, journalist and former clinician. He is the author or Veneer of Civilisation, Psychopathic Cultures and Beyond the End of the World

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