Cargo Cult and Democracy

There is an interesting anthropological curiosity which arose amongst the islands in the South Pacific after the Second World War. It is known as the Cargo Cult. I first came across it in Marvin Harris’s book Cows, Pigs, Wars & Witches many years ago. (By the by, I highly recommend Harris’s book OUR KIND: Who we are, Where we came from & Where are we going — Evolution of Human Life & Culture.)

The islanders had noticed that Europeans had some sort of powerful magic which allowed them to receive stuff from the heavens. The islanders decided that they too must make arrangements to receive stuff. So they faithfully reproduced the artifacts that they saw the Europeans use in magically making cargo appear out of the skies. They cleared a large area in the forest, lit bonfires around this, built a hut close by in which they put a box with antennae sticking out of it, made ‘headphones’ out of coconut shells, and spoke earnestly into a ‘microphone’. Then they waited for cargo to drop out of the skies, just as they had seen the Europeans receive during the war.

It is a fascinating tale and has wide-ranging implications. The islanders were not stupid, merely ignorant. They figured out what we could call the ‘front end’ of the whole enterprise. They did not know that there was a very deep backend to the deal. In their ignorance, they expected a facsimile to work and when it didn’t, they attempted to modify the front end to more accurately reflect the bits they had observed the Europeans use.

The cargo cult is an amazingly important metaphor for our age. Technology is increasingly becoming more complex and the effective use of this complex technology confers immense advantage. However, the more complex the technology, the more its use is dependent on a complex ecology within which it is developed. Transplanting the technology without the supporting ecology is a waste because it does not work as advertised. The technology — whether it is hardware, software, all sorts of institutions — co-evolved with other bits that form an ecological whole which make the whole system function whereas any subsystem in isolation will not work.

Let’s take an institution such as capitalism, for example. Hernando DeSoto in his book The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else outlines the missing bits in the case of capitalism. Another example: why did the shift to a market economy spell disaster for the former Soviet Union. A market economy has a very deep backend. That backend includes institutions such as the legal system which enforces contracts, a flexible labor market, a number of banking and financial intermediation institutions, and so on. Without the supporting institutions, the market institution is a non-starter. It is merely a cargo cult market economy.

In the area of digital technology also, we see the cargo cult mentality. The modern computer evolved in advanced industrialized countries (AIC). AICs have other systems that support the use of computers and these systems also evolved to keep pace with the rapid evolution of computers. Transplanting computers to a place where these systems don’t exist is silly because the computers are then like the props used by the South Pacific islanders. It is no wonder that they don’t work as advertised.

My final example of the cargo cult metaphor is the institution called democracy. Voting every so often to elect representatives that sit in a great big hall to decide matters of national importance is the front end. The deep backend requires an informed public at a minimum. Even under the best of circumstances, aggregating individual preferences is a risky venture as students of public choice theory will appreciate. (See Ken Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem.)

In the case of India, we have a cargo cult democracy. It looks like one with electronic voting machines and election speeches and manifestos, with pollsters and pundits, with election commissioners and voting stations. Only the deep backend is missing. There is no understanding of issues of substance among the people who vote. Put up a name which is recognizable, and they would vote for or against that name. Promise enough freebies (free electricity, for instance) and they will vote for you, never mind that it may bankrupt the state and that eventually it will impoverish the same voting public. For democracy to work, you need accountability — both among those who vote and those who are elected. In an area where the government is seen as a source for endless handouts by the people, and the leaders look upon their stint in the driving seat as an excellent opportunity to steal from the public, democracy is not likely to work. All the talk about the smart voter is so much hogwash that the mind boggles.

The Indian stock market is crashing. People are voting with their pocketbooks and sending an important signal. The signal, as I see it, is that the Indian economy is spinning around in the bowl and will soon be down the tubes as soon as the flush cycle finishes.

It is all karma, neh?

Author: Atanu Dey


16 thoughts on “Cargo Cult and Democracy”

  1. Atanu:

    I have strated losing belief on the system of Democracy. If we do need democracy then we need to change the ground rules. Starting with abolishing the universal franchise.

    In the final tally for this elections it is hard to understand where the BJP lost. With a 4% increase in voteshare AIADMK did not get one seat. With just negative 1.2% swing Naidu lost 29 seats.

    As you said it must all be Karma, bad karma.



  2. This along with your earlier piece on Naidu was one of the finest written articles that I have ever read.

    Cargo Cult makes very interesting reading.

    3 lakh crores is a huge amount of money to be lost within days…I am sure that the new Govt and their cronies will shortly come out with their theories of how RSS, BJP et al are behind this loss.

    We can only look forward ….there is no going back on elections….Mrs Gandhi has a great opp to set things right and she needs to move fast….to do it.

    – Raj


  3. Imperial Rule – Part 2?

    First the British, now its Rome.
    Its not only bad karma, but the inevitable outcome of the selfishness of the average Indian who has no community sense, who only works for himself.What is the use of the wisdom of the ancient scriptures if we are not able to apply and adapt it to the current day scenario? All this has built up for the past 50 years and we can see the fruit of this past now. Mrs. G has the temerity to claim the highest seat in Indian office despite not knowing what to do once she gets there. This country will be no more than a puppet democracy, rather a de-mockery.

    Indians are not ready for a democracy yet, we need a dictatorship – but one who has the country’s interests in mind. As you have rightly pointed out, democracy without an informed public is a sheer waste of time and energy.


  4. I am not happy with the result of the elections, purely because I see the Congress as being a party of hypocrisy. Their record of secularism is not that great either. Let us not forget the Shah Bano case or the Sikh riots in 1984. However, I have come to terms with the fact that what the BJP/NDA did was not enough to satisfy the majority of the people. One can argue about the short horizons that democratic governments have but the NDA also has itself to blame. It was opportunistic in declaring early elections without serving its full term. They badly miscalculated.

    While it is true that there is a large showpiece aspect of Indian democracy, this should not make us despair from it, but we should make it better. I do suggest that you try living in Communist China for a while. Remember in the 50’s there, 20 million people died of starvation, and nobody knew about it. Remember, India was not democratic under the British, and that didn’t help either.

    There are a lot of reasons why Indian democracy is so frustrating and seemingly inimicable to progress. The point I am making is that despite all its flaws, nobody has come up with a better alternative. Parliamentary democracy, flawed , illusory, or superficial, is the reality that we have to work within. We could go for the persidential model like the US, but that is also just an elected dictatorship. As Atanu says, the form is immaterial if the substance is not real, but there is no short cut to get there.

    We need more democracy, not less. Atanu is right on the mark when he says that:

    “Voting every so often to elect representatives that sit in a great big hall to decide matters of national importance is the front end. The deep backend requires an informed public at a minimum”

    But how do we get it, it just does not happen overnight. Education, and more localization of real decision-making are the only 2 ways I can think of fostering this culture.

    Asking for a dictatorship is giving up too easily.


  5. Hi Suhit,

    I think democracy is still the best way to go. In todays India, the only power the comman man has is his vote, and remember the major percentage of educated treat election day as a holiday, and so their opinion does not have much value in the formation of govt.

    Well Atanu, in India most of the informed does not vote. It’s usually the uninformed that vote and they vote according to what is best according to their comprehension. There is no point in cribbing about the need of informed democracy.

    Even in a country like US, where most of the people are informed the percentage of people who vote is gradually decreasing every decade, one of the reasons being, they have to choose between two parties. In India its better, we have regional parties which gaurds the local intersts and thus people have more choice. Yes, in US there are small parties, but its just two parties that has the clout and the policies of US does not give much scope for small parties to have a major impact, basically they are deprived of the opportunites of becoming big.

    Regarding your comment on free power, I don’t think that free power is a major criteria in AP. It is a fact that there is no major funding done for betterment of irrigation, remember TDP lost in the Costal Andhra region which is treated as TDP bation, and remember AP people elected TDP to power for a second term, even though they know that CBN came to power by backstabbing NTR just b’cos he proved that he is working hard in his first term. So do you think they are so stupid and uninformed about the negligence that is showed by TDP govt. towards the comman man in the second term.

    The way to go is to put more efforts to penetrate education, may be by making a policy – ‘Mandatory Secondary Education’, like China, bringing a second green revolution, promoting product industry as you always mention. I know there is a need for more things to be done.


  6. The problem is in our vision in trying to see things as what they should be rather than what they currently are. Unless we acknowledge that the current “democratic” system is not achieving the desired results, we will not think about how to change it. We are still waiting for a future date when the system will give the desired results, and not conceding that the system has been ineffective for the past 50 years. The case is not so much for a dictatorial form of government, as it is for any form of government or leadership that will achieve the desired economic and social progress in the country on a continuous basis. A few pertinent questions are: –

    What is the use of giving a mass of people “power ” in the form of voting when freedom in the more basic sense does not exist, where daily life is a fight?

    What is the sense in having a system that changes its philosophy and track every 5 years and does not ensure uninterrupted progress, with no room for mid course corrections?

    Where is the clarity in tackling real issues by any of our “elected” representatives? Where are the deliverables?

    In India, the democratic system has given birth to a band of people who have no national interest in mind and the opportunists have cashed in. It is clear that democracy in the real sense has not existed, unless you consider only the system of voting once in every 5 years as democracy. When Emperor Asoka ruled India 2500 years ago, every person lived a contented life during his rule. Did that system of dictatorship (called dynastic rule) not work better than our idea of democracy? It is obvious that only the front end is working, but the back end is incomplete. The past 50 years are proof of the little progress we have made on various fronts. It is mainly because the average Indian still considers himself distant from the entire nation building process, except at election time. Is this the democratic process we are adamantly supporting? Democracy as a system will not work in nation of people with no national interest, unless we admit responsibility for our fate. It also seems that Indian politicians are afraid to progress and become efficient, because as time progresses one may find that they are redundant.

    It seems like freedom wars of some sort will continue to happen in India ad infinitum, ad nauseum, whether it was freedom from the Mughals, the British and now, our politicians like Laloo Prasad Yadav who is someday aspiring to be PM. There is a saying that goes, “If doing a particular thing, does not give the desired result, then stop doing it” The same goes for a system that just does not work. Reinvention is the name of the game.


  7. You ended this very fine article with this line “The Indian stock market is crashing” and confused me. Can you provide any links to support that?


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