It's a pretty audacious claim: "At the end of the day, finance is all about faith. Money doesn't exist unless you believe in it; otherwise, it's just a bit of paper."
The words belong to Gillian Tett, an assistant editor at The Financial Times, whose award-winning book about the global economic meltdown, Fool's Gold, was published earlier this year. What's striking is the degree to which Mike Daisey reached a similar conclusion after spending a month on the island of Tanna in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. He tells what he found in The Last Cargo Cult, his new stage work about materialism and faith, this week in Chapel Hill at PlayMakers Rep.
Daisey is a monologist in the style of Spalding Gray, documenting his obsessions in performances that combine journalism, memoir and trenchant social observation. If You See Something, Say Something, a concert film of his monologue, will be released in the coming year.
As Wall Street financial giants tumbled like a set of cheap dominoes last fall, Daisey was struck by an article about an island where the last surviving cargo cult was not only in existence, but actually thriving. Its inhabitants actually worship "cargo"—American materialism and commodities. They devoutly believe that an apocryphal American named John Frum, who visited the islands when the U.S. used it as a staging area during World War II, will return one day as a result of their prayers and ceremonies, bringing bounty and prosperity for all.
They wait for him, much as a fundamentalist Christian awaits rapture. And all day long, every Feb. 15, the islanders ritually celebrate the history of America in theater, dance and song.
Daisey spent a month on Tanna in early 2009, witnessing the ceremonies on John Frum Day. One of the characters in this year's pageant was Barack Obama: He was being chased by a dragon.
"In a way it's very complicated; in another way it's very uncomplicated," Daisey explains. "At its root, one of the reasons the John Frum movement is growing is because it's not essentially about wish fulfillment or the worship of objects. It's about the desire for revolution and for sovereignty. The independence movement that spawned the island nation of Vanuatu [from what was once called the New Hebrides] owes a great deal to the John Frum mythology. That grew directly out of the oppression of colonials who worked incredibly hard to make sure [the natives'] way of life would be exterminated."
The result was what Daisey terms "a very common contradiction that should be familiar to anyone who lives in the First World."
"The people of the John Frum want technology, they want power, because they want to use that power to preserve their way of life. When we look at this from outside, it's very clear that the act of acquiring this technology will alter their culture forever.
"I think," Daisey concludes, "that, written small, Tanna's actually just a reflection of a basic human impulse, one that we create on a massive scale in the First World." By the time Daisey returned home, he'd reached another conclusion. The last thriving cargo cult wasn't on a remote Pacific island. We're actually living in it.
"The show is about two cultures," Daisey says, "one very small, on an island isolated from the rest of the world; the other, a monoculture, the dominant system of money we choose to live under in the First World. The similarities are pretty stark, and pretty clear.
"Whenever I walk into a store and walk out, almost every social interaction I engage in, I give some of these pieces of paper ... or I use an electronic card, and the numbers become even more abstract; they float off into the ether. And I leave with the cargo I wanted."
One of Daisey's main conclusions echoes the observation of Gillian Tett: Our financial system is, in fact, a religion. "It's obviously a religion," he asserts. "Religions are two things. They're public, active faith. And they're backed by ritual. That ensures everyone remains active parishioners.
"We exchange money every day. Our faith in it is absolute, despite the clear knowledge that it's fiat currency, actually backed by nothing. But we use it anyway, though it has no concrete value. The faith in it is everything."
The Last Cargo Cult opens Sept. 16 and runs through Sept. 20. Visit www.playmakersrep.org for more information.