Over coffee today, a friend who's doing some social research mentioned he was looking for a cult deprogrammer to interview. If this was a few years ago, we'd probably just try and track down David Sullivan, but the man who saves you from yourself died a while back. I don't know a deprogrammer personally, but I know the sorts of people who might know a cult deprogrammer. I'm sure I'll have the contact info for three or four in the next 48 hours.
All I can think of, though, are the tables from various editions of Dungeons and Dragons that detail the types of businesses that appear at various levels of urbanization, as they've reached the minimum population threshold to reach carrying capacity. In the case of the RPG manuals, it usually went from cobbler to blacksmith to spice merchant to college of wizardry. As a child who mostly took municipal transit systems, the idea of business carrying capacity always seemed implicit, even a bit silly to say, but it's odd realizing that it might not be for many individuals who are living in more suburban, abstracted systems, where the processes by which one accesses infrastructure are unclear and dephysicalized from intuitive understandings derived from anatomy. Frankly, it's unlikely that I was born in one of the extremely few sectors of California that maintains elements of a pre-automotive street system.
Anyways, the reason that I'm musing on this topic at the moment is that the question of what carrying capacity you need to be able to have a cult deprogrammer as a business is a pretty interesting one. As it's a secondary, adversarial predation on the business of cults, one must also ask what the business of cults is. As best as I can tell, cults function with the following operating instructions, adapted to local needs. It's worth noting that the vast majority of cults in spaces like the San Francisco Bay Area are highly implicit—in fact many of these processes are normalized as simply part of many cultures the world over, my own included.
1. Find people who are disempowered or weakened in some way. It doesn't matter how. It could be individuals who are looking for respite from addictions of some type, looking to bolster their capacity at a skill as they see themselves as insufficient. Perhaps you target individuals who see themselves as certainly being headed for eternal damnation. Recruit them. Offer them salvation; promise a healing of wounds. Strategies like "love bombing" come here.
2. Provide a World Model that is simplified to the level which the target population of weakened potential cultists believes that they can use it to gain a distinct advantage. The stated secrets must be simple, so there's a sense that they're also able to be mastered. The model, by being simplified enough to be easily digestible and existent as a finite structure in the mind of the cult leader must then by definition not provide any distinct advantage, as it cannot have anything but the broadest isomorphisms to the real world. As the model world-system is fundamentally irrelevant to the functionality of the cult-system, it doesn't really matter what it is. The best of them are as divorced from the functionality necessary for day to day life as possible, and don't even have to be brought up in everyday conversation, to minimize cognitive dissonance taking the individual back to canonical reality before the model has been fully internalized as authoritative.
3. Provide initial benefit to members of the cult that profess the world model to be true. Roughly, this is just a Pavlovian acculturation moment, but if the cult can initially reward the cult member for acting in accordance with its model as a method for getting the member to accept the cult as a more monolithic and totalizing structure in the member's life, the cult then begins to be able to maintain control at a two dimensional level, incorporating negative feedback, rather than just a one dimensional level, incorporating only positive feedback. Using that system, a cult leader can dominate a given cult member, becoming the totality of their life, the source of truth.
4. Because the cult leader has managed to vandalize the internal world model while simultaneously becoming the only legitimate source of new information, they can then monopolize the labor of the cult members in territory unrelated to the world-model. In short, cults take people at a disadvantage, then make them more disadvantaged, so they can own them. It is in this moment of slavery that the cult is able to profit from its thralls, where the pseudospiritual work of their leaders is met by drudgery of their members, in the form of resource acquisition and internal affairs.
To reiterate: Cults take weak people who can't survive in normal society or have chosen not to, make them weaker by deluding them about coherent facts about the world, and then are able to monopolize the labor of those individuals for the benefit of the collective because the members of the collective lack a coherent model of the world in sectors outside of the cult.
It's worth noting how intensely similar the cult model as I've described it is to the model of any normal Pyramid Scheme, though typically with a more binary relationship between leader/follower, rather than many tiers of the ziggurat. It's also worth noting that a defining feature of the cult model is its isolation, and its total inability to interface with outside systems by seeding an ontology in its population that cannot relate to other ontologies.
Qualitatively, there is a big difference between an organization that can engage in theological or philosophical debate with another organization, and one that for ridicule, orthodoxy, or taboo cannot. By this logic, the Mormons in their early days might have been classifiable as a cult, but in this day and age certainly could never be as they are thoroughly able to engage with non-Mormons, and while their Mormon upbringing is asymmetric, it doesn't diminish adaptive capacity, and what with the Missions' implicit and explicit cross-cultural training, it likely massively increases it. One might consider cult systems to be something like group-oriented pre-emptive memetic speciation, for the sake of the aggrandizement of the cult's manipulative classes, so that the cult's labor-force is unable to interface with larger market economies. Additionally, it is worth noting that this phenomenon is distinct, but not necessarily that distinct from other forms of pre-modern religious organization. There should be a clear distinction between the ability of an unscientific but compelling worldview that is able to take hold in a given population, being used as a similar explanation due to emotional resonance or just being the best thing at the moment. At least in the context of this essay, the term "cult" refers to the strategy of manipulative parasitism described earlier, and not, for instance, the Cult of Bast at her city Bubastis. This does not mean that religious practice that comes to detrimental behavior through honest behavior is without judgement, thus that it is improper to conflate it with this strategy.
However, at the same time, it seems likely that there are entire, city-sized or possibly larger organizations that emerge in the same manner of the cults of the 1970s, which have provided an intriguing mirage. Oddly, we might even consider much of this situation a more evolved version of the "bubble" economics prevalent in my home territory of the Bay since the mid-1990s. The genius of Webvan is not structurally all that different than the genius of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, though one of them provided tasty otterpops, and the other salmonella. Whole modern nations might even be considered on this model.
So what kind of economy do you need to start to be able to supporting cults under this model of parasitism? The clearest thing is that the cult is not reasonably productive on its own terms. The manipulative core has two unfortunate fundamental necessities: First, it must consume, so it can be aggrandized and thus justify its position. Regardless of the alleged asceticism of the leadership, they must eventually engage in some measure of strategic consumption, that matches the necessary aesthetic, if only to justify their position as great or at least first among equals, and thus needing larger flows of resource to maintain themselves. Second, it must not produce anything of direct value, and instead create increasingly complicated maps of nowhere. By necessity, in order to maintain the implicit, emergent hierarchy of the cult system, the leader, who has already presented an emotionally resonant but strategically insane map of the world, must release increasingly complicated versions of that said map so that the embrace of that version of reality can serve as a datapoint for the maintenance of loyalty in the hierarchy.
Thus, this entirely non-productive system literally is an economic bubble, but it is a bubble that contains a pleasurable ontology instead of simply a supposed way to get ahead. Cults in this model require a system that has a sufficiently developed localized economy to automate the production of the necessary resources of life through market, caste, or technical systems, while simultaneously being able to reject the material reality of that process of automation while pretending that there is some other, idealistic source of production.
At my estimate, this strategy cannot evolve without a reasonably capitalist economy—though it is conceivable that a caste-oriented society such as Sparta whose free citizens had the time to engage in post-malthusian behavior could be hijacked by such matters as this, the only historical examples of such societies are locked in ritual and conflict in such ways that while they may not have immediate material scarcity due to the support of the slaves or peasants, the concern of the individual's position was important enough that a rejection of a coherent ontology would spell doom.
Additionally, it is worth noting that this strategy cannot evolve without sufficient urbanization for two reasons. The first is the old adage that "the expert is always from out of town," meaning that it is much easier to spawn a totally foreign system of the world to the mainstream when you, yourself, are foreign, with the implicit statement that these strategies worked somewhere else. The second is that, for the necessary behaviors of rapid clustering and community that cults require, there must be sufficient population density for a body of individuals to form to support the manipulative core, while also having sufficient alienation that this can happen at a rate where new members are quickly out of necessity.
In urban structures—new worlds of centralization where the normal rules of nature are no longer applicable, cults evolve as a solipsism around just how inconvenient the real world is, and how it is more easily replaced by a navigable social graph. If you live in a world like your own that you cannot reasonably expect to understand, does it make sense to go mad, and believe in a world that is simplified enough to understand?
Gilliam's Brazil makes perhaps the best—better even than Orwell's—case that it is, in fact, reasonable when surrounded by sufficient force. Yet, the cults I am speaking of are in fact more like the government in Gilliam's film than Sam Lowry's army of one. We've been living in a world that's too complicated for individual minds to understand since time immemorial, it's just that by the twentieth century we were being reminded of it constantly, and advancements in logistical and communications technology kept making it so that we had to be concerned with things on the other side of the world. In that environment, where the agency that we crave is either impossible or incredibly difficult to craft from the collaboration of minds. Thus, it is adulterated. The cult doles out pseudo-agency, a cheap substitute, some of the benefit from a tricking additive.
So then, the Deprogrammer is another layer on top of this, the synthesis to the cult's antithesis, the process of bringing individuals back into the system of production that the cult has caused them to reject. Provided that the deprogrammer is not simply bringing the ex-cultist back to a larger cult, they are more than anything else averting the death-orgy that seems to come about at the end of cycles of increasing capacity when the intelligences are no longer able to increase their own intelligence, no longer able to properly collaborate and thus gain further mastery over their environment. A rather worthy goal at this moment in time is likely determining a method to continue that process of capacity increases.
A word of thanks to Geoff Schmidt, who provided a great portion of my understanding of the cult/infrastructure dichotomy in conversation in 2014/15 or so.