It’s getting close to the end of the year, a time that unleashes a flurry of “year in review” posts. But given our focus on research, which ultimately is about trying to predict some part of the future, it’s time to think about what might happen in the wacky world of Scientology in 2014.
In this post, I’m setting out a couple of key predictions for what I believe will happen to Scientology next year, and I’m asking for your help in coming up with a combined list of about ten things that we, collectively, believe will happen. If we do this right, then I can publish an “official” predictions document that summarizes our thought process. It’ll be fun to circle back a year hence to see how we did.
Ultimately, we should be able to come up with about ten predictions for what will happen in the world of Scientology over the next year. Each prediction should be concrete enough that it’s easy to see if it came true a year from now. No fair couching a prediction in the vague generalities of an astrologer. As the Scientologists say when ridding themselves of body thetans hooked up to the e-meter on solo NOTs, “exact time, place, form and event.”
Predictions shouldn’t be too safe (i.e., predicting that David Miscavige will not be deposed by a cabal of disloyal underlings in 2014 is only fractionally more risky than predicting sunrise in the east every morning). Predicting that the cult will gain no incremental new members via the Golden Age of Tech 2 release is approximately as safe.
At the same time, predictions shouldn’t be so over-the-top that they’re unlikely to happen. Thus, I’m not predicting that a red-headed chain-smoking 26-year-old is going to walk into a Scientology facility and will be accepted as the reincarnation of L. Ron Hubbard.
Finally, predictions should be reasonable extrapolations from credibly anticipated events. There’s no need to try to guess what will happen from an unpredictable event. In other words, we don’t need to worry about any deus ex machina scenarios. Anything that depends on David Miscavige having a heart attack at his desk is not useful.
Importantly, predictions should be all about what we think will happen. Part of the challenge of the exercise is being able to distinguish what is likely to happen from what we wish would happen. So while I think 2014 will show an even greater rate of decline for the cult versus the increasingly evident decline seen in 2013, it is important to note that the cult will almost certainly be in business in something recognizably close to its current form, even though that’s not the outcome I desire.
The completed set of predictions should touch on each of the major operational aspects of the cult, which should include: finances, management, Ideal Org strategy, member retention, staff retention, celebrities, etc.
If we look back in 365 days and we got all ten predictions exactly right, we were probably being too safe in what we expected. Similarly, if we only got two right, we were probably living a little too much in hope and desire and not enough in logic and reason.
My Current Best Guess
1. The event business collapse will be complete in 2014.
As you may recall, there were several big annual events cancelled in 2013. In the spring, the “Maiden Voyage” event, a briefing for big donors and higher-level OT’s aboard the Freewinds, was initially rescheduled for LA, but then dropped entirely. Though it wasn’t widely commented on at the time, this was clearly a harbinger of things to come, with the October event announced and then cancelled when the tent imported from the UK became a particularly rich vein of humor material to mine. And of course, the ineptitude around the cult’s handling of the big November events in Clearwater (GAT2 unveiling and the IAS event) made it abundantly clear that there’s big trouble in the events business, an important and generally well-run part of the business previously.
In particular, I believe we’ll see the following all of the key details:
- All big events, if not cancelled, will be below 1,000 people total (excluding seat-fillers from the Sea Org or even extras from outside, as may have happened at the Super Power dedication).
- It is possible that by the end of 2014, the only event actually held will be the IAS gala. Gone will be the Birthday Event, the New Year’s Eve event, Maiden Voyage and all the rest.
- Due to the actions of all those loathsome SP’s spying on these ultra-ecclesiastical events, particularly Mike Rinder & Mike Bennitt with their “Apostate Air Force,” David Miscavige will never again hold another open-air event, including either major events or Ideal Org dedications.
- The cult will not be able to make up revenue shortfalls from lower donations at these events and we will begin to see signs of financial pressure manifesting throughout the organization. I don’t yet have a clear picture of exactly how these financial pressures will show up, and I don’t believe the cult will start digging into reserves, but the total revenue for 2014 will be the lowest in at least 20 years.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that this is the most significant development of 2013 and 2014. I think the events business is responsible for about 30% of cult revenue, or somewhere between $50 million and $75 million per year, and it’s the most profitable business around, generating about 80% gross margin. If this business implodes suddenly, it’s going to push the cult close to operating losses for the first time in ages, and that, if it happens, is likely to unleash all sorts of craziness.
2. The Ideal Org strategy will come to a grinding halt
Clearly, the Ideal Org strategy visibly struggled in 2013 after working for a long time. Working, of course, means that it was achieving its real goals of fleecing large chunks of money from large donors; it doesn’t appear to be about actually getting more people in the door, so I don’t count it a failure on that front because it was never really intended to succeed there. I believe 2014 will reveal that the Ideal Org program is completely stalled.
And if the cult sells existing properties that it is unable to renovate, it will reveal a reality that is even worse: selling properties is a clear indication that the cult has started to operate in the red and is worried about starting to deplete reserves.
The original idea was fairly clever: get donors to contribute to buildings, with each campaign raising far more than the cost of the actual building. Miscavige pockets the difference and takes title to the building so the local donors have no real equity in what they just donated for (unlike churches in most Protestant denominations, for instance, where ownership of the building is retained locally). The second phase of the scam is to exploit the local public’s “sunk cost bias,” getting them to dig even deeper into their pockets to fund renovations for the building that now sits empty and decaying.
- Details will emerge of significant problems in keeping some of the key existing Ideal Org buildings open for business, making it harder than ever for Miscavige to try to show “straight up and vertical expansion.”
- At most two Ideal Orgs will open in 2014, though the cult has published a target list of several dozen future locations that it claimed would open in 2012 and 2013, and it is woefully behind in the schedule. The “under the radar” crowd will probably begin to notice the disparity between the promise and the results, while the Kool-Aid drinkers probably won’t.
- The Valley Org (in the San Fernando Valley of LA) will be no closer to going Ideal than it is now, a major embarrassment given the richest concentration of Scientologists in the world living in its coverage area. We will begin to see evidence that this is a factor in the departure of several long-time LA Scientologists, and thus will conclude that it is going to help many “under the radar” LA public to decide to leave.
- The cult will sell at least three buildings purchased for Ideal Orgs where it was unable to raise money for restorations. Locations will probably be drawn from a list that includes New Haven, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia (DM’s hometown), Battle Creek, and a couple of UK locations. If no new building campaigns for these locations are immediately announced, then we will be able to surmise for the first time that the cult is feeling pinched for cash and may actually be seeing losses from operations for the first time in decades, if ever.
- Several additional sites where renovations have not yet begun will be condemned or otherwise targeted by local governments seeking to rid their cities of the eyesores of decaying buildings.
3. The retreat from the larger world will accelerate
We saw the beginning of what some might call “institutional agoraphobia” from the cult in 2013, as Miscavige moved the IAS event from Saint Hill to Clearwater. There are two likely contributing factors driving this.
First, the European Scientology business is probably declining in the wake of institutional pressure such as that exerted by the German government and the effects of ridicule from the tabloid press, as the cult frequently endures in the UK. There aren’t any particularly good numbers to show growth trends in Europe overall, so it’s hard to determine what’s actually happening here. In this circumstance, poor business in Europe is driving the retreat from the continent.
Second, Miscavige’s obsession with security and with avoiding ridicule may have taken a body blow in 2012, when a tabloid reporter was easily able to gain access to the annual IAS event despite heavy security, and wrote a long feature story. If European business was good, or even if it was merely flat, then moving the IAS event to increase security will probably cause the European business to decline at a faster rate, as European whales are probably less likely to want to journey to Flag for all their events. In other words, in this scenario, Miscavige is preventably accelerating the decline of the European business to cater to his own fears.
Whatever the cause, the cult seems to implicitly acknowledge that the retreat from Europe is permanent, else they probably would not have paid to move the large semi-rigid tent used for IAS events at Saint Hill to Clearwater. If the large event business in the UK were still intact, they would most likely have just gone ahead and purchased a second tent. Otherwise, in a couple years, the cost of moving the tent back and forth across the Atlantic would quickly outweigh the cost of a second structure.
As if a major decline in the cult’s second biggest market wasn’t enough, smaller and more remote geographies appear to be breaking away from the cult. The defection en masse of the former mission in Haifa, Israel may be only the beginning. In October, Miscavige declared 18 long-established Scientologists from South Africa, including some with decades of time in the cult and some who have donated millions of dollars for buildings and other campaigns. This North Korea-style purge appears to have been about bringing management of the Johannesburg org under tighter control. However, it appears likely to backfire, given that the South Africans have been used to operating on a relatively long leash, and the increasingly important BackInComm blog suggests that a significant portion of the membership is rallying around those who have been declared, refusing to cooperate with the management team sent in from Flag. The lesson here is that disconnection in small, remote locations is unlikely to have much sway since the relatively small numbers of public in smaller countries all know each other and can easily choose to stay together and defy the Mother Church.
In a thought-provoking article posted on ESMB about five years ago, J. Swift came up with an interesting scenario where Miscavige proactively fires the cult members with low donation potential and keeps only the high-end donors, moving to a “monastery Scientology,” where services are available only at Flag and one or two other global locations. It’s an interesting scenario, but I don’t think the retreat from non-US locations is part of a proactive strategy; I think Miscavige is wholly reactive in how he deals with crises.
The cannibalization of business from orgs to Flag will only increase, affecting not only missions (which are on life support) but also Class V orgs (local Ideal Orgs) as well as advanced orgs (AOSH, AOLA, ASHO, etc). One side effect of the move to centralize higher-level services at Flag is the fact that many non-US public will find it very difficult or undesirable to travel to the US for services. In particular, this is likely to affect areas that have previously been bright spots in the number of “bodies in shop,” like Eastern Europe, Russia, Taiwan and South America. As a result, we can only conclude that centralization of services at Flag implicitly acknowledges that the cult is “done” outside North America.
- The South African organization will “go indie.” This doesn’t seem like a particularly bold prediction, given the visibility into the thought process of many of the prominent members of that community shown on their increasingly important “Back in Comm” blog.
- We will get credible data showing that the staff at Saint Hill in the UK is down to only about 300 people, significantly below the level of even three or four years ago, and suggesting a near collapse of the higher level services business in Europe. This collapse of the ability to serve high-end customers within Europe will further alienate public from the richer western European countries, reducing membership still further.
- Russian Scientology will come under even greater pressure from an increasingly anti-Western Russian government. During 2014, there will be increasing attention in the Russian press paid to this organization that, to the average Russian, has ties to the US intelligence community (an instance where Hubbard’s lies about his background in WWII military intelligence will actively hurt the cult). This will likely lead to a damming of the flow of Russian Sea Org recruits, even though a high percentage of Russians want to emigrate to the West.
- We will see Scientology abandon at least two countries due to lack of interest, including one in South America. Ideal Org campaigns outside the US will get even less traction than domestic Ideal Org campaigns.
4. “Under the radar” members are revealed to be the majority of US public
In the US, the percentage of “under the radar” members will be revealed to be significantly more than we had previously estimated. Out of the perhaps 11,000 active “public” in the US, we will realize by the end of 2014 that substantially less than half are “true believers.” Most are just pretending to go along with the show to avoid disconnection.
I have spoken with a number of “under the radar” members who, as time goes on, are far less careful to hide their status from the cult. Scientology seems to be more accepting of “under the radar” members than ever before, because it has basically no alternative other than to let them go and declare them. This acceptance of “under the radar” members may reflect optimism among top management that the recent Golden Age of Tech 2 release may be enough to cause people to come flooding back in the doors, but most under the radar public we’ve talked to are fairly skeptical of the changes in GAT2, and seem unlikely to get more involved.
5. Disconnection loses its effectiveness
Speaking of disconnection, I believe that 2014 will be the year where the membership shrinks enough that the threat of disconnection is much less important than before.
- Defections of lower-ranks celebrities or rich whales will show that the power of disconnection to keep people in the cult is diminishing in its influence. In other words, the ability of Leah Remini to boost her entire family out of the cult en masse will not be an isolated event. Once there’s a track record of multiple people able to do this, disconnection will be done.
- There are already informal “underground railroad” networks helping people to leave the cult and to get new jobs and to rebuild their lives. I predict that in 2014, these networks will become more formalized and better known to people still in the cult, making it much easier for staff at local orgs and at Pac Base and Flag to exit the cult.
- Staff shortages will make it more difficult for the OSA to patrol the Internet, identifying disloyalty in Facebook posts and otherwise harassing those who speak up. Similarly, social media will make it easy for the newly declared to get back in touch with those who had previously left, enabling them to get their new lives back on track much faster.
I believe this scenario to be true, but as a “never-in,” I don’t have the experience with the process of leaving the cult to be able to detail exactly how disconnection will diminish in its power.
6. The legal losing streak will continue intact
Scientology will continue to lose every legal case it’s involved in. And it seems likely that litigation will continue to build. I expect that 2014 will bring more suits from rank-and-file public, perhaps to the exclusion of “flagship” suits like the Debbie Cook case or the Monique Rathbun case. While less fascinating to watch than the
- Despite the possibility it may win individual battles (e.g., the “diversity jurisdiction” issue in the Garcia case), the cult will lose almost every case…
- … but only after inflicting on itself the maximum possible damage. Given Miscavige’s penchant for micro-managing his attorneys, and given his inability to take the long view in working on his cases, DM will continue to be the cult’s biggest impediment to winning in the courtroom. In particular, Miscavige seems to be unable to resist procedural maneuvers like moving for disqualification of opposing counsel that are normally only used in extraordinary circumstances; over time, as the cult’s reputation for this sort of theatrics becomes known, these tricks will work against them.
- Look for a greater number of individual cases, particularly relating to refunds of monies on deposit, to be filed and to make significant progress through the courts. I expect to see in late 2014 or early 2015, a wave of fraud suits similar to the Garcia case, where the cult is alleged to have made specific misrepresentation about the use of funds raised.
- Particularly if the Garcias are able to establish that Scientology’s arbitration procedure is unconscionable, I expect to see a wave of refund lawsuits, many filed by networks of cooperating lawyers, much as coal industry black lung lawsuits were filed by an industry of lawyers working together. I would expect to see a class action lawsuit filed in early 2015 for refunds of money on account. If this is filed, I think it will be a watershed for the cult, because it puts a sizable chunk of reserves in play. Once the class action trial bar realizes just how much money has been paid on deposit, they’ll go nuts vying for a shot at suing the cult.
Where I need help
I can’t do a first-class list of predictions on my own. I need your help to make this work. I would appreciate your help on:
- Looking for errors or omissions in the list above. If I have forgotten to consider some factor in my analysis, please let me know.
- If you think I have over-estimated or underestimated the importance of something that drives any of my scenarios, I would be grateful for a detailed discussion.
- I need you to help fill this list out with scenarios or areas that I haven’t even considered.
Here are some particular areas where I am currently struggling, and I don’t have a clear answer. Start here and add anything else you think is important.
What happens to Narconon?
On the one hand, there are record numbers of lawsuits outstanding against the bogus drug addiction treatment organization, and the cult will probably lose many of those. Insurance fraud could well pop up at more Narconon operations than just at Narconon Georgia, as happened so spectacularly in 2013. Another encouraging sign of the decline of Narconon is the increasing prominence of critical material at the top of Google searches.
However, it seems likely that the cult’s response to the increase in critical information will be to change the names of facilities and otherwise try to morph into something else, as we’ve already seen with Per Wickstrom’s operations in Michigan. They may simply lie about the details of their programs so that they can’t be linked easily to Scientology by using the word “students” for patients, etc. As a result, they’ll become a bit more difficult to attack, since there won’t be one single
What happens in Russia?
Russia is perhaps the biggest question mark in the attempt to measure overall Scientology membership. The cult claims that there are over 20 missions and orgs throughout the country, but it’s entirely possible that these claims are bogus. If true, it’s possible that there could be as many as 1,500 or 2,000 public in Russia, which makes the country able to supply many Sea Org recruits to work at Flag and other US locations. Certainly to a bright kid trapped in a second-tier Russian city with poor job prospects, a ticket to the West, even for a job paying Sea Org wages could easily seem attractive. And even though the per capita economic potential of each individual Russian cultie isn’t that high, a larger-than-expected number of cult members in Russia could affect the total number of members worldwide that we’re attempting to develop.
If there are any Russian speakers out there (DodoTheLaser, are you listening?) who could help monitor the Russian-language press for Scientology news, that would be very helpful.
Will staffing levels become an issue?
The cult seems to have survived for quite a while without any real ability to attract new members. Obviously, that’s because of the cult’s well-established ability to keep hitting up existing members for donations. So nearly twenty years after the massive “stat crash” in the early 1990s, when the stream of “fresh meat” dried up, the cult still limps along. (I believe revenue is down from the peak reached in that area, but there’s still enough money coming in for the cult to remain dangerous.)
It’s clear that a cult collapse scenario based mainly around the lack of new members probably won’t happen. But relatively few comments in the two and a half years I’ve been following Scientology have attempted to grapple with the potential for the lack of staff to bring the cult down.
It’s long been known that many missions are struggling, open only a handful of hours per week at odd hours. They’re struggling in part because of neglect from the top of the organization, but also from the competition from nearby Ideal Orgs cannibalizing members wherever possible. It’s also quite apparent that some orgs are woefully understaffed. A 40,000 foot office building would normally hold 150-250 employees depending on configuration. But there are reports of visits to Ideal Orgs where only about a dozen staff are visible at any one time.
This leads me to believe that staff are dwindling, particularly in the outer orgs, though I believe the cult is also having trouble getting Sea Org staff as well, even with non-US recruitment efforts.
At what point does the staff shortage become a key defining issue in the decline of the cult? If current members come into their local org during published business hours and there aren’t enough people to open the doors, that will certainly shake their reality on the “straight up and vertical” expansion theme.
Will the cult be able to explain the org stuff away by simply demanding that people come to Flag or AOLA or some other higher-level org for even the most basic services?