Alexandra Coțofană, a researcher of the significance of the occult in Romanian politics, has recently completed her PhD in anthropology at Indiana University Bloomington. Matan Kaminer interviewed her on her research and its implications for LeftEast.
MK: So what role does the occult play in Romanian politics today?
AC: I started my research by looking at the way communist political elites in Northeast Romania used to collaborate with practitioners of the occult before 1989. At the time, it seemed to me that my project would rely on a logic of indigeneity and that the labors of the occult employed by politicians were reliant on Orthodox Christian practices and traditions. But as my research moved towards Bucharest and contemporary political events, I discovered that a lot of the people involved in labors of the occult as well as the practices themselves were part of globalized networks. In Romanian politics today, labors of the occult developed in political environments West and East of Romania are often reproduced and translated. For example, Romanian politicians and groups on social media imagine philanthropist George Soros as a member of the Illuminati and of Jewish Masonic global elites.
This sort of discourse, although believed to be indigenous, and to defend indigeneity, is imported from right-wing political groups in the West, and equally from ex-Soviet centers of power, and goes hand in hand with ideological projects, like an artificially created anxiety around same sex marriage. Because these discourses rely heavily on the protection of indigeneity and evoke “traditional values” at the core of their creed, very few people actually examine how traditional and indigenous they truly are. On the other hand, with Romania defined politically by its Christian Orthodox majority, we notice concepts of nationality, self, and Christian Orthodox religiosity being brought as arguments against labors of the occult, and against politicians employing them. Yet this purified image of religiosity being stripped of its mysticism is equally invented and new, not truly relying on any actual Church or popular practices, nor on any strong, long-term ideological opposition to labors of the occult.
MK: What are these occult labors like? Does the term “witchcraft” do them any justice?
AC: Labors of the occult tend to be diverse. The general bias against ritual magic drove most of my informants to use the feminine noun vrăjitoare when they think about a practitioner; the closest translation of the word would be “witch,” but the term comes from the Slavonic vražiti, meaning “to work magic.” This etymology draws attention to the forms of labor that magic creates, which are complex works of human and non-human agents alike. The term vrăjitoare tends to be used by those outside of the practice; of all the practitioners I have interviewed, none referred to themselves or other practitioners with this term, which invokes unwanted associations with dark magic. The word “witchcraft” generates confusion about the sorts of magic that occur in Romania. I believe a more productive categorization would center the Greek mantikē (divination, prophecy), technē (craft), and their hybrids, suggesting that labors of the occult are as much involved with the mind, as they are involved with physical labors.
The varieties of ritual magic that I have encountered claim legitimacy from the Christian Orthodox dogma and moral codes, even as they differ in terms of ritual, method, and aims. While certain clerics or laymen argue that labors of the occult could only work through the Devil, many practitioners counteract this argument claiming God himself would have not given them this gift, had it been harmful. The idea of free will is used to dialectical ends here – on the one hand, those who oppose magic claim that practicing it is a misuse of free will. On the other hand, people who engage in labors of magic claim a form of Socratic daimonion mantikē, a prophetic gift received from a divine Other. In this second interpretation, free will comes almost as an obligation to return the gift received.
MK: Can you tell us more about the relationship between the occult and Orthodox Christianity in Romania?
AC: Romania’s nationalism, as in the case of many Eastern European nations, overlaps
heavily with its religious identity as a country with a Christian Orthodox majority. This, of course, brings with it gender, racial, and ontological particularities. I have noticed in my research that labors of the occult employed by priests in the Romanian Orthodox Church, even if officially unaligned with the Church ideology, are seen as morally permissible. This permissibility has nothing to do with effectiveness – labors of the occult that are seen as borrowing from traditions other than Christian Orthodoxy are not seen as ineffective, just as not from here. When employed in political conflicts, labors understood as non-Christian Orthodox are treated as dangerous, unfair political tools, while labors of the occult relying on Christian Orthodoxy are seen as neutral, highlighting the privileged spot that the Romanian Orthodox Church holds in the country’s state-making.
That said, what is imagined to be Christian Orthodox is rarely reliant on the traditions of the faith, institutionalized or not. To start with, Christian Orthodoxy itself has been reformed a good number of times in its history in the region, as much as believers and the clergy might invoke a unique, unaltered identity. The focus on the name of the faith (ortho – correct, true, doxa – belief) allows believers, clergy, and politicians to invoke an imagined past where Christian Orthodoxy has remained unchanged, unlike all other faiths. So what is imagined as permissible labors of the occult, reliant on Christian Orthodox traditions, is often some form of cultural and political import or innovation, that simply passes as indigeneity.
MK: How new is this phenomenon? Did the occult have a political role in socialist Romania?
Romania is a very specific case in the region, that I believe could help us rethink what a post-socialist transition looks like. Unlike the neighboring countries of Hungary and Poland, Romania never had a period of radical decommunization, because the only politicians that left the world of politics were the Ceaușescu couple, who were shot after a mock trial on Christmas Eve of 1989. While the events of December 1989 are often described as a revolution, in reality, continuity was strong with many Romanian politicians moving beyond the dissolved Romanian Communist Party to form new political groups, and continue their governance in a new, democratic republic. The occult was part of this continuity: we generally assume that because policies based on the Marxist legacy banned public displays of religion and spirituality, all dealings with spirituality and belief disappeared. However, magic was ritually practiced within communities at this time, and clients often included high-ranking members of the Romanian Communist Party. The continuity in the composition of the Romanian political class before and after 1989 is extremely significant to the continued role of magic in Romania — both communist and post-communist politicians are clients of ritual magic.
Instead of imagining communism and post-communism as defined by a binary between the church and the state, I suggest that the relationship between three actors – the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Romanian state, and practitioners of ritual magic working with Romanian Christian Orthodox conceptual and material tools – has evolved in an interrelated continuum. Thus, in recent years, political figures from preeminent political parties on the left and right have sometimes used the same practitioners of the occult. In more recent examples, we see the political right accusing the political left of using the occult in very strategic, collective ways, and call this “the parallel state”, a term that could be equated to the idea of “the deep state,” the concept of Turkish origin which has recently taken hold in the US.
MK: Can you elaborate on the connections between the occult imaginary, the fantasy of the “deep state” and conspiracist thinking more generally? Would it be useful, in the Romanian context, to understand the occult as a misguided way of attempting to understand and influence the mysterious and unpredictable behavior of global capital?
AC: I will start by saying that I don’t think anyone is able to understand and influence the mysterious and unpredictable behavior of global capitalism! Much like the Roma witch represents an important part of Romania’s own history, one that does not fit well with the tropes of European ‘modernity’ that several governing projects are trying to align the country to, global capitalism is another mirror that we might use to face ourselves. The role of “deep-state” and conspiracist thinking is to focus resources in the hands of the few – be it information, power, money, influence, oil, etc. The image of the global Jew, this stereotype which is being brought to life yet again, is the embodiment of greed, but also of financial literacy. It is something that the communities that see themselves as indigenous despise, but also aspire to be. It is their own greed and love of material culture, of capital, that these discourses, vile global networks, and actors ultimately represent. The people who vigorously argue in the media, online, or in public forums against the dangers of the West are the same people who live very comfortably in the nest of global economies.
MK: Your take on the figures of the Roma witch and the Jew is intriguing. Do you see any connection between the identification of Jews, Roma and Middle Eastern immigrants as “enemies within” and the discourse of indigeneity as it relates to the distinction you point at between benign, “Orthodox” occult practices and dangerous “foreign” ones?
AC: Discourses of indigeneity are one of the most efficient political tools available today. I can’t think of a single place I have traveled to, or lived in, where someone in power is not rallying people around some slogan chanting “We were here first”. This idea of indigeneity has been reclaimed by people in power after gaining legitimacy through its association with civil society, the fight against gender and racial discrimination, and colonial liberation projects. As such, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim tropes advanced by certain political groups today in Eastern Europe and elsewhere rely on histories, real or imagined, of having been colonized, occupied, abused, and of that danger lurking once more, if “we,” the indigenous, don’t protect ourselves from this oppressive Other. At the same time, one of Eastern Europe’s most uncomfortable Others has always been internal, the Roma population. Perceived as the perpetual, uncivilizable, shameful migrant, the Roma population takes much of the blame for witchcraft, but in a different way than actors like George Soros, the Masons, the reptilians, etc. While the Roma witch is seen as a painful reminder of Romania’s own history of rural, illiterate practices, that must be ‘civilized’ through legislation, the Freemasons and the global Jewish elites are seen as perpetually attempting entry into the indigenous ontological space, and controlling the local population for economic and political purposes.
MK: And how much truth is there in this casting of the “blame” for occult practice on cultural Others? Who are the actual practitioners of magic in Romania?
AC: practitioners of magic and people in power who choose to use their services exist in many countries around the world, and have formed successful partnerships for a long time. Yet, being true to their name, they are occult, hidden, not something that is openly discussed. I focus my research on male urban political elites who employ labors of the occult in their political practice, specifically in order to dispel the idea that the occult is a tool of the female, uneducated, rural, and often racial Other. In my research, I analyze a very particular episode, when Roma and Romanian politicians together drafted a bill that explicitly targets Roma women and their labors of the occult. Following Romania’s 2007 accession to EU membership, the country’s government has debated two bills meant to formalize and tax ritual magic. The legislative efforts have been characterized by Romanian politicians as meant to dispel “medieval practices” in order to align Romania to “the modernity of the 21st century”, creating a dialectical binary between witchcraft and the modern, secular state. Some politicians have argued these bills are meant to make witchcraft an official, taxable job, in order to address the EU’s concerns about Romania’s corruption and fraud. From this point of view, the legislative projects are, in theory, meant to protect clients from fraudulent practitioners, some of them being of Roma origin.
Subsequent statements made by politicians involved in the witchcraft tax bill, as well as recent media portrayals, reveal that the group of scammers was perceived to be exclusively Roma women, even though labors of the occult are practiced across the board, regardless of gender, race, level of education and socio-economic status, or secular-religious affiliation. Roma women are stereotypically believed to scam naïve non-Roma Romanians by pretending to be adept in labors of the occult.
MK: What was your data-gathering process like? Can you tell us about your methods of gaining access and any difficulties you faced along the way?
AC: I started this research in Bucovina, the northmost area of Romania, in 2011. I spent the first four years of my research in Bucovina, interviewing practitioners of magic about their work before and after 1989 and asking about interactions with politicians and state administrators as clients. In 2015, I started doing research in Bucharest, where I got interested in interviewing politicians and state administrators currently involved in governing the country about their experience as clients or victims (or both) of the occult. I had a good idea about the people I was most interested in interviewing, but between their high status and the political turmoil of the last few years, I kept my hopes low about gaining access to them. I ended up being very lucky and interviewed everyone I wanted by August 2017, when I had to come back to the US to teach.
The difficulties surrounding interviews with both political elites and practitioners of the occult are very similar, since the work of both these groups are often hidden from prying eyes and access is difficult to gain. I cannot take pride in any specific method for getting to the people I was interested in; I simply got lucky, ran into the right people at the right time, and so on. I expected to have difficulties talking to politicians about their involvement with the occult – and I did. I also had difficulties having practitioners of the occult opening their doors to me, deciding I am worth their time, answering my questions. When doing research, it is important to know what you are good at and what might not work for you as a researcher. I knew my safest bet was going to be honesty and being respectful. And that’s what I did.
MK: Finally, what is the significance for you of the word “labor” in this key phrase, “labors of the occult”? What can we learn about occult practices by understanding them as forms of labor?
I am using the term labor to challenge some of the ways we may perceive the occult – can the value of the occult be objectively measured by the average amount of labor-time required to produce it? The reference is also tightly knit with an ethnographic episode I mentioned above, when the Romanian government tried to tax witchcraft without properly understanding the intricacies of this type of labor. Thus the idea of labors of the occult tries to move away from simply talking about witches and shamans, and instead to focus our attention on all types of discourses, actors, and practices involved in governing with the occult. Lastly, consider demons, one of the various asōmata (beings without physical bodies) working for the occult. Is their labor exploited in the process of working the occult? I believe scholarship exploring the ontological turn and cross-species interaction, as well as anthropology as a whole, would greatly benefit from an academic initiative to analyze demons, devils and spirits, through a Marxist lens of exploited labor.