Channels of agency
Money and magic in contemporary Russia
Department of Social Anthropology, University
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002
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'Unfathomable are God's ways' (neispovedimy puti Gospodni) is a Biblical maxim that is an often used folk wisdom in Russia. It reflects an understanding of human existence rooted in the Russian cultural ontology of agency that has survived through the Russian history, with its calamitous and chaotic structural transformations. Agency in Russia is curtailed far beyond the limits that can be imagined in the West, as any Westerner who ever tried to get things done in Russia has certainly experienced. Or, maybe, what is limited in Russia is the accepted ways in which agency is instrumented in the West. As any other society, Russia has its special, idiosyncratically constructed channels for the acting individual who is trying to form the world according to her own designs. The knowledge of these channels is to a great extent a tacit and embodied knowledge, and the mastery over them is a part of cultural competence; still, the limits of agency, how much of one's life one can form according to one's will, is a cultural variable.
In the West, the two most salient ways of mediating agency are, first, the structures of constitutional, democratic, and legal society, and, second, money and the possibilities it mediates. One gets protection against encroachment on one's private space, for example, or access to education and healthcare because one is entitled to it as a citizen of a state; and one gets material goods, a car, a house, a vacation trip to Bahamas because one has money. There is nothing 'unfathomable' in the ways these structures work, or at least it is not expected to be. The actions within these structures are supposed to be based on rationality, reinforced by a fair degree of predictability and transparency.
Such 'rational' channels of mediating agency seem to have always been of limited use in Russia. In the Soviet times, the ways of power were maybe as unfathomable as God's ways, in the sense that their transparency and legality were dubious, and for an outside observer largely opaque. For the insider, however, there were other, complementary ways of mediating agency that were to a degree both dependable and predictable. They were the intersubjective ways, the possibilities inbuilt in social ties and informal (but well-running) institutions, manifested, e.g. in the phenomena of blat or connections familiar both to the bearers and to the students of this culture. The official structures of possibilities, within their limits, were also dependable and predictable, provided the individual did not obstruct the system (I'm not speaking of the times of the Stalin terror, where this predictability was almost non-existent): being a worker at a factory, one could expect to get a day care place for one's child, a food package at holidays, and more of the officially solicited joys of life. It is these official structures that were channels for agency, while the agentive value of money was largely nonexistent.
It is these dependable channels of mediating agency, that partly constituted the structures of trust, that were demolished after the fall of socialism. First to go were the welfare structures Soviet style, sweeping away all predictability and security of everyday existence. What came instead was money, that became the most salient and efficient way of mediating agency in Russia. Money as an agentive media can be seen as a structural equivalent of raw physical force, crushing (and sometimes erecting) material as well as social edifices. Everybody in business, large or small, knows that protection, provided by informal structures generally glossed as Mafia, or private security agencies that are Mafia's later outgrowth, builds of physical fore of guns and muscles. This raw force can be only bought for money; the ties of sociality here are of limited value.
En expression of this view of the power of money as an elemental physical force is the image of Mercedes, the car of the New Russians, as in the joke: 'if you are driving Mercedes, you don't have to look on the road, or even to have your eyes open at all'. An analogous joke pictures a New Russian being dragged out of a restaurant by two friends, to be shoved in front of the Mercedes steering wheel; what he can't do, one of his friends responds to an incredulous observer, is to walk; what they put him to doing is driving. In other words, even though the guy is beyond most of the embodied capacities for action, the Mercedes will drive him home one way or another. Here, with all the vestiges of usual human agency gone, the only kind of agency the drunken New Russian embodies is the pure agency of money. It is fused with, and augmented by, that of an accepted objectified manifestation of money, the Mercedes vehicle, that becomes a kind of an animated machine substituting the subject. Anyone who tried to cross a street in Moscow on a busy day can testify to the fact that these jokes have a lot of life truth value to them: as a pedestrian, you better watch out when a Mercedes car is swishing by.
This transference of the human agency onto material objects, mediated by the substrate of money, has a distinctly magical character. This is not fortuitous: in the recent anthropological literature on magic, it has been noted that magical practices thrive where this-worldly power is overbearing, where its sources are obscure, and where powerlessness is crushing and humiliating beyond the limits that the culture in question sets up for the human dignity. In other words, magic is one of the cultural channels of mediating agency in the absence of other such channels or structures, those that we in the West would see as 'rational'. Also, magic is a cultural way of coping with uncertainty, where God's (or Power's) ways of this world become unfathomable, and where it appears necessary to devise existentially viable ways of 'questioning misfortune' (as Reynolds-Whyte puts it). Moreover, magic is a tool for manipulating inersubjectivity, and it thrives in cultures where social ties are constitutive of the individual self, or where the self has fuzzy, permeable boundaries.
In line with this argument, magic in post-communist Russia partly overtook the agency-mediating role of the disintegrated welfare/trust structures. This is a role that magic shares with money and the market, and with other power structures, absorbing and managing existentially the feature of opaqueness and unpredictability. At the same time, magic as a social institution is grafted on the strong intesubjectivity and tight sociality that have been a salient feature of the Russian life before perestroika, but that later lost the most of its instrumental validity, its potency as a channel of mediating agency.
To illustrate the affinities, and even homology, of magic and money as agency-mediating structures, I shall present a couple of ethnographic examples. One concerns an instance of cultural ontology of power. Magic in Russia is built on the assumption that the human being is connected with the Divine source of Power, that which religious people call God, and those oriented to a broader spirituality see as Cosmos or Universum. The channels connecting human being with God or Cosmos have different structures for different individuals and define one's social and psychological makeup. They can also be conceptualized as 'codes' that program different areas of individual existence. Some people have a money channel; only those so equipped, I was told, are fit to deal with biznes. Others who are not thus endowed should not even consider entering the world of biznes, to spare themselves unnecessary disappointments. However, they may possess a love channel instead, which predisposes them to a good marriage; or a spirituality channel, that makes them fit for religious asceticism, charity work or churchly vocation. To be a good teacher, doctor or journalist (or a researcher, for that matter, in Russian respectfully called a scientist or scholar, uchenyi, dealing with nauka) one should possess a corresponding channel.
The magus herself, ideally, is beyond these limitations, having transcended them, and with them all earthly needs, instead herself 'being in the Channel'. She is dissolved in or merged with the Divine energy, thus partaking of or mediating the Divine agency, or the ability to change matter according to her own will. This is, I stress, an ideal picture, demanding from the magus total dedication to her calling with concomitant resignation from all earthly needs, desires and passions, an image that the majority of magi are far from conforming to; but this image is there. Even though partaking in the divine energy, the magus can only discern what the individual's channels are, but is unable to switch them, thus interfering with the Divine plan. There are many magi on the market who promise to make every paying client rich and successful in everything one's heart desires, provided one pays; but such a hubris is a clear sign of a charlatan, I was told. The task of an honest and conscientious magus is to discern what the channels are, and to cleanse them and make them functional. In this conceptualization, money-making is seen as a variety of Divine vocation, as a manifestation of the divine force, an expression of magical flow connecting cosmos and the human being.
This exegesis, surmised by me from expert explanations and from conversations with magi, pictures money (and the ability to earn it, the biznes acumen) as an essentialized, morally unproblematic endowment. The questions of money and morality are, however, all but unproblematic. Both magic and money belong to an extremely muddled and far from sorted our moral domain. Money was in the Soviet times considered as somewhat dirty, the excessive interest in it lowly and unspiritual, and the practices of making it (rather than receiving it as salary from the state) as dishonest and immoral (and criminalized by the state). Money as capital was secondary to social capital in the forms of various social connections.
Under post-Communism, money has become the primary, if not the only means of decent and desirable existence, devaluing and attenuating the old networks of trust. However, the moral contents of the new ties have not yet been worked out, and there is no defined legal system of punishment for the breach of obligations. In the absence of the structures, the only means to sanction violations, as well as to protect individual against them is physical violence. There is a new term in Russian, silovyie struktury, literally the structures of force/power that refer to the conglomerate of all sorts of legal, paralegal (as private security agencies) and illegal means of law enforcement. Magic can be seen as a part of these force structures, often used as it is as a cheaper (and more humane) alternative to this kind of violence. Many people resort to magic in conjunction with their business affairs, in order to effect punishment for the breach of trust or to inflict revenge for the violations of obligations and for other wrongdoings.
Advertisements of magi offer help in increasing your revenues by minimum 80 per cent; getting back your loaned money, or, conversely, in warding off creditors, in getting loans, buying or selling the car or apartment, and promise the removal of death code, one of the unfortunate consequences of an unsuccessful biznes.
Or, witness this advertisement:
"Help in business. Analysis of business-situations, to reveal dishonest partners. Protection against those whom it is not possible to neutralize or eliminate. Wherever the situation is impossible to change, the straw can be laid down (podstelit' solomu) in order to painlessly survive the fall."
It should be noted that the latter ad belongs to a Voodoo magus, considered to be powerful and well-known in Moscow for his efficiency in solving specifically business problems. The connection can often be traced between the ideas of potency or efficacy, money and otherness, and the 'black' character ascribed to the variety of magic in question. This 'blackness', that some practitioners ascribe to themselves, suggests not immoralness of their trade, but their belonging to a different moral order: where new moral rules are shaped, where both money and the otherness are purged of their negative connotations.
This need to cleanse or 'launder' money, spiritually, morally and ideologically, is formulated with remarkable clarity in the practice of an active and successful magus in Moscow, catering for the very rich people, the so-called New Russians. In the marketing pamphlet of her brand new service of 'Business medicine', she says:
Again, it should be noted that this practitioner launches herself as a neo-shaman, the student of the American anthropologist Michael Harner, and thus puts herself into the westernised and globalized ecology of meaning, distinctly different from the traditional, and even the soviet-time Russian one. The analysis of advertisements shows that the magi who present themselves as mastering a non-Russian variety of the craft - Voodoo, Scandinavian runes, American neo-shamanism, or presenting their power in pointedly tradition-neutral and rational-scientific terms, tend to offer services connected to money and business far more often; whereas the people who claim to adhere to the Russian folk Orthodox tradition tend to stress the problems of love, marriage, and family - the traditional domain or sociality and morality.
The claim of this paper was that magic complements money, and market as the impersonal and institutionalized way of money making, in providing the individuals with new channels for mediating agency, lacking after the old ones were destroyed in the process of systemic transformations. In this way, magic and money operate within the same semantic and moral ecology, and are thus structurally homologous. But magic also reflects, and maybe even shapes deeper cultural transformations. Magi construct themselves, and are seen by their clients, as powerful individuals, who can change matter by the power of their mind or consciousness, which they also conceive as one with, or a variety of, the divine Power. Whether or not they really change matter is for their clients to judge. What some of them undeniably start to change is the old moral order, where money and money making are negatively charged. In these practices, money, as a form of social power, does not contradict the new moral system, but is constructed as of one piece with it.
The pivot of this new moral system, however, is a new self, no longer dependent on others and responsible to them, no longer inextricably intertwined with others into one integral whole. Instead, it is a new atomistic capitalist self individually empowered to make it in her own, preferably big ways on the new hard terrains of the Russian 'wild east' capitalist jungle. It is the person wholly individuated, struggling and demanding recognition forcefully and even aggressively, all on her own. What this new self growing on the Russian soil will unfold into, in terms of informal sociality as well as more formal social institutions, is hard to tell. Is it so that the present Russian transformations as with all the previous history of the Russian culture, will fall into the pattern that was summarized, in a famous essay by Lotman and Uspenski, as a series of structural inversions without real changes, on the principle 'plus s'est change, plus s'est la meme chose'? Or is this pattern changing? Is something really new emerging from the crucible of the last decade? Unfathomable are God's ways. Maybe, if we asked Him, or one of the many Russian clairvoyants who claim to see the future, their answer would be, as in an American gangster movies: 'You don't want to know!'…