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An Arrangement of Distrust: the Bankruptcy of Caritas and Mutual‑Aid Games in Romania (1992‑1995) (2020-2021)

Field of study: Sociology

This paper tells the empirical story of how the mutual‑aid game (or pyramid or Ponzi scheme) Caritas, went bankrupt, after having acquired nationwide success. I reassemble this story through participants’ testimonies and mass media accounts, focusing on the role of the written press in fabricating, that is, representing, predicting, and announcing its demise. Curiously enough, the written press announces the failure of the game at a point where it is most successful ‑ that is, after Caritas relocates from Braşov to Cluj‑Napoca, operates multiple branches, and animates millions of Romanians into pilgrimage to a city frequently compared to a financial Mecca, Maglavit or El Dorado. I explore the rhetoric strategies used in shaping mutual‑aid bankruptcy, examining how something that has not (yet) happened is organized so as to appear impending. Bankruptcy is assembled by portraying Caritas as “matter out of place” (Douglas
1966), an alien element that disturbs the peace and serenity of a city formerly known for its university campus and intellectual life. Furthermore, illegality is forged out of ambiguity. Since there are no provisions specifically outlawing mutual‑aid games in general, journalists try to undermine them as particular cases. Lastly, the use of numbers completes the rhetoric of bankruptcy. Most accounts include numerical and non‑numerical formulations of the size of the mutual‑aid phenomenon, presenting very precise numbers of depositors, deposits, victims, or financial damage. I highlight the paradox of precision as being more rhetorical than informative.

Keywords: mutual‑aid game, pyramid and Ponzi scheme, financial fraud, bankruptcy, numbers

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