Why are we all so hooked on astrology? Capitalism of course.

Illustration: Pixabay

When I first started feeling anxious about the future, at the ripe age of 17, I began to read horoscopes. The forecasting of the column was consistently dramatic: I would imminently sign a contract, secure a business deal or have a particularly promising romantic encounter. It was grounding to pivot my actions with the astrologers’ words and warnings, and I oftentimes felt like they would validate my feelings of smallness or the ways in which I wanted to succeed materially that month.

Now in my early 20s, it feels like everyone and their dog follows astrology. That feeling is supported by stats: in 2012, just over half of Americans said that astrology was “not at all scientific” whereas almost two-thirds gave this response if 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983 (the National Science Foundation started polling on this question in 1979). And young people are actually those who believe in horoscopes the most, with only 42% of people aged 18–24 in the 2012 study saying that horoscopes are “not at all scientific”. The logic here follows of course the assumption that if something is scientific, it is believable, in our era of atheism. However, in our newer post-truth age, or era in which we feel exasperated at data-driven existence, maybe faith as a basis of belief can be just as compelling as science. In a study published in 2017, 70% of university-aged students polled reported reading horoscopes, and 51% valued the advice, while only 20% believed that the stars can actually impact life on earth. The Cut also reported that traffic on their astrology site had risen 150% in 2017 compared with the year before. Astrology, I believe, has grown in popularity because of the precarity of life under late capitalism. Capitalism has in turn co-opted astrology and used its features to thwart imaginative thinking on alternatives to late capitalism. Unfortunately, the magical deliverances of astrology time and time again make up for its and society’s shortcomings.

Horoscopes were invented by early astronomers of Babylonian. They used other stars to track the movement of our own star through the sky and would seek shapes in the sky to define these movements. Through time, humans increasingly poured meaning into the shapes, to the point that we began to believe that we were influenced by the meanings we gave to the alignment of the sun, and other planets within the sky, at our birth. Wealthy people paid astronomers to read into their signs and predict how the material movements in the sky would impact their own material existences; risk management was central. By the time of the Enlightenment came about, astrology had also lost credibility amongst the elite scientific population, and so subsequently went out of style[1].

In the 1930’s, horoscopes experienced a revival, when a little-known astrologer made a prediction that an important event for the British royal family and nation would occur on Princess Margaret’s seventh birthday. To form, near her birthday, her uncle King Edward VIII abdicated the throne to her father[2]. Interest was suddenly piqued again. This was a period of economic instability and political upheaval, and the remedies for its stressors: psychoanalysis therapy and modernist culture, were inaccessible to the average person, who couldn’t afford therapy or expect to read their angst in a high-brow novel. Newspaper column astrology was a way to receive some individualized concrete advice on how to survive well in the world. Survive well many Americans did, as the country’s economy recovered and grew following the 1930’s until the 1970’s, with the help of demand-side Keynesian economic policy.

Horoscopes are understood as a form of spirituality (or meaning-making) but are not centered on the afterlife, as are many religions. Instead of suggesting the best practices of living for later collective reward (i.e. going to heaven), they dictate how you should best live your life for personal gain. The former point makes horoscopes appealing for millennials who eschew religion for its power structures and the implausibility of its promises. That horoscopes offer forecasts for material outcomes makes them appealing for those of us feeling financially precarious. It is interesting that the last time a poll found belief in the logic of horoscopes to be higher than 2012 in America was in 1983, right after Ronald Reagan was elected president. Regan’s supply-side economic policy, dubbed Reaganomics, was centered on reducing the growth of government spending, the federal income tax and government regulation, and tightening the money supply, all to reduce the stagflation of the 1970’s.

This economic policy was a jolt to the average American and resulted in a widening of the income gap. Industry became increasingly deregulated, and production costs became leaner at the expense of the worker, while simultaneously, risk management for corporations grew and self-help style books on personal finance and gaming the stock market proliferated. Americans possibly leaned away from horoscopes in later years of the 1980’s and 1990’s, as other way to manage risk presented themselves. According to the lastest stats of 2012, four years after the financial crisis of 2008, astrology is on the rise again. Could the reason for its success be the continuation of the supply-side economics as the domination economic policy, which is being confronted by a millennial generation to whom, owing to the growing complexity of finance and lack of finance literacy curriculum, is even more financially illiterate than their parents, while also facing increased income inequality, and the prospect of being less able to purchase the assets that protected their parents’ generation financially?

Studies show that people lean into faith practices when they are feeling insecure. Historically, society might have told you to accept your circumstances and lean into the promise of the afterlife as a balm for your distress. With the afterlife so tenuous, it feels safer to have faith in a fable of perpetual upwards social mobility. But with that itself fragile, horoscopes can feel like a risk management tool. They resonate by outlining the specific instructions for achieving material wellbeing in a competitive world. Susan Miller, the internet queen of astrology with a following of 17 million set to double this year on her website, Astrology Zone, gives advice on material markers of success and safety: career and personal finance, monogamous romantic partnerships and health. That the information is individualized is even more appealing; it fulfills our desire for personalized messaging and suggests our unique advantage over other competitors. The detachment to which many millennials approach horoscopes is also very of the time; the partial commitment mimics the blasé attitude that we take when considering adult activities that feel out of our reach (like owning a house, a car, having a stable job, an enduring relationship etc).

The recent revival of astrology seems to be particularly convenient for feeding two ideologies at our interstice of history: individualism and capitalism, which support the biopolitical rhetoric that maintains our current neoliberal structure of governance. Biopolitics is a term coined by Foucault to define the imperative today placed on individuals to protect their health and wealth, in order to increase the health and wealth of the nation. The value-system of many astrology columns, and the emphasis on individualism in the sign system enables astrology to be a tool for biopolitics; horoscopes pivot people into believing that they are required to individually strive for the capitalist markers of success, such as property, career advancement and secure monogamous relationships. Also, the tendency of horoscopes to offer mystical answers to material problems, using a spiritual bent to efface why the value system of upwards social mobility is valued, is not unlike the base of exploitation, inequality and dispossession contained within the practice of colonial Christianity.

Horoscopes problematically ignore long-term strategy, and community by focusing on the readers’ unique immediate condition (which fluctuates monthly and needs to be addressed). To be profitable, it is necessary that horoscopes constantly change. As a result, astrology turns into a product for consumption rather than a value system. That horoscopes focus on the individual also distinguishes them from collective nature of religion, which in my mind, is a positive aspect of these belief-systems.

Nowadays, even if you don’t believe in astrology, its cultural capital feels considerable. Just as you can knowingly poke fun at the tiny house movement, you can irreverently, and without analysis, kill two absurd birds with one stone by saying that, the president of the United States has done X or Y because mercury is in retrograde. Even if you are safe from needing to believe in astrology, when fact is stranger than fiction, fiction can provide an easy, coherent story. And that this fiction might guide you should your safety nets go amok makes it all the more enticing.

Early Roman philosophers, including Cicero, Sextus and Favorinus, nuanced the idea of early astrology by arguing that there are other materials which affect people more, such as the social and natural fabric in which they were raised[3].This is a bone which I too pick with horoscopes. In addition to their emphasis on limited normative markers of success (a critique philosopher Theodor Adorno made of horoscopes) and individualism, the strict material forecasts of many horoscopes limit the capacity for transformative potential in everyday material encounter.

Instead of meeting material without an agenda, believers of astrology use the authority of astrologists to dictate the ways in which they ought to engage with their immediate surroundings. This both shuts us off believers to the possibilities contained within daily encounters and limits critical thought needed to create a value-system for how to collectively react to events like poor employment prospects, precarious living, social unrest etc. Historically, such critical thinking was informed by religious superstructures. Nowadays in North America, many of us would be free to think and then address our affective encounters in dynamic ways if we wished. The emphasis on individualism and self-interest, two ideas present in capitalism and supported by astrology, impede us from embracing daily affective encounters that might genuinely urge us envision the state of the world differently.

There is immense beauty in the impulse of early astronomers who imbued the state of the world with human creativity, to envision a different value-system. The itch which enables transformation of our everyday material conditions is the salvation of astrology, or any sort of magical thinking, because it veritably can birth a new reality. Astrology also suggests that we are vulnerable to material encounter, though it problematically proposes that only encounters of magnitude (of the planets) can have influence. Such thinking belittles the transformative potential of everyday interaction, making us dependent on readings that predict our future thinking in terms of scarcity more than they can actually guarantee security (such is the ruse of late capital and horoscopes). Instead of thinking narrowly of how we can get ahead, it would be advantageous for collective sustainability to open ourselves to being affected by the layers of strife and joy which we move within every day, and then reflect how we and other material bodies can be bettered and saved within different thinking. On this plane, your breakfast, a new or old friend, and the plant poking up through the sidewalk all become agents of a new futurity. All there left to do is to create a healthier value-system and engage within it endlessly.

[1] https://www.netflix.com/watch/80243764?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C6%2Ce1803992-d117-429a-bf4f-43b914311329-540394360%2C%2C

[2] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-are-horoscopes-still-thing-180957701/

[3] https://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199279128.001.0001/acprof-9780199279128-chapter-7?rskey=U3u9rY&result=1&q=Plotinus

A doctoral student in communication studies with penchants for writing, humour, mountains and trees.

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