Pluto in Capricorn: Astrology, Capitalism, and the Internet

“Your nervous energy won’t be especially useful today.” - Co-Star

“The tendency to occultism is a symptom of the regression in consciousness,” the German philosopher and cultural theorist Theodor W. Adorno declares early on in his 1953 publication, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays. “The veiled tendency of society towards disaster lulls its victims in a false revelation with a hallucinated phenomenon,” he continues, ultimately comparing the meteoric rise of astrology and New Age spirituality in post-war American culture to fascism.

Locating the Los Angeles Times astrology column as his sociological target, Adorno laments the steady rise of astrological interest among the masses – or ‘pop astrology’ in today’s lexicon – as symptomatic of a crumbling world order. Astrology, Adorno believed, was an unavoidable byproduct of the pervasive sense of doom and apocalyptic anxiety spreading like wildfire in a war-torn American psyche. Tied in with rampant consumerism and the inevitable commodification of New Age spirituality, he feared for the capacity of the American public to maintain free thought, when magical thinking seemed to offer all the answers.

In many ways, Adorno was right. The first newspaper astrology column appeared in the summer of 1930 in the wake of the stock market crash that would eventually lead into the 1933 Great Depression. The occasion of this star-lined spread? Princess Margaret’s birthday. With “What The Stars Foretell For The New Princess”, the British tabloid Sunday Express inadvertently birthed an essential insert for today’s popular press, in effect cementing together an event of national hope with the provision of cosmic guidance in dark times.

Fast forward almost a century and we’re in an equally dismal socio-economic apocalypse. Authoritarian governments and far-right politics are the new normal in a world hit with back-to-back climate crises. Earthquakes, hurricanes, and uncontrollable wildfires play out in an infinite loop atop a mass pandemic with no discernable end. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New Age belief systems are once again on the rise. After spending several decades out of the limelight as the routine pastime of aging counterculturalists of the 60s and 70s and quirky cape-wearing aunties, astrology has swung back into popular appeal. (A 2017 Pew Report revealed that one in every three Americans believes in astrology, and 60% ascribe to some kind of New Age spiritual belief.) In the past two years, the membership of the Association for Young Astrologers has more than doubled. Co-star, an AI-enabled daily horoscope app founded in 2017 with $6 billion in investment capital, has over five million registered accounts and counting.

Prominent astrologists cite the general shitshow of 2016 as a major turning point in astrology’s return from recent obscurity (as a 2,500-year-old practice, its popularity tends to wax and wane). Brexit in the UK followed by Trump’s election in the US were two deep psychic rifts in the general liberal order of the western world, revealing a neo-nationalist politics that had been brewing beneath the surface for some time. For millennials, many of whom had yet to find stable ground from the 2008 financial crash, this regressive twist was a particularly dark premonition of things to come. Women, queer, and BIPOC groups, who overwhelmingly felt the impacts of the recession harder than their white male counterparts, were key adopters of astrology in the earlier portion of its revival (2009 - 2015) and remain a large majority of the astrological community today. Over the past five years, the continued decline of organized religion, increasing economic precariousness, and near-constant political turmoil fissured to create an overwhelming mood of helplessness and nonsensicality on an international scale. During this time, the superstructures taken for granted as permanent fixtures of contemporary life under capitalism began to crumble. Millennials were seeking alternative systems to believe in, new communities to be a part of, and a deeper logic that could explain or at least alleviate the burden of everything feeling so fucked, all of the time.

Adorno feared the cyclonic impact that the cultural commodification of late capitalism could have when mixed with a resurgent interest in New Age spirituality, but even he could not have fathomed the tectonic influence of the Internet and new smart technologies on elevating astrology to a popular aesthetic and business strategy. It is no coincidence that the ascent of pop astrology overlaps with the lifestyle-centered social media app, Instagram, and the mass popularization of the iPhone by 2010. Through Co-Star and over 200 other astrology-themed apps available on Apple’s App Store, astrology has never been more accessible to the public. The once arduous process of drawing up one’s star chart can now be done in seconds by AI that merges NASA data with the insight of human astrologers. Once relegated to the fringes of society, it’s now easier than ever to discover a community of likeminded believers – and isolate oneself from those the algorithmic overlord deems incompatible.

From meme accounts like @thezodiacstea (1.3m followers), glossy_zodiac (4m followers), and @notallgeminis (540k followers), which present humorous if simplistic reading of sun signs in easy-to-digest visual formats, to astrology-themed dating apps, such as the failed app Align (established in 2015, before venture capitalists were willing to hop on the astrological bandwagon circa 2017), it would seem our social circles, lifestyles, and views of others are increasingly influenced by the alignment of the stars – or the whims of an app.

Today, astrology is valued as a $2 billion industry. Investors are pouring money into the so-called “mystical services market”, which largely clusters around apps, e-commerce, and other digital marketplace activity. Sanctuary, a rival to Co-Star that refers to itself as “Uber for astrological readings,” offers a monthly one-on-one text consultation with an astrologer and daily horoscopes for $20/month. “It’s like therapy, but less work, and cheaper,” one user suggests. Converging with the wellness industry, but less opposed to its own profitability than, say, meditation, pop astrology sees no conflict between participating in capitalism while aligning itself with anti-capitalist principles of fate and alternative lifestyles. Some astrologists go further. For $225, Kelly’s Astrology, a Belgium-based subsidiary of Raven Dreams Productions, LLC, offers an Astrology Business Bootcamp. Last summer, the wildly popular peroxide blonde duo AstroTwins offered Astropreneurs Summer Camp, a 7-week-long course that promised professional advice based on your star chart. Tickets ran at $111 per head.

Astrology also benefits from having a pretense of being social, making it an attractive investment in our current chapter of lifestyle-oriented late capitalism. As high-grossing sectors like build-to-rent housing are beginning to pivot towards a lifestyle focus, could astrology scale up to influence urban planning and the rental housing economy? Might a gated community of astrologically-attuned middle-class millennials be written in the stars? This is the speculative future scenario from which Align Properties departs. Compacted with the pervasive loneliness and anxiety felt by millennial urbanites, for whom astrology already acts as a kind of cosmic salve, this far-flung scenario is not so far off contemporary astro-capitalism. The social psychology of millennial urban renters seems to already be leaning in this direction: last year, a news story about a would-be roommate turned away on the basis of being 'astrologically incompatible' with potential roommates went viral. (“My concern is that you’re a Capricorn,” read the rejection text. “This Virgo / Gemini house is a special place where soft mutable signs get to run free untethered by cardinal authorities.”)

Taking the failed astrology dating app Align, which manifested too soon for its time, and fissuring it with the advertising campaign of Tipi, a lifestyle-focused build-to-rent developer already active in London, Align Properties is a semi-fictional exploration of this scenario. It imagines Tipi’s £2 billion, 85-acre “republic of living” in London’s Wembley Park neighborhood – a space left for dead a decade ago and since regenerated by the British developer – as an elite community of astro-enthusiasts. Tipi itself is owned by Lone Star, a multi-billion-dollar American private equity conglomerate that invests in distressed assets internationally. The company utilizes revolutionary, Che Guevara-style branding coupled with middle-class fancy comforts – rooftop cinemas and complimentary yoga classes – to vend its fully kitted out apartments with cable, wifi, and bills included in a single monthly payment that’s almost double the average cost of renting in London. Align Properties picks up where Tipi left off, imagining cosmic enemies and curated social activities for the astrology generation that’s fully sublimated into late-stage capitalism.

Since its origins in ancient Mesopotamia, astrology has always been a double-edged sword. Both generative and damning, astrology is able to augur opportunity and order while judging the essence of someone’s character and fate with a single look at the stars. With all the emphasis on finding one’s “most authentic self” in wellness culture and neoliberal identity politics under advanced capitalism, astrology is increasingly being used as a tool to understand one’s flaws without putting in the necessary work of correcting them. (“I can’t help it, I’m a Pisces,” is a valid rebuttal against criticisms of emotional unavailability or gaslighting one’s partner, while “Mercury’s in retrograde,” is the perfect excuse for being a shitty person or performing shitty actions for weeks at a time.) More simply put, astrology offers us the gratification of instant self-awareness with none of the costly baggage of, say, cognitive behavioral therapy.

Pop astrology presents its adherents with the ability to gauge someone’s essence quickly and efficiently based on their star chart (as if predicting a secondary market for this quasi-spiritual DNA, Co-Star allows its users to peep at their friends charts, for a $2.99 premium a head). Seasoned astrologists question the authenticity of the app’s instantaneous AI-generated readings (most recently, Co-Star went under fire for allegedly encouraging some of its users to break social distancing guidelines in a daily horoscope reading) and wonder if pop-astrology in the present is causing more harm than good. Astrology is perhaps the model business for wellness capitalism, by restricting social relationships to homogenous thought and limiting individual growth to create a frictionless sense of self, all while it portends to do the opposite. What’s to say a luxury developer whose entire business model is based around gentrification, inflation, and pushing local communities out of their homes in the name of enterprise won’t use the stars to the same ends?

Essay commissioned by Joana Pestana for Scrolling the Arcane.


(Published on: Scrolling the Arcane )