The Political Social Ontology of Astrology
Capitalist Appropriation and Worker Discipline
May 9, 2023
Astrology is back. It’s all over Instagram, and even Facebook and Twitter are getting involved. Millennials and zoomers have fallen back in love with the zodiac. One might suggest that this is quite the issue for scientific education: surely, astrology is nonsense. The claim that the location of the stars at our birth, or the current position of the earth in the astrological calendar, has any effect on our lives and characters beyond extremely minor gravitational forces seems clearly, to use a philosophical term, bullshit (Frankfurt 2005). Scientifically-minded people, one might think, ought to follow the 186 scientists who suggested, in the 1975 September/October issue of The Humanist, that: “It is simply a mistake to imagine that the forces exerted by stars and planets at the moment of birth can in any way shape our futures. Neither is it true that the position of distant heavenly bodies make certain days or periods more favorable to particular kinds of action, or that the sign under which one was born determines one’s compatibility or incompatibility with other people” (Bok, Jerome, and Kurtz 1975).
In this paper we’ll offer no defense, or indeed attack on, the claim that there is direct causal action by the stars on human action or character.1For an epistemological defence of astrology, see Feyerabend (1978), and for further discussion, see Kidd (2016). One might read Section 2 as a metaphysical defence of astrology, but note that the metaphysics that we see underlying certain astrological predictions is not the metaphysics endorsed by astrologers themselves. Instead, we’re more interested in the social world that gave rise to, and is being partly constituted by, these astrological practices. We will argue that there is reason to think, given some facts about social ontology, certain astrological predictions about character can be good ones (though not for the reasons that astrologers think). We’ll also look at how this social practice is situated in the social world of late capitalism, arguing that, despite appearances, contemporary astrology does not offer resources for resisting capitalism, and indeed, that it actually serves to reinforce the weltanschauung of capitalist ideology.
The paper is organized as follows. In the next section, Section 2, we will introduce contemporary Western astrology and the particular online practices we are concerned to understand and critique. In Section 3, we will examine the kinds of constructive mechanisms that we take to underwrite reliable astrological predictions. Section 4 sees us taking a detour through the history of capitalism and witchcraft in order to situate contemporary astrological practices in their historical context. Drawing on the lessons learned in Section 4, Section 5 provides a critique of contemporary astrology as capitalist technology and a rejoinder to those who would defend it as a queer practice of resistance.
2. Contemporary Astrology
Modern Western astrology is horoscopic. That is, it functions through the production of an astrological chart, tracking the positions of the sun, moon, planets, and stars at the time of a person’s birth on the understanding that these cosmic bodies have had an influence on that person. Such charting involves setting out which astrological sign each astronomical body was “in” when that person was born—an astrological sign designating one of twelve thirty-degree arcs in the night sky.
Such signs are grouped together into elemental “trigons,” so as to give us four types of sign: fire signs (Aries, Sagittarius and Leo), water signs (Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces), air signs (Libra, Aquarius and Gemini), and earth signs (Capricorn, Taurus and Virgo). What is generally known as one’s “star sign” is (in the world of astrology) technically only one’s sun sign, relating to the position of the sun in the Zodiac at the time of one’s birth. By plotting the positions of other astronomical bodies, one can produce a rather complex chart detailing not only the locations of such bodies relative to the earth, but also the relative locations of each of the bodies themselves.2At least, from the perspective of earth. In reality, even if (say) the moon and Jupiter are in adjacent signs, they will be millions of miles apart in physical space.
Crucially, each sign has traits that supposedly determine the psychological dispositions or temperament of its members. Fire signs are said to be brash and impulsive; water signs are known for their creativity and emotionality; air signs are animated and have a tendency to over-intellectualize their feelings; and earth signs are practical and slow to change emotionally (The Cut 2019). These interact in complex ways with the various astronomical bodies being charted. For instance, one’s sun sign supposedly rules one’s ego, identity and role in life. As such, if one’s sun sign is in Libra, then purportedly one is fundamentally oriented towards justice and fairness, whereas if one’s sun sign is in Leo, then supposedly one is fundamentally bold and proud. One’s moon sign—where the moon was when you were born—determines emotions, moods, and feelings. A moon in Virgo suggests that one’s emotional self is analytical, responsible and pacifying, whereas a moon in Scorpio will lead one’s emotional self to be intense, passionate, and dramatic.
Whilst the popularity of astrology waxes and wanes, we are currently in a real boom time for such practices. Notably, current popular astrological practices have moved beyond the traditional horoscopes of newspapers and magazines: the new astrology is hip, funny and #online. Moreover, it is often engaged in the complex charting practices mentioned above: at least in rhetoric it won’t put up with vague predictions based solely on one’s sun sign (though, as we’ll see, this rhetoric is often not followed in practice). Dedicated astrology social media accounts proliferate and both Gen-Z and millennials are exercising their secret weapon—the meme—to spread the message: we are not in control, the stars are.3Whilst the contemporary renaissance of astrology appears to have kicked off in millennial subcultures, Gen-Z appear to be just as into it as their elder siblings (see Gecewicz 2018).
Fascinatingly, the online memes and astrology influencers promulgating the pull of the stars as a determining principle of human categorization have had wide effects beyond the internet. Take for example the infamous viral case from 2019, when an application from a new flatmate to join a millennial household was turned down because of the applicant’s star sign. The response read: “Hey Christine! Sorry I haven’t responded earlier. My concern is that you’re a Capricorn. Our main goal is to keep things egalitarian, without anyone being “in charge” or domming the household. I love Capricorns, but I don’t think I could live with one… This Virgo/Gemini house is a special place where soft mutable signs get to run free untethered by cardinal authorities” (Paul 2019).
Elsewhere, the pop star Lizzo has sworn on her album Cuz I Love You to never date a Gemini (again) (Paul 2019) and dating sites now allow users to sort their matches by star sign. For instance, the dating application Bumble has published articles on which star signs are most compatible for you in your search for true love. The advice for Cancers reads,
When it comes to relationships, you’re in it for the long haul—which is why earthy Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn are your perfect matches. They get that romance is a slow burn and are dedicated to seeing it through. You share an almost psychic connection with fellow water signs, Scorpio and Pisces. They understand how deeply you feel things, even when it seems like no one else around you can. The air signs—that’s Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius—open your mind to completely new ideas, and it’s always refreshing. You feel a little overwhelmed by the unbridled energy of Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, even if you wish you could have some of it for yourself (Bumble 2022).
Body shapes and parts have even begun to be aligned with star signs. Journalist Amy Larocca recounts a conversation she overheard at a six-year old’s birthday party:
“Mother A: ‘When is Emma’s birthday again?’
Mother B: ‘December 15.’
Mother A: ‘Mm-hm. I thought so. She’s got those classic Sag thighs.’” (Larocca 2019).
So, what is going on here? Astrology has returned to prominence and is affecting the lives of millions. In the rest of this paper, we will explore the significance of that fact.
3. The Social Ontology of Astrology
We are largely uninterested in debate about the correctness, or not, of traditional astrological explanations for the behavior of say, Scorpios. Rather, we want to look at these astrological claims in the context of the social world(s) that we inhabit. Indeed, we suggest that independent of any putative direct causal impingement of the position of the stars at one’s birth, there is good reason for those millennials and zoomers engaged in astrological thinking to think that Scorpios will be secretive, that Geminis will be two-faced and so on. That is, we think that particular social constructive mechanisms will lead to the reification of such categories as social identities through which people frame their own actions and the actions of others. There are two in particular that we will look at here: looping effects and proleptic mechanisms.
3.1 Looping Effects
The term, “looping effect,” was introduced by Ian Hacking to describe the instability of social kinds. Hacking is primarily interested in the ways in which social scientists, in putting forward human categories that can be used in scientific explanation, can have an effect on those who are meant to be captured by the category, thereby changing the very thing that was supposed to be the subject of social scientific inquiry. Hacking gives a number of putative cases of this effect, including that of the child television viewer:
Once we have the phrase, the label, we get the notion that there is a definite kind of person, the child viewer, a species. This kind of person becomes reified. Some parents start to think of their children as child television viewers, a special type of child (not just their kid who watches television). They start to interact, on occasion, with their children regarded not as their children but as child viewers. Since children are such self-aware creatures, they may become not only children who watch television, but, in their own self-consciousness, child viewers. They are well aware of theories about the child viewer and adapt to, react against, or reject them. Studies of the child viewer of television may have to be revised because the objects of study, the human beings studied, have changed (Hacking 1999, 27).
For Hacking then, the work of social scientists changes the social world by producing categories, labels, and associated descriptions of behavior—which go on to influence the behavior of various individuals. On the one hand, there are labeling effects, cases where individuals understand themselves using the label, behaving in accordance with the new category (Scheff 1974). On the other hand, there is Hacking instability: cases where individuals see the new category and reject it, behaving in ways that are at odds with the label (Mallon 2016). Whether the effects of the new categories are labeling effects or Hacking instability, these effects are real changes in the social world, and should our scientists be alert to such changes, ought to lead to our scientists updating their theories in order to better capture the newly changed social world—the effects loop back around.4In turn, the changes to the theories of the scientists produce new labeling effects and Hacking instability as society becomes aware of the changes to the theories and their associated categories, leading to a changed social world and leading to newly updated theories, and so on.
Note that whilst the above from Hacking implies that the categorized must be conscious of the category, Muhammed Ali Khalidi has pointed out that this need not be the case. Writing about Hacking on child television viewers, he argues that the behavior of such children can be shifted without them even realizing that they are being treated as a child television viewer. He writes,
Imagine that in the illustration above, it is not the children themselves who are aware of the theories of the researchers but their parents. Having read reports about the research findings in the newspaper, the parents initiate certain lifestyle changes so as to alter the viewing habits of their children. They cancel their cable television subscription, acquire a public library card, arrange more frequent outings to the park, and so on, in such a way that the properties associated with this category of children change, and with them, the beliefs of the researchers (who are conducting an ongoing study of the phenomenon). Suppose that the children have no awareness that they have been labelled in a certain way, or that some researchers have theories about them. The beliefs associated with the category would still influence members of the kind and alter the properties of the kind (thanks to the behaviour of the parents). These modifications would the “loop back” to effect a modification in the beliefs associated with the category, and so on (Khalidi 2013, 146-147).
The children who were categorized as child television viewers in the above example began watching less and less television, due to the actions of their parents, and the researchers then update their theory of the child television viewer to suggest that child television viewers actually watch little television.
Whilst Hacking and others in this tradition are mostly interested in social scientists producing labels and the effects that these scientific labels have on the social world, we wish to suggest that there is no good reason to think that it is just scientists that can have this kind of impact. Indeed, we want to suggest that anyone with the appropriate reach and perceived epistemic authority can produce labels that have looping effects—whether they be labeling effects or Hacking instability.5Why is this perceived epistemic authority necessary? Well, because otherwise people will not take the label seriously, and therefore will not act in accordance with or defiance of that label. They simply will not care. After all, what reason is there to think that scientists have any special social power here? Certainly, scientists are invested with a certain perceived epistemic authority in our current social milieu, but such perceived authority is not unique to scientists, and, we maintain, those who produce contemporary astrological content are perceived to have a similar authority by their audience.
3.2 Proleptic Mechanisms
Bernard Williams developed the notion of a “proleptic mechanism” to explain the way in which blame can be a mechanism of social construction (Williams 1995). On Williams’s account, blame is proleptic when it makes an agent have a reason that they did not have before. The thought is something like this: suppose that I respect you and want to be respected by you, and I perform some action which you regard as wrong, but which (at least from my perspective) I have no reason to regard as wrong. In such a situation, admonishing me for my action might seem unfair, or harsh—after all, I had no reason to act otherwise. However, in such a case, if you admonish me for my action, you can cause me to have a reason to not perform that action (a reason that I did not have before) because I desire your respect. This is the causal social construction of an (internal) reason for action that did not exist beforehand.6Broadly speaking, an internal reason is a reason that one recognizes in light of one’s goals, desires, values and so on, to be contrasted with an external reason, which is, broadly speaking, a reason that one has regardless of one’s recognition of it or one’s goals, desires, values, and so on.
Proleptic blame functions via “treating someone as if”—one blames another for some action as if they already had a reason to not perform that action. As Miranda Fricker puts it,
Exploiting the envisaged proleptic mechanism involves treating the blamed party as if they recognised the motivating reason when in fact they didn’t (or at least they failed to give it appropriate deliberative priority). Treating them in this as-if manner stands to gain some psychological traction in the as yet recalcitrant wrongdoer, provided that they possess a more general motive to be the sort of person that you respect… it exhibits a social constructive power by which the object of any such communication has pressure exerted on her to move towards shared reasons (Fricker 2016, 176).
What does all of this have to do with astrology? Well, as one of us has argued elsewhere, we can generalize the notion of a proleptic mechanism beyond the realm of blame: “Proleptic Mechanism: The causal social construction of a feature of an individual or group via treating that individual or group as if they already have that feature” (Cull 2020, 58).7This construal of prolepsis eliminates any reference to reasons and blame, but note that it can still capture the proleptic function of certain kinds of blame. Cull suggests that, for instance, we can understand gender as in some respects constructed via proleptic mechanism, and in what follows, we’ll suggest that, along with looping effects, proleptic mechanisms provide a way in which the claims of astrology make themselves true.
3.3 Astrological Applications
Let’s first take a look at how a labeling effect might function in for those who are fervent believers in astrology. Suppose you are a Pisces. At the moment, you don’t tend to do some action that we’ll call “φ.” However, you see a meme on the internet that suggests that Pisces tend to φ.8In contemporary astrology, φ in the case of Pisces will likely be some tendency such as “be in touch with one’s emotions,” “being a hopeless romantic,” or “being creative.” So, you start to φ, because that’s what Pisces do—it’s an important part of your self-conception that you are a Pisces, so you follow the description of behavior given by the meme as if it were a prescription. So, as a result of being labeled a Pisces, where that label has a rich description of what Pisces are like, your behavior is consciously modified to fit the label. One millennial interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald seemed to be conscious of the potential for this looping effect. Elissa Ratcliff stated, “‘I like it as a guide to what my future might hold,’ she says, although she admits she may be guilty of reading her horoscope and then turning its predictions into reality” (Ward 2019).
Now suppose that one is not such a fervent believer in astrology—we can still get a labeling effect here. It is enough that one thinks that astrological claims of the sort we have been discussing have some weight in the accurate prediction of behavior and character.9Anecdotally, we have found this to be the position of most people who are “into” astrology in academia. If one has the belief (after reading a number of Instagram influencers suggest as much) that Virgos generally tend to be critical of others, and one is a Virgo, all we need in order for a labeling effect is for that belief about Virgos to tend one to be more critical. We can easily imagine a case in which one has the opportunity to be critical of another person, but in which one is unsure whether to openly criticize that person. We might think that a thought of the form “Well I’m a Virgo, so they can’t complain if I’m critical” or “It’s excusable for me to be critical—I can’t help being a Virgo!” might cross one’s mind, and persuade one to be open with one’s criticism. In such a case, the labeling effect occurs.
What about a proleptic mechanism? Suppose that a number of your friends, or perhaps just an influencer that you admire, starts to share claims about how Tauruses generally act. They suggest, for instance, that Tauruses are incredibly stubborn, or that they are big fans of indulgence dressed up as self-care. Further suppose that you were born in the Taurus part of the year (April 20th to May 21st). Wanting the respect of your friends, or perhaps this influencer, and being treated by them as if you had reason to act as Tauruses act, you come to have reason to act in the ways that Tauruses act. When it comes to the question of whether one should have a luxurious bath after work, claims of the form “well, I would have a bath, I am a Taurus” begin to make sense to you as justification for having such a bath. Queried about why one had a lie-in, the excuse “Tauruses like me love self-care like lie-ins” will make sense to you. Note that, in these cases, you don’t need to believe in astrology at all—you just need to want the respect of your friends, an influencer, or your wider (internet) social milieu.
What do we take these cases to show? Well, we take them to leave room for a qualified metaphysical defense of certain astrological predictions about character and behavior. Of course, if we are right that these mechanisms are at work, it means that astrologers are right about certain claims for the wrong reasons; the stars don’t play much of a role in our explanation of the correctness of their predictions after all. Rather, the predictions make themselves true via a social ontological mechanism in that we claim that astrology not merely reproduces and maintains old social categories, but also produces and regulates new social categories and ways of being a member of those categories.10Note that this goes beyond Adorno’s claim that astrology fulfils “the function of re-establishing the established order, of enforcing conformity and keeping securely within the existent” (Adorno 2001, 80).
However, even if we are right about this claim, what are we to make of its social significance? Is this kind of construction cause for moral or political concern? And why has astrology returned to prominence right now? If we want a full picture of the place that astrology has in the contemporary moment, we need to look more broadly at the history of astrology, and its connection to current ideological and economic formations.
4. Astrological Capitalism
There is an obvious sense in which the adoption of astrology is a rejection of enlightenment ideals of rationality and scientism. Rather than looking to science for ways of interpreting one’s existence in late capitalism, we might think that the zoomer and millennial turn to an esoteric practice that posits significant effects by the stars and moon on one’s character. One might suggest that this rejection of enlightenment ideals is motivated by disaffection with life under late capitalism, and attempt to return to pre-enlightenment, pre-capitalist practices of unruliness. In this section, we’ll examine this claim by taking a brief detour through Silvia Federici’s analysis of primitive accumulation, or the creation of the wage laborer during the transition to capitalism, suggesting that in fact, the particular form of astrology being practiced constitutes a new form of control by capital that suits platform capitalism.
Federici’s classic Caliban and the Witch is, at least in part, an attempt to tell the story of primitive accumulation and the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe. Part of this story is of course a particular set of changes in the mode of production, such as enclosure and the development of industrial capital, which have been so well analyzed by Marx and his followers. However, Federici emphasizes that primitive accumulation also requires the forceful creation of particular kinds of worker. The average European laborer, prior to the development of capitalism, believed in magic, divination, and occult forces, forces which, Francis Bacon lamented, are antithetical to productivity:
For it may be pretended that Ceremonies, Characters, and Charms, do not work by any tacit or sacramental contract with evil spirits, but serve only to strengthen the imagination of him that useth it; as images are said by the Roman church to fix the cogitations and raise the devotions of them that pray before them. But for mine own judgement, if it be admitted that imagination hath power, and that Ceremonies fortify imagination, and that they be used sincerely and intentionally for that purpose; yet I should hold them unlawful, as opposing that first edict which God gave unto man, In sudore vultus comedes panem tuum, [in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread]. For they propound those noble effects which God hath set forth unto man to be bought at the price of labour, to be attained by a few easy and slothful observances (Bacon 1861-79 Vol.3, 381).
Such superstitious practices are obviously a problem for the growth of capital, which requires a steady supply of workers willing to sell their labor power for extended periods of time. After all, why would a worker subject themselves to hellish conditions in the workplace when the goods they require to live can be obtained by other, magical means? Moreover, workers could not be organized and disciplined when they believed that individuals possessed the magnetic look, the ability to make oneself invisible and the power to chain others’ wills via incantation (Federici 2014, 142). Thomas Hobbes certainly thought so at the time, writing that “men would be much more fitted than they are for civill Obedience” (Hobbes 1985, 93) were their beliefs in such occult practices done away with. These practices were an obstacle to the regularization of the working day and production more generally. As E.P. Thompson notes, the irregularity, or poor time-discipline, of the worker during the transition to capital was the subject of much complaint by capitalists (Thompson 1967). The capitalist’s extraction of surplus value of course required and still requires exacting optimization of the working day, something impossible given the world-view and habits of the underclass prior to the transition to capitalism. As Federici puts it, “Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labour process. How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which every enterprise should be cautiously avoided” (Federici 2014, 142)?
The creation of good wage laborers therefore required the disciplining of workers, forming habits necessary for industrial capital. This disciplining took many forms, from schooling, religious changes, and the introduction of more clocks and watches, to the suppression of non-work activities, and laws such as the “bloody code” that made it virtually impossible to exist outside of the context of wage-labor (see Thompson 1967, Federici 2014). Importantly, such a transformation of the workforce included an attempt to stamp out the magical beliefs of the workforce, and an attempt to replace such a worldview, practices and habits (we’ll call this a weltanschauung) with a scientific weltanshauung.
Federici identifies a central part of this attempt to upend the weltanshauung with the witch hunts that took place in the middle of the last millennium: when hundreds of thousands of people (mostly women) were tortured and executed for practicing, or appearing to practice, various forms of magic. Federici summarizes this social upheaval nicely: “What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, whereby what the philosophers classified as “irrational” was branded as a crime” (Federici 2014, 140).
Thus, the modern laborer is one that rejects a magical weltanshauung, instead operating under a tight regime of time-discipline. Workers now manage their time in work down to the second, and face reprimands even for bathroom breaks that extend beyond an allotted period. Instead of considering Tuesdays unlucky, the contemporary laborer under capitalism carries a smartphone that functions as a clock, alarm, and means by which they access their work.
5. You Better Work Witch
At this point one might suggest that a critical response to contemporary capitalism emerges from this potted history of the origins of our economic system. That is, if capital requires orderly workers who have good time-discipline, then let us become unruly, endorsing a weltanschauung that approximates that of the peasantry prior to the development of capitalism. We might refuse to play the role of a source of reliable labor power, fail to abide by the clock of the bourgeois workplace, and simply be unreliable in showing up for work—doing that which the repression of primitive accumulation was supposed to stamp out. Of course, such a program of resistance requires more than a single sentence sketch, but we might think of this as setting out a general idea to be developed further as this activism takes place. One might then suggest as follows: “Look! This kind of weltanschauung is already being developed in millennial and Gen-Z culture via its endorsement of all sorts of magical practices. Let us look to such a culture, to see if it can offer us resources for undermining capital by making us unruly.”
Unfortunately, we think that whilst millennial and Gen-Z culture has adopted the aesthetics of magic, the culture has failed to adopt any associated form of unruliness. In fact, capitalism itself has noted the demand for divine intervention, and packaged it for consumption. In reaction to the grassroots creation of astrological internet memes, commodities such as birth charts and personal readings are enjoying a resurgence. Lingerie brand Agent Provocateur has run a zodiac-themed event where customers use their Venus sign—the star sign governing love—in order to find their personal lingerie styles, and Amazon sent out shopping horoscopes to its Prime Insider subscribers. It has even been reported that venture capital has invested in the $2.1 billion dollar astro-market (Griffith 2019).11Astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat suggests that despite this, much of astrology is a “fandom world” and therefore astrologers “are not out to evangelize or to grow as the capitalists tell us we should be if we are to stay viable” (Kat 2021, 14). Now, there are certainly amateur astrologers for whom this is indeed the case. However, the mute compulsion of capital is such that for those whose income relies on astrology, evangelising is indeed necessary (c.f., Mau 2023, Marx 1976 899). Were there no customers seeking astrological advice, such astrologers would quickly need to find new jobs. Whether one has a radical aesthetic or a fandom aesthetic, market logic is inescapable. As Federici puts it, “Astrology too can be allowed to return, with the certainty that even the most devoted consumer of astral charts will automatically consult the watch before going to work” (Federici 2014, 143). Moreover, the watch and the chart are accessed—the mobile phone. Indeed, the clock in the top right-hand corner of the smartphone does not disappear when consulting the latest astrology meme on Instagram.
However, in light of the social ontology surveyed above, we can go further than Federici on this point: astrology is, in its contemporary form, not merely compatible with capital, rather, it is the latest form of social control and surveillance, encouraging an orderly workforce, rather than an unruly one. The contemporary follower of astrology finds themselves categorized as a member of an essential category, and behaving in accordance with the norms of that category. Their behavior is readily categorized, and regulated by, the categorization system provided by astrology. This actually mirrors what Federici says about primitive accumulation, wherein “we perceive a new bourgeois spirit that calculates, classifies, makes distinctions, and degrades the body only in order to rationalize its faculties, aiming not just at intensifying its subjection but at maximizing its social utility” (Federici 2014, 139). In contemporary astrology therefore, we find a new version of this classification and distinction that disciplines its disciples into readily accepting categorizations given by birth date. Rather than being unruly, we find the contemporary astrology fan endorses a form of fatalism that yes, Scorpios are shady, and in doing so, helps to make Scorpios shady.
5.1. “Myers Briggs is Astrology for Libertarians”
At this point we can imagine the reader who says something like the following: “This analysis is all well and good–it seems plausible that labeling effects and proleptic mechanisms deliver reified Scorpios and Virgos, but how is this connected to contemporary capitalism? The link seems tenuous at best.” We admit that this worry has some initial plausibility, but suggest that there are three good reasons for thinking that astrology might be ampliative of capitalist relations:
- The categorizations developed leave themselves open to being exploited by capital with the workplace being organized around such categories, one might imagine, for example, companies adopting a model that says one should have no more than four Scorpios in any one working space, and to never let Capricorns manage Virgos.
- The readiness with which astrology fans are willing to subject themselves to and construct themselves with these astrological categories leaves them willing to accept other essentializing categories—including those categories already in use in contemporary managerial practice, such as Myers-Briggs.
- We should not rule out the ways in which this category gets transformed into data to be bought and sold, fed into advertising algorithms, and used to organize work.
The first of these reasons is quite simply the thought that some employers have already begun organizing their workplaces around astrological categorization, and, as more and more millennials (and eventually members of Gen-Z) who are into astrology take up managerial and executive roles, we may see increasing workplaces of this sort. Just as the Myers-Briggs type indicator has been incorporated by managers seeking a social technology to organize the office (more on this shortly), so too the category system of contemporary astrology has become a technology for workplace organization. Take for example, consulting firms in New York employing astrology specialists to train their workers, or the LinkedIn analogue girlboss.com, which features astrological signs alongside CVs (Mohan 2019). Internally, the company Girlboss also features top-down astrology, with their COO Neha Gandhi remarking that “we ask our astrologer to make sure to focus her daily readings on how each sign will fare in their career and in the workplace each day” (Gandhi, quoted in Mohan 2019).
We take it that this sort of adoption of astrology for the organization of the workplace shows that contemporary astrological practices are easily compatible with capitalist production. Perhaps even more troublingly than this top-down imposition of a particular managerial technology, astrological organization of the workplace also occurs in a bottom-up fashion, with workers using the categories to inform their workplace relationships. Describing some of these workplace practices, Pavithra Mohan notes that, “Astrology can provide language and context for social interactions—a crutch to explain away behavior, in some cases, but also a conduit for freer expression. The same can be true of workplace interactions. ‘It affects how I perceive people at work and how I communicate with them,’ Herrera says. ‘I know not to take this person too seriously—they’re not mean, they’re just a Virgo’” (Mohan 2019).
Another of Mohan’s interviewees suggested that astrology is useful as its own form of that ur-office-based capitalist relationship forming exercise, ‘team-building’: ‘The best way it helps in the workplace is bringing people together,’ Denise says. ‘You don’t have to believe in it, but if you do, it’s definitely something fun to bond over. It’s no less real than bonding over corporate sports’”(Mohan 2019). Astrological categories have thus infiltrated many workplaces, both imposed from the top-down by bosses as a part of workplace organization, and developed from the bottom up by workers using those categories to help them navigate their workplaces.12Here we follow Adorno when he says, “By its regression to magic under late capitalism, thought is assimilated to late capitalist forms” (Adorno 2001, 173).
The second reason to think that these practices are ampliative of capitalist relations is to examine how they might affect people’s propensity to adopt other widely used categorization systems. Myers-Briggs type indicator (MBTI), a Jungian personality typology, has been widely adopted by managers of companies across the world as a guide for effective management practices. A recent Forbes article, for instance, suggested that as many as 80% of Fortune 100 companies used the MBTI to guide practices with the aim of more effectively as assembling teams, facilitating communication, motivating employees, driving up efficiency, driving down conflict, and developing leadership (Bajic 2015). Specialists with knowledge of the typology are often hired to advise on how best to manage groups of workers, with particular personality types supposedly better suited to particular kinds of motivation, feedback, and working conditions. MTBI thereby provides a way in which late capitalism uses categorization in order to organize the workforce, where those categories are inborn (see Quenk 2009) and during training sessions are presented as immutable (see Emre 2018 14, though the claim of immutability is denied by Quenk 2009).13We think that it is possible that one might suggest, though it goes beyond the scope of this paper to argue for this claim, that MBTI may operate in much the same, “self-fulfilling prophecy” manner that we have been arguing astrology does. Indeed, Emre suggests, in her account of attending such training, that
What also became apparent throughout the training was that the impulse to treat personality as complete and innate was, in no small part, a convenient way of slotting people into their designated niches in a high-functioning and productive social order. This was another fiction—a dystopian fiction, to my mind— that most contemporary psychological tests continued to trade in: the fantasy of the rational organisation of labor. “The MBTI will put your personality to work!” promised a career assessment flyer one of the college counselors shared with the trainees, a promise that was echoed by the many leadership guides and self-help books that Patricia [the training course instructor] referenced during the week (Emre 2018, 264).
Perhaps in the future, astrology may begin to be used as widely as Myers Briggs by employers, but as it stands, only some offices are organized by star sign.14As we suggested above, it is plausible the number of such offices will increase in the near future. However, if millennials and zoomers are increasingly adopting a category system in astrology that suggests that there are inborn and immutable (essential, if you will) traits, then we might wonder whether this makes them more likely to be amenable, more believing and more accepting of, the category systems widely used in the capitalist office.
Third and finally, we might suggest that if MTBI is the category system of office-based capitalism (imposed from company hierarchy, mandatory surrendering of information), astrology is the category system of platform capitalism (self-proposed, freely offered content). Whilst the title of this subsection is something of a joke, drawn from internet memes, we suggest another (somewhat tongue in cheek) slogan, that “Astrology is Myers Briggs for Google”. Why? Not only is the new astrology platform-based, but it is also a potential source of revenue for the contemporary platform. As Nick Srnicek puts it, in the contemporary market, is “platforms are to remain competitive, they must intensify their extraction, analysis, and control of data” (Srnicek 2017, 97). The third reason to think that contemporary astrological practices are ampliative of capitalist relations then, is that astrology is, qua data, precisely a new sphere into which capital can expand.
Platforms such as Instagram, Google, and Facebook are grounded in the expansion of data extraction: “if collecting and analysing this raw material [data] is the primary revenue source for these companies and gives them competitive advantages, there is an imperative to collect more and more.” (Srnicek 2017, 98). One method for the expansion of data expansion is of course to expand the range of social categories that are relevant and predictively useful. Contemporary astrology, based largely online, provides platform capitalism with an additional dataset to extract. Moreover, and intriguingly, if contemporary astrology’s popularity is based almost entirely on its successful memetic spread across platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat, then it looks as if these platforms have effectively bootstrapped into existence a new form of data for themselves to extract and profit from.15Despite a different conceptual framework for thinking about the contemporary economy, we see this as of a piece with McKenzie Wark when she writes of the move to an information-based economy that, “There is nothing that can’t be tagged and captured through information about it and considered as a variable in the simulations that drive resource extraction and processing. Quite simply, we have run out of world to commodify. And now commodification can only cannibalize its own means of existence, both natural and social” (Wark 2019, 48). What then, is left of the potential for unruliness we hoped to find in astrology? Nothing. Astrology is not merely compatible with capital, it is ampliative of capital, speeding up the reproduction of workers, and expanding the raw material to be extracted by platforms. If unruliness is a potential avenue of critique or disruption, it cannot come via mainstream astrology.
5.3 The Purported Radical Potential of Queer Astrology
If mainstream astrology cannot provide us with the radical potential and unruliness we thought it might, could we perhaps instead look to contemporary versions of astrology arising from queer communities? Certainly, queer astrology often positions itself as fitting with a radical politics, but does this amount to anything more than a radical aesthetic cloaking a fundamentally conservative set of practices?
Certainly, queer astrology certainly rejects traditional astrological assumptions regarding the gendering of planets and signs, and queer astrologers are often the most keen to emphasize that astrological claims should not simply be just generalizations based on one’s sun sign (see Smith 2020). However, for all such claims to the radical rejection of the assumptions of traditional astrology, queer astrology memes often just revert to broad categorizations and stereotypes regarding sun signs that drove much of our discussion of looping effects above. Sure, for the queer astrologer, Cancer might not be considered a feminine sign, and there may not be Cancer traits specific to men and women, but queer astrologers often still happily proclaim that Cancers are clingy in their memes.
Even when the queer astrologer follows through on their claims to more detailed, specific analyses rather than falling back on the broad claims that have been the focus of our discussion, little changes with respect to the looping effects in question. Take, for instance, the astrologer Alice Sparkly Kat’s discussion of those whose star charts feature Mars in Pisces:
Mars in Pisces is not a Mars that makes small and deliberate little steps towards something. It’s a Mars that goes big or goes home. Mars in Pisces is just as reckless as Mars in Sagittarius—sometimes, often, more so.
Mars in Pisces is willing to sacrifice. It’s willing to discard, to give up, and to let go even when we don’t know if there will be more.
Sometimes Mars in Pisces’s tendency towards self sacrifice can be quite cute. We give the better cut of meat to the one we love. We accidentally cut a sandwich unevenly and we give the larger chunk to the other person even though we are very hungry. We see the hardest task when in a group project and we take it on because we know that no one else wants to. We carry the heaviest bag from the store. We do this quietly because we prove that we care about something through self sacrifice (Kat 2023).
It is hard to read this as anything other than a more fine-grained version of the claims with troubling effects discussed earlier in this piece. Sure, Kat isn’t saying anything so coarse-grained as that all Pisces are self-sacrificing, but nevertheless Kat is saying that everyone with a Mars in Pisces is self-sacrificing. Making one’s claims more specific does not escape labeling effects and proleptic mechanisms.
With this said, Kat themselves is a perceptive critic of astrology. For instance, they suggest another couple of potential radical roles that astrology can play:
And I’ve seen astrology bring people together. I’ve seen queers relax and smile when their friends tease them for their Moon sign, laughing along with them about being a Leo rising because it makes them feel so seen… Astrology occupies a healing role in our communities. Folks come to astrologers when they feel stunted in their careers by their lack of wealth, when they feel stuck in relationships where they are not acknowledged, when they seek to process sexual violence, when they are grieving, and so on. Those seeking astrological counselling trust that their astrologer will not diagnose their problems with the individualized and biological framework offered by the modern psychiatric industry (Kat 2021, 9-10).
So: astrology offers community, and a space to heal where one may feel more at home. Certainly these things are valuable—vital even. But there is no reason to think that we need to get these things from astrology. Marginalized peoples can find community with one another in myriad ways, and astrology is only one of those ways. Moreover, what offers healing in such communities is, as Kat is at pains to argue, not astrology at all: “The truth is, the thing that is astrology is not what offers healing to astrology fans” (Kat 2021, 12). Astrology doesn’t heal us. If anything heals us at all, it is community, spaces to air one’s pains and thoughts, the careful and considered advice of other marginalized people, and the overthrow of the rotten systems of exploitation and oppression that keep us down in the first place.
To look at the social world that astrology now inhabits is to recognize the constructive power of the ideas we endorse with respect to ourselves and those around us. But it is also to see that that construction takes place in a material context. That is, a context of capitalist production and social reproduction where platforms are increasingly becoming dominant economic, and indeed political forces.
Of course, we might think that to single out astrology here is unfair—virtually all online activity becomes raw material for platform capitalism in the form of data. Quite right. But note we were investigating the radical potential of contemporary astrology and have found it instead subsumed under capital on all levels: as traditional service to be bought and sold, featuring venture capital investment; as disciplinary apparatus working to classify and create good workers in much the same way as Myers-Briggs; and as the raw material for platform capitalism. What was once unruly and had to be stamped out in the name of capital’s advance, is now merely an aesthetic to be adopted, not merely acceptable to capital, as Federici had it, but instead a catalyst for the continued expansion of capital.16Many thanks to Nancy Dawkins, Kayleigh Doherty, Rosa Vince, Sabina Wantoch, and the editors at Spectre for many great discussions, comments, and challenges.