Karl Marx famously asserted that ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’ (Marx 1970). Whilst these words were first published in 1844, Marx’s theory still rings true today. An abundance of empirical literature determines that religiosity correlates positively with individual insecurity (Paul 2009; Rees 2009; Storm 2017). Moreover, the fact that ‘religious people are more likely to feel economically secure regardless of their income levels’ further validates the claim that religion functions as a respite from stress (Storm 2017, p. 398).
It follows logically that the same can be said for spirituality; like religion it is a belief system which comforts people by giving meaning to their lives. I posit that this is why we have seen such an explosion of interest in astrology in the US and UK among young people since the pandemic hit (George-Parkin 2021). Anxieties over COVID-19 and successive lockdowns have generated a profound sense of insecurity, which the reassurances of astrology can help to soothe. Feeling hopeless? That’s just Mercury in Retrograde. Depression? It’s Cancer season, of course you’re sad. What’s more, astrology apps like Co-Star provide you with personalised daily prescriptions. At the time of writing this, I’m told to ‘do’ coasters, seatbelts (fair enough), and lotion whilst avoiding ‘what ifs’, abandon ship, and black and white. In a small way therefore, astrology makes you feel as if you have control over your fate. This is much needed when the present moment becomes intolerable. But don’t just take my word for it- a study in 2018 confirmed that importance placed on horoscopes has a positive correlation with ‘yearning-for-the-past’, and right now you would be hard-pressed to find someone not yearning for pre-COVID normality, however imperfect it may have been (Sierra et al. 2018, p. 1410). In other words, astrology is the opium of the people.
But why is it that a form of spirituality, as opposed to religion, has been the primary beneficiary of heightened insecurity amongst youth in the developed world? The answer lies in cultural modernisation theory and the process of post-industrialisation. Inglehart and Welzel argue that whilst the transition to industrial society brought about secular-rational values which dethroned religion, post-industrialisation proliferates self-expression values which are conducive to ‘new forms of spirituality’ (2005, p. 30). Post-industrial society entails the shift from the majority of people working in the ‘mechanical environment’ of the industrial sector to working in a service-based knowledge economy (Ibid., p. 27). Whilst the factory work of industrial society is characterised by strict discipline and a lack of autonomy, post-industrialisation conversely makes people ‘intellectually more autonomous, and socially more independent than ever’ (Ibid., pp. 28-29). Ultimately, even religious beliefs ‘become a matter of choice, creativity, and self-expression’, leading to the resurgence of faith as nondogmatic spirituality (Ibid., p. 31). Perhaps then, astrology’s debt to post-industrial society renders it not the opium but rather the OxyContin of the people.
This is all well and good, yet the question remains as to why astrology in particular has become the hegemonic spiritual practice of the developed world. I believe that the answer can be found in neoliberal capitalism. Astrology, along with other contemporarily popular forms of spirituality such as crystal magic and tarot reading, is devoid of normative content and individualistic. This suits well the logic of self-interest propagated by neoliberalism. As Hansen explains, horoscopes often ‘resonate by outlining the specific instructions for achieving material wellbeing in a competitive world’ (2019). This is thrown into stark relief by the recent rise of high profile astrologists selling financial advice. For example, Susan Miller who has 17 million followers on her website Astrology Zone, or Maren Altman who has thousands of subscribers paying as much as $49.49 a month for her weekly livestreams (Hansen 2019; George-Parkin 2021). Additionally, astrology espouses a fixed view of human nature which may serve to reinforce assertions that capitalism is the only viable economic system due to fundamental human selfishness. Unlike comprehensive spiritual belief systems which generally reject consumerism, astrology can hence easily be integrated into the capitalist superstructure in Gramscian terms. Although Gramsci never explicitly wrote on the topic of astrology, it would come under his category of ‘folklore’ which includes ideas such as ‘superstitions, magic, alchemy, witchcraft [and] belief in spirits’ (Gencarella 2010, p. 225). Gramsci believed folklore to constitute the ‘lowest level of popular culture’ which thus feeds into lay conceptions of ‘common sense’ (Ibid., p. 226). Furthermore, despite the development of our ‘human capacity for critical thought’, we always experience ‘a desire to replicate [our] formative expressions’ of folklore (Ibid., p. 239). In this way, the ideological implications of astrology may become truisms independent from the belief itself.
The ascent of astrology, then, is owed not just to its role as the opium of the people. Whilst this provides the reason for its growing popularity over the course of the pandemic, post-industrialisation has ensured that astrology replaced religion in this respect. Furthermore, astrology’s popularity is also due in part to its compatibility with neoliberal capitalist values. Whereas traditional spirituality involves ethical frameworks, astrology solely promotes the furthering of individual success. Therefore, I conclude that the current predominance of astrology is a result of the combination of insecurity, post-industrialisation and neoliberalism. Or maybe that’s just my Gemini Mercury speaking. Not that you can change my mind- I’m a Taurus, the most stubborn sign.
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