Astrology Won’t Liberate Anyone
Attempts to build a left-wing occultism are fundamentally unserious.
If you’ve heard of political astrology, you probably believe it’s for fascists.
If you’ve heard of political astrology, you probably believe it’s for fascists.
The 20th-century far right was invested in occultism, and fascists of many kinds were ardent occultists. As George Orwell noted, “A year before the war, examining a copy of Gringoire, the French Fascist weekly, much read by army officers, I found in it no less than thirty-eight advertisements of clairvoyants.” The Nazi interest in occultism was not just fodder for pulp movies and comic books, but a meaningful aspect of their politics.
Beyond fascism as such, political astrology has been associated with the broader right throughout the 20th century, where it shaped political decision-making in powerful and unsubtle ways. Past examples abound: Nancy Reagan’s astrologer set her husband’s schedule. When it became known that former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was in thrall to a self-proclaimed shaman, the ensuing scandal toppled her government.
The critical theorist Theodor Adorno wrote several analyses of the linkages between occultism and the political right, which were published in 1975 as The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, including a critical reading of the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times. According to Adorno, astrology supports the right wing because it promotes an “ideology of dependance,” which views a fundamentally irrational status quo as fated and unchangeable and presents the reader’s responsibility as adjusting to it, thus internalizing their own oppression. Since astrology gave its consumers a false sense of their own power while persuading them to in reality do nothing, it obviously supported the right wing in this analysis.
Political astrology is returning today—but not on the right. Instead, astrology is booming among largely progressive millennials and Generation Z, especially in LGBTQ+ circles, where it is so popular that people who don’t like it can feel like outsiders.
For some people in this milieu, queer astrology is explicitly left-wing. In an article published in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Alexa Winstanley-Smith has written about the possibility of explicitly instrumentalizing astrology’s popularity for far left politics: “It might be asked: perhaps can we help ourselves to the interesting potential of astrology if we simply clean up our ideological commitments and clarify the role of astrology as a methodological resource?”
But astrology’s politics are more complicated than any simple link to left or right. Explaining this means a deep dive into the history of astrology’s relationship to power and modernity. In Europe’s past, astrology could be used for many political aims, whether to support or attack the status quo. In contrast, modern left-wing astrology has not escaped the limitations that Adorno identified generations ago for astrology on the right.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of contemporary leftist astrology is that many of its practitioners do not believe in it. Adorno noticed that astrology was already ironic in his analysis: “so many followers of astrology do not seem quite to believe but rather take an indulgent, semi-ironical attitude towards their own conviction.”
Instead, the adherents of modern astrology see it not as a set of true statements, or even its ostensible purpose, a generator of predictions about the future, but as a way to articulate meaningful narratives about the world and their place in it. Astrology, in this sense, functions similarly to political ideologies. Whereas politicians on the campaign trail promise more an approach to current affairs than a set of accurate statements about them, horoscopes promise a cosmos in which the individual human life has literally cosmic significance. Both are an articulation of aspiration and potential—a guiding promise of how the world or the individual should or could be.
Astrology, not unlike party affiliation, is a narrative we tell ourselves. And thus, its myths and symbols can be reappropriated for political ends. The political gadfly Sam Kriss argues that for astrology to be a leftist force in modern politics, it must be unreal, since only then is it capable of indefinite manipulation: “The night sky has always been the terrain on which we make and unmake our own social reality,” and “[i]f astrology has been pressed into the service of mundane power, to represent a world that can never change, our task is not to do away with it, but to fight for its liberation.”
But in its current state, left-wing astrology lacks the real-life application to be up to the political—let alone revolutionary—task. Adorno argued that astrology is conservative precisely because it expected “from the transfigured shape of society misplaced in the skies an answer that only a study of real society can give.” Astrology inscribed the U.S. social order onto the cosmos without actually analyzing it. Although modern left-wing astrology claims to provide this analysis, it is no less toothless than its conservative predecessor: Instead, it merely asserts that it’s left-wing and leaves the rest as an exercise for the reader. The rhetoric is maximalist, and it leads to no action.
In contrast, Winstanley-Smith writes that the left needs an organizing metaphor robust enough to compete with the right-wing concept of political theology—and she posits queer political astrology as the left’s best bet for it.
Yet Winstanley-Smith looks for a political astrology that is both left-wing and queer in the same milieu where fascist astrology flourished: the hothouse of ideas that was Germany between the wars. Her quixotic search for a “useable history” of queer political astrology takes the form of a close reading of a book by Karl-Günther Heimsoth (1899-1934). Heimsoth was, simultaneously, a Nazi, an astrologer, a communist spy, a gay rights activist, and a friend of Ernst Röhm; in the words of Flann O’Brien, “it was the sort of thing one did at the turn of the century.” This profoundly 1920s Type of Guy was shot and killed during the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge of the SA. It is ironic, but also telling, that the best representative of a queer astrology in this paper turns out to be a literal Nazi, and Winstanley-Smith concludes by wondering if the search for a left-wing political astrology is, in fact, futile.
However, unlike Adorno, I am not willing to say that astrology is inherently conservative—or inherently anything else. Both in theory and in practice, astrology can align with both left-wing and right-wing values and objectives. Some of the best examples of this multivalence come from European astrology’s last hurrah.
Astrology was not primarily medieval in Europe; its last great age—real, nonironic astrology, astrology as serious intellectual heavyweight—was the Renaissance, the beginning of the modern world. During this time, astrology also had political functions, which cannot be narrowed down to simply left or right.
It is perhaps because of astrology’s ubiquity in early modern Europe, at all levels of society and politics, that it functioned not only to support power, but also to undermine it.
Astrologers served as advisors for princes and heads of state, extending their power over ordered nature to guide their clients’ power over other people. Astrology was an essential element of the way the Holy Roman emperors of the 15th and 16th century upheld and exercised their power. Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler were imperial astronomers and astrologers for Rudolf II, Matthias, and Ferdinand II. Kepler also advised the general of the imperialist army under Ferdinand, Albrecht von Wallenstein.
Astrology was not only important for governance because it gave heads of state a way to see into the present and predict the future, thereby guiding their own actions. It was just one part of an entire worldview, the ideas of which had influenced European thought since the late classical period. In this worldview, nature was an ordered system, in which what was larger or more important (the macrocosm) and what was smaller or less important (the microcosm) were similar in form and influenced each other.
The idea was that the elite could improve their mastery over larger entities, such as states, by improving their mastery over some smaller part of them, such as the cultivation of their own persons or handicrafts. This informed a few otherwise unusual and difficult-to-explain activities, including the fad for creating lathe-turned sculptures in ivory. Some early modern beliefs about the cosmos used ideals of a celestial monarchy to make earthly monarchs sacred, ranging from beliefs about Charles V and Elizabeth I to practices such as ritualized dances in which Louis XIV portrayed the sun.
However, in contrast to 20th-century right-wing uses of the occult, which were inherently supportive of the state’s power, early modern astrology was used not only to support earthly power, but also to destabilize it, whether deliberately or by accident. Astrology inspired the Italian heretic Tommaso Campanella to rebel against the Spanish authorities in Southern Italy and write The City of the Sun, a treatise describing a communitarian, egalitarian theocracy. Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II’s mystical practices are well-known, but far from making him a despot, they weakened his ability to actually govern or indeed know what was going on outside his own palace. (Eventually, his brother deposed him.)
The Holy Roman Empire was fractious and heterogeneous, and astrology preoccupied both its emperors in the first decades of the 17nth century and their enemy Frederick V. Rudolf II and Frederick V both used mysticism as one element of their politics, but one sought to protect the status quo and the other to disrupt it. The culture that Frederick and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Britain’s James I, fostered at their court in Heidelberg combined alchemy, astrology, a keen interest in scientific advances, and devout Calvinism. They were “progressive” in the literal sense of this word: they believed in ideas that were modern to them. This mixture of intellectual influences helped contribute to the development of modern science to the development of modern science.
Early modern astrology was used for many political projects. It was neither solely progressive nor conservative because it was so pervasive: Astrology was an organic element of the cultures of early modern Europe. It was intellectually serious, and its seriousness came with complexity: An individual astrological chart was a complicated affair that took days to draw up. Astrologers themselves were political actors, men of the court, and core players in Europe’s self-transformation who took their beliefs as seriously as Calvinism or Catholicism.
In contrast, the modern left’s approach to astrology is ill-suited toward political ends because it is inextricable from the consumer culture it should be criticizing, one steeped in the approaches of fandom. Many modern, first-world astrologers don’t believe in astrology; they’re roleplaying being the kind of people who believe in astrology. In Postcolonial Astrology (2021), Alice Sparkly Kat calls this shaping of something that everyone involved knows to be false but makes the foundation of their identities anyway a kind of fanfiction:
“We look for identity from it. The reason why astrology, as a subculture, creates beautiful community and spiritual validation is not because there is anything special about such an occult language or because it has the ability to glimpse into one’s being in a way that’s different from other identity languages; it’s because astrology’s practitioners and fans have made it our own.”
Adorno noticed this too, arguing that astrology offers “the pleasant gratification that he who feels to be excluded … nevertheless belongs to the minority of those who are ‘in the know.’”
This false empowerment of the excluded is the seductive appeal of astrology for leftists and the LGBTQ+ community, but the formation of one’s identity through astrology is also a profoundly early modern idea.
Historians use the term self-fashioning to refer to constructing your persona and behavior based on admired cultural models. This is related to the influential late 20th-century philosopher Foucault’s analysis of classical and early modern practices as examples of what he referred to as the “care of the self,” the introspective attempt to live according to aesthetic and ethical rules of conduct. Astrology in the context of these ideas is a technique of the self, like asceticism, meditative prayer, or bodily practices such as fencing and dancing: It describes your personality, the situations around you, and your relationships with others, and it provides guidelines on how to shape yourself by living.
In contrast to early modern self-fashioning, modern left-wing astrology exists within a socioeconomic and cultural context in which consumers build identities and communities around shared participation in aspects of popular culture, which Grinnell College professor Ross Haenfler calls “participatory culture.” In this context, it’s probably most accurate to describe astrology as a fandom, a type of self-fashioning based not only on the consumption of commodity goods, but also on their active transformation through activities such as making fanart, going to conventions, or writing fanfiction. In the most pessimistic reading, fandom finds a consumer good and consumes it, and in consumption the consumer finds their self in it, because they put it there. As Kat wrote in Postcolonial Astrology, “I’ve seen queers” laughing with their friends about “being a Leo rising because it makes them feel so seen.”
The use of sun signs as identity types, that you can “be” a Leo rising like you can “be” a Gryffindor, is an excellent example of the consumption of astrology as a product. The modern sun sign system was expressly constructed to be consumed in this way. (The sun is one of the astrological “planets.” The positions of these planets against the constellations of the zodiac are important, as well as their relationships to one another.)
The use of sun signs as a source of identity was inadvertently developed by British astrologer R.H. Naylor when he published the newborn Princess Margaret’s nativity in August 1930 in the Sunday Express, along with some vague predictions of crisis. This Caesarist unification of the masses and the royal was so successful that the Express offered him a weekly column, the world’s first newspaper horoscope. At first Naylor offered advice to people whose birthdays fell within the week each paper came out, but he devised the sun sign system in 1937 because it was faster and easier to give advice to one-twelfth of the population at a time. Sun signs were more profitable because they were mass producible.
A sun sign horoscope is a mass-produced consumer good, and so is any identity you get out of it. According to Walter Benjamin, once the aura (authenticity, one-of-a-kindness, the sacred) vanishes from the work of art, art’s value is based on the demands of revolutionary politics. But modern leftist astrology demands no revolutionary politics; instead, it praises the apparent authenticity you feel from participating in the astrology fandom.
This “feels like” authenticity because it is manufactured: It’s profitable when fandoms enjoy the consumer goods they’re fans of. To the author of Postcolonial Astrology, your sun sign feels more authentic even than class: “Rather than talking about ourselves within the typical categories of race, gender, and class, people want to build community around identities that feel authentic and close.” If I were a leftist, I would argue that your sun sign “feels authentic and close” while your class doesn’t because the culture industry has sold one of them to you.
Today’s leftist astrology rests on the implicit beliefs that the universe is essentially meaningless, astrology’s tropes are projections of the human mind, and they therefore both can and should be rehabilitated for leftism. “As above, so below,” the catchphrase of astrology since the classical period, meaning that the macrocosm reflects the microcosm, where the things that are “lower” are controlled by the things that are “higher,” also implies “as below, so above.” Different leftist astrology fans express this in different tones, from whimsical to edgelord:
From Kay: “As a pseudoscience, astrology is a communal practice and a silly one. …The meaning of the sky comes directly from us. You are the thing that animates heaven.”
And from Kriss: “As above, so below. Those in power have taken this as a normative principle. What is below will have to conform to what is above…through force if necessary, But a liberated astrology, far from discarding this doctrine, should instead take it very seriously.”
The writers of both these examples are consumers: They participate in the astrology fandom by saying that astrology is leftist, that it should be more leftist, or that they are performing leftism by being fans of it, but all this talk—this fanfiction—accomplishes little to nothing. Leftist astrology has no practical leftist function. Adorno’s observation that astrology provides a false sense of empowerment still holds.
If astrology is a technique of self-fashioning, what are leftist astrology fans fashioning themselves into? Postcolonial Astrology divides its audience into categories like this: “millennials or boomers, white or other, queer or cisnormal.” LGBTQ+ people have historically been excluded from the mainstream in many times and places, but they nevertheless want to find sources of meaning in their lives or a sense of community.
Yet the claim that astrology should appeal to LGBTQ+ people (because it is countercultural and LGBTQ+ people are not “normal”) assumes that the queer community is a powerful oppositional political force, around which political astrology might coalesce. Instead, in the modern United States, the LBGTQ+ community seems divided politically. While queer people are embattled in some respects, in other respects they seem to be a part of the U.S. political mainstream—something they’ve fought hard to achieve over the centuries.
Writers such as Winstanley-Smith, who argue that queer political astrology should be appealing because it’s a way to live for groups of people who do not want to occupy “determinate conventional status among the general public,” ignore all this. For these authors, queer political astrology is necessary because it’s not mainstream. But they do not consider that for some gay people, an oppositional political identity may not be productive for its own sake.
Dividing human beings into the “cisnormal” and the “queer” assumes that a dichotomy between cisgender, heterosexual, white, adult, able-bodied, upper-middle-class men and everyone else exists in the first place, and that it is, in the words of Claude Lévi -Strauss, “good to think with.” In this way, these calls for radical queer astrology perform the post-early modern gender binary by claiming to reject it.
Ever since about 1750, astrology’s romantic appeal is precisely that it has been seen as nonscientific. The charitable reading of the claim that astrology is or should be queer is that rejected forms of dealing with the world can be seen as a queering of knowledge, a deliberate embrace of a belief that is marginalized by a people that is marginalized. We could argue that the embrace of astrology, magic, or occultism is another way to accept lived experience—especially marginalized lived experience—as an antidote to the conventional.
This argument fails to take two things into account, and they are important. In the first place, it is referring specifically to modern astrology, which is primarily a consumer product or kind of fandom, ignoring astrology’s rich and fascinating early modern history.
In the second place, and more seriously, it relegates women and LGBTQ+ people to an intellectual ghetto in the name of empowering them. Not every form of marginalized knowledge is marginalized unjustly; some of them are factually incorrect. The argument that astrology is a form of queering knowledge portrays a world in which only straight men can grasp reality, and women and queer people, like children, operate in the realm of whimsy. Men and women, the cisnormal and the gay, are framed as fundamentally different kinds of intellect. This is as rigid and stifling a discourse as anything produced in the previous two centuries. The only difference is that the values have been inverted—this time it’s good to be stupid. What’s worse, the non-cisnormal, in this line of thought, perform their outcast status by winkingly adopting beliefs that are known to their practitioners to be false.
The full implications of this argument’s contempt for the human spirit are probably unknown to its adherents, or else they would not posit it. Radical queer astrology is neither radical nor queer; it’s a hundred thousand pages of “maybe gay men are like women.” Fortunately, it’s also largely powerless.
The astrology that Adorno analyzed generations ago was right-wing. It discouraged conflict, encouraged its female readers to identify with those in power by imagining they were powerful, and shunted all impulses that might be used to create meaningful social change into a focus on the self.
Modern, left-wing, queer astrology is not a radical departure from this past. It does not challenge late capitalism except on its surface level but lives symbiotically within it. Left-wing astrology cannot provide a coherent account of power because the subcultures associated with it are forms of consumer culture, which means that they only thrive within the liberal social order they claim to oppose.
Early modern astrology was an authentic element of cultures that were different from our own. Europeans of that time used it to shape their lives and their conceptions of themselves; to uphold their social orders or to challenge them.
In contrast, modern leftist astrology claims to be a form of dissent. But in the end, it—like the modern sun sign—is a consumer product.
Lucian Staiano-Daniels is a visiting assistant professor at Colgate University. His book on the historical social anthropology of early seventeenth century common soldiers is upcoming from Cambridge University Press.
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