Originally published in Studio Scum Volume 1 zine (STUDIO SCUM, 2019). The views of the author have changed since the original publication, but it is presented here in its original form.

Over two thousand years ago, priests in ancient Babylon watched the skies for messages from the Gods that would foretell trouble for the empire. Over thousands of years, this practice slowly transformed into one of the most popular (and often dreaded) first date questions: “What’s your sign?”

Today, the Instagram astrology meme account notallgeminis has almost double the number of followers than Babylon had citizens. Common answers to astrology’s popularity include that it acts as a source of meaning and comfort in a harsh world. However, it is often quite the opposite: being born under a certain sign is a meaningless coincidence, and all the signs are equally flawed. From Aries through to Pisces, everyone is secretly emotional, traumatised, romantically doomed, and potentially violent.

It is precisely this depressive trend in contemporary astrology that explains its popularity. There are no rational, causal effects between the position of Mars in the sky at the moment you are born and your sex life. There are also no rational, causal effects between the science of ecology and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s continuation and intensification of deforestation of the Amazonian rainforest, or between the economic understanding that wealth inequality is harmful and continued devasting global poverty.

Astrology does not offer comfort and meaning. Astrology brings the stars down to Earth, but that Earth consists of working a numbing nine-to-five job, being ghosted by sexual partners, getting drunk, not turning up to lectures, anxiety, depression, and painful ecstasy when something finally goes right. Trump is president and Brexit won the referendum. The only thing more irrational than the idea that a Pluto-Saturn conjunction will bring forth radical political change is living under a society that needs such radical political change.

If astrology “made sense”, it would cease to be as popular. Neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and psychoanalysis all provide compelling models for describing human behaviour in a rational, modern, and scientific manner. It is precisely for this reason that very few people have ever read a cognitive science textbook. In contrast, astrology travels within the unpredictability of human life and the brutality of power. “Rational” approaches to the individual, politics, and the human have been failing for decades. Knowledge of the human genome has increased, but the treatment of the humans that genome is carried in has gotten more and more dire through economic inequality, the harsh treatment of migrants and refugees, and ecological collapse going from a potential threat to a lived reality. State and cultural repression has destroyed activist movements, academia has become increasingly orthodox, and once radical art movements have been co-opted into the art industry.

The successes of rationality against these trends are quickly absorbed into the irrationality of power. Power contains its own logics, the patenting of medicines fulfils the pharmaceutical industry’s own logic of constantly acquiring more wealth, for example. But from the perspective of the marginalised outside of that power, such logic is impossible to understand, and all that is seen are huge prices for medicines and cuts to the NHS. Astrology, and other “irrational”, marginalised practices, provide a way of conceiving of the unknowable, mysterious, occult nature of human power, from within that sense of mystery itself.

Maybe the joining of Pluto and Saturn in the sky in 2020 will coincide with shifts in global politics, maybe it will not. However, often forgotten in contemporary astrology is the key principle of ancient Babylonian astrology: when the skies read doom, there will be a ritual that can be done to prevent the worst from occurring. Action overrides the Gods.

Thomas Sullivan is an anthropologist of esotericism.