American Materialism: The Elephant in the Middle of the Room

Money as Taboo

Pluto is the planet of taboos. How appropriate it is that the god of Hell is the governor of these festering energies, always in the atmosphere but rarely discussed honestly and directly. The danger attached to these ideas causes baroque mythologies to build up around them, a system of apologias which would provide a fascinating self-study if we had the courage to look into them. In our own natal chart, Pluto’s placement points to issues we may be semi-aware of but rarely look into, because we simply don’t know what to do with them.It is human to resist confronting this realm of the psyche. As individuals, it is difficult to even begin without a trusted, dispassionate guide. We need help negotiating that dark, uneven path, which is why we have therapists and AA groups. But what do whole countries do with their Pluto issues?

For the United States, the big taboo is money. Our enthrallment with the world of matter is something we are all too aware of, but don’t know what to do with. In the USA birth chart (July 4th, 1776, 5:10 pm, Philadelphia, Pa), Pluto resides in the second house, the house of valuables, territory, things of worth. Materialism is America’s elephant in the middle of the room.

Pluto represents the forces of regeneration which manifest as takeovers and makeovers. The second house governs resources and ownership. This placement, whether in the chart of an individual or a country, links the planet of control together with the activity of possessing.


Through this astrological lens we can start to make sense of why money is so central to the American ethos. No other topic is held with such fierce ambivalence: coveted above all else, yet strangely despised. It is rare to hear money talked about in a sober, rational way; instead it is approached with a kind of magical thinking masked in a façade of dead seriousness. Obsessing about money sucks the energy out of Americans from every socioeconomic faction, from the high to the low, the haves right along with the have-nots.If your natal Pluto is in this house, you are familiar with the intensity it puts into your financial dealings. You may have found that your personal karma involves “going through hell (Pluto) and back” as regards earning, selling, buying and saving. Similarly, as a group entity, America is destined to grapple with intensified financial dealings. We are meant to go through economic hell and – if we’re smart – climb back up into the light, having matured as a culture.

Certainly it is obvious to the rest of the world that the USA has a desperately neurotic relationship with money. The problem is that it is not obvious to us. Individual members of a collective inevitably have a hard time seeing the idiosyncrasies of the whole of which they are a part. But as astrologers, we are in a good position to achieve this perspective; and as souls who have incarnated into incomparably perilous times, it would seem that we had the responsibility to use it.

Considering the degree of impact our financial dysfunction has upon the world at large, it is remarkable that more thoughtful analysis is not attempted on the subject. From our frenzied consumerism to our obsession with security, we are fixated on money without any sense of what it means in the big picture.

America has been using her Pluto in the 2nd house like a nonstop partygoer, eating and drinking herself into oblivion and then shopping for the next round.

Pluto’s House Placement

Let’s review how Pluto affects the activities of a given house.What house does your natal Pluto occupy? Here is where you find yourself simultaneously repelled and fascinated by a certain set of activities. You may invest more time and energy into them than you’d want others to know about. Or you may avoid them like the plague. Even activities that would seem to be as rote and prosaic as commuting or using the telephone (3rd house) may be associated with feelings of danger or compulsion. This is not because of the activities themselves. It is because, for you, that house’s activities channel deeply compelling forces. Unprocessed feelings and urges bubble up from the depths of the unconscious, and play themselves out through the activities designated by your Pluto placement.

Pluto in America’s 2nd house does not mean that money and territory are fated to be a problem. Our money issues are merely symptomatic. At issue is our collective karma about right use of power, which gets expressed through the way we use our resources.

Material wealth is not the origin of our power as a nation. But we think it is. That is the problem.

The Pathology of Power

Pluto’s meaning encompasses decay, compulsion and shame. But what does this have to do with power?The placement of this planet in the natal chart shows us where we have been operating undercover – literally (hidden affairs, espionage) or undercover of awareness – and have cultivated, over time, a set of obsessive habits. These take up residence in our unconscious, where they don’t have to answer to criticism.

Psychology tells us that repressed material gains potency as a result of the energy invested in keeping it secret. Astrology tells us that Pluto governs the Dark Mysteries of death and rebirth, which, when tapped, allow us to access tremendous power. But unless mindfully used, that power waxes destructive.

However you explain the potency of Pluto, it is the source of the greatest power available to the chart. And as a first step in getting in touch with it, we have to look at how we misuse it. Does America misuse the power of money? Our country has more wealth at its disposal than any nation that has ever existed on Earth. Where does it all go?

Most of us don’t like to think about how much of the national budget goes to the Pentagon, but let’s look at it with the dispassionate eye of an accountant for a moment. At this writing, one hundred and eighty billion dollars of our money has been spent in Iraq over three years’ time. Whether or not it has been well-spent (killing and maiming innocents, destroying the infrastructure, reducing ancient holy sites to rubble, spreading depleted uranium throughout the air, soil and water, and convincing young Muslim idealists worldwide that Bin Laden was right), let us just try to wrap our minds around that number. We are talking about 250 million dollars a day.

Moreover, we are in debt. Major debt. It is beyond this writer’s capability to conceptualize the several trillion dollars that America is apparently in debt. And how are we making amends? We are giving away money to those who need it least. In a world where four billion people earn less than four dollars a day, our leaders are busy planning additional tax cuts for the already preposterously wealthy profiteers who put them in office. And so far, Congress and the public have been letting them do it.

It is time for America to raise its collective hand, as at a twelve-step meeting, and say: “I have a problem with money.”

Plutonian Cover-Ups

The Plutonian level of the psyche is masterful at covering itself up. Its operations tend to take place in their own little world under their own separate laws, quite apart from our self-image and its laws. Like a cult member avoiding questions from skeptical outsiders, we tend to resent being asked about the area designated by Pluto’s chart placement. We prepare ruses to throw people off the scent. Take another look at your own chart and ask yourself whether you protect your compulsions with stories that wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.When the will to grow is properly engaged, however, we can drum up the courage to challenge Pluto’s blind workings and access its power creatively. This requires seeing through the tales we tell ourselves about why we are riveted upon certain subjects in a not-altogether-wholesome way. The process of transforming Pluto from a destructive to a regenerative force begins with identifying the alibis and obfuscations that the unconscious mind has erected to keep our dramas intact.

In the natal chart, Pluto’s placement by house and aspect indicates our personal myths. In the national chart, it points to our collective myths. It takes a special kind of awareness to see through our own myths. Certainly it will take a great deal more consciousness than we have thus far been using, to admit that — as a nation comprising a mere five per cent of an increasingly impoverished world population — we Americans harbor some rather incongruous beliefs about wealth and entitlement.

Middle Class Bag Ladies

One example of such a myth is the entrenched middle-class fear – currently reaching epidemic proportions among midlife baby boomers — of becoming a bag lady. (A couple of generations ago, the same phobia was expressed by the quaint Dickensian phrase “ending up in the poor house”.) The genuinely indigent do not buy into these pictures, of course; they have their own stories. But among those whose middle-class expectations are slipping, as well as among many who would, by any standard, be described as quite well-off, a peculiar strain of financial panic is on the rise that might be called First-World poor-mouthing.When the stark realities of the world economy are taken into account, we may find ourselves conceding that the bourgeois bag lady threat seems less than dire. Indeed, in the spirit of overall ecological balance, for the American middle class to consider lowering its standard of living just a tad might not be an altogether inappropriate idea. But Plutonian fixations resist global or philosophical perspectives, as nightmares resist logic. Pluto is an all-or-nothing planet and its myths follow suit. The bag lady scenario would have us believe that any lowering at all of our financial status quo will lead to starving in a gutter somewhere, and that’s all there is to it.

This dread of insolvency, even in Americans who by no stretch of the imagination could be considered impoverished, is viscerally and painfully real for millions of people. If nothing else, this certainly goes to show that everything is relative. Of interest here is that tell-tale certitude of doom, a tip-off that Pluto is involved. Those in the grip of this fear tend to defend the likelihood of their imminent poverty with a fervency that rivals that of a trial lawyer in a capital case.

But there may be a covert spiritual mechanism operating here as well. The bag lady obsession seems to involve a kind of reverse projection, by which the American middle class is inadvertently reflecting what is going on in the greater world. Rather than making it our business to address, in thought or deed, the actual destitution that exists almost everywhere except in our own tiny demographic minority, we seem to be identifying with global poverty unconsciously. We are, after all, psychically interconnected. Perhaps worrying about our own future “in the poor house” is the American way of feeling at one with the millions of victims of genocide, AIDS, war and diaspora we hear about daily in the news.

Absolute Control

Pluto is the planet of absolute control. Wherever it is positioned in the chart, we want to dominate and manipulate something or someone. In your own chart, do you detect any of these urges in those areas of your life designated by Pluto’s placement?The positioning of America’s Pluto tell us that in the mass mind, the sharing of resources is a counter-intuitive concept. That is, in the absence of an integrated national consciousness, Pluto will take over our behavior as regards physical valuables and compel actions which fly in the face of the more refined values we harbor as a culture. A consummate example of this drive at work is the “New American Century”, the not-all-that-secret doctrine erected by our shadowy Washington king-makers. This document outlines, quite specifically, a geopolitical and military plan of action whereby our corporate titans would achieve absolute control of the world’s resources. (And here we thought that I-want-to-rule-the-world thing was just a comic book-villain trope.)

Larger-than-life and unapologetically amoral, Pluto’s vision is one of straight-up power; leaving such niceties as social justice and moral responsibility to the other planets. Plutonian impulses are too raw to be expressed on their own. Unless softened by Venus and Jupiter (personal and ethical values) and boundaried by Saturn (civil law), our Plutos wouldn’t be allowed out in polite society. Unalloyed, the planet would get us locked up, or impeached for war crimes (or would, if we had a working democracy).

The Earth Plane

Let us look more closely at what we mean when we use the term materialism, a classic 2nd-house issue.The 2nd is the house that most directly refers to life in the tangible realm, and here we immediately run into the limitations of cultural assumption. Unlike in ancient philosophies like astrology, which divides all experience down into four utterly equal parts (matter, thought, emotion and spirit), in modern scientific thought it is axiomatic that the realm of matter has greater validity than the other realms.

Modern thinkers presume that the nature of physical things is incontestably objective, whereas all other experience is more or less subjective (the New Physics has refuted this, of course, but consensus opinion has been slow to register the news). The language we use to speak about such things tells the tale. An opinion is “only an opinion”, whereas an object “really exists”.

Material things are thought to live out there in the external world, whereas we live in here in our internal world. The barrier between these worlds is seen as an absolute existential divide. Moreover, if the realm of matter has a monopoly on realness, and money is a concentrated symbol of matter, it follows that money is über-real. Ideas, by contrast, are given only qualified credence in our society; usually only marketable ideas are considered “real”. Our poor feelings are seen as having even less credibility. And intuitions? They are snubbed entirely.

With Pluto in the 2nd house of America’s chart, our selective interest in the physical plane is taken to an extreme of slavish devotion. Attention is directed to the material world and kept there, holding us captive to the bizarre assumption that our survival depends upon material security exclusively. Throughout our lives, we are explicitly and implicitly taught that a diamond, or a paycheck, or a stock quote, is possessed of a deal-breaking kind of power, a power that can either ruin us or transform us. We are led to believe that our financial lives are governed by a different set of laws than those that govern everything else.

Quite simply, this line of reasoning doesn’t make sense. But Pluto surrounds its issues with a primal urgency that makes us feel we cannot afford to question even the most blatant theoretical inconsistencies.

Practicality: The All-Purpose Rationale

Consider the much-touted practicality argument, often used as a last word when other justifications fail (“Well, it’s true that I hate the color and the feel and the look of this thing I’m considering buying, but it is practical.”) Pragmatism is used to justify all manner of activities in our society that are neither beneficial nor pleasurable, nor even, sometimes, cost-effective (consider the millions spent on insurance). People describe the most wildly fear-driven scenarios, such as staying at a job they hate, as being dictated by practicality. The term seems to have no meaning except to signal the entrance to Pluto territory.Ironically, it is when using the dollars-and-cents rationale that we seem to be most bereft of common sense. And in no other realm of life do we so disrespect our inner promptings.

Pluto as Button-Pusher

Pluto’s function is to push our buttons, and in this country, money is the button-pusher. All 2nd house activities, from asking-for-a-raise to Christmas shopping, have a compulsive quality that eludes superficial explanations. When the conversation turns to money, even utterly reasonable people are apt to knit their brows and lose all perspective.

Metaphysical Materialism.

Indeed, even aficionados of metaphysics, who are theoretically free of this bias (meta: beyond; physic: the physical realm), can get their panties in a bunch around money. Though we purport to believe that Money is Just Energy, astrologers seem as prone as everyone else to see our financial vicissitudes as oddly distinct from the rest of our doings. We say to ourselves, “This we-create-our-own-reality stuff is all very well when it comes to relationships, maybe, or spiritual search; but, hey — this is about the bills, my job, the real world.”What do we mean by that phrase, “the real world”? Often mentioned with a kind of conspiratorial wink-and-nudge energy, the phrase seems to be insisting on the distinction between the way any sane person would approach the material concerns encompassed by the realm of Earth, and the non-material concerns encompassed by the realms of Air, Fire, and Water. With those other three, it is implied, we have the luxury of applying our fancy metaphysical theories; whereas with this special realm, the material one, we do so at our peril.

It is as if all the cosmic principles we study – the law of correspondences, the phenomenon of projection, the theory that event-follows-belief, etc. – all somehow fail to apply where money is concerned. In this one area, we seem to share with non-metaphysicians the view that we are the helpless victims of harsh, implacable forces.

As we have seen, a theoretical exceptionalism often prevails where Pluto resides. This may explain why so many spiritual seekers, whose faith in an unconditionally supportive God/dess seems otherwise unshakable, speak of money matters as if they were under the auspices of entirely different gods — relatively unforgiving gods, whose caprices render us either lucky or out of luck.

Whether we tell ourselves that we crave or despise material, whether our story is one of paucity or of plenty, it has the same energetic valence. Consider the perfect equality of the phrases “filthy rich” and “dirt poor”. One expresses the presumably shameful presence of money and one expresses its just-as-shameful lack.

There is no way to cultivate a healthy self-image around money if we follow our society’s messages about it. These messages are contradictory — a scenario which psychologists say leads to mental imbalance — yet they are also consistent; for they make of money either more or less than it is, while attaching fantasies to it that lead to disappointment either way. We cannot hope to achieve any kind of financial sanity with a perspective this skewed.

Just as impossible is the achievement of spiritual self-awareness from within this schema. When we buy into the prevailing cultural paradigm, we take power away from our higher self and give it over to money.

Metaphysical Law

The truth is that money and our attitudes towards it are no more a fluke of fate than anything else.The metaphysical worldview is not for everyone, of course, but if it is believed that external events have internal origin and soul-driven meaning, it is surely unfair to deny the 2nd house equal access to universal principles. If karma works at all, it must work everywhere. If it is so that no event in our lives is random, then every event — from the changes in the weather to the fluctuations in our stock portfolio — must be, by definition, complicit in our greater plan.

Moreover, if we believe that there is no such thing as an accident of location any more than there could be an accident of birth time, it follows that every one of us who identifies as an American incarnated into this particular society in order to learn Plutonian lessons about materialism.

This is not the only blind spot in our national karma that we have been given to transcend. But it is the one that is most urgently necessary to understand, because it is driven by the planet of destruction.