Originally published in The Mountain Astrologer, 2016.
In any given period, Saturn represents the status quo, while the outer planets represent threats to the status quo. When we track the key angles between these planets, we see the unfolding of humanity’s learning curve: its growth spurts, turning points and breakdowns. Such transits are an astrologer’s best guide if we want perspective on the history-making trends of our times. They allow us to glimpse the cosmic meaning behind societal patterns, culture wars and sweeping global trajectories while they’re happening.
This is information that helps us cultivate a relationship with our era. We do, each of us, have such a relationship, just as we have relationships with people, places and things. The one with our epoch is built into our natal chart: the document that spells out the reasons why we were born when we were.
The cycle of Saturn and Pluto, 38-40 years long, is especially instructive right now. These two planets last conjoined in 1982, and will conjoin again in 2020: a critical transit that will involve not just Saturn and Pluto, but the Grand Mutation conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. We are now in the last-quarter phase of multiple cycles.
The next few years represent a last-dregs period, analogous to the Dark of the Moon — a phase notorious for inscrutability and confusion. The themes of the past several decades are sloshing around in the mass mind like laundry in the rinse cycle. The 2020 conjunction will be a new beginning on several fronts.
To get ourselves off to the most auspicious possible start, we look at our unfinished business from the period now ending, including collective karma that needs burning off.
Saturn and Pluto
The Saturn-Pluto cycle maps systemic changes profound enough to be called radical, in the sense of root-deep. It shows us how, beneath the surface of collective life, reality is being re-structured (Saturn) at fundamental levels (Pluto). When the current cycle got its start, in the early 1980s, Europe was just beginning to cohere into a monetary union (Libra). Now that the cycle is on its last legs, with Greece in danger of splitting off entirely, that coherence has turned into fracture and financial peril.
The USA, too, has been hit tremendously hard. Over the past couple of years, the Uranus-Pluto square (1) has made a grand cross out of the country’s Achilles heel: its natal Saturn-Sun square. Bone-deep problems have been exposed that have been weakening the nation since its formation.(2) At the conjunction of Saturn and Pluto, three decades ago, a series of wrenching socio-economic shifts began, when the Reagan tax cuts and unprecedented increases in CEO compensation started the redistribution of wealth upwards. America’s deficits and debt have skyrocketed over the course of the cycle, while education and other public institutions have deteriorated.
In fact the whole meaning of the public sphere has been transformed. America’s state (Saturn) and corporate (Pluto) interests have now coalesced to the point where the privatization of heretofore unassailably public institutions (hospitals, sports stadiums, prisons and colleges) is viewed by the public as – if not palatable, exactly — grudgingly acceptable. These bastions of the commons have become businesses. Elections themselves have become privatized; that is, linked to corporate money to such an extent as to signify quite the opposite of the textbook definition of democracy.
As political and economic power has become merged and the wealth gap has grown ever more skewed, the essential middle-class character of the USA has broken down.(3)
For a country that has prided itself on its freedom from class distinctions, these trends have struck at the very core of patriotic orthodoxy. Many a commentator during this period has mourned the “death of the American dream.” A basic commitment (Saturn) to fairness (Libra) that was axiomatic (Pluto) in the American self-concept has come to the end of its tether.(4)
This hyper-concentration of power and wealth is not limited to the USA, of course; nor is the rise in consciousness about it, as we saw from the rapid international spread of the Occupy Movement under the Uranus-Pluto square. The cycle now ending has both heightened and exposed the growing inequality in the distribution of Earth’s resources: Two billion people globally now live on less than $2 a day, while, by next year, the richest 1 per cent will own fully half of the world’s wealth.
Humanity will spend the next few years trying to assimilate this reality. As they will with climate change, some will continue ignoring or denying the state of things, and some will react with anger or despair. But some will respond with a new urgency and ingenuity.
Full Moon phase
Transit trackers know that when the Full Moon rolls around every month, issues that have been gradually building burst into full visibility. Accordingly, the Full Moon phase of the Saturn-Pluto cycle, their opposition in 2001-2, reared its head with a vengeance. It introduced into the Western mind the threat of Islamic jihad, and launched a hemicycle that took to extremes the themes inaugurated in the 1980s.
The 2001 transit is notorious among students of the US (Sibly) chart for having singled out the USA, with Saturn and Pluto opposing each other straight across its horizon line. Since then, the country has transformed its approach to war: A state of incessant, continuous warfare has become normal. The military (Pluto)-industrial (Saturn) complex has a new kind of enemy — stateless religious extremists — and a new modus operandi: extra-judicial assassination by drone. We also have a new kind of soldiery, including a shadowy network (Pluto) of mercenaries (Saturn) employed by private agencies (for example, the one formerly known by that quintessentially Plutonian name, Blackwater).(5)
Also since the Saturn-Pluto opposition, corporate bailouts (Pluto) and other examples of a systemic lack of white-collar accountability (Saturn) have grown to surreal proportions. (6) At the same time, there’s been an astronomical increase in the numbers of ordinary Americans behind bars.(7)
Saturn-Pluto symbolism is also evident in the flashpoint that is mass surveillance. Domestic spying (Pluto) by the government (Saturn) is an issue that epitomizes the deep contradictions underlying American democracy in the postmillennial era. (With perverse appropriateness, even this surveillance has become privatized. The NSA contracts out to firms like Booz Allen, the company that employed Edward Snowden.)
When we factor Uranus (accelerated change; advanced machines) into the mix, the character of this period starts to take fuller shape. The planet of invention and abstract thought, Uranus has brought to the fore the wild card that is the I.T. revolution: a historic game-changer that has swept in upon us so fast that we have barely begun to catalogue its myriad implications to human life and thought. Pushed to extremes over the past seven years by Uranus’ square to Pluto – which brings forth not simple change, but irreversible paradigm shifts – this is a revolution that looks nothing like what previous eras expected revolutions to look like.
It was Uranus’ conjunction with Neptune (exact in 1993) that inaugurated the era of universal digitization, a pairing that describes perfectly the early utopian vision (Neptune) that its early users had of the internet (Uranus). And yet, when we consider this revolution in the context of the cycle now waning, we can see the themes discussed above peeking through the glitter and glamour of wired life. It is generally true of a cycle in its last gasp — its 12th-house phase — that its dark underbelly becomes obvious. This is where we are now with the Saturn-Pluto, Saturn-Jupiter and Jupiter-Pluto cycles.
The digital economy has been called the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates (e.g. retail clerks, cabdrivers, journalists). Moreover, these last years before the 2020 conjunction are bringing to light immense concentrations of power and wealth (Pluto) in the tech business (Saturn). It is glaringly evident that the wealth it has created is not floating all boats. Where I live, in San Francisco, a city being transformed by gentrification, a local wag has noted that our booming economy is composed of people doing really well, and people making espresso for people who are doing really well.
Making headlines nationally is the dark side of the “gig economy.” The online service marketplace was initially trumpeted as a bold, new idea: to contract out everyday jobs like grocery shopping, housecleaning and errand running — things nobody wants to do (or at least, the busy entrepreneurs who thought them up — typically young, male and unmarried — don’t want to do them). In fact, these are the kinds of tasks that, in every era, servants have done. Unsurprisingly, most of those hired as “independent contractors” (8) for agencies like HomeJoy are from the same demographic that has always done such work: disproportionately female, poor, and immigrant.
As its creators morph into corporate players, Silicon Valley is turning whole sectors of the internet into the cyber version of a company town. Google, which was famously rebellious and idealistic when it began (its slogan, “Don’t be evil,” was created in 2001, when the Saturn-Pluto opposition was peaking), has been declared a monopoly in six European countries. Facebook, which recently opened a new Washington DC office the size of the White House, enjoys a larger dominance of its playing field than did the oil and railroad barons of an earlier era. As the current multi-cycle draws to a close, even start-ups that were birthed in garages and dorm rooms have begun to invest heavily in lobbying. We can expect this trend to continue. Facebook spent $5.1 million on federal lobbying in the first quarter of 2015, twice what it spent in 2008.(9)
Over the past few years, the stereotype in the public mind of a billionaire has started to shift: from that of an old guy with a mustache and a tux, from the Monopoly game, to a young white dude in a hoodie.
The Saturn-Uranus cycle, 45 years long, generally describes the relationship between the old and the new. The current cycle, begun at their conjunction in 1988, can help us understand the ways in which the old economy (bricks and mortar, print) and the new (digital media, cloud storage) have struggled against and responded to each other.
At the conjunction in 1988, personal computers had found their way into about 15 percent of U.S. households. At the square in 1998-9, 42% of households owned computers, and telephones had started to go mobile. By the opposition in 2010, 68% of American homes were wired.
Saturn, the planet of conventional thought and conditioned behavior, clashes with novelty by definition. But, over time (Saturn), certain disruptions (Uranus) to the norm become normalized themselves: what was aberrant becomes standard practice. Consider the evolution of social media. In the late 1980s when Saturn and Uranus were conjunct, interacting online consisted of a few people experimenting with a new-fangled technology called e-mail. As the cycle approaches its waning trine, we have Facebook, the use of which has become so normative that not being on it is considered exceptional. With 1.35 billion users, almost as many people use Facebook as live in China. (10)
The series of Saturn-Uranus trines between 2016 and 2018 suggests a smoothing out of the archetypal conflict these two planets represent. As a relatively frictionless rendezvous of otherwise incompatible energies, this transit should be a point of focus for those who do energy work; including individuals who address group crises through affirmative intention, prayer, ritual and magic. The highest potential of the trine is to blend the far-sighted vision of Uranus with the grounded clarity of Saturn.
In the context of individual self-search, the transpersonal psychologist Stan Grof has found that this combination of planets provides a safe container (Saturn) within which revelatory experiences (Uranus) can unfold. (11) On a collective level, we can expect breakthroughs in some of the areas where clashes between antithetical forces have trapped each other in a stalemate.
Politically, this trine supports the integration of democracy movements (Uranus) into the structure of government (Saturn). The dialogue between opposing camps in many regimes worldwide should become more fluid, as the forces of stability and experimentation aid and abet each other rather than fighting it out in a zero-sum game. Economically, there is a window of opportunity here for a balancing between austerity (Saturn) and independent doctrine (Uranus), in which context astrologers will have their eyes on Greece, the poster child for the current EU crisis. (12)
In the tech world, what looks very much like a bubble right now (although insiders prefer to speak of “irrational pricing decisions”) has a chance during the next couple of years to stabilize via the imposition of realistic evaluations, preventing what looks to be an eventual industry-wide bust.
A fair balance
We can expect insight to flourish about the Information Revolution as a whole, and a certain perspective to be regained. The digital whirlwind that has thrown the world for a loop should go through a period of relative stability while the Saturn-Uranus trines are active, allowing the world to catch its breath. Such a respite could enable a return of some of the visionary idealism that had the world so excited back when the cycle was beginning: the idea of cyber technology as a democratizing force, for instance, matches to a tee the symbolism of Saturn trine Uranus.
It’s a transit that contains just the right energies to support a big-picture consideration (Sagittarius) of the brand new quandaries (Uranus) this revolution has raised. Advances in biotech, for example, have opened a Pandora’s box of anxious ethical and existential questions that cry out to be addressed, and we will probably see many critiques and academic papers written on the subject. Pop culture will doubtless confront some of these issues indirectly, through movies and TV shows, as has happened recently on the subject of cloning and intelligent machines (e.g. Orphan Black from 2013 and Ex Machina from 2015).
We will be invited during the trine period to grapple with the question of how to handle responsibly (Saturn) and with integrity (Sagittarius) some of the Saturn-Pluto karma the tech industry has accumulated; such as the use by Apple et al of slave labor in Third World countries, and the practice of stashing profits in tax-shelter countries like Ireland. Efforts to regulate (Saturn) the online marketplace (Uranus), such as the legislation now being written to rein in Uber and AirB&B, will be favored. So will the correction of unfair labor practices (e.g. the lawsuits now pending to raise wages and benefits), including the relative absence of women and minorities on Silicon Valley campuses. Also facilitated will be the search for a “fair balance” between the setting of privacy boundaries (Saturn) and the demand for free, unfettered access (Uranus); an increasingly hot topic for sites like Reddit and Yelp, which are now struggling to maintain civility in their forums while steering clear of censorship. (13)
While in fire signs, the trine between Saturn and Uranus will lean towards reform that is bold, fast and actual — not just theoretical. The relationship between Sagittarius (principles) and Aries (high-spirited action) suggests an urge to take seriously the moral dimension of life, while holding on to one’s own distinct approach.
This is very good news where religion is concerned. At its highest expression the transit confers a disciplined spiritual activism that emphasizes independence of thought. This could portend a collective attitude shift, away from the slavish devotion to dogma towards a more original and authentic interpretation of sacred laws. Meanwhile, the secular crusaders of the world – from social justice workers to environmental activists – will have the chance over the next two years to infuse their committed idealism (Saturn in Sagittarius) with a heightened individualism (Uranus in Aries).
It is likely that those involved in consciousness work will find it easier than ever to integrate two fields of experience that often seem incompatible: the spiritual and the worldly. I refer to the apparent incongruity between the part of us that believes in transcendent principles – call it our spiritual self – and the part of us that wants to respond, in a rubber-meets-the-road way, to the crises of the world – call it the social advocate.
The astrologer Caroline Casey refers to the merger of these two aspirations as visionary activism. The mystic and scholar Andrew Harvey calls it sacred activism. Both of these thinkers come from a decidedly cosmic perspective, but one that does not close its eyes to global crises. Casey and Harvey et al are the kind of truth-tellers who advocate a clear-eyed recognition of the peril humanity is in, at the same time that they keep their worldview unpolluted by negativity or fatalism.
For every one of us, the geometry between Saturn and Uranus over the next two years can enhance the integration of the sacred and the worldly. But we need to remember that trines do best with a boost from the will. Those who see as meaningful their incarnation into this troubled world, and who aspire to find a responsible role within it, will find ways to do so. Once espoused, this Saturnine commitment will be energized by the genius of Uranus, which will inspire us with the courage to act.
1 This was the waxing square of a cycle beginning in the mid-sixties, when Uranus and Pluto conjoined in Virgo, opposed to Saturn.
2 I discuss these in “Right Use of Power: The US Pluto Return,” in The Mountain Astrologer, Feb/March 2014.
3 In the late 1960s under Uranus’ and Pluto’s opposition to Saturn, income inequality was as low as it’s ever been since the government began measuring it. In 2015 it’s as high as it’s ever been.
4 The timeline of this Saturn-Pluto cycle corresponds intriguingly to the fate of the Baby Boomers (famously the most populous generation before losing the title to the Millennials) whose aging gave rise to a critical change in the way we see ourselves: no longer the counter-culture, we have become the Establishment. The payroll tax hike of 1983, touted by the Reagan administration as a generator of Social Security surpluses to cover the cost of this huge demographic retiring en masse, coincided exactly with the Saturn-Pluto conjunction. Subsequent financial crises, including the endangering of Medicare, represent the karma of political (Saturn) maneuvers (Pluto) such as this one with Social Security.
5 See Henry Giroux, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: the intersections of politics, popular culture, and new forms of social control in American society, City Lights Publishers, 2014.
6 Among the most notorious examples: No one involved in the fiscal criminality leading to the 2008 economic meltdown, nor in the negligence leading to the BP oil disaster of 2010, has seen jail time.
7 America’s prison population, the highest in the world, has more than quadrupled since the Saturn-Pluto conjunction. The extraordinary embrace of for-profit prisons, which has been all but absent from the public conversation, represents a fundamental shift in approach. The traditional goal was rehabilitation for the public good; the post-privatization goal is to have as many as possible locked up as cheaply as possible. We may see this issue getting more discussion under the square of Saturn (collective responsibility) and Neptune (prisons) later this year into 2016.
8 In the old economy, they were called employees, rather than independent contractors, and stood a better chance of getting minimum wage, over-time pay, workers’ comp, Social Security and the right to collective bargaining.
9 In the last election cycle, Silicon Valley pumped more money into the campaigns for president and Congress than did defense contractors, pharmaceutical companies, the auto industry and Hollywood.
12 The Greek economy, along with many others worldwide, imploded in 2008, at the Saturn-Uranus opposition.
13 See Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Picador, 2015.
14 December 2014– June, 2015; September 2015- December 2017.
15 Uranus will dip briefly into Taurus between May-November 2018; then in March 2019 it will re-enter Taurus and stay for seven years.