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We Need A Unified Pluto Theory For 2021-22

Since September 2021 and continuing through late spring of 2022, the regular retrograde activity of Venus and Mercury and most full Moons are making sustained contact with Pluto... and I've been thinking about what to make of that.

One useful keyword for Pluto is trauma. I think we keep coming back to Pluto in Capricorn over and over again for nine months because we are living with a lot of trauma and are meant to do the single most difficult thing you can do with it. We are being presented with multiple opportunities to stop lashing out and canceling and demanding like children that the abusers heal and love us unconditionally, and recognize that we, the hurt ones, are the only ones who can take responsibility for our own healing, at both a cultural and a personal level at the same time, by behaving differently.

I am throwing out such a wide net and saying that we are all dealing with trauma both because we live in a traumatizing culture and because we create and perpetuate trauma culture.

Capitalism and care are incompatible, and we are making planet uninhabitable and trying to raise young people in it at the same time. In the United States, our collective family system is a legacy of slavery and genocide that repeatedly hurts and betrays and neglects almost all of us. The systemic injustices driven by racism hurt black and brown and indigenous people far more than white people, but they also hurt more white people than black and brown people*. Corporations gaslight us into believing that our work for them is what gives our lives meaning, and have hijacked our priorities**. Want to make the world a better place? You will work harder and make less meaning than you will if you just work in a bank. Philanthropists have convinced us that we must work with them to change the world even though they have no reason to do anything but perpetuate the status quo… and a whole sector goes along with this because the philanthropists have all the money***.

All of this hurts. Not all of us, but most of us. A lot. And it hurts persistently, generating a culture of powerlessness, abuse, and neglect that is not dissimilar to growing up in an abusive family—the kind of family that would leave you with complex PTSD. And what are we doing about it? Well, like many people, myself included, who grew up in a neglectful and abusive home and is now an adult, we are mostly ruining our relationships by acting out how powerless we feel in inappropriate contexts. We fill comment boxes with ire and lash out at customer service representatives. We fire people for using the wrong words. We cancel anyone who does not display an adequate understanding of how terrible things are, and how hurt we feel. All of this reinscribes and transmits the trauma. It circulates the trauma in the culture.

Another thing Pluto is really good at describing is this slippage between the personal and the collective, and the way sometimes really big things can get very small—like the way this collective moment of traumatization might be showing up in your life as a romance, or work you’re doing on your family of origin, or your boss, or your sister. And it goes both ways! Sometimes the smallest things we do, like the rage you might have dumped into a comment section that felt so righteous and purposeful in the moment, take on the weight of the collective moment. They become the very air we breathe.

This slippage is the key to understanding the most confusing of all Plutonian significations—power. We have a hard time talking about it without calling it bad, I assume in large part because we are all walking around feeling more or less victimized all the time. And it is also such a vague word in this context. What I mean when I say that Pluto signifies power is that it signifies the way power is always exchanged, and that exchange is never 100%-0%. Pluto represents the paradox and possibility in power. Every parent knows this! You know that your child is powerless and that you are totally responsible. But you also know exactly how much power your child holds and how she wields it. Artists and creative leaders can use this quality about power, the way it has to be transmitted, and therefore has the potential to transform. Mierle Laderman Ukeles transformed the beaten down culture of the New York City Department of Sanitation in the late 70’s by finding and building power with a simple and effective gesture. She made and kept a promise to touch a class of people who were largely treated as untouchables.

What if we keep coming back to Pluto because we are being given an opportunity to see how flexible power is and how to work with it? What if we keep coming back to Pluto because we can step out of our trauma responses that keep us locked in our powerlessness and transmit the trauma this culture is heaping onto us, and that we are heaping onto one another, and commit to better decisions that could transform that trauma?

Even if we can’t possibly change these larger forces like racism or late stage neoliberal capitalism by changing our own behavior… wouldn’t it feel better?

Because Pluto makes the big things small and the small things big, I do believe that the way all this Pluto stuff is showing up for you in your personal life has the potential to change your relationship to the toxic, traumatized culture we are all living in, and the trauma culture we generate in response to it. Maybe since mid-September 2021 you have been committing to therapy, or quitting therapy because talking about your past isn’t helpful anymore. Maybe you made a conscious decision to be nicer to your partner and quit blaming him for things your parents did to you. Maybe you’ve decided to stop complaining that work is a rudderless ship and started acting like the leader that isn’t there. Maybe you questioned your belief that you deserve and can demand unconditional love from everybody in your present as an adult because you were denied it as a child. Maybe you realized that you are the only person who can keep track of your finances. Any of these personal decisions or new practices might make you see yourself as more responsible for yourself and therefore less powerless. And this might make it easier to see through both the traumatizing culture we live in and the culture of trauma it begets.

*see The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee for more information about how systemic racism hurts black and brown people more deeply, but hurts more white people than black and brown people

**see Work Won't Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe's for more information about the degree to which late stage neoliberal capitalism depends on a culture that values work over things like leisure, care, love, or being

***see Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas for more information about how philanthropy does more to co-opt the nonprofit sector than... you know... help.

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