Magic and SocietyMagic in the modern society

1. The topic and the theory employed

(I am mainly dependent on Persuasions of Witch's Craft (T. M. Luhrmann, 1989 Harvard UP) in the descriptions of magic in this paper. This book is an interesting anthropological research on contemporary magic in England.)

In our modern society, magic is not disappearing but even flourishing. We can find horoscopes in most papers and magazines which tell us our lucky numbers, lucky colors and other kinds of advice. Because of them most of us know our own zodiac signs. If we want to know more about astrology, there are a lot of books on this topic in bookstores. We can also find many books on tarot cards and other fortunetelling. There are a number of professional fortunetellers and some of them are very influential. It is estimated that about 80,000 people take part in some magical group in the US., taking classes in magical schools, conducting magical rituals and so on. Even more surprising fact is that many of these practitioners are well-educated middle class people. What is the point of these phenomena? After centuries of victory of modern science over magic, why do people keep engaging in these activities?

To answer this question, I take Marxism's view point, especially Marx's analysis on ideology. My conclusion will be that magic is playing a role of an ideological apparatus where religion can no longer play the role. In the course of analysis, it will turn out that economic determinism is not suitable for this phenomenon, so I will end up with some brand of Neo- Marxism.

2. The reason to use Marxism

To explain why I pick up Marxism as a promising analyzing tool, first let us look at what other sociological theories would say to this problem. Weber's theory seems not to be successful in explaining this phenomenon. According to Weber, our society is in the process of irreversible rationalization. Everything is getting more calculable, predictable and bureaucratic. Now, magic seems to be the very opposite of this formal rationality. Horoscope and other fortunetelling are almost the worst way to calculate and predict. There is no sign of developing bureaucracy in fortuneteller's society. Thus, if Weber is right, magic should be the first thing to die out in our society. So Weber cannot explain the flourishing of magic. Similar problem happens with Structural Functionalism and Rational Choice Theory.

In this point, Marxism's analysis on ideology gives us a good insight to understand these seemingly irrational useless activities. According to Marxism, ideology is used to hide the material (mainly economical) conflicts and to support status quo. If we can prove magic has these aspects, we can make sense of it.

3. The analysis

So, the first thing we should do is to find out what is the ideological claim behind all kinds of magical activities. First thing we notice is that now most of these activities are concerned with predicting the future (though some practitioners are interested in magical cure and other more practical use of magic). What enables these predictions? Well, as for astrology, it is some invisible power from stars that rule the events on the earth. As for tarot cards, the cards may not have effect on the future, but maybe the cards have the power to detect such a hidden structure of the world. In both cases, there is some supernatural power acting on our life and deciding future. So we can assume that this is the ideological claim behind the magic.

Now, is this really ideology? According to Marxism, ideology (1) supports status quo (2) hide some real material conflict, and (3) proposed as universal or natural. First, is there any material conflict concealed by the claim? In our capitalist society, our future is actually largely dependent on our current economical status. For example, the real reason you lost job may be that capitalism needs some high unemployment rate. But if you believe in astrological power, the reason should be the position of the stars when you was born. In this sense the magical view plays the role to conceal the real economical reason behind your status quo. If we realize that it is a matter of economical conditions, we can try to change the economical system. But according to the magical view point, it is irresistible supernatural power that rules our destiny, so everything we can do is to accept the destiny. Even worse, people may try to change the fate by magical rituals leaving aside the real economical problems. This seems to support the status quo. Finally, these occult powers are supposed to be universal hidden power behind everything. With these features, we can conclude that the magical view is working as an ideology.

But why does this ideology appeal to people? For now, I can only make some testable conjectures from Marxist's point of view. First, a late capitalist society is controlled by a few gigantic companies, so we keep losing control over our lives. But the society is too complicated for us to figure out this hidden relationship. So, to our eyes, our fates seem to be manipulated by some unintelligible power. This provides a good background to believe in magic. Another possibility is the decline of traditional religions. Being exposed to the diversity in the world, people have realized that the religions they believe as only one true religions are not absolute but just one of many religions. Since the absoluteness is an essential part of many religions, these religions lost a large part of their attractiveness. On the other hand, Marx himself has already noticed, religion plays an important role as an ideological apparatus in our society. So we need something else which can substitute for it. I think that magic is one of these substitutes. Another important substitute is the belief in science, but this is not the topic of this paper.

4. Procedure for testing

First of all, we should find out what exactly is the purpose of magical activities, what exactly is the concerns which drive people to fortunetelling. This will tell us what kind of material conflicts we should find in the society. For example, if their concerns are exclusively love affairs, we should find out material conflicts in love affairs. Now, I still think that economical conditions play important role in love affairs, but it is not deniable that economical determinism does not apply this domain. So if this is the central concern of magic, I should change the above model slightly. Anyway, if we can find the corresponding material conflicts, this will support the conclusion that magic is a kind of ideology.

Next, we should check other predictions. First, if the flourishing of magic is related to the advancement of the capitalist society, we will find that we have more magical activities in developed countries than in developing countries. Second, if the flourishing of magic is related to the decline of traditional religion, we will find some negative correlations between people's degree of religious commitments and degree of magical commitments. Therefore we should compare statistical data about religious and magical population in various societies.

These testing procedures are typically realistic. In this procedure first we make a model and then we check the predictions from the model by observation. There are problems with this procedure, though. First, the concepts like "complexity of society," "religious commitments" and "magical activities" are very vague notions and we need to supplement the vagueness with our intuition to make a concrete prediction. So there is a danger that our usage of the words are biased by our prejudice. Another problem is on the part of people. For example, when they are asked about their religious commitment, their answer will not be what they really are, but what they want us to believe. So we should be careful in analyzing the result. Finally there are many other factors which can have influence on the flourishing of magical activities. For example, science educations in the society may have relation to people's attitude to magic. The more people are educated in science, the less they likely to believe in magic (this is also a hypothesis and we should check it). If this is right, we should watch out this factor when we compare different countries.

To overcome these problems, we need some help of interpretivist approach. For example, we may take part in magical activities and find out the attractiveness of magic by ourselves. Or, we can just ask questions to participants. This may be an interesting investigation, but I do not think that this is better approach than statistical approach I proposed above. For I believe that there are hidden causes behind this phenomenon which are not noticed even by participants themselves (just like the case of suicide studied by Durkheim). Only statistical analysis can establish the existence of such a structure. Therefore, interpretivist approach should play only a supplementary role in my study.