Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

Capitalism has its origins in a word meaning “head”. It is the same origin as for cattle and chattel.

Cattle was the earliest major form of movable property. This is the precedent for capital as fungible wealth, that which can be transferred elsewhere, removed and reinvested.

This is also why capitalism and chattel slavery have the same basic starting point. Feudal peasants in essence belonged to the land as part of the an unmovable property, whereas chattel slaves were like cattle that could be moved and/or sold independent of anything else.

In a capitalist society, the opposite of the capitalist is the slave. This is why the original offer in freeing slaves was supposed to be to give them forty acres and a mule. This simultaneously would have made them propertied citizens and capitalists. This is also why, in the end, it didn’t happen. It was one thing to end their overt slavery, but to make them genuine equals in this capitalist society was going too far.

Capitalism isn’t fundamentally about economics. It is about power. Cattle is a cow whose wild ancestors were once free to roam. The same goes for a chattel slave or a wage slave, workers whose ancestors were once free to roam, once free to work for themselves.

No one is free to roam in capitalism, though. And working for oneself is becoming ever more meaningless in an age of globalization. The Commons was privatized centuries ago. There is no where to be free for the system of control is now complete. There is no escape, no undiscovered and unclaimed place to seek out.

That was the first step in creating capitalism as we know it. Before capitalism, the Commons belonged to the People and the People belonged to the Commons. It isn’t accidental that the idea of privately owning land evolved as a legal concept in accordance with ownership of humans as slaves.

The US was founded on the ideal of an enlightened aristocracy and a paternalistic plutocracy, the expectation that the country would be literally be ruled by the owners, i.e., the propertied class. Those who own themselves and own the land they live on are entitled to own the government and hence to own all who are governed. To be a capitalist isn’t merely to have fungible wealth, for more importantly it means to be an owner and to play the role of owner.

We live in a world where everything is owned, where everything (and everyone) has a price to be sold. To be employed is to sell ourselves into indentured servitude, even if only temporarily during specified periods of time. While working as wage slaves, we don’t own ourselves while on the clock. It isn’t just a legal agreement of selling part of our life by selling our time and body for someone else’s purposes. It is a profound psychological transaction, a giving up of freedom, an act that becomes a mindless habit, until we forget what freedom ever meant.

Capitalism is a particular form of social control. Capitalists are those with the capital and so those with the power to control. We the People are those being controlled, the cattle, the chattel.

The system allows us to sell our freedom, but offers no way to buy it back. We are born citizen-consumers, never having been given a choice. We are property of the corporatist state. To demand our freedom would mean theft. If enough people made this demand, it would be a revolt. And if that revolt were successful, it would be called a revolution.

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5 thoughts on “Ask A Cow What It Is To Be Free

  1. When I write a post like this, I wonder two things. Does the subject matter interest most people? Is the way it is written make it seem compelling?

    I love looking at etymology. I really do think it can tell us a lot. I don’t see this post as mere wordplay toward an ideological agenda. I’m not necessarily even anti-capitalist in any principled sense. But words do have great power in shaping not just our thinking but also our perception and more importantly our actions.

    That is what I’d like to convey. But how does one convey the power words have over us?

    This power operates mostly unconsciously and isn’t easily or directly accessible, if at all, to the conscious mind. On a personal level, we can intuit this power and observe its effects. On a scientific level, we might even be able to offer evidence of it. Still, to get others to understand it and care about it is a challenge that may be beyond me.

    Knowing the etymology of the word ‘capital’ may tell you more than a hundred scholarly economic books. This etymology goes to the heart of our entire capitalist society.

    This offers an insight that capitalism is something much larger and deeper than we normally appreciate. It isn’t simply or even mostly about economics. It is about our sense of reality and identity. It is a reality tunnel we cannot see outside of.

    We aren’t merely prisoners of a mindset, a worldview. We are products of it.

  2. By the way, this relates to the notions of freedom and liberty. As I explained, capital and hence capitalism originate from a word that means “of the head”. It is a Latin word. Likewise, the etymology of liberty goes back to libertas, another Latin word. Freedom, on the other hand, comes from elsewhere.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/liberty-freedom-and-fairness/

    Latin was spread in Europe largely because of the Roman Empire. Slavery and liberty were both central notions for Roman society. To have liberty meant not being a slave. It was a passive lack of being enslaved, rather than expressing any particular active rights. Freedom wasn’t considered the natural state, not inherently or obviously.

    Freedom originates from German. To be free had nothing directly to do with not being a slave. It wasn’t about the state of an individual. Instead, the central concern of freedom was community. One could only be free by being part of a community of free people. Freedom was a shared trait, everyone being free or no one being free (at least in terms of the members of a particular community).

    The Southern states were more influenced by the Roman tradition. The real and imagined culture of the South had its basis in the Virginia Cavaliers who settled there after their loss in the English Civil War (including one of my Scottish ancestors). They formed the first slave aristorcracy in the colonies. They also brought Roman ideas because the Cavaliers were largely of French Norman descent, a Romanized culture that introduced monarchy and aristocracy to England.

    The Northern states had a different demographic makeup. This included many Northern Europeans and non-Cavalier British. Most famously, this was symbolized by the Puritan Roundheads, the enemies of the Cavaliers during the English Civil War. But during the revolutionary era, the Northern tradition was maybe most powerfully embodied by the Quaker-influenced Pennsylvanians with their majority German population. Quakers themselves largely came from areas of England that were heavily settled by Northern European settlers (AKA Vikings).

    This is how the ideological and cultural conflict between Romans and Germans, between Southern and Northern Europe was transferred to Southern and Northern United States.

    All of this shows the conflict within American society. It also shows the conflict not just within our political system but also our economic system. We speak of capitalism as a free market, which is misleading. A market can never be free, any more than a corporation can be a person. Only communities of human beings can be free. It would make more sense to speak of capitalism as a liberty market where freedom isn’t guaranteed or required.

    This also relates to the idea of ‘fate’:

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/07/20/freedom-and-fate-in-western-thought/

    Part of this goes back to the strong Calvinist tradition in Northern Europe and the Northern US. As American examples, both Paine and Lincoln were influenced by fatalist views. Freedom and fatalism have an intertwined history.

    As a side note, Roman liberty was personified by the goddess Libertas.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertas

    Libertas was the basis of America’s own goddess, Columbia.

    https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/columbia-goddess-of-america/

    She is found on the dome of the US capital. There is a famous painting of her flying Westward across the continent with schoolbook in hand while Native Americans and wild animals flee before her. The most famous example of her is the Statue of Liberty.

  3. https://teethfeetandfingers.wordpress.com/2018/05/14/mind-on-my-money-money-on-my-mind/

    It is no accident that ancient Greece, the place where symbolic money originated, also gave birth to the modern conception of the individual, to the notions of logic and reason, and to the philosophical underpinnings of the modern mind. In his scholarly masterpiece Money and the Ancient Greek Mind, classics professor Richard Seaford explores the impact of money on Greek society and thought, illuminating the characteristics that make money unique. Among them are that it is both concrete and abstract, that it is homogeneous, impersonal, a universal aim, and a universal means, and that it is unlimited. The entrance of this new, unique power into the world had profound consequences, many of which are now so deeply woven into our beliefs and culture, psyche and society, that we can barely perceive them, let alone question them.

    Money is homogeneous in that regardless of any physical differences among coins, coins qua money are identical (if they are of the same denomination). New or old, worn or smooth, all one drachma coins are equal. This was something new in the sixth century BCE. Whereas in archaic times, Seaford observes, power was conferred by unique talismanic objects (e.g., a scepter said to be handed down from Zeus), money is the opposite: its power is conferred by a standard sign that wipes out variations in purity and weight. Quality is not important, only quantity. Because money is convertible into all other things, it infects them with the same feature, turning them into commodities— objects that, as long as they meet certain criteria, are seen as identical. All that matters is how many or how much. Money, says Seaford, “promotes a sense of homogeneity among things in general.” All things are equal, because they can be sold for money, which can in turn be used to buy any other thing.

    In the commodity world, things are equal to the money that can replace them. Their primary attribute is their “value”—an abstraction. I feel a distancing, a letdown, in the phrase, “You can always buy another one.” Can you see how this promotes an anti-materialism, a detachment from the physical world in which each person, place, and thing is special, unique? No wonder Greek philosophers of this era began elevating the abstract over the real, culminating in Plato’s invention of a world of perfect forms more real than the world of the senses. No wonder to this day we treat the physical world so cavalierly. No wonder, after two thousand years’ immersion in the mentality of money, we have become so used to the replaceability of all things that we behave as if we could, if we wrecked the planet, simply buy a new one.

    I named this chapter “Money and the Mind.” Very much like the fiduciary value of money, mind is an abstraction riding a physical vehicle. Like monetary fiduciarity, the idea of mind as a separate, non-material essence of being developed over thousands of years, leading to the modern concept of an immaterial consciousness, a disembodied spirit. Tellingly, in both secular and religious thought, this abstraction has become more important than the physical vehicle, just as the “value” of a thing is more important than its physical attributes.

    One manifestation of this spirit-matter split that gives primacy to the former is the idea, “Sure, economic reform is a worthy cause, but what is much more important is a transformation of human consciousness.” I think this view is mistaken, for it is based on a false dichotomy of consciousness and action, and ultimately of spirit and matter. On a deep level, money and consciousness are intertwined. Each is bound up in the other.

    The development of monetary abstraction fits into a vast meta-historical context. Money could not have developed without a foundation of abstraction in the form of words and numbers. Already, number and label distance us from the real world and prime our minds to think abstractly. To use a noun already implies an identity among the many things so named; to say there are five of a thing makes each a unit. We begin to think of objects as representatives of a category, and not unique beings in themselves. So, while standard, generic categories didn’t begin with money, money vastly accelerated their conceptual dominance. Moreover, the homogeneity of money accompanied the rapid development of standardized commodity goods for trade. Such standardization was crude in pre-industrial times, but today manufactured objects are so nearly identical as to make the lie of money into the truth.

    Money as a universal aim is embedded in our language. We speak of “capitalizing” on our ideas and use “gratuitous,” which literally means received with thanks (and not payment), as a synonym for unnecessary. It is embedded in economics to be sure, in the assumption that human beings seek to maximize a self-interest that is equivalent to money. It is even embedded in science, where it is a cipher for reproductive self-interest. Here, too, the notion of a universal aim has taken hold.

    That there is even such a thing as a universal aim to life (be it money or something else) is not at all obvious. This idea apparently arose at about the same time money did; perhaps it was money that suggested it to philosophers. Socrates used a money metaphor explicitly in proposing intelligence as universal aim: “There is only one right currency for which we ought to exchange all these other things [pleasures and pains]—intelligence.” In religion this corresponds to the pursuit of an ultimate aim, such as salvation or enlightenment, from which all other good things flow. How like the unlimited aim of money! I wonder what the effect would be on our spirituality if we gave up on the pursuit of a unitary, abstract goal that we believe to be the key to everything else. How would it feel to release the endless campaign to improve ourselves, to make progress toward a goal? What would it be like just to play instead, just to be? Like wealth, enlightenment is a goal that knows no limit, and in both cases the pursuit of it can enslave. In both cases, I think that the object of the pursuit is a spurious substitute for a diversity of things that people really want.

    In a fully monetized society, in which nearly everything is a good or a service, money converts the multiplicity of the world into a unity, a “single thing that is the measure of, and exchangeable with, almost anything else.” The apeiron, the logos, and similar conceptions were all versions of an underlying unity that gives birth to all things. It is that from which all things arise and to which all things return. As such it is nearly identical with the ancient Chinese conception of the Tao, which gives birth to yin and yang, and then to the ten thousand things. Interestingly, the semi-legendary preceptor of Taoism, Lao Tzu, lived at approximately the same time as the pre-Socratic philosophers —which is also more or less the time of the first Chinese coinage. In any event, today it is still money that gives birth to the ten thousand things. Whatever you want to build in this world, you start with an investment, with money. And then, when you have finished your project, it is time to sell it. All things come from money; all things return to money.

    Unlike physical goods, the abstraction of money allows us, in principle, to possess unlimited quantities of it. Thus it is easy for economists to believe in the possibility of endless exponential growth, where a mere number represents the size of the economy. The sum total of all goods and services is a number, and what limit is there on the growth of a number? Lost in abstraction, we ignore the limits of nature and culture to accommodate our growth. Following Plato, we make the abstraction more real than the reality, fixing Wall Street while the real economy languishes. The monetary essence of things is called “value,” which, as an abstracted, uniform essence, reduces the plurality of the world. All things are reduced to what they are worth. This gives the illusion that the world is as limitless as numbers are. For a price, you can buy anything.

    Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition

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