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.

4 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.

    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’:

    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.

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

    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.

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