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May 2, 1996: An entry from "A Colossal Wreck"

The following is a passage from the late Alexander Cockburn's last book, A Colossal Wreck. It is available here.

May 2
"A loan-at-interest is the only known thing in the entire universe that does not suffer entropy. It grows with time. All other things, ourselves included, fade and die." Those of you maxed out on your credit cards but still making those monthly payments at some outrageous rate know this as well as I (who have learned by dint of bitter experience not to have credit cards at all).

Those first three sentences came from an informative letter that Stan Lusby of Otago, New Zealand, sent to one of my favorite newspapers, Catholic Worker, a while back. Lusby commenced his discussion of capitalism with some personal disclosures. He had, Lusby confided, known all his life that lending money at interest was intrinsically wrong. "I came late in life to Christianity, and it was a great source of comfort to verify my intuition through scripture, although I am now deeply enmeshed in debt, having listened to my peers and not the word of God."

Lusby then supplied a succinct history of the origins of the very word "capitalism":

The word "capitalism" come from "caput tally" or head-count of the slaves. I followed the line of word discovery further, after reading the New English Bible, for it referred to Nebuchadnezzar "investing" Jerusalem with his troops. "Vestment" means clothing that one puts on, but "in-vestment" implies that one has been cloaked-in. It was the Roman word for a military operation for the taking of slaves. Clearly, such a military operation called for a minimum physical injury to a salable commodity and what we now call siege tactics were deployed.

The Military word "captain" refers to the one who counts the heads of slaves. It is used in both the land and marine branches of military. Out of starvation, the defenders "capitulated" (Latin, caput, head). On the long march back to Rome, the captain carved the daily head-count into a horizontal component of the scaffolding of the tent in which the captives were housed at night. Even today, such a piece of scaffolding is still known as a "ledger." To prevent the slaves breaking away, they were tied with a piece of leather called a "bond" to a lone pole termed a "bank." That word survives to this day in the expression "a bank of oars," coming, as it does, from the galleys which were powered by slaves. 

Lusby should have added that the word also survives as "the bank," to which we are held captive by the long thong of debt.

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