The Cattle Raid
Yesterday, I marched on Market Street in San Francisco. Today, I worked on the Morrigan statue, and thought about wealth.
The protests, which are beginning to take on the character of an uprising, are about wealth, and the distribution of wealth; they are about the apotheosis of wealth, and its demonization. They are about something much bigger and more subtle than wealth. They are about the way in which wealth has become a vehicle for the undoing of a civilization and the debasement of a people.
I think of wealth, and the symbolism of wealth. From the earliest times, since before domestication, cattle have meant wealth – cattle in fact were wealth before they were a symbol of wealth. They arise again and again in iconography. Wild cattle painted on cave walls. The Golden Calf. The cattle of Catal Huyuk. The Fehu rune. The Irish Cattle Raid. The bull of Wall Street.
It is the last two that catch my attention today. Working on the statue, contemplating the controlled rage against Wall Street that I had observed, I found myself thinking about the Táin Bó Cúalnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, one of the central texts of the Irish heroic cycle.
It begins when the royalty of the province of Connacht, Medb and Ailill, send messengers to Ulster to ask for the loan of their great Brown Bull, Donn Cúailnge, the most excellent and most valuable breeding bull in the provinces of Ireland. Medb and Ailill had a petty argument, you see, over which of them controlled the greatest wealth. Medb was losing the contest, so to prove herself the wealthiest, she had to gain control of the Brown Bull. So: nine messengers are sent to Ulster, and they courteously arrange with the Ulstermen to borrow the bull, and to compensate Ulster with a fair fee of fifty heifers, lands and a fine chariot for the year’s use of their bull. This being arranged, the messengers that evening are feasted by their hosts. During this feast, as the tongues of the guests are loosened by drink and enjoyment, they begin to boast that it was inevitable that the great bull should go to Connacht, “for if the bull were not given willingly, he would be given perforce,” by way of a threat. This arrogance of course outrages the Ulstermen, whose chieftain proclaims, “I swear by the gods whom I worship unless they take him thus by force, they shall not take him by fair means.” Thus the bargain was broken between the provinces, and the hosts began massing for war.
Most people I know do not resent the rich for being rich. Most people I know don’t truly envy the rich – we just want enough wealth to live well. We want a social contract within which there is a reciprocity between labor and capital, between workers and employers, between the financial class and the producing class. A fair deal is what we want, and when we feel we have this, we are able to sit down at table together. It is not the wealth of the wealthy that enrages people – it is not class envy or a rejection of their own part in the bargain. It is the arrogance of their position that enrages us.
If the bull is the wealth of our land and the productive capacity of our people, it was willingly that we would have lent it to them, in exchange for a fair and reciprocal sharing of the benefits it would generate. In an honest agreement we would not have begrudged them the use of the bull, because the sharing of it would enrich everyone. But when they show us that they are willing with a careless disregard to take our wealth and give nothing back – to nationalize losses while privatizing profits – when they laugh at us in our own feasting hall, while dining richly on the best of our land, demonstrating that there was never any intention to negotiate honestly – this is where the bargain breaks.
And so we march.
I think that there is a colossal arrogance which has been at play in the halls of finance and government (which are nearly indistinguishable at this point). The actions of these people in disregarding their place in the social contract display an assumption that there is no limit to what they can take from civilization, and no consequence.
I think they are wrong. We have the position of strength, because there are vastly more of us than there are of them, and what they have forgotten in their arrogance is their dependency on us, our productivity, our courtesy as hosts, and our willingness to allow the taking.
They are a few, and we are a legion. They are in our house. This is a cattle raid: they have come for our nation’s wealth, and have defied us to stop them taking it.
I think they will be surprised.
On November 5, a coordinated day of action is planned, where people everywhere will pull their money out of the big Wall Street banks and move it to local banks or credit unions. What better way to show that we will not let our wealth be arrogantly taken from us while they laugh at us in our own hall? This is not a protest action. It is your right of self-defense. In the meantime, the occupations and marches continue everywhere. I encourage everyone to engage.