The difference between serfdom, as in Russia, and landed property, as in England, and that between the serf and the tenant, occupier, mortgagor, etc., in general, lies more in the form than the content. It makes little essential difference to me whether I own the peasant or the land he works, the bird or its food, the fruit or the tree: as Shylock says:
you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.
The free peasant has, of course, the advantage that he can leave and go off into the wide world; but the serf has this perhaps greater advantage that when there is a bad harvest, or when he is sick or old or incapable, his master has to take care of him.
Poverty and slavery are thus only two forms of – one might almost say two words for – the same thing, the essence of which is that a man’s energies are expended for the most part not on his own behalf but on that of others; the outcome being partly that he is overloaded with work, partly that his needs are very inadequately met.
Illustration by Teun Hocks: Detail from “Untitled” (1998)
↑ 1 The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene I.