Was the Incan Empire a socialist paradise?
The Incan Empire had many amazing monuments and lasting achievements. One of the more fascinating is how the Inca managed to run such a large empire without a market economy.
Of the new-world civilizations that were destroyed by the Spanish during the age of discovery, the Incan Empire is one of the most interesting. Despite not having a written language, wheels, draft animals, or ironworking, the Inca managed to build the largest pre-Columbian empire in the Americas and one the largest empires in the world in the 15th century. They had a refined culture and one which can perpetually amaze those who wish to study it.
The Inca had a Bronze Age command economy
According to Gordon Francis McEwan, in his book The Incas: New Perspectives, the Inca had a most unusual economy—one that would make modern communists raise an eyebrow in curiosity. McEwan explains:
“With only a few exceptions found in coastal polities incorporated into the empire, there was no trading class in Inca society, and the development of individual wealth acquired through commerce was not possible... A few products deemed essential by the Incas could not be produced locally and had to be imported. In these cases several strategies were employed, such as establishing colonies in specific production zones for particular commodities and permitting long-distance trade. The production, distribution, and use of commodities were centrally controlled by the Inca government. Each citizen of the empire was issued the necessities of life out of the state storehouses, including food, tools, raw materials, and clothing, and needed to purchase nothing. With no shops or markets, there was no need for a standard currency or money, and there was nowhere to spend money or purchase or trade for necessities.”
Internally, there was little to no market economy. In the event of shortages of non-vital goods, an area would not correct it by means of buying them from an area with a greater supply. Rather, “regional differences in production were, by preference, handled by means of colonization instead of through barter or trade”. What was needed by a province was produced by that province, though it might take some expansion to be able to do it. In cases of shortages of essential goods, there was state-mandated resource exchange between provinces.
What did this mean for the people living there?
The most notable difference between the Incan taxpayer and the European serf was that Incan taxes were paid in labor to the state and in exchange for this labor the population was given their necessities out of state warehouses. With this large, easily mobilized labor force the Inca were able to build great works of architecture, farm the Andes, build a road network that spanned the empire, and conquer their neighbors.
An eye-level view of Machu Picchu. Notice that the walls have stones which are evenly set. This was accomplished without mortar. That they are still so tightly packed is a testament to the skill of their craftsmen. (Getty Images)
While this system, known as “mit’a”, was essentially a system of forced labor, the Inca state presented it as one of reciprocity. To this end, it attempted to balance the amount of labor each taxpayer would be required to pay and offered those who worked the hardest bonuses in the form of extra goods as payment. Those who provided for the state were themselves provided for by the state.
This system did not apply to the nobility, who managed things without having to offer manual labor. They were, however, held accountable for the taxes received. The ruling elite also theoretically owned the means of production and all the natural resources.
An actor prepares to play the Emperor of the Incan Empire at a festival. (Getty Images)
How could they manage this without a written language?
Despite not having a written language, the Inca did have an accounting system. Quipu, or “talking knots” was a system of representing numbers in a decimal system with knotted strings. Such strings could convey a great deal of information and allowed for the centralization needed to manage such an extensive empire. The road network they built, all 40,000 kilometers of it, also allowed for the transfer of needed goods across their extensive empire in short order.
Quipu or 'talking knots' were "critical instruments of factotums and bureaucrats, an imperial language of record-keeping that helped tally censuses and tribute payments from far-flung communities to the capital city of Cuzco," writes the NEH. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Why would they organize things this way?
Several ideas have been put forward. One is that the key resource for making such a large empire work was quick access to a large labor force and this system allowed for that. Another is that power could be more easily consolidated by having the state control access to resources. It is probable that pre-Inca societies in the Andes had similar systems, so the initial motivation may be impossible to know.
It must also be noted that the archeological evidence is limited and most accounts of how the Incan economy worked are largely based on Spanish observations and the few records kept by the descendants of the Inca. While we can say that the Incan economy was a non-market one, other details become fuzzy and motivations are even more difficult to determine. Of course, despite the lack of a market system, some barter and other methods of internal trade certainly took place.
So did they have a fully functioning, idealized socialist economy or not?
The question of if this represents a socialist paradise or a socialist tyranny remains unanswered. It should also be noted that this system has a great deal in common with feudalism in general and could be viewed as a variant of it.
It must also be remembered that the modern conceptions of socialism and communism are industrial and post-industrial economic concepts and applying them directly to a bronze age civilization is not necessarily possible. A Marxist would probably refer to the Incan economy as “primitive communism,” if that Marxist was inclined to ignore the slew of lords, barons, and the emperors.
The Incan Empire lasted less than 100 years, perhaps evidence that the flame that burns brightest burns half as long. Through ingenuity, hard work, and excellent organization the Inca managed to build an empire with social, cultural, and material achievements that only ended with the arrival of apocalyptic plagues and invaders with advanced technology. Their curious economic system is further testament to their creativity. How it would have evolved if not for the Spanish invasion remains unknowable, but it is fascinating to consider it as it was.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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