The Incas and soft power

The Incas: Lords of the Four Quarters
Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen
2017, Thames & Hudson
265 pages, plates, paperback

EMPIRES are never good, but somehow we make exceptions for the ancient empires that disappeared beneath the juggernaut of European Conquest, enchanted by their cosmological mystique in a world shaped by dreary modernity.

Those exceptions fuel the imaginations of brilliant scholars who recreate societies of almost inconceivable grandeur that would otherwise be lost to the folkloric margins of tourism and nostalgia.

Scholarship of the Inca empire is a good example of this attraction, which at the same time reveals how the contemporary study of imperialism is a product of Marxism that, by definition, has ignored pre-modern societies.

However, there is huge potential for new lines of inquiry, derived from Marxism, that can explore the similarities of such powerful proto-states with their modern peers. Along those lines, Craig Morris and Adriana von Hagen provide much food for thought in this fascinating examination of one of the largest empires of the ancient world whose political and economic rules offer contemporary insights.

The Incas: Lords of the Four Quarters is an excellent historical introduction to this vast pre-Colombian empire with generous illustration that repays careful reading: the reader will be genuinely surprised by how advanced and, in some respects, even progressive this political system was. This was an exercise in successful sociopolitical, economic and security integration long before Simón Bolívar, let alone the Andean Pact.

The book is premised on the sheer size of the Inca empire and its almost constant expansion. At its height – covering an area of 2 million square kilometers – Tawantinsuyu in what is now South America extended northwards from its capital Cusco along the Andes to embrace parts of modern Peru and Ecuador, and southwards into Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Moreover, the empire consolidated its control in highly challenging topography that combined tropical latitudes, snow-capped mountain ranges, deserts, forests, valleys, and the two Humboldt and El Niño oceanic currents. As if this was not impressive enough, the lords of Cusco were able to administer this vast realm without the aid of draft animals or writing, using solely the knotted string records (khipus) that the Incas have become famous for.

A large territorial expanse poses familiar problems for any power: communication, political order, diversity, diplomacy. All of these issues were central themes of Inca governance and required enduring, efficient solutions.

The authors draw particular attention to the unusual political and economic institutions devised by the Incas to coordinate and balance widely dispersed and diverse people and resources. The Inca ruler was a living god who, in theory, enjoyed absolute power but in practice was subject to checks and balances that limited his ability to make decisions. There was a hierarchical bureaucracy that administered 80 provinces, each of which also enjoyed a lower form of municipal administration, and an inspectorate that collected data and ensured good governance. Mitmaq, the colony system, was used to great effect to avoid rebellion and reward loyalty by implanting both rebellious and loyalist communities in other parts of the realm.

Remarkably, the market mechanism did not exist: while there was long-distance trade, there were no marketplaces, and essential exchange took place through social and political reciprocity. Feasting and generosity were essential forms of payment for service, and to consolidate extensive networks forged through marriage and kinship.

But this was not a money or exchange-based economy, and was essentially statist to an extent that has rarely been seen since in Latin America. The Incas used extensive planning to organise labour on a vast scale, displacing traditional community-based subsistence production and increasing overall production as a result.

Economic transactions were as symbolic and status-oriented as they were utilitarian, and specialisation reflected ecological conditions and the territorial distribution of communities. Considerable investment in the road network and other infrastructure greatly increased the efficient transport of goods but also production, and enabled extensive warehousing. Labour was not remunerated through specific goods, and hence people did not work in order to receive them. Land and resources were allocated to communities according to need. Ayllu members who tilled the fields assigned to a local leader received food and drink from those who benefited. The Inca rulers managed the economy through land assignments, labour taxes in the form of tribute, and sumptuous gifts and hospitality.

The authors write: “The general principle of exchanging labour for hospitality and gifts seems to have pervaded many aspects of the Inca economy, both state and local … the Incas did not simply provide minimal rations; rather, they lavished people with maize beer and luxury foods that could not easily be obtained at home. The meals, and perhaps the work itself, took place in a context of celebration and shared accomplishment, accompanied by music, dancing, and ritual performances.” [pp. 58–59]

Alongside the economy and politics, Inca “warfare” and military culture also differed dramatically from that of the European empire they eventually came into contact with.
Inca military affairs have been described, historically, by European chroniclers who were immersed in a martial imperial culture and interpreted what they saw through the prism of armed conquest, but it would appear that the Inca understanding of war was very different to that of the Old World.

While the empire itself maintained elite professional forces, as well as a form of conscription, and established entire military colonies in different regions as the needs of the empire changed, battle itself was heavily ritualistic, often subject to the cosmological and agricultural cycles, and involved significant levels of display and political horse-trading. Perhaps more significantly, warfare itself was seen as a bureaucratised necessity within the hegemonic structure. The rulers in Cusco regulated and normalised a round of ritualistic warmongering that fulfilled ancient competition between neighbouring groups who, nonetheless, all remained subject to imperial authority. War was, in fact, a form of sport in which rival tribes let off steam.

Conflict and conquest was not absent in imperial expansion, but nor was it the norm. Nowhere was more evident than in the fateful encounter between Atawallpa’s huge army and the 150 armed Spaniards led by Francisco Pizarro in Cajamarca 1532. The Spaniards, defying all the norms and cultural traditions of structured and ritualised Andean warfare, seized the Inca leader by surprise as he engaged in formal diplomacy – a bandit ambush that would change history for ever.

The authors write: “Inca traditions of conquest and expansion differed dramatically from those of the Spaniards. As we have seen, the Incas used diplomatic, ceremonial, and economic incentives as their primary tools of conquest. If these tactics failed, they certainly could raise large armies, and their reprisals against those who opposed them could be harsh … But unlike the outright invasion and direct domination practised by the Spaniards, the Incas juggled a series of shifting alliances with local peoples and regional shrines. This left them singularly vulnerable to European strategies of military conquest, domination, and colonisation.” [pp. 237–38]

So herein lies the chief lesson of this comparative exercise: the Incas practised a longstanding and successful form of what we now call “soft” power, premised ultimately on reciprocity for which a market economy was not required, labour was something of a privileged class, and surplus was the norm. This was a very different empire to the European model of conquest and compulsion that set the scene for industrial capitalism. After all, imperialism, wrote Lenin, is the highest stage of capitalism. Euro-American imperialism has been premised on the use of direct military force to annex territory and resources on behalf of a small, propertied (capital-owning) elite. Workers have been both oppressed from above, but also divided from within through bourgeoisification and nationalism, as a result of the access gained by imperial capital to surplus overseas resources and labour. Violence has been essential to this enterprise, primarily to deny labour’s claim to that surplus.

What the Incas can teach us, is that our empires employ violence for a very specific reason – but that it has not always been thus.