The Inca Empire: An Indigenous Leviathan State
One of the realities that nullifies persistent interpretations of the European colonization of the Americas as a cataclysm of subjugation is the existence of state exploitation in the precontact New World. As I have recently shown, many common Indians lived in banal slavery to a political class—the same servitude that every “citizen” of a state lives under, compelled to labor for the benefit of others, albeit with its own unique packaging and set of justifications. What this means is that there were also many politicians in the precontact world, with the same base lust for power that drives so many contemporary rulers.
When the agents of European states dropped anchor off the American littoral and proceeded to survey the interior, many were welcomed by various political leaders. These politicians were not naïvely offering hospitality. Indeed, the lack of women and children on these expeditions was often a conspicuous red flag to tread lightly.1 Rather chiefs often had expansionist ambitions and knew that the strangers’ military support and trade goods could turn the local geopolitical tables in their favor.
So they strategically courted the newcomers, seeking alliances.2 Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century accounts of expeditions are peppered with Indian leaders trying to extract political commitments from the leaders of the missions or otherwise trying to draw them into their military network.3 Europeans were not unilaterally repelled, not even when their mission was outright conquest, as in the case of the aptly named Spanish conquistadors, who were to claim land in the name of the crown, get the inhabitants to submit to the distant ruler’s “protection,” and baptize them to convert them into Catholics, a condition of their vassalage. (Hernán Cortés and his men, for example, gained many native allies as they marched to the Aztec imperial capital of Tenochtitlán in 1519.)
The related facts of precontact Indian states and the many diplomatic reconfigurations that followed contact are important, because in some cases they can offer insight on how native lands came under foreign rule. The political infrastructure of states—the reins—can make it easier for whoever can kill the head of state (the horseman) to jump in the saddle and rule (drive) the subject population (the horse). States, of course, can also be riven by internal strife, which can both aid and hinder an outside conquest. At the same time, politicians’ thirst for geopolitical gains can drive them to forge alliances that place their people’s future in the balance. And the larger and more centralized a state is, the more consequential a victory over it can be.
The Inca Empire is an excellent example of a Leviathan that brought about its own demise. Constituted in the 1430s, the empire had been continually expanding through conquest when Francisco Pizarro and his men came on the scene in 1530. It was a centralized state that extracted tribute and submission through a network of local control. Pizarro also found it wracked by a civil war that had begun in the mid-1520s, precipitated by a succession crisis. Not surprisingly, many subjugated peoples had taken the schism as an opportunity to reassert their autonomy as well, and fighting was widespread.4
As anthropologist Thomas C. Patterson explains, realizing what was going on, the agents of the Spanish crown “enmeshed themselves in the successional dispute, first supporting one faction and then another, and, more importantly, establishing close ties with powerful groups that were disenchanted with Inca rule.” Although the Spanish had come out on top by 1533, installing a puppet emperor, they were able to loot the locals only via the established Inca machinery of extortion. The fighting would continue into the 1570s, and only when it ceased were the Spaniards finally able to fully liquidate the structure of the Inca state and supplant it with their own.5
Without a state apparatus binding together the fates of many of the people in the Andean region and creating conflicting interests that could be taken advantage of, the people might never have been conquered (again) or it would have at least been a much taller order. But as things stood, the pattern of the Inca Empire was to subjugate neighboring groups and use their increased resources to repeat the process.6
The empire was divided into a number of corporate landholdings, panaqas and ayllus, whose members were related, internally ranked, and held joint use-rights to land, water, herds, labor, and other resources. The ruling class came from the panaqas, each of which was constituted by a founding patriarch and the property he had amassed to support his descendants (land and servants). Each Inca (emperor) had to found his own panaqa, and the sitting Inca’s panaqa was the top one, followed by his father’s, his grandfather’s, and proceeding in order of patrilineal proximity to the Inca. The people of the panaqas were considered Incas proper, and according to economist Louis Baudin, “most civil and military officials came from their ranks.” But each panaqa was connected to an ayllu in or near Cuzco, the imperial capital.7
The people of the Cuzco ayllus were “Incas by privilege,” or commoner Incas.8 These people supported the ruling class, providing mercenary services, filling midl
Article from Mises Wire